09 Sep Southern Peru Pt. 1
Days 458 – 461 –
We took three days to drive from Nazca to Cusco, stopping to tour an Andean wildlife refuge and to camp and hike at Humantay Lake high in the Andes. The refuge was a nice stop. They even had an abandoned baby vicuna that they were rehabilitating.
We arrived at the trailhead to Lake Humantay in the afternoon and camped there so that we could get an early start to the hike in the morning, before all the tour buses showed up. The campsite was very beautiful, with Salkantay Mountain overlooking it, but very, very cold. We were the only campers, but there were workers around taking care of the mules that had just come back from hauling backpackers’ luggage across the pass. There was also a British guy that had spent too long at the lake and arrived back to the trailhead after all of the buses had left. He didn’t speak any Spanish so we helped him by getting him a room in the nearby house and letting him use our emergency satellite messenger to text his friend that he would not make it back that night. It’s helpful to speak Spanish, but being prepared when you’re out in the wilderness is so essential. Not sure what that kid would have done if we hadn’t been there to help him.
In the morning we made some coffee and put it in a thermos and started the trek to the lake. It only took about an hour, but it was straight up in the cold. Unfortunately, the sun was not illuminating the lake, but it was still beautiful and, even better, it started snowing while we were drinking coffee and admiring the view. As well, we had the place completely to ourselves. It was very surreal and beautiful. Much like Laguna 69, when we were hiking down, we passed at least 400 hikers heading up. Having a car and the ability to camp at trailheads has definitely made our experience of hiking in the Andes better, especially during the peak season. When we arrived back at the trailhead, our truck was completely blocked in by tour vans but luckily after asking around, we were able to find the drivers of enough of them to let us out.
It was raining when we arrived to Cusco, and very cold. We didn’t feel like camping in the only crowded campground in the city, so we rented a small apartment for the few days. Lucky for us, the rest of the days were beautiful blue skies, but still cold. As usual with cities, we had a mix of fun and chores planned. We took the truck to the dealership to inspect the brakes, as the pedal had started vibrating strangely. We were worried it would be something major, but it just needed a change of brake fluid. Apparently, that’s pretty common after so much altitude change for the fluid to get air and condensation prematurely. We also spent almost a whole day gathering everything we needed for our Bolivian visas, came up with a plan for the next week in the Sacred Valley area, and bought our Machu Picchu tickets.
For fun, we walked the cute colonial old town, and the San Blas neighborhood, and we stopped for a coffee overlooking the Plaza de Armas. We finally tried Alpaca steak, which was pretty good. We visited the Inka Museum, and two of the many markets. We walked up to the statue of Jesus that overlooks the city and the Sascayhuaman Ruins, and Becky couldn’t help but take a photo with a baby lamb in hat. We spent our final morning at the Bolivian Consulate patiently waiting for our application to get approved and to pay a small fortune for the privilege of entering their country. The process was fast and shockingly efficient, but maybe it was because we already had all of our documents prepared. The consulate even let us pay cash on the spot rather than go to the bank as we were expecting, which probably went straight into his pocket. Becky felt uneasy about that and we wished we would have just gone to the bank. That afternoon we drove outside the city to camp in the parking lot of an Inca site we’d see in the morning, without the tour buses: Salinas del Maras.
Days 462 – 465
Salinas de Maras was our first Sacred Valley stop. We awoke in the cold morning to have the salt mines basically to ourselves. We were surprised to find that they site was still in use, and there were workers mining the salt. It was cool to see the process, as we didn’t realize the salt mines were still in working order. After walking along and taking some photos, we bought a little bag of salt and headed on our way towards Ollantaytambo. In Ollantaytambo, after finding a nice little hostel to sleep in with a garage, we toured the town a bit. Ollantaytambo has some of the longest occupied dwellings in South America. The center of the town is foot traffic only, and one can clearly see the Incan architecture mixed with the modern in the houses and building. The town is dominated on either side by two massive ruins built into the mountains. After lunch we hiked up to Pinkkuylluna Ruins, the free ones overlooking the town and the other ruins. This place was mainly used as a store house to keep grain. The hike was short and somewhat steep, there weren’t many tourists, and the views were great. After spending a good amount of time exploring the grounds, we started making our way back to town just as it started raining. When the rain continued all night, we were very glad to have chosen a hotel room rather than a campground that night.
In the morning it was time to make our trek towards Machu Picchu. The journey from Ollantaytambo included a very high mountain pass, were we saw quite a few wrecks in the ice, and then we dropped nearly straight down to the jungle. We had thought the Machu Picchu was more in the mountains, but it’s a lot lower than we had expected.
Our destination was a place called Hydroelectrica, which is the absolute closest you can get with a car to Machu Picchu. The final twenty miles to it involves driving down a narrow and pothole filled dirt road with no shoulder carved into a massive cliff, while little buses carrying other budget minded tourists flew around us honking horns and flashing lights.
We camped in a parking lot of Hydroelectrica for the night, exhausted after the crazy drive. We watched all the tourists filter in and out of the nearby restaurant on their way to or returning from Machu Picchu. There were more than we expected taking this back route. We packed up our little backpacks for an overnight trip and made dinner, trying to eat the last of our cold food so that we could turn the fridge off while we were away from the truck.
We had an afternoon ticket to see Machu Pichhu, which means we couldn’t enter before 12pm. The walk was uneventful, just following the train tracks with nice weather. Once we reached the train station and town of Aguas Calientes, we had to go up the steps leading to the entrance of the site, straight up for about 45 minutes. The other option was a $12 per person bus ride. We arrived tired, sweaty, and a little grumpy to an incredible mass of tourists just stepping off the bus, fresh from the train. Even though we were expecting it, it was still so overwhelming to be in such a massive crowd of tourists. We had done really well on our trip so far avoiding the crazy tourist places, but this was one place where we just had to accept it. There was no way to arrive early to beat the crowds here. We ate an early packed lunch in the shade before venturing in the gate.
Once in the gate there were two options, explore the grounds, or go to overlook of the whole place. It was crowded and we were tired from our walk, so we chose to explore the grounds first and go to the lookout after. Mark entertained himself by photographing the hordes of people. Machu Picchu is so fake in most people’s photos. It would have been impossible to get a shot without other tourists in it. Pushing selfie sticks out of our way we finally made it across the grounds after about 30 minutes and just sat in the shade for awhile, watching sand flies bite the unsuspecting people and just trying to find a way to enjoy this place despite the people.
When we decided to go up to the viewpoint, we realized that the signed paths all said one way, and there were guards at every corner. The only way we could go was toward the exit, even though we hadn’t seen everything. Becky asked a security guard if we could cross the barrier to go to the other path towards the overlook above, but the very unsympathetic guard just said no and told us that we had to exit the site and go back in. Little did we know that he was lying.
After exiting and heading back to the ticket gate, we found out the hard way that you can only enter once from a solemn faced and unfriendly ticket checker who was simply not impressed with another gringo trying to break the rules. But Becky begged and begged the ticket guy. She told him they had come all the way to Peru just to see Machu Picchu (not true at all) and that they had only just arrived and the mean guard inside made us leave because we took a wrong turn (very true). Eventually, after looking up our original entry time and realizing we’d only been in the site an hour, he begrudgingly let us back in.
Frazzled and feeling like the whole thing was a scam we made our way up towards the Sun Gate overlook. That’s when our luck changed. We ran into our friend Robert, who we had first met in Colombia and then randomly met again in the streets of Quito. What were the odds? We were so exhausted and he told us the Sun Gate wasn’t that great of a view, so we took his word for it, relieved to just sit in the grass nearby with a nice view, and chat with him.
We sat with him for a couple of hours, watching the clouds and the people. It even rained a bit but we didn’t mind. We were surprised at how many people took ridiculous photos in front of the site, like the girl pretending to be deep in a yoga pose when she’s actually surrounded by 2,500 other humans walking by her downward dog pose. Guess she’ll just photoshop it later! It was just so silly. Mark tried to take a photo of Becky but it was hard to take Machu Picchu seriously, after our day. We even relented and took a classic shot of our own, just to fit in.
Finally in the late afternoon, around 4 pm, the crowds started to dwindle. After 70% of the people left, we were able to finally relax and appreciate the beauty of the place. In our opinion, we’ve seen much better ruins than Machu Picchu. What sets the place apart is the surrounding scenery, the sharp, jagged mountains that really make one feel small and insignificant. When we walked through the grounds a second time, it was a bit of a different experience. It was more quiet and calm and much better. Our advice to anyone doing Machu Pichhu would be to not bother entering before 2 or 3pm, do the guard tower hike first, and don’t leave that area thinking you could go back. After the long day we still had a 2.5 mile walk to our hotel. It started raining on the way back. We found a little burger place and ordered two overpriced very basic burgers with beer, argued (and won) about the “gringo tax” that was added to the bill, and exhaustedly went to bed early in our separate twin beds in our little hotel room.
Machu Picchu behind us, we were ready to see some other sites in the Sacred Valley. In the morning, after eating a very delicious and cheap egg, cheese and avocado sandwich in the market, we set off on the 2.5 hour walk back to the truck. It was hot, again, but the walk was mostly shaded and flat along the train tracks and river. We arrived with just enough time to unload our bags and repack things before eating a PB&J for lunch. We didn’t feel like going very far, so just made our way to the Cocalmayo Hot Springs. We soaked our sore bodies for a few hours, ate dinner at the tiny little restaurant with just one little old lady who frantically made the food but was so cute) and slept in the parking lot along the river, far away from the tour buses that started showing up in the late afternoon. The next day we would make our way back to Ollantaytambo again.