I had nothing to do with the planning, which was a blessing in some ways. However, if left to my own devices, I would have opted to find my own way to the sites that interest me the most instead of signing up for an inclusive tour package. I rather linger at one or two Inca ruins, turning over every stone (not literally of course) than be consistently shuffled on and off a tour bus, instructed to look one way, then the other; being told when to go to the bathroom, when to have lunch, when to take a photograph, etc.
Which is exactly what happened. One of my traveling companions had signed us up for daily tours of the ruins, including Machu Pichu, through an agency called Viajes Los Angeles, which I would not recommend. The tours were rushed, the buses were late and the lectures were, at best, mediocre. Sometimes an interesting narrative would be tossed in, but it was usually in Spanish. The tour guides were bilingual, but the Spanish version was always significantly longer, leaving most of the foreign tourists on the bus unsatisfied and, in many instances, utterly perplexed.
After two consecutive days of nearly constant sightseeing –which quite honestly became a blur of ruins and camera clicks – a few things stood out in particular: The enormous ruins at Sacsaywaman, where we wandered along huge slabs which used to serve as the main walls of the old fortress during the Inca empire; the ruins at Ollantaytambo, where we became breathless climbing up the countless steps of this old fortress; the ruins at Pisac, particularly the Indian market, where vendors line up to sell handicrafts from the region, including distinct and colorful silver-plated rings and necklaces and soft Alpaca sweaters; and the absolutely stunning landscape on the way to the typical colonial town of Chinchero, which sits even higher than Cuzco, at almost 3,800 meters (over 12,000 feet). The drive here was magical, almost enigmatic. It was dusk and I looked out my window and noticed that we were seemingly in line with a completely full moon. It felt like we were somewhere between heaven and earth, with something celestial at our fingertips.
We also passed through ruins at Q’enqo, Tambombachya and Pukapara, and the Convento de Santa Domingo del Cuzco Qorikancha, before heading back to the town centre of Cuzco and to our centrally located yet somewhat dilapidated hotel, the Sonesta Posadas del Inca, a stone’s throw away from the city’s hub, the Plaza del Armas. In the city centre, we visited the impressive yet musty Cathedral, where my female companions and I left scribbled notes soliciting our “soul mates” at the feet of a Saint Antonio, an ancient tradition for desperate women looking for husbands, and then giggled our way out of the venerable 16th century cathedral.
Days left us with little energy for evening philanderings. Cuzco has an array of dining options, enough to satisfy even the most discerning diners. Our first night, we dragged our tired bodies as far as Incanto, a modern yet cozy Italian restaurant specializing in brick-oven pizza, just off the Plaza del Armas. Wooden tables, an attentive staff, and an eclectic mix of patrons were seated around the restaurant’s nucleus, a large brick oven, from which a toasted warmth emanated the room. After scarfing down mushroom ceviche and a warm bowl of pasta, I convinced two of my Peruana friends to accompany me on a mini-pub crawl. Despite the evening chill, we managed to endure long enough to pop into town hotspot Mama Africa and Paddy Flaherty’s, finally deciding that we did not have faintest bit of energy to cope with the noise nor the scene and thus retreated back to our rooms.
On the second night, we ate at Cicciolina’s, a high-end Italian restaurant recommended to one of my companions. The décor was warm and inviting, with soothing cranberry-colored walls, huge antique wood framed mirrors, nouveau art portraits and hanging cascades of dried garlic and chili peppers. Details such as tall thin vases with sparse bouquets of flowers, crispy white tablecloths, high-beamed ceilings, and slim white candles gave the place a slightly minimalist and trendy sabor. The Malbec we ordered was excruciatingly good, as was the Tagliolini with Squid Ink Prawns in a creamy Thai pesto sauce. I ordered Ravioli con Olive Oil y Pesto which was bland and light, but nothing extraordinary. The Spaghetti con Anchovas y Tomates was far too fishy. And someone ordered Alpaca, a specialty of the region, which was served pink and sadly made me think about the sweater I had bought that day in Pisac.
The next morning we set out for the ultimate destination: Machu Picchu (or “old peak”) An early bus escorted us to a train station in the mountains where we stood in a long, snakey line, nibbled another regional specialty, choclo con queso (corn on the cob, served with a slice of cheese) until we boarded the dingy Backpacker train (Peru Rail) to Aguas Calientes. When we arrived, we were amidst hoards of tourists and escorted to a restaurant where we could check our larger bags, if needed. After 30 minutes, we were vaguely directed towards a line of buses, where we scrambled to board – it felt like a race to the mystical green city.
I was blown away by the backdrop leading up to Machu Picchu. The bus winded through the hilly green terrain, which was breathtaking and unexpectedly lush and beautiful. At times, I feared for my life, especially when the bus haphazardly rounded the steep mountain curves and one could feel it leaning on an angle. Nonetheless, I felt like I was on my way to heaven (along with hundreds of other people). One of my companions, who had visited Machu Picchu several times before, recommended that as soon as we our given our tickets, that we quickly enter the site and hike 10 minutes upwards to the point where everyone takes their “Kodak moment” photographs. So luckily I have a photo of only me standing proudly in front of the stunning old settlement, sin other tourists in the background. As magical as it looked, I could not help but think that one appreciates the view even more after doing a multiple day trek through the forest, along the Inca trail (the permits are apparently sold out until October).
Our group had a tour guide, but we already knew the basics. Machu Picchu, also referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas,” was built in the 15th century by Incan Emperor Pachacutec. Invisible from below and completely self-contained, it lies over 600 meters (about two thousand feet) above the Urubamba river, and comprises pre-Colombian Inca ruins of temples, baths, and houses – all in an extraordinary state of preservation. These structures were carved from the gray granite stone of the mountain and many of the building blocks were fitted so precisely and with such exactitude that one would not be able to insert a thin blade between the mortar-less joints.
Not much is known of the social or religious use of the site during Inca times, adding to its delicious enigma. The skeletal remains of many females had initially led to the conclusion that the site may have been a sanctuary for women, including priestesses and brides of Inca nobility. However, subsequent osteological research revealed an equal number of male bones and skeletons, thus establishing that Machu Picchu was not exclusively a dwelling place for women.
The site was abandoned in the 16th century, most likely due to a smallpox outbreak. This was the time period when the Inca Empire was being defeated by the Spanish conquistadores, under the leadership of Francisco Pizzaro. Although the citadel is located only about 70 kilometers (over 40 miles) from Cusco, the former Inca capital, Machu Picchu was fortunately never found and destroyed by the Spanish invaders. For over three centuries, the surrounding jungle grew to obscure the site, and virtually no one knew of its existence, until 1911, when Yale historian and explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered the "lost" city.
We quickly lost interest in our tour guide, preferring instead to wander through bits of the five square miles of ruins on our own, eventually landing on a large grassy “step” to bask in the delightful “Inca” sunshine.
We began a discussion about Peru- I wanted to know what it meant for a Peruvian to be at this magical site, an important symbol of their heritage. Looking around the ruins, one of my colleagues, Alex Santillana, a native Peruvian (on her third trip to Machu Picchu) said she was distraught that most Peruvians would rather go to Miami or Cancun than come here.
“I am proud of my culture and ancestry. Peruvians don’t appreciate what we have. People from the outside appreciate it more. I bet there are more Argentinians visiting this site than there are Peruvians.”
We looked around the ruins, tourists from all over the world could be seen exploring the ruins, climbing, prodding and poking. There were no police or barriers, only a small rope, for example, to keep people from touching the much-visited energy rock, Intihuatana, which served as a sun clock. Shamanic legends say that when sensitive people press their foreheads to the stone, the Intihuatana opens their eyes to the spiritual world. Alex continued “people should take greater care of the ruins [in Machu Picchu]. For example they should put a glass case over the Intihuatana.”
All of my new friends thought that the process up to Machu Picchu itself could be better organized and were surprised that none of the people who worked on the train or in the station spoke English (not even a few words). Another one of my colleagues, Victor Grande, said that he chatted with some locals in Aguas Calientes and said that their perception of the Orient Express is very negative: “ They think that it is a foreign business that costs a lot of money – and that all of the proceeds benefit foreign counterparts and not the local community.” It appears that there is a significant communication gap between the local community, the tourist companies, including Orient Express Hotels and Peru Rail, and the tourists. In the end, Machu Picchu, although “discovered” almost one hundred years ago, is becoming an increasingly popular destination. Therefore, it is important that efforts are made to protect not only the ruins, but to also ensure that the locals benefit from tourist proceeds.
Instead of returning to Cusco, we spent the night in tucked away Yucay, in the heart of the gorgeous, fertile Valle Sagrado de los Incas, or Sacred Valley of the Incas. We stayed again at the Sonesta Posada del Inca, but this time, the setting was supreme and the amenities were far more impressive. It seemed more like a resort than a hotel, surrounded by striking snow-capped Andes. Although the food at the hotel’s restaurant was relatively average and bland, the hotel bar was cozy – with a sort of log cabin feel. We sipped foamy pisco sours and munched on corn nuts in front of a gently burning fire, while listening to the live performance of an Indian instrumental band.
I decided it was time to indulge my sore body in a spa treatment, so I opted for a body exfoliation and wrap, followed by an aromatherapy massage. This was the first time I have had an exfoliation and wrap inside a cool steam room, where the generous presence of Eucalyptus leaves created a purifying and refreshing experience. The masseuse gently exfoliated my skin with a grainy blend of chamomile, coco, eucalyptus leaves and essential oils. The concoction had the appearance of spinach flakes – and she left the oily mask on my body for about 25 minutes, leaving me alone in the steamy room, wrapped in cool towels. I was quite chilly by the time she came back and was relieved when it was time to step into a hot, powerful shower and wash my body clean. My skin definitely felt softer and smoother. Afterwards, I was given a gentle one-hour massage, with uplifting Indian instrumental music playing in the background. Afterwards, I stepped outside of the treatment room into the delicious mountain air, with a stunning view of the Andes, and the much-needed kiss of the sierra sun on my skin.
That afternoon, we wandered over to Seminario Ceramics, to look at the high-quality, colorful, eco-friendly ceramics we had heard about. When we entered the beautiful hacienda, with its cobble-stoned foyer and myriad trinkets, we were shown an 8-minute video about how the owners started their ceramics business and hire their laborers. Then we were escorted into an elaborate gift shop, where you can find anything from bowls to candlesticks to incense holders to wall hangings. We were also given a tour of the hacienda, which houses a mini- zoo, with alpacas, a monkey, a rabbit, and brightly-colored parrots squawking “hola.” We wandered through the lush garden, where oversized vases lay drying in the sun and popped into some of the studios to watch the artists diligently paint delicate swirly lines and symbols on all sorts of handicrafts.
My absolute favorite part of the weekend was our horseback-riding excursion in the Sacred Valley. Although slightly intimidated by my strong-minded horse, he trotted me through some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever scene, under a scintillating blue sky. We traveled over old wooden bridges, through lush green fields and along simple dirt roads, where small brown-faced children ran out to greet us with huge, hopeful smiles.
The energy of the Sacred Valley truly felt sacred, and I did my best to breathe in as deeply as I could, in the hopes that I could keep some of this precious world inside me.
How To Get There
Where to Eat
Calle Triunfo 393
Off of main square, Cusco
Portal de Harinas, 191
Plaza de Armas
Tel: 246 544
Off the Beaten Path
Taller Workshop Gallery
Cale Berriozabal N111
Tel (51-84) 201002
Casa- Hacienda Orihuela