Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cusco and the Sacred Valley

If I had written this post immediately upon returning to Chiclayo I would have been tempted to begin by saying that what I liked best about Cusco was leaving it. Four days of cold temperatures, wind and intermittent rain ranging from drizzle to downpour is not the ideal setting in which to appreciate the fabled Inca city and surrounding attractions. A hotel room without heat and a 50-50 chance of a hot water shower didn’t help. And there’s the altitude to deal with. The altitude issue made its presence known shortly after we checked into the hotel and noticed that our lips had turned purple, and the wrappers of vacuum packed cereal bars we had brought with us had expanded like balloons. The altitude is not debilitating and didn’t restrict us in any way, but heavy breathing became a way of life during our four-day visit. Chewing coca leaves didn’t relieve the problem but perhaps they prevented it from getting worse. At least that’s what the natives claim. I was surprised that I had an easier time prowling Machu Picchu than walking the streets of Cusco until I learned that I’d had a misconception…Cusco at 11,000 feet is actually 3,000 feet higher than Machu Picchu. I thought the opposite was true. But those things aside, and now that the three of us have recovered from the severe head colds we’d contracted in Cusco, in reflection it was a good trip. Maribel had done some quick but thorough planning and we saw and were impressed by everything we intended to see.

What follows is a synopsis of what we did, and in some cases what we’d do differently if we returned, but first let’s talk about when to visit Cusco. Don’t go in December. We went in December as a spare-of-the-moment thing to take advantage of Brian’s university vacation. Though temperatures are pretty much constant year round, November through April is the rainy season. Listening to a guide talk about the Temple of the Sun in the ruins of Machu Picchu during a downpour with your shoes soaked and the wind blowing yours or someone else’s poncho over your face is not fun. Enough about that.

We had contracted an agent in advance to arrange tours; one recommended to us by friends who had been to Cusco recently. There are essentially three standard tours – the City tour, the Sacred Valley tour, and Machu Picchu tour, and there are dozens of tour services who offer them. We paid $310 for the three of us for all three tours which was pretty much all inclusive and delivered the services that had been promised. Still, this is something I would do differently. I would not contract in advance, but instead would negotiate with the dozens of tours operators who are constantly approaching tourists in the principal park. I would do this for more flexibility in dates and for a better price. The tourist police station will furnish a list of who they consider to be reputable tour operators, and will also provide a good map of the city with attractions. 

In the afternoon on the day of our arrival we checked out the principal park and surrounding area. Central Cusco is impressive. It’s so easy with just a little imagination to step back into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and envision the historical events I’d read about. We had dinner at Papillon restaurant overlooking the square and then attended a presentation of native dance and clothing at the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo.

Our first full day found us taking the Sacred Valley tour. The tour began at 8.30 a.m. when we were picked up at our hotel and finished at 7.30 p.m. at San Francisco plaza. What better way to celebrate my 73rd birthday than by exploring the ruins of Ollantaytambo; an Inca site ranked second in grandeur only to Machu Picchu. In some ways I was more impressed by these ruins than with Machu Picchu, though that may be because the sun was shining and they were the first Inca ruins I’d seen. In addition to Ollantaytambo the Sacred Valley tour included Pisac, a delicious buffet lunch at Urubamba, and finished at the village of Chinchero. We had planned on going to the Uchu restaurant that evening for alpaca steak, but the altitude and exertion had taken its toll on us so we reluctantly settled for carry-out chicken eaten in our room.

Day two was the City tour, beginning at 2:00pm and finishing at 7:00pm. I don’t know why it’s called the city tour…it’s all about Inca ruins and includes only one site actually in the city (Coricancha) with the others: Qenko, Puca Pucara, Tambomachay and Sacsayhuaman located a short distance outside of Cusco. We used the morning hours prior to the tour to explore the city. That was not enough time…we should have allowed another day for our visit. The churches and museums have limited morning and afternoon hours, and it’s difficult to coordinate their open hours with limited time. The Inka Museum is impressive and should not be missed. The San Blass square and souvenir shops are worth checking out, though I can do without the lamb-carrying women in native costumes constantly badgering me to have my photo taken with them. Street vendors in Cusco, the surrounding towns and archeological sites are very aggressive, some of them obnoxiously so. I don’t like having my arms touched or grabbed.

The final tour on our final day was of Machu Picchu. Even now I’m not sure how to begin describing that day because it still remains somewhat blurry in my mind, perhaps because the day began at 1:00am. Let’s begin with getting to Machu Picchu. I don’t know what all of the possible travel options are to Machu Picchu. I believe that most if not all travel arrangements involve a train/bus combination. What I can say with authority is that trains do not leave from Cusco. They stopped doing that in 2010. If your guide book says differently, you have an old guide book. There are train stations in Cusco. You can buy train tickets at those stations, but trains do not leave from those stations. It is my understanding that tourist trains leave from Poroy; about ten miles outside of Cusco and from other Sacred Valley locations, including among others Ollantaytambo. They depart at various times during the day. Depending on amenities the cost ranges from about $70 to $300 round trip. All trains arrive at Aquas Calientes – also known as Machu Picchu Village, which can lead to confusion. The tourist train is definitely the preferred way to travel. We did not do that.

PERURAIL, who has the tourist trains, also runs a train strictly for Peruvian citizens. The cost is $7.30 round trip; certainly an attractive price. The downside is that it is barebones service and leaves only from Ollantaytambo at 4:27am. Maribel, bless her penny-pinching Peruvian soul had booked us on this train. Which is why we had to get up at 1:00am in order to be ready for pick-up at our hotel at 2:00am for the two-hour mini bus ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. More than once while waiting in the station I wondered if Machu Picchu would be worth the effort. But at last the train departed and we arrived at Aquas Calientes. 

Here, whether you arrived by plush tourist train or Peruvian peasant train the gods treat everyone equally. Upon leaving the train what you do; assuming you have booked a group tour is mill about in the considerable crowd, looking for someone with a banner (indicating they are a tour guide) and carrying a sign with your name among others on it. Somehow everyone ultimately finds their tour group and then marches off to wait for the next available bus making the twenty minute trip to the Machu Picchu archeological site. A ticket must be shown or bought to enter the site. Once inside, the guide assembles the group, making sure everyone is present and then the tour begins.

What happens is that the guide marches the group from point A to point B, stopping at each point to describe something significant. There are generally considered to be fourteen points of interest at Machu Picchu. Often several groups have stopped at the same location, making it difficult to concentrate on what the guide is saying, and when the groups are moving competition for space on the narrow paths slows things down, as does the rain by making the steps slippery. I can’t help but look at this photo and think that these people look more like ship wreck survivors than carefree tourists. Granted, we and they hit a bad day.

I am sure the vast majority of visitors have a pleasant experience. And we did enjoy it, and Brian and Maribel are still talking about the ancestral pride they felt walking on that hallowed ground. Machu Picchu is all that has been written about it and more. But there is something I would do differently which for me would enhance the experience. I would hire a personal guide at the entrance rather than taking a group tour. There are many registered guides available at reasonable rates and bilingual as well. I would tell the guide I don’t want to march from point to point, but instead want to leisurely walk through the entire site and have the guide comment on points of interest and answer questions. In other words, I want the guide to accompany me, not vice versa.

Everyone who visits Machu Picchu wants to take the ‘classic’ photo…the shot that is so recognizable worldwide. We along with about thirty other people crowded into a reconstructed Inca house on a high peak hoping that the weather would clear, at least long enough to take the photo. People from England, Scotland and Iran were standing next to us, patiently waiting. Finally after nearly two hours there was a break and all of us hurriedly stepped out and started taking photos. This is mine. Shortly afterwards the sky clouded over again and we boarded the bus in a downpour. The train and bus ride back to Cusco was uneventful.

The next day we were at the airport at 6:00am for our flight to Lima, where we had ten hours to kill before the flight to Chiclayo. We spent the day touring a museum and walking around the Larcomar Mall and Love Park. It felt good to see the sun and be warm again.

Happy New Year everyone!