The bus company Cruz Del Sur runs comfy buses with wide reclining seats around Peru, and we took one of these overnight north and up from Arequipa to Cusco. It was quite nice for a bus but still not enough space for my long legs; add in the windy, bumpy road (it felt like we were going over cobblestones half the time) and the 11-hour overnight didn’t exactly leave us fully rested. We felt better after a nice breakfast near the bus station though and from there we walked over to catch a combi to Ollantaytambo. The day’s travel ended after a further 2 hours whizzing along at breakneck speed over steep bends in a van full of locals.
Based on timing and Machu Picchu ticket availability, we had skipped through Cusco for now so that we could stay further into the Incan’s Sacred Valley and close to the famous site. From Ollantaytambo the ruins of the mountain refuge would be a short train ride and shuttle bus away. Now, visiting Machu Picchu by way of the Inca Trail (or other multiday hikes in) is one of those default activities on a globetrotter’s list: it’s the thing to do if you’re an adventurous backpacker especially considering the only other way in – by rail – is expensive. This default plan lasted until we read about it being rainy season during our visit. We quickly wimped out on the idea of camping in the wet jungle. Instead, we would splurge a few nights at a nice hotel recommended by our friends Kurt and Beth from our Egypt tour, and take the train to Machu Picchu with the other slackers.
This turned out to be a great call. The hotel – El Aubergue, right in Ollantaytambo’s train station – is one of the nicest, most comfortable, best bang-for-your-buck places we’ve stayed worldwide. The grounds and attached farm are beautiful, the staff is fantastic, and their restaurant serves amazing (and underpriced) food. We relaxed over the gardens on our balcony, sipped great coffee, lounged in the wood-heated sauna and high-fived each other over our decision while rain showers fell outside.
We had a spare day in Ollantaytambo before our Machu Picchu visit. I wasn’t feeling well that day so I stayed at the hotel (even happier that I had a comfortable place to hang out) while Elaine visited some of the local ruins of Incan storehouses. Despite being awash with waves of en route tourists – which now drive the formerly agrarian economy – the town and its people remain pretty adorable.
Machu Picchu day! So as of six months ago Peru adjusted how visits to this crowded site would work. Instead of buying a ticket for the day, we had to pick a time slot (AM or PM) to enter and spend a brief allotted four hours. One can also add on the opportunity to hike one of the two peaks that flank the ruins: Machu Picchu (its title bequeathed to the lost nameless city) or Huayna Picchu. We made sure to pick a day where we could get the latter, and this imposed further time constraints on our ticket by requiring us to be part of the morning crowd and begin our hike between 10 and 11am. We would have to exit after climbing back down.
Okay, so I booked the earliest train I could (the second one at 6am, as the first was already full). Our wonderful hotel starts breakfast at 5 for folks like us so we had a great meal before boarding and rolling quite slowly down the valley for an hour and a half. We watched the low clouds and drizzle a bit apprehensively. The train dropped us off in Aguas Calientes, an ugly and overpriced end of the line where we needed to catch a bus up the final steep switchback road. We knew the ride would take about 25 minutes, but what we didn’t expect was having to wait a solid hour first in an incredibly slow line in order to purchase tickets for said bus. Our already short window of visiting Machu Picchu shrank substantially. Considering the investment of time and money to get here, the poor organization was really frustrating.
Gray clouds and drizzle remained overhead as we were hauled uphill. We did our best to let the time crunch anxiety slip away – nothing to be done about it now. The views into the valley helped, which despite the weather were breathtaking: sheer cliffs and steep slopes, with verdant vegetation clinging to any angle less than 90 degrees. Then off the bus, hire an overpriced guide (now required), through the gates, up a steep set of stairs to the high eastern guard house, and – ta da! – our first view of the Lost City of the Incans.
Finally here: one of those gems of our bejeweled planet that we’ve imagined since childhood. How did it measure up? Well… it’s not the biggest Incan site, nor the most impressive architecturally. A visit feels like a Disneyworld ride (wait, wait, wait… go! Now exit through the gift shop). And when compared to some civilizations far older, there is little artistic decor that has survived until today. Yet Machu Picchu – as with Petra, where we had been little more than a month ago – is blessed with a spectacular natural setting. Being perched high on a ridge among jungle-encrusted peaks is what really takes this place from interesting to completely awesome. Like similar sites with high expectations, we found ourselves most amazed when we got away from the most familiar vantages. For us this was a little later at the top of Huayna Picchu, clambering around the precipitously perched temples on top and gazing down at the city and the surrounding valleys.
The Incans didn’t leave carvings, text, or paintings. (Their pottery and goldwork was top-notch but you don’t see that at Machu Picchu). What they did leave us to see is a superb demonstration of stonemasonry sans sophisticated metal tools. Yeah the Egyptians had that figured out a few thousand years earlier, but the Incans did it with style. Polygonal style, to be more precise, which fits huge irregularly-shaped blocks together aesthetically and perfectly without use of mortar. (We saw more impressive examples of this later on in Cusco.) It’s so weird and cool that it’s hard to believe what you’re seeing: this was all done by hand.
So our abbreviated tour – cut from the normal 2.5 hours to 1.5, given our time constraints and bus ticket delays – was actually quite good, though we definitely wished for that hour back. Once we left our guide and started on the Huayna Picchu trail, we were finally able to relax: no more deadlines to hit. We huffed and puffed up increasingly steep stone stairways, gaining new respect for the Incan priest who did this on a daily basis before the conquistador Francisco Pizzaro did his conquering. The top, as mentioned, had wonderful views, especially as the clouds decided to break and show us some blue sky. The stone construction up there is hard to believe – not only building it, but having it stay put on such steep slopes under heavy rains.
Back down from Huayna Picchu and time to wrap up or visit. We headed out through the residential section of the complex where Incan nobility resided and along the southeastern terraces towards the exit.
Ejected from the iconic ruin, we snagged some overpriced sandwiches and made our way back to Ollantaytambo by bus and train in time to try out the sauna and have a huge, delicious alpaca burger for dinner. Reflecting on our day, we agreed: yeah it could have been slightly better. But we had an amazing time, and we sure are fortunate to be able to have gone!