Chapter 13 – Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu

 

A five o’clock start, early calls for everyone. It’s a good thing we didn’t have a late night at Rosie O’Grady’s. Breadrolls and strawberry jam for an early breakfast, then it was bags downstairs and into the bus for our next trip.

 

Today we were off to the Sacred Valley, the first part of our journey to Machu Picchu. 6:30am, yawns and bags into the bus and we got underway. The city seemed strangely quiet at this hour. We briefly visited some archaelogical sites like Qenqo, and Tambu Machay and Puku Pukara on the way to Pisac, the first town in the valley.

 

atambo-machay

Tambo Machay fountains

Both Qenqo and Puka Pukara were pretty much run-of-the-mill archaeological sites, they were “ho hum” interesting. Tambo Machay, was where the action was. The action consisted of two spouts of water flowing from an Inca wall. They were ceremonial spouts and to put one’s hand under the water of the appropriate male or female spout one was assured of success in love. Okay, now we would all have successful love lives and we were again on the way to Pisac.

 

Pisac ruins looking down at Pisac - image: AV

Pisac ruins looking down at Pisac – image: AV

The attraction of Pisac is the “Sunday Market”, but today wasn’t Sunday. However we were assured that the market exists on other days too, although not as grand and less tourists, so more freedom. First we were taken to see the Pisac ruins, and after a strenuous downhill scramble we would get to Pisac. The ruins were high above the town. We were afforded a grand view of the Urumbamba Valley and river, as well as seeing some of the best preserved ruins in the area.

 

Pisac market

Pisac market

The descent to Pisac was, as promised, strenuous. We arrived in the Plaza exhausted, ready to sit and relax. Coca tea and fizzy drinks were welcome. We still had about 45 minutes to explore the market, which covered the entire plaza. We were left wondering if this was a small market, what must the one on Sundays be like? Stalls made from blue tarpaulins were every where, offering souvenirs. Alpaca jerseys, Alpaca wool wall-hangings with beautiful pictures, statuettes of everyday life and erotica (apparently even the Inca must have appreciated this aspect of life) were among the offerings.

 

aTerracesOllanta

The terraces at Ollantaytambo – image: AV

After testing our powers of bargaining we were off once again, this time to the town of Ollaytaytambo at the head of the valley, with more ruins to explore and the prospect of lunch. Again were were assaulted by people selling everything as we made our way through the township and into the ruins where again, our tourist tickets were punched like a bus-conductor. As groups or singly we explored the famous terraces of Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo was famous as the last stronghold  and stand of Manco Inca against the  Hernando Pizarro’s Spanish conquistadors in 1536. So we were privileged to be at the last place on Earth where the Inca existed as a civilisation

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Kids playing

Kids playing in the princess bath – image:AV

Besides the terraces there is also the smaller site below known as Inca Misanca, which has the Baño de la Ñusta, the “princess’ bath”. The lesser site is rather better preserved and today the bath is the playground of the many children who visit, a somewhat ignoble end to a noble beginning.

 

After our individual explorations, lunch, and then off to the train station. We had to get the train from here to Aguas Calientes. The train was due to arrive at 3pm from Cusco. Our travel agency had bought the tickets from Cusco in the morning, so we were guaranteed of seats. Most tourists tour the Sacred Valley on one day and catch the train from Cusco to Aguas the next, our company combined the two events to save time and an unnecessary trip back to Cusco. At the station we waited amongst the locals who were waiting for the same train. This was the local train, not the tourist railcar which would have whisked through here much earlier in the day without stopping. This was the train that served local communities from Cusco to Quillabamba much further along the tracks.

 

The train arrives at Aguas Calientes

The train arrives at Aguas Calientes – image: AV

The train arrived, along with the commotion, people disembarking, people (including us) embarking, all through the same doors at the same time with much pushing and shoving.

 

Again we found our seats occupied by locals, this time, however, we didn’t make such a fuss, we accepted places dotted about the carriage and left the invaders in peace; we were becoming culturally accustomed. For the rest of the journey we looked at the scenery going past our windows. It was interesting to note that the vegetation changed, from Altiplano to more tropical types. Something that people aren’t generally aware of, knowing that Machu Picchu is also a mountain, people expect to go up to Machu Picchu, in fact, Machu Picchu is down, at only 1,800m a.s.l. We passed many small villages, kids waiting for the train, we stopped briefly at some stations until we found ourselves in the deep gorge of the Urumabmba River and chugging to a stop at Aguas Calientes. Our signal to get off. We did, amongst tourists with backpacks and locals, all pushing and shoving in every direction again.

 

The steep main street in Aguas Calientes - image: AV

The steep main street in Aguas Calientes – image: AV

We were pleased to be out of the station and found ourselves in a small plaza, a neat fairly modern church and our guide led us off to our lodgings. The street wasn’t a street in the general sense of the word. It was a series of steep steps and slippery concrete slopes up the hillside, we seemed to be going up and up forever with our bags. Finally we reached our hotel, it was with a collective sigh of relief that we dropped our bags where we stood sweating in the humid atmosphere.

 

We were in the entrance to the hotel, it served also as the lobby, reception and in the morning we discovered also the dining room. It was a quaint place, colourful with lots of plants in the central courtyard off which were our rooms. We settled in quickly and gathered again in the lobby-reception-dining room were we met our guide for the next day when we were to explore Machu Picchu and to dutifully receive our complimentary pisco sours.

The colourful hostel  - image: AV

The colourful hostel – image: AV

Tomorrow was to be an early start, we were to catch the first tourist bus, which left at 6:30am, up the mountain. That meant we had to be up and watered and down at the bus stop before then. Hmmmm, an early night was called for. It was already 6pm, time to explore a little and have dinner. There were hot pools at the top of the street, so I opted for those to relax. After it was group time for pizza, and more complimentary pisco sours, a local band entertained us with music from the Altiplano played on a variety of panpipes with guitar and native drums in accompaniment, followed by our early night.

 

We yawned collectively over our breadrolls and strawberry jam at 5:30 in the morning. We also enjoyed a lot of fresh fruit, paw paw (papaya) and watermelon, lots of fruit juice too and for the first time on our trip we had cereal with milk. Then it was day packs on our shoulders and off downhill for the bus.

 

A lone llama in the mist at Machu Picchu  - image: AV

A lone llama in the mist at Machu Picchu – image: AV

Once aboard our guide started his story of Machu Picchu and how it was only discovered in 1911 by Hiram Brigham, along the road with the steep sides of the gorge on one side and the Urubamba river some 30m below flowing furiously through the narrows on the other. Across the river and up the zig-zag road that took us to the top. We were surprised to find a five-star hotel up there. One look inside the lobby, which didn’t double as a dining room, told us why we were staying at the hotel in Aguas Calientes, very plush. Nilo, our guide, came and distributed our entrance tickets and we were off in the crisp morning air. It was still very foggy, which added to the mystique, as we climbed among the ruins, pausing for Nilo’s commentaries. We were the first group of tourists in the place, the people who had hiked the Inca Trail would just be coming across the last pass at this hour to descend into Machu Picchu. So we were privileged to be able to take photos without the presence of lots of people to detract from the essence of our visit.

 

The ruins at Machu Picchu  - image: AV

The ruins at Machu Picchu – image: AV

We walked, we climbed, we paused to rest and listen in this once land of the Inca. The mist and fog cleared and the day became bright and sunny, and the walking hotter and sweatier as we marveled at the once lost community and tried to imagine what Machu Picchu must have been like in its heyday. Some of the structures were massive, others were more modest and had obviously been the living areas. There was an ever present evidence that Machu Picchu was primarily ceremonial. Water courses and aqueducts ran through the place, little waterfalls and spouts making picturesque interludes. Machu Picchu was truly the marvel we had been promised, it was everything that had been written about it.

 

Fountains in the ruins  - image: AV

Fountains in the ruins – image: AV

The day wore on, and after being in the ruins for four hours in the now hot hot sun it was time to return to Aguas Calientes. I elected to walk down the hill and back to Aguas, so I set off alone. The others, who were not quite so adventurous waited for the bus at midday.

 

After descending down, sometimes inelegantly for the way was scree, the track that cut the zig-zags and crossing the bridge, I found myself alone in the solitude of the gorge. The steep rock sides rose far above me, dwarfing me, and the feeling of being an insignificant part of the natural order of the world was so overpowering as the river ran wildly on my right far below. It was an eerie feeling, one that I had never before known.

 

After lunch, it was back to the station to get the train back to Cusco, we arrived at 9pm, back to the hotel, dinner and bed. For tomorrow was another adventure, we were flying to Puerto Maldonado and off into the jungle.