Walking out from the airport in Cusco, we were greeted by angry driving, car horns, exhaust fumes and a tribe of taxi drivers trying to bundle us into their heavily dented cars for inflated gringo prices. We realised, since our one night stay in Santiago six weeks previously, this was the first time we had visited a major city on our travels having dodged most of them due to riots. Our first impressions quickly changed however, as we entered the city centre, we saw beautiful buildings and a city surrounded on all sides by impressive mountains. In this basin, Cusco sits at over 3000m up, making walking up stairs and hills significantly more difficult. More importantly, whilst being a great place to visit in itself, it also acts as the base from which to explore surrounding ruins, landscapes and Machu Picchu.
We spent our first day walking around the beautiful city centre, grabbing lunch and a good coffee with Gladys and Thibault, before organising how we would tackle the next few days, including Machu Picchu. The main options are via extortionately expensive train, a notoriously dangerous car journey, or five days trekking on foot. Short on time and money, we were just about to sign up for the dangerous car option, when we were approached by a tour seller in the street… there were no nike airs, no gold teeth and we made sure this chap had no ties to Fatima back in Bolivia. He explained that we might enjoy the jungle trek, 3 days and 2 nights spent mountain biking, white water rafting, ziplining and trekking our way to Machu Picchu. We haggled the price down, got a great deal for everything included, so decided to go for it in a couple of days time so that we could explore around Cusco first. Fingers crossed.
One of most famous tourist attractions in this area is rainbow mountain, only discovered in the last 7 years as (sadly) the snow continues to melt, revealing a beautiful landscape of striped colours. However, Gladys and Thibault had heard of an equally beautiful mountain visited by 30 rather than 1000 tourists a day, and had organised a car there the following morning. It was the same price for two or four people, so we hopped on board, split the cost, and headed there early the next morning.
A three hour drive from Cusco, through local villages which looked like they were from a previous time, up a muddy mountain road, we finally arrived at Palcoyo mountain. Walking slowly to the top, as it sits at just shy of 5000m, we were left breathless by both the views and the altitude. Lucky enough to be the only ones there, and Alexz the only one in shorts, we tried to capture it on film with our french friends. We had a beautiful morning and Emma suggested one pose which was a little oo la la…
Another day and unable to shake the french pair – Reading this hopefully they can now take the hint! – Gladys suggested a local animal rescue centre doing good work, before we moved on to the Inca ruins around Cusco. A half hour minivan costing £1 each pulled up outside what looked like a disappointing prospect, but we paid the £4 to enter given that we had made the effort. Again, our first impressions were way off, and it turned out to be a highlight of our time in Cusco. A local chap called Peter introduced himself as our guide, and in perfect English, took the four of us around all of the animals they had, telling us each of their individual stories as to why they were there, and if they had any hope of one day making it back to the wild. Sadly, many of the animals were here as the result of tourism, such as Spectacled Bears and Puma who were sedated for petting, Parrots, Toucan and Condor in illegal pet trade, and Coati for their tails as superstitious charms. It was great to see the good work being done and to have the chance to see such beautiful animals up close. Condors in flight and a-Llama-ingly good selfies.
Cusco is surrounded by a number of Inca ruins, with four major sites very close to both the animal rescue centre and the city centre, and so we thought it best to make an effort to take in some historical culture. There wasn’t much to say about the first 3 ruins, all relatively small and well… ruined. It also seemed in an attempt to squeeze more money from tourists, there were no information signs to tell you about what you were looking at, almost forcing your hand to pay one of the many guides loitering nearby. The highlights of the first three ruins was a beautiful walk to the third ruin, through some very beautiful and peaceful countryside, and the puppy we met during lunch who we both fell in love with, to the point we were googling how to bring dogs back to the UK! The fourth and final ruin called Sacsayhuaman or as it is known by tourists “sexy woman” due to its challenging pronunciation (hopefully this explains the photo below). This was definitely the more spectacular of the ruins, despite only 20% of the ruins remaining as the Spanish demolished the buildings and used the rock to build houses with back in the city of Cusco. Heading down the final stretch back into the city, the weather took a turn, big black clouds rolling in over the mountains and the first splattings of rain landing. At that point, as if by fate, we were stood outside a rooftop bar from the guidebook with happy hour on Pisco sour cocktails. Upstairs, in comfy chairs and watching on through full length windows, we sipped cocktails and watched as huge bolts of lightning streaked the sky and lighted up the city of Cusco below us.
An early start the following morning saw us hop into a minivan to start making our way the Machu Picchu via our Inca jungle trek. After a few hours of windy roads through the spectacular sacred valley, we climbed out at over 13,000ft up and were handed a mountain bike each and bag of protective clothing. Impressed with the gear provided, looking like a two man SWAT team we, headed off down the winding mountain pass. Nearly 2 hours of flying over 5000ft downhill, passing through streams, overlooking the valley and winding around hair pin turns was incredible fun and some way to start our journey. The temperature change over our descent was huge, as towards the end, we entered the jungle once more, greeted by the same humid heat and hungry mosquitoes as our previous adventures. Fortunately, the fun wasn’t over for the day as we soon arrived to the river where we would be whitewater rafting. As a raft of 6 people plus our guide, we had a little practice of the important instructions, before jumping in and heading down stream. We went through varying levels of difficulty, all enjoying the more severe level 3 white waters, where we were thrown around inside the raft and had to hang on with every finger and toe. The last stretch of river, the guide decided to test this grip, slamming on the brakes into a sharp turn. Emma particularly enjoyed the look on Alexz’s face, as caught unaware, he managed to stay in the boat by the finest margin scrabbling to grab onto anything possible. That evening we played pool and chatted to our tour mates over a few beers, listening to the swarms of parakeets living in the surrounding jungle.
After breakfast, we made our way to our next activity, huge ziplines across the valley! The roads here were again narrow, windy, with no tarmac and had a several thousand foot drop on one side. Thankfully, the rain held off, as this area is prone to heavy rains and even heavier mud slides during this season.
We spent the next few hours zooming and flying across and along the valley, before moving on to start our trek to Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of the mountain from Machu Picchu. The trek was alongside the tracks where the luxury trains pass, carrying far richer people to Machu Picchu, overlooking the river, surrounding mountains and us peasants slogging alongside on foot. Aguas Calientes has boomed into a tourist town because of it’s close relationship to Machu Picchu, almost completely surrounded on all sides by steep lush green mountains, only allowing access via the narrow break in the ring of mountains. This is, in part, why Machu Picchu took so long to be discovered.
Another unsociably alarm clock started our day, this time at 03:30am, to start our walk up the mountain. Whilst we expected a reasonable climb to the top, we got far more than we bargained for, with none stop big rocky steps upward, in humid heat, we were dripping and soaked through by the time we saw the entrance at the top. To make matters worse, dense cloud had seated itself firmly over the mountain, robbing us of the supposedly spectacular views that should greet you after the gruelling climb. We started the tour with our guide, learning about the ingenious ways the Incas constructed their fortress and some of the theories as to why they left it uninhabited so suddenly, all the time looking out into the white of a persistent cloud. The guide assured us it would clear in 20 minutes. After making the same prediction for 2 hours, he was finally proved correct, as the cloud parted and we were greeted with a view of Machu Picchu, bathed in sunlight, that lived up to the significant hype. With the sun beating down, it rapidly became sweltering hot, made worse by the constant battle with other people to get a good photo! There were several nearly combative moments between tourists trying to get the perfect insta photo! We looked around the ancient temples, school and houses before making our way back down the mountain, back along the train tracks and into a 6 hour minivan ride back to Cusco.
Our last day in Cusco, the 1st of December, was Emma’s birthday! Worn out from the last few days, we spent it eating as much good food as possible, looking around the markets and sites of Cusco and treating ourselves to an hour long Inca massage! We found two fantastic restaurants for lunch and dinner, eating some great peruvian food, before meeting Gladys and Thibault for the last time and having a few drinks. That evening we boarded the 12 hour overnight bus to Arequipa, our next stop and the end of a brilliant week in Cusco, a place we would really recommend to anyone.
For obvious reasons…