As it turned out, we made a good decision. Hotels in Cuzco are expensive for what you get, obviously charging a premium to be in one of the best bases to explore the ancient mountain kingdom of the Incas. Ours was warm and quite comfortable and I spent the majority of our first 24 hours of our stay in Cuzco with a sore head and unable to keep my eyes open. Ninfa, on the other hand, was adjusting very well. In our first full day in Cuzco, our only excursion out was a very slow walk to a nearby launderette and then on to Carlo´s Pizza for dinner. Carlo´s became our restaurant of choice for delicious pizzas with spicy chilis and good comfort food. On our first night there, I told the chef about my headaches and he pulled out some fresh leaves (of “ruda” I think) and told me to sniff them while breathing in deeply and then rubbed them over my face and forehead according to some local cure. I slept with the leaves under my pillow, but all in all, I think the pizza did a better job than the leaves.
The next day, we walked around the lower parts of town buying a replacement bag for me to carry my camera and other daily bits and pieces, and organising our transport from Cuzco to Puno for after our visit to Machu Picchu. I was beginning to feel better and by the afternoon I was finally acclimatising thanks to another pizza and copious cups of coca tea. Our search for bus tickets to Puno and entrance tickets to Machu Picchu brought us off the beaten track in Cuzco into some nice colonial squares and foundations of old Inca buildings. Cuzco is a beautiful city and the squares are adorned with very nice buildings, none more so than the expansive Plaza de Armas, surrounded on one side by the huge cathedral, another by the university and the Jesuit church, and on the other sides by converted colonial, balconied residences with a huge green in the centre. The downside is that you can´t sit on a bench and take it all in without a procession of touts taking their turn to sell you jewelry, tours or knitwear.
Because I hadn´t been feeling well, we hadn´t visited many of the sights in Cuzco, but the evening before we left for the Sacred Valley, I visited the cathedral while Ninfa relaxed back at the hotel. Archaeology is not Ninfa´s greatest passion and she was saving her reserve of interest in history until Machu Picchu. The church itself is very impressive with beautiful wooden carved altars and naves, and massive, time-worn, gold-plated gates which the church staff were closing as I walked around. Of note also is a painting of the Last Supper from a local artist which depicts the final meal as a vizcacho (similar to a guinea pig). The main item of note though is the statue of Jesus Christ of the Earthquakes, the patron protector of Cuzco, and to whom many of the locals show great devotion, notable for the fact that the Jesus is black, allegedly having become so after an earthquake in the 1800´s.
Perhaps prompted by the painting in the church, we went for our last supper before leaving for the Sacred Valley in a nearby restaurant, the Inka Grill, for some cuy (guinea pig). Alas the food was disappointing, and instead of getting a whole guinea pig served with an apple in its mouth, the cuy was already carved. What´s it like? Very gamey flavour, a bit smelly, not very tender, and the last time I´ll be eating rodents I hope.
The next day we travelled in a shared taxi to Ollantaytambo at the foot of the Sacred Valley. On our way out of town, we passed through side-streets and along the crowded Calle de Tres Cruces which had a bustling, colourful Andean market in full swing – flowers, food, bright blankets, traditional hats and bicycle carts. It was a beautiful drive as we climbed into the highlands above Cuzco to well over 4,000m, and then down by Urubamba town, and on to Ollantaytanbo. When we got there, we realised we would not need the whole day to explore the ruins or the village, but we couldn´t change our 7:30pm train tickets as all prior trains were full. As it turned out though, Ollantaytambo has a few nice places for a drink and food, and I visited the ruins which climb up the hillside. Some of the stonework is classic Imperial Inca with smooth stones, slanted doorways, and some huge pieces of stone. The mountain opposite is alleged to be sacred and my guide pointed out the outline of a face, an Inca man, an Inca woman, and a sleeping Inca. He was seeing lots of things, and I left him to see more and went with Ninfa to catch the train.
The seats on the Expedition train with Peru Rail are a little cramped, and the journey is very bumpy. They promise you a snack on the Expedition train, but it´s two crackers or something, and there was no hot water for coca tea. We got to Aguas Calientes around 10pm, into a torrent of rain. We found a hotel near the station and bedded down for the night next to a heater with our clothes on it.
The next morning dawned, if dawned is the right word, in a mist of heavy rain, and we made our way to the ticket office for 7:30am. There was only one ticket agent, and by 8am, we were still in line and the line was at least 100 deep. We got our tickets, then queued for bus tickets and then queued for the bus. Just before we got on, we were told there was a landslide and the road was blocked – you can imagine what the weather was like. We took a bus to the landslide, then walked past the clearing up operation, and connected to a bus on the other side. Once there, we organised a tour for 10soles each as part of a group of 12 or 14. There was no chance, and no point, of us climbing Huayna Picchu in this weather, and by the time our tour started, it was 10am – what a long morning!
Our tour guide guided us around the main sites in Machu Picchu, and explained some of the history and importance of the site. We spent around 2 hours of a 2.5 hour tour with him before quitting because we were wet through to the skin, and too cold to concentrate on what he was saying. It was a miserable morning, and had been raining straight for over 4 hours now. During our 3 hours at the site, we saw Huayna Picchu emerge from the clouds for a combined total of around 15 minutes in all. Although it was disappointing, it was still a great experience to visit such a well-preserved Inca town, gape down at the 500m sheer drops to the Urubamba river below, and suddenly see huge mountains emerge from the mists on all sides. It is obviously a magical place. We were down by around 1pm, paid for a cold shower at our hotel from the previous nights (check-out time was 9am), and went for lunch at the Indio Feliz restaurant in Aguas Calientes. A hot fire, delicious food, and ample portions soon put a bit of cheer back into us. Although, when we left for the train station at 3pm, all the rain had gone, and you might even have seen a ray of sunshine or two. So it turns out that in rainy season, you can probably ignore your guidebook and visit Machu Picchu in the afternoon, not the morning.
Now that we were acclimatised, we spent our last night in Cuzco exploring the upper reaches of the town around the San Blas area. Here we saw the remains of some Imperial Incas walls which have been incorporated into modern buildings. They were amazing – smooth, no cement or mortar, imposing in size and still firmly in place to this day. The sidestreets around San Blas are narrow and full of character, and quite steep. We stopped for a few drinks on our tour around, and our last evening in Cuzco really left us wanting more.
So, our final thoughts on the Sacred Valley;
Positives: amazing Andean scenery, Cuzco is a beautiful town, Carlo´s Pizza, Ollantaytambo is a peaceful village and worth an overnight stay if you don´t mind visiting Machu Picchu in the afternoon.
Negatives: too many touts in Cuzco, hotel prices everywhere in Sacred Valley, and although it is amazing everything about Machu Picchu is too expensive – train is minimum $65 return (for Peru!), entrance is $40+, and the bus from Aguas Calientes is $16 return. That´s a lot when you consider your own car with driver from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo is only $14.
We still enjoyed our time in the Sacred Valley, and as I said, Cuzco left us wanting more. Next stop, fiesta time on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Puno!