Cusco and surrounding Incan ruins
5/1/06 23 °C
The latest image of my fabulous route.
Dan, Andrew, and I (Dan likes it when his name is the first word in my blog entry) took the 14 hour bus that left La Paz behind and barreled toward the Peruvian border, which happens to be right on gorgeous Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake on earth. This is the place where it is said that the first Incan king Manco Capaq and his sister queen were born right out of the water to begin the great Incan civilization. When we arrived at the border, we got our exit stamp from Bolivia and had to walk across the bridge to the town of Puno, Peru, to get our entrance stamp. This process was held up by 30 minutes because there was a ceremony celebrating the arrival of vaccinations to Puno, suited men making long speeches while on either side of the bridge, the impatient rickshaw motorcycle taxistas rang their ribboned bells as a hint to wrap things up. We finally crossed the bridge, were welcomed to lovely Peru, and got on the bus to complete the journey to Cusco. We arrived at the bus station at 11 pm and were surrounded by a crowd of loud hostel solicitors and, as we pushed our way to make phone calls, 60 year old Rene said to me, "Are you Israeli?". As a test, I said no, and she replied "well then, why so tough?!". Hmph!
We finally gave up on the public phone and went with Rene to a hostel on top of a hill, ate a sleepy dinner where Dan and Andrew corrected the waitress' English essay in pencil, and finally turned in for the night. Andrew got up in the morning to bid us goodbye, his family had come from England and he was embarking on a route none of us could ever dream of seeing: the 5-star hotel circuit. As I stupidly spend my money on finger puppets, I have to adjust my daily budget to new lows: I'm currently at $19 a day...jam sandwiches here I come! We sadly said goodbye, got up, and found a new hostel closer to the main plaza, Hostal Rojas. The next two days, Dan and I walked around beautiful Cusco, a dizzying mix of Spanish buildings built right on top of original Inca stone all along narrow cobblestone streets. I visited the enormous main cathedral, where you can see Christian paintings painted in Andean style ("The Last Supper" featuring hated conquistador Pizarro as Judas) and a black Jesus. Apparently, Jesus arrived white from Spain and the people started burning candles underneath him and saw that he was starting to look like them and so they burnt more and more candles until he WAS one of them. I love that story. One night, I met the owner of a restaurant in town, Alejandro, and went out with him and his friends to a local Peruvian discotech. We danced to Sonia Morales and other notables in a room with a big mirror, where everyone tries to outdo each other with ridiculous dance moves. I soooooo won. Any doubts, really?
One aim of being in Cusco was to visit one of the most famous places on the whole continent, Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas which the Spanish never, ever found. Being that there are no roads to Machu Picchu (after all these years, still so well hidden!), you are forced to take an expensive train, pay the entrance fee, plus hotels plus the bus up and down the mountain.
Tourist Train ..$105
Entrance Fee... $20
2 nights stay in Aguas Calientes...$40
Bus up-down mountain...$12
Seeing Machu Picchu? Damn expensive!
Needless to say, our sense of adventure and yes, laughable budgets, motivated us to find an alternate route. Here is what I found out from the trusty internet and interrogating random drunk people:
How to get to Machu Picchu the back way:
1. Take a local bus to Santa Teresa.
2. Walk across the draw bridge.
3. Hitch a ride to the hydroelectric plant.
4. Walk 2 hours along the train tracks or bribe the men driving VW's along the tracks to take you in return for 3 beers and some boiled corn.
5. Arrive in Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu
6. Climb up the mountain, after the third hut, make a right. This path will lead you to the ruins.
This story is of course bullshit. Sorry to all ye desperate souls who googled this entry in vain. Did I not learn from the Antarctica Chilean Navy ship disaster?? But nonetheless, desperate times call for desperate measures, so Dan and I set out early one morning with some hope in our hearts and coca tea in our stomachs, determined to beat the cruel, cruel system. We took a rickety local bus to lovely Urumbamba, ate "the best ice cream in the world" and then took another rickety local bus to Ollantantambo. We walked down to the train station to assess the situation. $45 USD to take the train to Aguas Calientes. I put on my best smile and asked a nearby local where the hydroelectric plant was and he chuckled and said, "Far." I guess that's a common question. So we vowed not to eat for the next week and bought tickets for the evening backpacker's train, leaving us the whole day in Ollantantambo. We had lunch in the sunny plaza with Marcelle and Natasha, a lovely diving couple from Holland. Every time we ordered something from the menu, we would see the waitress run like mad from the restaurant to the market to buy the ingredients fresh on the spot. I ordered a chicken sandwich and saw a naive little chicken being led into the kitchen, never to come out again. Sorry chicky! After lunch, Dan and I started climbing the Inca ruins in Ollanta, a mountain crowned with temples and irrigation channels built with the typical Incan stone craftsmanship: stones formed so perfectly, no cement was ever used. It is still a mystery how they did it. In the evening, we caught the train to Aguas Calientes, a touristy town with 800 restaurants at the bottom of the hill, and passed out in anticipation of waking up at 4:30 AM to beat the tour group crowds and catch the sunrise at the great Machu Picchu.
We did wake up at 4:30 (ok, fine, 4:55 am), jumped out of bed, and ran down the hill to buy student entrance tickets. We then caught the first bus up the hill, being among the first 20 people at the site (pretty good considering 1,500 visit every day). The gates opened at 6 am, and we entered and walked along the mountain where we could see nothing but heavy fog and mist. It was very mysterious and lonely...I rather liked it. We sat quietly on a rock for the next two hours. Surrounded by nothing but thick white clouds. Eventually, the mist cleared to reveal a great city of ruins below, temples and houses built on top of boulders, the whole majesty of it all hanging right on the steepest cliff I've ever seen. Completely surrounded by huge, looming mountains, it's no wonder the Spanish never found it. We walked through the jungly forest to see the Inca bridge, one foot of stone walkway set against nothing but cliff and a 500 meter pure vertical drop into the frightening Urubamba River. Can you imagine walking across that thing? We then walked down into the actual city with Marcelle and Natasha, admiring the perfect stonework built underneath huge boulders the Incas couldn't move, temples shaped like llamas and condors, water channels, square houses, torture chambers for dissidents. It is still unclear what Machu Picchu was actually used for, but there are clear signs of religious and agricultural activity, in the dozens of terraces everywhere and the stones shaped in honor of the Sun. Beautiful. Dan and I then decided to hike up Wayna Picchu, a huge mountain set in the midst of this. We hiked up a hard hour to arrive at the temple on top of the mountain, scary narrow stone walkways set against the cliff, absolutely nothing to hold on to. We had a lunch of M&M's and doritos on top, slipped back down the wet path and then decided to go down a lesser known trail to the Temple of the Moon. We only met 3 other people on the way, it was nice, and the path led us through green grottos, a real rainforest hike. We drank from the caves dripping pure mountain water and struggled along until we reached The Great Cave. Picture this: a huge dark cave hidden within the mountain. Right in the middle of the cave is a great big boulder shaped like a throne and 6 altars surround it, where people still leave coca leaves and offerings to the spirit of the mountain. Dan left a lemon sweet. The best thing about it was that we were the only ones there, so it really had a raw, unexplored feel to it. You know how I like things being all dramatic... definitely worth the arduous hike. Afterwards, I became convinced that the stone steps above the cave led to some other unknown place so I made us hike up for about 15 minutes until we realized we were just going up the same mountain we had already climbed so we returned to Machu Picchu. By this time, we were pretty much the only people left at the place so we got to explore it alone. So beautiful, I can't even describe it. Dan brought his juggling balls and that afternoon, he became the first person ever to juggle at Machu Picchu. This is a very important and distinguished title. At 5:30 pm, after TWELVE HOURS at Machu Picchu, we got kicked out by the whistling guards. We tried to board the last bus out but in our thrifty (and, hellooo, adventurous??) nature, we had not bought a return ticket so the bus left us in the dust to hike down the mountain in the dark. Stupid idea and we were so tired after 5 hours of hard climbing, our legs were shaking, but an hour later we were down the mountain and walking blindly toward the town of Aguas Calientes. We couldn't see anything but could hear the roar of the river to our right so we followed that (kendraly, just follow the river!) until we finally arrived into town, eating a hot pizza before COLLAPSING into bed at 8 pm. What a great day. It ended up costing $70 but to be honest, I would have paid hundreds anyway.
The next day, I woke up feeling like I had been run over by a Bolivian mini bus. Everything hurt! Plus I had flea bites again from the dodgy hostel bed. These fleas, they find me wherever I go. No one else seems to get bitten. I think it's because I'm extra sweet. Must be! We returned to Cusco, passed out at our hostel for a few hours, and in our delirium, met Marcelle and Natasha for a dinner of Indonesian and Malaysian food. Yum! Then we went back to sleep. This schedule of seeing incredible Incan ruins really wears you down, yknow?
The next day, we took a two hour local bus to Pisaq, home of a great outdoors market. Dan went off to call his sweetheart `mum` and I begged one of the Qechua market women to teach me how to do yarnwork. She tied me up in the yarn belt and I got a 20 minute lesson in pure Qechua (not of a word of Spanish) so I'm still a bit shaky on the logistics but I feel confident that I will soon be able to make Andean belts and sweaters and sell them on my newly established Andean-Belt-and-Sweater Ebay business. This is not like the others...I think I finally have the market cornered...will keep you posted. Then we climbed the ruins at Pisaq, which are supposed to be as well preserved as those at Machu Picchu. Dan took a sunny nap on an Incan wall while I struggled to the top and took pictures with random Peruvian teenagers. Because I made it to the top-top, I think this is the ultimate proof that I am a cooler and, overall, better person. That night, back in Cusco, I proudly found us a 10 sol ($3 US) restaurant menu but after we feasted on alpaca meat and pisco sours, we found out it was actually 10 DOLLARS. I'm still hearing about it And that was IT for Cusco. The next morning, we boarded a bus for Puno, home of the infamous floating islands made entirely out of reeds. You can eat reeds, they are a great source of fluoride, did you know that? I'll fedex some.