In Part 2 of our trip to Peru, you read about very intricately carved rocks, dolls depicting saints with real human hair, and the cheap textiles and vegetables at Chinchero Market. Today we go where everybody goes in Peru: Machu Picchu!

Day 1: New York
Day 2: Flight to Peru, Overnight in Lima
Day 3: Lima, Flight to Cusco, Cusco at Night
Day 4: Sites Around Cusco
Day 5: Chinchero Market and Saqsaywaman
Day 6: Traveling to Aguas Caliente
Day 7: Machu Picchu
Day 8: Ollantaytambo
Day 9: Flight back to Lima
Day 10: Lima, Miraflores
Day 11: More of Lima and the Flight Back Home

Day 6: Traveling to Aguas Caliente

Cusco AirBnB (15)Monday morning, we made our internet famous avocado and tomato salad with breakfast in Cusco, and soon we were on our way. The road from Cusco to Machu Picchu is usually easier than it was for us. Typically, people will take a train all the way from Cusco to Aguas Caliente, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. During our time, the train was down for repairs. You could still take the train from Ollantaytambo (the halfway point) to Aguas Caliente, but how we got to Ollantaytambo was up to us.

So, like the day before in Chinchero, we took another collectivo! We packed up our backpacks and headed to the same spot on Pavitos Avenue. The collectivo to Ollantaytambo was picking up in the same spot. Actually, it was the same van route as Chinchero, it just continues on to Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. Once again, it was very affordable considering we drove nearly two hours through the mountains to get to Ollantaytambo.

Taquenas with GuacamoleOur train was to leave at 12:30. They tell you to get there a half hour early. We had an extra 45 minutes on top of that so we got a bite to eat at a cafe near the train station. I can’t remember the name of the place, but it was the best food we had up to that point in the trip: Taquenas with guacamole! Everything was freshly made and super good.

Then it was time to board. We and our Pale Friends slowly gathered around the train doors.

Train to Aguas Caliente (1)

How many backpackers does it take to fill a train?

We road PeruRail. They have one competitor, IncaRail, riding the same track. Doesn’t matter which one you take. It all comes down to price and what time you want to leave. I’m not going to discuss specific costs until the final entry next week, but I will say the train between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Caliente is known as the most expensive train in the world, on a per-mile basis. Considering the train covers only 16 miles, I think, this might be true…

It is a nice train, though. We rode the Expedition, which was formerly known as the Backpacker, for obvious reasons. It is the cheapest train, but still very expensive. I’m just glad we got something to eat in Ollantaytambo…

Train to Aguas Caliente (3)

Weird Pop Tart snack thing

Because that’s what they give you on the train. It was a choice of a packaged muffin or this weird Pop Tart thing we saw elsewhere in Peru. Neither are any good.

Train to Aguas Caliente (8)But the views are very nice. As you make your way down the Sacred Valley (Machu Picchu is a few thousand feet below Ollantaytambo) you get lots of great views. And an hour and whatever later, you arrive at Aguas Caliente!

Aguas Caliente has a pretty terrible reputation. Its existence is owed completely to the Machu Picchu tourism industry. So it has a rightly-earned reputation for being touristy.  As soon as you step off the train, you are confronted with it. It’s you and a hundred other tourists blindly wandering around, dealing with getting off the platform and into the town to find your hotel.

Since you can only reach Aguas Caliente by train, once you’re there, you’re there. There is nowhere else to go, so you are captive. This probably sounds horrible, and that’s basically how it was sold to me in the tour guides. But guess what? We found Aguas Caliente to actually be rather charming!  Yes, charming!

Aguas Caliente (4)

Aguas Caliente by the river

Aguas Caliente (10)Coming out of dirty, smelly Cusco, we were delighted by the fact that Aguas Caliente is virtually car-free. Being so cut off from the rest of civilization has its benefits. There’s no roads to bring you here, so there’s no need for cars. Besides, the town is so small, you can walk the entirety of it in ten minutes.

Also, Aguas Caliente, even more than the rest of Peru, seems to be in a constant state of construction. Half-finished houses and hotels are everywhere. You might decry the building boom in a such a delicate and historic environment, but really, what do you expect? Machu Picchu tourism is a huge, and I mean huge, moneymaker for Peru, which is not a rich country. Can you blame them for tripping over themselves trying to build enough hotels to hold all of the people who want to come here?

Aguas Caliente (9)

Mountain, the river, restaurants, the railroad, hotels. It’s Aguas Caliente in a nutshell.

Apparently, there was a problem with the hotel room we had booked. As best we could tell from our innkeeper, there was a leak and, if it rained, water would come into our room. So he had his friend take us to a different inn, Imperios Machu Picchu. It was fine, and the same price. Plus it had a television. Finally, some foreign tv watching! We watched a show called Guerra De Baile, or “Dance War.” It was an incredibly exploitative dancing competition. I expect nothing less from Latin American tv.

We went to an Italian restaurant (!) for dinner, then turned in for the night. The first bus to Machu Picchu leaves at 5:30 AM, and I wanted to be on it after having breakfast, which meant getting up really early.

Day 7: Machu Picchu

I didn’t wake up for my alarm! It wasn’t turned up! Panic panic! I woke up around 5:30, when the first bus was departing! Arrrrrggh!

This was incredibly frustrating, since we still had to shower, eat, and get down to the bus station. We rushed and showered and stuffed some food in our mouths from the free (as always) breakfast at the hotel, asked the receptionist if we could leave a backpack after we checked out and made our way down to the bus. We ended up leaving at 6:30 and getting to Machu Picchu at 7:00.

Everyone wants to see the sunrise at Machu Picchu because it’s so spectacular, so that’s what I was after. Well, I guess we didn’t have to rush anyway because…

Machu Picchu (2)

It was misty as hell up there!

Oh well. We explored the ruins in the mists, which I guess has its own charm, but after the sun came out later in the day, the views were much preferable.

Machu Picchu (7)
Machu Picchu (42)I took 150 photos at Machu Picchu, but the above is probably my favorite picture of the whole day. The majesty of the cloud-shrouded Incan ruins is interrupted by an explosion of colorful ponchos.  A note on that: Around town in Aguas Caliente, you will see signs that say “No Raincoats at Machu Picchu.” I believe this is part of a scam. What’s the difference between raincoats and ponchos? Practically none. Yet, they tell you raincoats are prohibited so that you will buy a poncho. Clearly, people were either falling for this, or hadn’t brought a coat with them to Peru. I had my knee-length raincoat, and no one bothered me about it… because a raincoat and a poncho are the same thing, stupid signs! They do the same thing in telling you that food isn’t allowed within the park (not true).

Machu Picchu (39)I won’t go into detail about the ruins, but suffice to say, it is impressive. There’s just so very, very much of it. It’s not that the stone work is as expertly carved as at Saqsaywaman. It’s just that it’s so complete, you can imagine people living in it, and that it’s all built above the clouds. No wonder it’s called the Hidden City. You’d never know it was there.

Machu Picchu (1)

Aside from the steeply priced entry ticket, we also had a ticket to climb Machu Picchu mountain. There are two mountains to climb: Huayna Picchu and Macchu Picchu Mountain (or Montana). Huayna Picchu is the more famous hike. It’s the mountain in the background of every photo. It’s also very steep and terrifying. Margie was scared off of doing this hike because of the stories about people having heart attacks or panic attacks and falling off the mountain. This happens with surprising frequency on Huayna Picchu.

We decided to hike Montana, which is twice as tall as Huayna. I thought I was getting into shape by climbing my stairs at work repeatedly. Boy was I wrong…

Machu Picchu (82)The entirety of the hike up Montana is stairs. It’s like climbing stairs for 1.5 hours, so if that sounds fun to you, you will love this hike. There are very few flat spots, mostly just more stairs. Since we were starting at 8,000 feet elevation to begin with, this was one of the most exhausting hikes we’ve ever done. We knew this would be the case from reading this blog, and similarly, Marge and I both needed to listen to our own iPod gym music to keep us going (It was The Go Team for me).

We finally made it to the top for a rest and some food. And what’s a long hike without a view!

Machu Picchu (99)

Our fellow Pale Hikers were crowded at the edge of the peak, desperately trying to snap a 2,000-foot photo of the ruins. If the clouds would only part for a second! Alas, they didn’t. Our stay at the peak didn’t last long either, since they “close” the peak at 12:30 and usher everyone back down the mountain. “Vamos, amigos!”  Though Huayna Picchu is known as the dangerous hike, Marge had a mini-panic attack on Montana when the trail started looking like this:

Machu Picchu (84)

This is a staircase.

We made it back down by 2:00, and by then, the clouds had cleared, making the perfect opportunity for everyone to take their favorite Machu Picchu picture. Here’s me, Norm, masquerading as Hiram Bingham, “discoverer” of Machu Picchu!

Machu Hiram


Machu Picchu (133)You know about the llamas at Machu Picchu, but I was surprised to see this little guy pop up among the ruins. We didn’t even know what it was. It took someone else’s guide to point out that it’s a chinchilla.

We had a 6:30 PM train to catch, so we headed back to town. I had planned on hiking down the mountain to save the exorbitant bus ticket fee, but Marge’s head was pounding with a migraine from going down so many stairs, and my legs felt like jelly, so we bit the bullet and took the bus back.

Another unexpected but totally worth it expenditure: Showers! Back at our original hotel, they let you come back after you’ve checked out and take a shower for a small fee! They know you stink after hiking all day, and nothing would feel better than a shower. So we got a room to ourselves for an hour before the train to clean up in, and it was totally brilliant.

The train seemed to take longer than before (it was uphill this time) and we got back to Ollantaytambo where we would spend the night. Once again, getting off the train you are assaulted by the sound of 50 cab and bus drivers yelling destinations and tour group names. We happily walked right by them into the quiet town of Ollantay.  Had dinner at the only place that was still open that late, Puka Rumi, had a pizza, and retired to our hotel, Samanapaq.

Samanapaq (6)

Day 8: Ollantaytambo

Samanapaq (20)I should probably add here that Samanapaq is one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in, and if you’re counting price as a metric to judge hotels by, it could be the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in period. Being walled off from the rest of town, it’s a private compound. The gardens are meticulously cared for. And the free breakfast, my god, the breakfast!!

Samanapaq (7)I should also mention, we were the only two guests there! We were out-numbered by the staff probably 10-to-2. Which makes the breakfast even more incredible. Even though we were the only people there, they spared nothing on the breakfast. Basically, all the normal delicious food was set out just for us, and each morning the chef would come out and ask if we wanted scrambled eggs. Uh, yes please! All this while their sattelite radio station Cocktail Hour played old jazz. Honestly, it was kind of like heaven.

They also have a cat that prowls the gardens. We saw it snatch a pigeon and rip its guts out. Can you spot the cat chowing down on pigeon in the photo below?

Samanapaq (14)

Samanapaq (10)

We had to have a big breakfast, because, yet again, we had a day of hiking ahead of us. Although nowhere near as intense as the hike up Machu Picchu mountain, the ruins at Ollantaytambo still require lots of stair-climbing. What’s neat is that the ruins are located in town (and I really mean in town, but I’ll get to that in a minute) so you don’t have to travel anywhere if you’re staying in Ollantay.

And clearly, judging by our vacant hotel and how everyone else on the train left in taxis and buses, not many people stay in Ollantay. I can’t imagine why, because our day there ranked among our favorite days on the trip.

Ollantaytambo (3)Ollantaytambo was one of the last refuges of the Incas during the Spanish conquest. It has yet another set of massive terraces, this time topped with a religious center constructed, again, out of unbelievably massive stones.

Ollantaytambo (19) What’s unique about Ollantay’s ruins is that they were interrupted by the Spanish. So what you see is an unfinished work. You can see some of the huge stones had been brought up the mountain, but not all had been put into place yet. From what I understand, the stones would be roughly carved and then brought to their ultimate destination. Once there, they could be carved more exactly and then set into place.

Ollantaytambo (16)

Giant pink granite walls of a temple-to-be

Ollantaytambo (42)Also on display at Ollantay, back down on the ground, was the best example of Incan aquaduct work we had seen. There is an extensive Water Temple with a series of underground spring-fed aquaducts. As you walk around, you see them pop up again and again, pour into baths, and go back underground. It’s a pretty amazing feat.

Ollantaytambo (38)They also had some walls of stones so perfectly carved into cubes, I just had to touch them. Look at those sharp lines!

After thoroughly exploring Ollantay’s ruins, we had to explore the town itself in the daylight. Not only are there more ruins, but people are living in them! The whole town retained the ancient Incan streets, aquaducts, and walls! It felt like it had been continuously lived in for over 500 years.

Ollant Old Town (4)

Modern door built into Incan doorway

Man, if this wasn’t the most charming village in all of Peru. Instead of leaving the ruins alone to decay so lookie-loos could stare at them from afar, it’s like the old town was treated like any other downtown, being continuously repaired so people could keep living in it. There are some very chic hotels built into the ruins, but mostly it’s just families living very modestly.

Ollant Old Town (1)

Samanapaq (40)We made it back to Samanapaq and not only had our room been cleaned, but I think they switched out all of the bedsheets and blankets. I wasn’t completely sure we hadn’t entered the wrong room! Again, this level of doting might be because we were the only guests there.

I should also mention we had them do our laundry. We only brought enough clothes for five or six days to keep our backpacks light. Our laundry came back folded with care and smelling nicer than it had ever smelled before!

We relaxed in their gardens for a while and tried out their hammocks. Does anyone truly enjoy hammocks? They seem idyllic in theory, but it’s impossible to get comfortable in them. Maybe I’m hammocking wrong.

Uchucuta (4)That night we went out for a great meal at Uchucuta, the most renown restaurant in this sleepy town. While waiting for our food, there was some fuss because there was a procession going down the street. So we went outside to check it out.  It was already dark outside and a whole group was slowly processing with a Santa Maria doll on a throne. A few people had long staffs with baskets of flower petals on the end which they would touch to Santa Maria and drop the petals on her head.

There was a priest man intoning things through a loudspeaker, and it was all very somber, so I didn’t take any photos. Anyway, the food at Uchucuta was very good, and the owner gave us a 10% discount since the food was a bit slow coming out, and he gave me my ginger tea for free because he forgot to bring the honey I asked for. He was really, really nice.

Stay tuned for Part 4, where we wrap up our time in Lima and head back home.