Sacred Valley, Peru

After a terrible (but cheap) bus from Arequipa to Cusco, I fell sick.  Ack!  The full cama was a lie – we didn’t even have semi.  While Silvia, Óscar, and Flo ran off to plan out our passage to Machu Picchu, I hung out for the afternoon with Marlies (who also stayed behind at the hostel to sleep more).  With a stomach bug, walking wasn’t very fun, nor was eating – I did run into Matt and Tess (Salta, Tupiza) though!  Turns out they had just recovered from some food poisoning of their own…

Everything in Peru so far has been money money money.  We skipped most of the churches and museums in Arequipa because they were asking for so much, but this problem was even more apparent in Cusco.  (Wanna enter a cathedral?  25 soles…$10!)  Covered in tourists of all types, and not just the backpacker – plenty of flag-waving Japanese groups, old Americans dragging heaps of stuff…these people are willing and able to pay for everything, which kinda makes things difficult for the budget-conscious.

One of the things particularly overpriced – entrance to Machu Picchu.  At S/. 152 for the normal price, that’s around $60!  However, as a student, if you get an ISIC card, that price goes down to S/. 76, half the price.  So…off we (meaning Flo, Marlies, and a rather nauseous me) went to get our ISIC card.  Silvia and Óscar followed us for some reason…which was unfortunate, because we took two hours running around in the rain before we were able.  (We felt bad for them, they really didn’t need to come along with us!  Turns out they had hoped we could go to the ticket office for Machu Picchu after we got our cards, but by the time we were done, they were closed.)  Dodgiest looking card ever – they just photocopied our passports in colour, cut out our pictures, and stuck it onto a card.  However, it’s definitely legitimate.

After feeling a lot better the next day, we went out to get our Machu Picchu tickets, then went wandering around the city.  Cusco is BEAUTIFUL – I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the beautiful churches, sculpted plazas, maroon shingled roofs, cobblestone streets, arches, balconies, hills…  But again, the expensive admission fees…coupled with people hounding you every few steps trying to sell their wares, tourists who don’t quite know how to behave, people handing brochures or restaurant menus or yelling “MASAJE” (massage), musicians running into every restaurant to play for money when all you want is a nice quiet lunch, people dressed in indigineous costume asking you to take pictures of them but you have to pay…yes, it taints the experience.  Also, everyone speaks English first to you, before Spanish – baffling for Silvia and Óscar especially, since their first language is Spanish.  But despite it all, you can’t deny Cusco’s charm, and it is absolutely necessary to go here if you’re in Peru.

We did go to one museum though, which was free – the Choco Museum.  Mmmmm. 🙂  The sights of the city we did check out – the Plaza de Armas, the neighbourhood of San Blas, and the stone with 12 corners.  The Incas had an amazing method of construction – they would take giant stones, cut them as they needed to, and fit them all together without cement.  As a result, the most famous stone of them all is one oddly shaped with 12 corners, but there were plenty with 9 or 10 that were equally impressive.  What was not impressive was the person yelling “DON’T TOUCH!” everytime you got close to it…only if you didn’t look Peruvian.

The others were tired in the afternoon, but Flo and I wandered around some more.  Seems that the further up you climb, the higher people are…as in there were some rather “interesting” folks.  Heh.  We found an amazing mirador of the city.  Carved in the hills opposite Cusco is “Viva El Perú”.

Even passage to Machu Picchu is expensive – we couldn’t quite figure out a cheap way to get there without killing too much time.  We even inquired about renting a car for the five of us, but with only 80% insurance coverage, $70 per day, and few safe places to park…too much.  We thus settled on taking public buses to Ollantaytambo, booking trains (very expensive, but we didn’t have the extra day to take 7 hours’ worth of buses) to and from Aguas Calientes (closest town to Machu Picchu), then bussing back to Cusco from Ollanta.

The next day (Thursday), we set out with small backpacks (we dropped off the rest of our stuff at our hostel in Cusco, to pick up on Sunday).  First, we walked to Saqsayhuamán, the site of some very impressive Inca ruins very close to Cusco, saddled with the unfortunate name (or fortunate, depending on how you look at it) of “sexy woman”.  On our way up the steep hill, we were accosted by a Peruvian guide trying to sell us his services…more money, more headache.  Then when we got there, ahhh…admission.

If you want to just enter Saqsayhuamán, it’s S/. 70 – absolutely ridiculous.  But you can also buy a boleto turistico – a ticket that allows you into many archaelogical sites.  That’s also S/. 70 for students, but S/. 130 for adults – absolutely through the roof expensive.  Flo attempted to use his new ISIC card (he left his student card in the hostel), which was accepted at the Machu Picchu ticket office – but it wasn’t accepted here, for whatever reason, and they refused to give him to student price, even after he showed them his Machu Picchu ticket which clearly denoted he was a student.  Whaaa?!  He paid the full price anyway, while Marlies got the student price.  Originally, I was going to go for the boleto turistico as well, but on principle, I decided to just say no.  For Óscar and Silvia, the full price was too much, so the three of us walked to a nearby hill with a perfect view of the ruins (plus Cristo Blanco, a big Christ figure overlooking Cusco) and waited for Flo and Marlies.  The ruins are impressive, but this is a practice I just cannot support.  Not just the price, but the arbitrary acceptance of student identity cards!  The worst thing was that we noticed people sneaking into the ruins for free, just by walking on a different path (one that the guide that accosted us told us not to take; he lied and just said that the path was more uphill and difficult) or around a corner.  None of us felt like doing that after the tiresome experience of money grubbing anyway.

While waiting for transportation to Ollantaytambo, many drivers stopped on the side of the road where we were standing.  Their price?  S/. 70.  Of course.

We took three colectivos to Ollantaytambo – one to Pisac (S/. 2.50), one to Urubamba (S/. 2.50), and one to Ollanta (S/. 1.50).  Take that, $40 train.  The ride was quite beautiful (and everytime we saw a ruin on the side of the road, we’d jokingly point out a potential S/. 70 entry fee), but the colectivos had a rather funny habit of stuffing far too many people in a vehicle.  Our first two were buses, but our last was a van with 14 seats – we had 23 people in there!  Stuffing us five tourists, a bunch of Peruvian tourists, a few kids, and an indigenous lady with a funny plate-like hat, made for a rather funny clown car ride.

We fell in love with Ollantaytambo, especially our hostel – great bed, great shower, great breakfast, great third-floor view of the entire town and the giant fortress looming over it – and immediately resolved to stay a second night in Ollanta.  Our hostel owner, of Quechua descent (and married to the hostel operator, an American woman), built the hostel himself.  He eagerly took us around the town pointing out stone arrangements – not only did the Incas haul giant stones and stack them, but they stacked them cleverly – in the form of flowers, people, a giant snake forming half a block, a trout, and angel…and they also chose stones with natural erosion such that you could see the rough shape of a condor, or the face of a puma, or whatever else…  Just amazing.  He was quite baffled as to why these formations weren’t in the guidebooks – and so were we!  If he hadn’t pointed them out to us, we would have walked right past them.

It was Marlies’s birthday, so we went out for drinks – a pisco sour for me, of course!  National drink of Peru (and Chile – they argue as to who owns it).  Probably not a great idea given my stomach problems…oh well.  After running into Kurt and Angela from my Uyuni tour, we went for dinner in a place recommended by the Lonely Planet…and we waited one hour for our food.  Mine was alright, but the others all had steaks that were as tough as if they were cooked for an hour.  (And they weren’t – we just saw the chefs lounging around half the time.)  Terrible.  Don’t always trust the guidebook…

Friday morning, we checked out the town, first heading to the fortress.  We were told that although admission was either S/. 70 or with the boleto turistico, we could bargain down to S/. 30 or 40 if we were in a group.  We couldn’t.  So Flo and Marlies, with their boletos, entered, while Silvia, Óscar, and I went for a free ruin, Pinkullyúna, just on the opposite hill.  A great hike that was absolutely worth it – though a teeny bit treacherous, with steep steps and few railings, it was even higher up than the fortress, and there were virtually no people!  Truly worthy alternative to the impressive fortress, even if the ruins themselves were quite small.

We took the train to Aguas Calientes with Inca Rail – roundtrip from Ollantaytambo, a ride of 1:40 each way, ran us each $85.  OUCH.  However, it was the cheapest one that we could find that at least allowed us to stay at the ruins for a reasonable amount of time.  Well, at least the train itself was pleasant enough.

Aguas Calientes is UGLY.  A full on tourist trap town that survives only on people staying the night to head to Machu Picchu, just like we were doing.  Restaurants even charge hidden tariffs just for sitting down and getting service.  However, with the help from our hostel in Cusco, we found a cheap hostel.  Given that we needed to wake up at 4 am, and that all three of us had stomach problems, Óscar, Silvia, and I skipped dinner.  We prepared some meals for the next day, as Machu Picchu is prohibitively expensive for food (you know, $4 for a can of Coke) – Nutella sandwiches for breakfast and snacks, and cold spaghetti for lunch.  Food isn’t allowed in Machu Picchu though, so we had to sneak it in our backpacks…

At 5:30 am, we took our bus to Machu Picchu – another expensive endeavour, but better than walking uphill in the dark for two hours.  For a half hour ride round trip, it’s $17.  Cheaper in dollars than in soles – unfortunately for me, I only had soles.  Baffling.

Machu Picchu opens at 6 am, and that’s when there aren’t many tourists.  And you know, there’s a reason why there’s all this mass tourism, because despite everything, it is SPECTACULAR.  Giant, well preserved ruins, of course…but it makes you marvel at how the Incas possible did this!  They had to haul enormous stones up a mountain?!  After taking all our tourist-less pictures, we headed straight down to the entrance to the Huayna Picchu trail – a very steep 350m climb for 45 minutes, but one that provides an amazing alternative view of the ruins.


The Incas seem to love their stairs more than Singaporeans.  They also had no regard to safety – stair steps were less than half the size of my foot, and steep cliff drops were everywhere.  At least the Peruvian government installed cables to make the climb up Huayna Picchu a little more manageable…but this is definitely not a hike for the queasy.  Going down was even tougher and took longer than going up.

By the time we descended, it was 10 am, and Machu Picchu was absolutely flooded with tourists.  Not necessarily of the good kind…plenty of people in same colour t-shirts ruin your photos.  Heh.  But also, the staff is a little bit antsy, and they blow their whistles everytime you’re even close to being out of line.  Walk the wrong direction, step on the wrong stone, stop too long to take a picture…SCREECH.  It felt like being in kindergarten.  The tourists didn’t help either – jumping isn’t allowed (of course, since this is a RUIN and it’s sinking at 1 cm per month) yet people were doing jumping photos anyway.  We heard lots of crying kids, arguing tourists, ugly American Spanish (“sir, this is correcto?”), people complaining about having to walk up another set of stairs…  Well, now I somewhat understand the high admission fees.  If you’re not here to appreciate something, go home!

After heading out of the ruins to eat our lunch, we headed back in the afternoon – much more quiet and peaceful.  Silvia and Óscar were tired, so Flo, Marlies, and I headed off to the Inca Bridge (an impressive wall of stones hanging off the face of a cliff) and to explore the now empty ruins.  (Also, alpacas wandering around.  Huh?)  Quite satisfied and exhausted, we headed down to Aguas Calientes at 4 pm, just an hour before the site closed for the day, met up with the other two, and took our train back to Ollantaytambo for another lovely night in that awesome hostel.

We took a colectivo back to Cusco the next day.  One guy asked for 15 soles per person.  Psh.  Walking about 10 steps more, we found one for 10.  Then in Urubamba, since we didn’t have enough people, our driver told us to go into another colectivo…and when we didn’t all fit in, they kicked out a local and forced him into a taxi!  Oh, Peru.

Expensive, often frustrating.  But it’s still a must-come.

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