Peru & Bolivia

Summer 2006

Part 2: Macchu Picchu and the Sacred Valley


<< Part 1: Lima and Cuzco    -   Back to Index   -    Part 3: Lake Titicaca >>

July 28th (day 3): Ollantaytambo

The hard road to Macchu Picchu

Most tourists visit Macchu Picchu from Cuzco. Since it's a 4-hour trip to get there, they have to leave Cuzco at 6am, spend just a few hours at the ruins, and then head back to Cuzco. I wanted more time in Macchu Picchu so I decided to head to Aguas Calientes, the village near Macchu Pacchu, in the evening to sleep there. That way I could enter Macchu Picchu early the next morning and spend a full day there.

The only way to get to Aguas Calientes and Macchu Picchu is by train, and the Peruvian state charges insane prices for the tickets - the return fare from Cuzco is about 100 USD. Since I was going in the evening anyway I decided to first take a bus to Ollantaytambo, a village about halfway between Cuzco and Macchu Picchu, and take the train from there. This would cost 'only' 52 USD and this way I could visit the Inca fortress in Ollantaytambo along the way.

I was gonna describe the epic saga of how I bought train tickets in Cuzco, but to cut a long story short let me just say that the staff of the Point Hostel made me believe tickets were sold out and that I wasted an evening and a morning of my precious time and went through a lot of stress because of it. I never trust anything a local tells me, but these guys were western travelers themselves so I didn't expect them to scam me.

Cuzco to Ollantaytambo

I finally got my train tickets in Cuzco at noon, and my train would leave Ollantaytambo at 17h, so time was very short. I first took a chicken bus to Urubamba. During the two-hour ride more and more locals were squeezed into the bus but it was a great ride anyway because I enjoyed watching the gorgeous Andean landscape we were driving through as well as observing the locals who got on the bus - my first contact with indigenous Americans. I immediately loved their colourful clothes and hats.

I was glad to be away from the city and the masses of tourists and to be among local people going about their daily lives. Halfway a Flemish couple from Kortrijk was squeezed into the bus though and I got some useful info about places I was yet to visit from them. I'd meet other Belgians almost every day during this trip.

Ollantaytambo (2760m)

As I told earlier, the Inca ruler Manco Inca revolted against the Spanish in 1536 and captured the fortress Sacsayhuaman near Cuzco, but was soon defeated there. He retreated to the fortress of Ollantaytambo, and here the Inca's won their only major victory in a battle against the Spanish. Unfortunately the Spanish soon returned with a greater force and Manco Inca had to retreat into the jungle further east, never to return.

I arrived in Ollantaytambo at 14:00, leaving me a good two hours to visit the fortress, so I dropped my luggage in the first restaurant I saw and got going right away.
Statue of Manco Inca in the village.
While walking to the fortress through the village I got this nice view.

I had only came to Ollantaytambo to get the cheaper train to Macchu Picchu and wasn't expecting much, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The fortress, which is built against a mountain and features the typical Inca terraces, was much more impressive than I expected.
One wing of the fortress is built on top of this rocky outcrop of the mountain.
At the top of the terracing was a temple area. Notice the fortress wall continuing further up the mountain.
Walking along the top terrace.
More terraces. On the left is the village.

I was soon done visiting the main part of the fortress, so I wandered off on the mountain. Just as I was about to turn back I spotted a French couple coming down, and they told me there were some more ruins higher up. So I went further up, found them (nothing fancy), and decided to keep climbing. It became one of those unplanned climbs that I like so much, and after a while I reached the top, which had a cross on it and a nice view.
The obligatory picture of me stretching my arms on a mountain top. Since there was a cross I hung my head a little and played Jesus.
This cactus was also stretching its arms.
View on the mountain across. Notice the Inca buildings on it.
View down on the sunlit village.
On the way down I went the wrong direction and found myself almost straight above the fortress.

So the fortress was nice and I got to climb a little top as a bonus. After a very stressful morning this had become a great day and I felt very happy when I finally got on my train to Macchu Picchu. The train was 3/4 empty, and only then did I fully realise that I'd been scammed by the hostel and the agency, but I was in too good a mood by now to really care.
Choo choo!



July 29th (day 4): Macchu Picchu (2350m)

Macchu Picchu is an Inca complex on top of a mountain ridge at 2350m altitude. It was built in the 15th century but abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquest. There are various theories about what its function was: ceremonial center, military garrison or royal domain.

The Spanish never knew about Macchu Picchu's existence because the site was forgotten by all but a few local peasants until it was finally rediscovered by an American archaeologist in 1911. At first he thought he'd found the lost city of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Incas to which Manco Inca retreated after his defeat at Ollantaytambo (cfr. earlier), but Vilcabamba was later discovered much deeper into the jungle.

Nowadays Macchu Picchu is the most famous archaelogical site in South America and features on any modern wonders-of-the-world list. The ruins themselves aren't that special, but their location on top of steep mountain walls is, and the scenery is just spectacular.

It would take a few hours before I got to see it though. When I woke up in Aguas Calientes my heart sunk as it was raining and completely foggy. I had little choice but to take the bus to Macchu Picchu anyway. This is about half an hour's drive from the village up a series of hairpin curves.

Once in Macchu Picchu I rushed by the whole site in 5 minutes to get to the start of the path to the top of Huayna Picchu, the steep mountain that towers over the ruins. Only 400 people are allowed to make the climb each day and I didn't want to risk not being one of them. I was number 143.
Huayna Picchu.

The picture above shows Huayna Picchu, but I couldn't actually see it before and during the climb because it was entirely hidden by the clouds. Notice how there are extensive constructions near the mountain top, an impressive achievement to build there.

The climb took an hour and was spectacular because the path is incredibly steep (it goes up on the left wall of the mountain as seen above) and the rock-cut stairs were very slippery from the rain. I couldn't see a thing because I was literally climbing through a cloud. It all oozed that moist jungle feeling.
Climbing inside a cloud to the top of Huayna Picchu. Below me you see the stairs I just climbed up.
Some woman climing down the terraces near the top of Huayna Picchu.

Just before the top the path went through a tiny tunnel that I literally had to squeeze myself through on hands and knees, pulling my backpack behind me.
The last obstacle before the top.

As expected, there was absolutely nothing to see on the top except whiteness all around us. I had come here for the view down on Macchu Picchu so I started waiting, along with many other people. After some time as other people gave up I conquered the spot on the very top of the top and kept waiting.
View down from the top of Huayna Picchu...
Waiting for the sun. I am literally sitting on the top of the mountain here.

After an hour the first holes appeared in the clouds below us and we could see bits of Macchu Picchu occasionally. It was like the damn site was doing a slow strip-tease for us - a spectacular sight but not what I had come for. A bit later the clouds already swallowed the whole sight again. It started raining and most people left, but I kept waiting, cursing my bad luck.
Other people waiting below me as the clouds start to break.
One of my first teasing glimpses of Macchu Picchu.

So I endured the rain, listened to my mp3 player, talked with the people around me, and after THREE hours was fully rewarded: the clouds all disappeared, the sun broke through and I finally got the view I came for. It was well worth the wait :)
On the right Macchu Picchu, on the left the hairpin-road from Aguas Calientes.
Yours truly posing with Macchu Picchu.
This picture includes the mountain tops.
This one includes the Urubamba river flowing 600m below Macchu Picchu.
Zooming in on Macchu Picchu.

But there was plenty to see besides Macchu Picchu itself. On the left side (from my viewpoint) a series of steep overgrown rocks form a unique landscape, and the terraces and fortifications on Huayna Picchu itself are impressive as well. Those crazy Incas sure loved building in difficult places.
This is such a beauty. The whole landscape looked like a sea of green rocks
Fortifications near the top of Huayna Picchu.

Throughout my travels I've often made pictures where I look down from a steep slope and include my own shoes for added effect. I can stop doing that now because it'll never get steeper than this...
Looking straight down from Huayna Picchu.

It's only on the way down that I realised how spectacular the path up Huayna Picchu really is. I couldn't see the mountain before I went up and only saw whiteness all around me during the climb, but now I saw that you actually have a great view on Macchu Picchu all the way up, and that it looks like an impossibly steep climb from below. I'm just glad I waited long enough to enjoy it all on the way down.
Huayna Picchu towering over the central ruins.

By the time I was down again the sun was gone so I didn't get really good pics among the ruins. After all the waiting on Huayna Picchu I only had three hours left to visit Macchu Picchu itself but that was just enough. The ruins are interesting but not that special, it's the setting that makes Macchu Picchu so fantastic.
Some ruins and the fantastic landscape of green rocks behind.
Same, with a rare ray of sunlight.
A fellow visitor.

The view from the terraces on the far side of the ruins, near the so-called "Hut of the Caretaker", is the best. Here you see all of Macchu Picchu at your feet with Huayna Picchu towering over it. This is truly one of the most spectacular sights in the world. It's a pity I didn't get to take sunny pictures here, but the moist, foggy atmosphere of the following pictures is perhaps more characteristic of the place anyway.
Me and Macchu Picchu. I had to make the guy who made this redo it five times before he got it right, but I`m glad with the result.
This llama just happened to be standing on the right spot for a while, and I was one of the few people who got this picture before it wandered off again.
This shows just how steep a rock Macchu Picchu was built on.
A pretty complete view.
Great view on the terraces.

As I was up on those terraces the sky got all grey and it started raining hard. At first I took shelter in the caretaker hut, but it didn't stop and I wanted to use every minute of my time here well, so I decided to just ignore the rain. I got completely soaked through, not having any kind of coat, but the advantage was that I had Macchu Picchu pretty much to myself now as most people left the site. The last two pics above show a deserted Macchu Picchu.

I used the last hour before closing time to walk along the cliff-hugging path to the Inca Bridge and back. This bridge was built by the Incas against a huge vertical wall. It's not spectacular by itself but the paths that it connects certainly are.
The walk to the Inca Bridge.
The Inca Bridge itself. The rock wall on the right gives you an idea of the difficulty of building a path here.

Back among the ruins I made some more rainy pictures before heading to the exit to take the last bus back to the village.
Waiting for the last bus. Apparently I was the only person who came to Macchu Picchu without a coat.
Back in the hotel I dried my shirt on top of the oven in which they were baking my pizza.

After dinner I took my train back to Ollantaytambo. Since I'd loved the ride through the countryside, while Cuzco had been a disappointing tourist trap, I decided to steer clear from cities from now on. Instead of going back to Cuzco, I stayed the night in Ollantaytambo so I could make another ride through the region next day during sunlight.


July 30th (day 5): Pisac

El Valle Sagrado (the Sacred Valley)

The valley of the Urubamba river runs north of Cuzco from Ollantaytambo to Pisac and is popularly called the sacred valley. It was part of the Inca heartland and is still the best place to see indigenous life.

I woke up in Ollantaytambo and took a bus to Pisac, so I drove all through the beautiful valley. Here are some pics taken from the bus.
Here you see a hairpin road out of the valley.

Pisac village (2950m)

I'd aimed to come here on a Sunday so I could see the famous weekly market on the village square. While it has partly turned into a tourist market, it also still functions as a normal market where locals trade their with each other.
These locals were dressed up in traditional clothes for the tourists
The tourist market

The above shows the touristy bit, here is the real market. I made all these pictures discreetly and from a distance btw.
As you see it`s mostly a food market
Left of center you see a women carrying a baby on her back in a colourful blanket knotted around her neck; this is the indigenous version of a backpack and you see it everywhere.
I just love those round hats; they`re worn by indigenous women in many parts of Peru and Bolivia. The colour of a woman`s hat says something about her marital status but I don`t know the details.

The locals weren't the only people with cool hats btw...

Pisac fortress

When I'd checked out the market I took a taxi to the Inca fortress of Pisac, 600m above the village. This fortress guarded the Urubamba valley below, as well as a pass into the jungle to the northeast. It also featured a ceremonial center with several temples.

I was dropped off at the foot of the citadel, where I got this fantastic panorama.
The village lies in the valley behind the mountain on the right

Pisac is famous for its agricultural terraces, which sweep around the mountains in graceful curves. I climbed up to the level of the fortress and then walked towards it.
On the right the terraces leading towards the fortress
I stitched together two pictures to show the whole rock on which the fortress (on the right) is built
The ruins of the fortress. In the bottom center you see a local walking around, he was playing flute and I got my 10 minutes of zen listening to him while admiring the landscape.

Rather than walking along the paths around the rock I walked over its back, staying on the highest point. It was a fantastic walk because the landscape was stunning and finding my way was fun. Several times I thought I'd have to turn back but I always found some vague semblance of a path to continue.
The path over the back of the rock included a narrow tunnel and squeezing myself between these two rocks
Once over the top of the rock, which features nicely on this pic, I reached the ceremonial center with its temple ruins.
I`d made this picture of the Urubamba village from the top of the rock. On the left is the village of Pisac.

From here I started the long descent towards the village.
A last look back on the rock
The descent began with this stairway going down from a watchtower
On the top right is that same stairway, now very high above

Along the way I passed some more beautiful terracing.

I arrived back in the village in the late afternoon. This had been a great day, I enjoyed it at least as much as the day before in Macchu Picchu.
The village from above; in the middle is the village square with the central part of the market, which stretched out into a long side street.
At the end of the descent and the edge of the village were these two women selling fresh orange juice. They had most effective machines to peel oranges, never seen that before.

I spent another hour on the market buying my first batch of souvenirs, shyly at first but soon getting into the haggling mood. Then when it got dark I wanted to take a bus back to Cuzco, which was quite an adventure. A policeman tried to line people up for the next bus, but when it arrived the local women just stormed it and squeezed their way into it. I got talking to an Australian who tried to arrange a place on top of the roof for us but in the end they didn't let us, probably for the best with those bumpy roads.

In the end he and a Dutchman fought their way onto a bus, but I didn't feel like that so I rounded up some other backpackers to share a taxi. I ended up with an Italian couple who didn't speak English, but while driving to Cuzco we talked in Spanish which I thought quite amusing (since I was just starting to learn it).

The next day I visited the fortress Sacsayhuaman near Cuzco but I already talked about that in part 1.

<< Part 1: Lima and Cuzco    -   Back to Index   -    Part 3: Lake Titicaca >>




Cy Mon 12 Feb 2007 @ 15:58
I enjoyed your photos, especially of Arbor de Piedra! How fragile it looks. Thanks for your tips on traveling to Machu Pichu on LonelyPlanet.com.

Daria Thu 07 Dec 2006 @ 00:20
Ammmazing photos and exciting views!!! :)
I can't find the right words!

I bet in real life these views were much more breathtaking :) At some point I envy you - you had a chance to see all this beauty by your own eyes!
But the same time thank you very much for sharing this beauty with us :) This way it is also very nice ;)

Looking forward to seeing new pics and reading new reports ;)

Godsmurf Thu 30 Nov 2006 @ 00:11
It'll be 90% nature pics in the rest of the report. You ain't seen nothing yet :)

Well apart from some really wild desert llamas I saw penguins, condors, flamingos, pelicans, other birds, and sealions!

Fia Wed 29 Nov 2006 @ 15:07
Excellent pictures! Very beautiful sceneries! As usual I prefer mountain pics before buildings. ;-) I especially like the green colours of the mountains and the blue colours of the lakes that you visited.

By the way, you didn't happen to see any wildlife? Apart from that creepy millipede I mean. (And lamas don't count as wild.) :-)


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