From Puno to Cusco and Machu Picchu at last!

Last I wrote, I was in Puno near Lake Titicaca. The next day I got up at 4:30 AM to head out to the marvelous Sillustani ruins near Puno. The large funerary towers there which contained many mummies and other treasures at one time were still in relatively good condition. I spent the morning touring around Sillustani. Then, on the way back toward Puno to catch my bus to Cusco, I stopped at the home of a local Quechua family and got to learn a bit about their way of life, the food they prepare, and the textiles they make. All the homes in the area have two small bulls on the roof to protect the house and bring good luck. Families who have converted to Catholicism also have a small cross on the roof. In addition, you will often see a deflated tire on the roof as a precaution against lightening strikes (or so I was told). Thunderstorms are fairly sudden and violent in the Lake Titicaca area. 

I caught my tourist bus to Cusco by the side of the road and on we went to various other sites along the way. This was nice because it broke up the otherwise quite long and rather boring trip. In total, it took 9 hours with stops in Pukara, La Raya Pass (the highest pass in the area at 4,250 meters), Sicuani, Raqchi, and Pikillaqta archeological sites. I arrived in Cusco in the early evening and settled into a nice, clean hostal at a local Catholic school where they rent out rooms for travellers.

 The next morning I left by bus for Ollantaytambo (ruins) and we stopped at other archeological sites along the way including the famous Pisac ruins. However, no sooner had we reached the top of Pisac and concluded our tour there, than it started to rain rather heavily and we all had to practially run back down the mountainside. Our stay in the Pisac market was rather brief… which was good in my case because I didn´t want to do all my souvenir shopping too early in my trip.

On we travelled by bus to Ollantaytambo, arriving there in the mid-afternoon (following our lunch stop). There it was quite windy (as I was told it always is). We hiked to the top of the ruins and explored the sun temple and many other aspects of the site. We then hiked along a rather narrow ridge to another section of the site from which we got a wonderful view of the opposite mountain on which there were more ruins and the semblance of an Incan king´s face craved into the rock. The image for unmistakable and rather a wonder to me anyway. I ended up staying over one night in Ollantaytambo and had the chance to wander around a bit there. I loved this town! It was charming and safe and I met several very nice local people. Had a rather long conversation with a wonderul pottery artist in his private museum. He had lived in New York, but was originally from Mexico. He relocated to Ollantaytambo about 5 years ago and has loved it ever since. Also met a nice American woman from New York who, following Sept. 11, decided to leave the U.S. and now has an apartment in Cusco. She was visiting with the artist at the time and the three of us had a very interesting conversation about politics, life in Peru vs. the U.S., and Peru´s upcoming elections.

I have to say that of all the ruins I´ve seen this past week, I enjoyed Ollantaytambo the most — second only to Machu Picchu´s ruins (which I write about below), of course. The Ollantaytambo ruins are striking and high up on a hill which you must climb. Can I just say how glad I am that I came to Peru while I am still relatively young and in decent shape!? I have seen a lot of folks struggling with the hikes. Exploring any of the ruins is tough in most cases because they are rather difficult to reach. The stone work on them, however, is amazing. In many cases, you cannot even fit the blade of a knife between the stones — they fit together so tightly.

 Speaking of the elections in Peru — I have been photographing the advertising for the various political candidates as they are painted on to the sides of many houses in various villages we have been driving through. Because a lot of the Peruvian population in the coutryside does not read or write, the candidates each have their own special symbol (such as the head of an Inca king, or a piece of wheat, or a shovel, etc.) next to their name. Local voters just need to recognize the symbol in order to vote for the their chosen candidate. There are so many candidates for various offices and 12 are running for Mayor.

So, on Nov. 1 and 2 (All Saint´s Day and Dia de los muertos or Day of the Dead), I was in Ollantaytambo and saw many folks gathering flowers and making lovely arrangements to leave at the graves of their loved ones. Banks were closed and everyone was in holiday mode. Very interesting to observe.

On Nov. 3, I took the morning train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Callientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu (M.P.). I was met by my guide in Aguas Calientes, shuttled onto a bus with about 30 other folks (I realized I had definitely hit the tourist zone at this point), and wisked up the winding, switchback road to the top of the mountain where we were to enter the national cultural park of Machu Picchu.

First, let me just say that the tourist industry has killed the mystical feeling of Machu Picchu with a whopping entrance fee of 118 soles or US$38 for just one day´s entrance. On top of that, you pay US$12 for your shuttle ticket roundtrip up and down the mountain just to get to the site. Still, they give you a cool Machu Picchu stamp in your passport and the guides are totally well organized as they take you all around the ruins spewing facts and stories about M.P. So, yes, it is a tourist trap, but after you have trekked up all the steep steps to get to the first lookout point, you somehow feel invested in visiting this site. You are there. You have come all this way to see the great Machu Picchu. …It is raining. Oops.

 Now, do not think for a moment that ANYONE backs down at the sight of a little rain. No way. The folks who journey to M.P. are hardcore. They are on a mission. They have come to experience the place, photograph it, and never forget it. A little rain (or even a whole LOT of rain like we got) will not deter any of us! Out come the ponchos and onward we go.

 (I´ll continue my narration in the present tense to give you a more close-to-the-moment experience.) After about a 3-hour tour, I have seen most of the site and probably absorbed more than if I had been able to film it (with my video camera safely tucked away out of the rain). After the tour ends, I join a number of other tourists (and yes, we are now definitely nothing more than tourists), under a sheltered area near the Sacred Rock and the entrance to the Wayna Picchu large rock which appears in the background of so many pictures and which some intrepid hikers faithfully climb on better days). After about 45 minutes of comisurating about the weather with some folks from Canada, the rain magically stops. The Sun god has taken pity on us I guess. The sun reappears and everyone is up and out exploring again. I quickly run around to all the various spots we were shown on our tour to film and photograph them, providing as much narration as I can recall.

Whew! What a day. I stayed at the site until about 4 pm and then headed down to the rather posh (by Peruvian standards) M.P. Sanctuary Lodge for a hot cup of lemongrass tea. The guys at the bar teach me how to make a mean Pisco Sour and I get to sample a number of Piscos before I leave to take the shuttle back down the mountain to my hostal in Aguas Calientes.

I´m glad that my mother encouraged me to go back to M.P. a second day, however, because the weather was SO much better on Nov. 4 when I returned early in the morning at about 7:30 AM. Not only was I able to get lots more photos, but I ran into a guy whom I had met in Lake Titicaca which was nice. I also met a lovely British couple and together the three of us hiked all the way to Intipunku (the Gate of the Sun) high above M.P. for a bird´s eye view of everything. I am SO glad I did that hike although it was a bit tiring. It was THE hike I wanted to do in M.P. while I was there. After you hike about 1.5 hours, you reach the Sun Gate and just on the other side of it is the Inka Trail. So, I stood and walked a bit on the Inka Trail just for fun. We made it to the Sun Gate just in time because by about 11 am, the sun disappeared, the clouds moved in, and it began to sprinkle and then rain again just as it had the day before. The weather changes so quickly in M.P. and Aguas Calientes. After Sue, David, and I (the Brits and I) got back down, we had some refreshments and then I took the shuttle bus back down to Aguas Calientes to have lunch and do a little souvenir shopping.

That afternoon (yesterday), I took the train back to Cusco and arrived last night. You would not believe all the music and noise at my hostal. There was a special music night with band and all the kids were cheering. I certainly made full use of my earplugs last night! It was fine though. I fell dead asleep at about 9.30 pm — I was so tired from the last two days exploring M.P., and before that also Ollantaytambo, Pisac, and the Sacred Valley and Urubamba river valley. The last 3 days have been non-stop adventure. I actually slept in this morning until 7 am!  It is a tiring travel pace I´ve kept for the past 2 weeks. I am glad that things will slow down a bit now as I head back to Lima tomorrow and then fly on to… Ecuador! It is amazing how much I have seen in a rather short time.

I had this morning free in Cusco which was great. Got to see the morning public Sunday parade with all the military, national police, and many different youth and school groups marching to music and drums. The kids kick their legs out in front of them the same way the Korean military does. It´s a little scary. But still, it´s all very interesting to watch and all in good fun.

This afternoon I will have a full Cusco city tour which will include the main Plaza de Armas, the colony churches, the Temple of the Sun (Korikancha), the amazing Sacsayhuaman ruins, Qénko ruins, Tamboy Machy ruins, and Puca Pukara ruins. I´ve looked forward to seeing these particular ruins so much. Just hope it does not rain on us. I will be ready to head back to Lima tomorrow where it is sure to be dry and relatively sunny. It rains a lot in Cusco, but hardly ever in Lima which is dry as a desert.

Well, I guess that should be it for now. Will write more later… perhaps from Ecuador next!

Explore posts in the same categories: My Travels, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador (incl. Galapagos Islands)

2 Comments on “From Puno to Cusco and Machu Picchu at last!”

  1. Richard Says:

    Hi Laurel,
    Looks like you will be in super athlete shape by the time you finish your trip! I truly enjoy all the detail about your hikes and tours especially because I know there is no way I could ever do that kind of hiking! The ruins sound beautiful and really good that you will have film to share when you get home. I hope you continue to see lots of beautiful sites!

  2. Ron J Says:

    I’m getting exhausted just reading about your treks, but they’re great fun at the same time. Terrific idea to set up the blog so you can take folks along with you. I’m looking forward to when you reach the Galapagos – bring me home a tortoise!

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