Cusco and Machu Picchu

Whilst in Cusco we stayed at a campsite just above the city. This is a regular overlanders meeting point and is a pleasant place to stay. When we arrived there were already 10 other overland vehicles staying some of whom we had met before. I think this is the busiest site we have stayed at so far onthe trip, fortunately there was still enough space for us to park up.

After meeting up with Margaret, Gilly’s mum we had two and a half days to explore Cusco. Cusco is the former Inca capital. Following its capture by the Spanish it was largely destroyed and an ornate colonial city was built in its place. Often the new colonial buildings were built on top of Inca ones so some of the original Inca stonework is still in place. Whilst it is undoubtedly a tourist city it is still very beautiful and a lovely place just to stroll around.

We started in the Plaza de Armas which is surrounded on one side by the cathedral and on the other by another church. After ambling around the quaint streets we went out for a lovely dinner, introducing Margaret to the delights of grilled Alpaca.

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Over the course of the next few days we visited a number of the important sights. First up was Qorikancha, where Inca ruins form the base of a Dominican convent.

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We also visited Sacsaywaman, the Inca fortress that sits above the city and handily very near to our campsite. Cusco was designed in the shape of a Puma by the Incas and Sacsaywaman was its head. It had a series of zigzagged walls which represented the teeth of the puma. Alisha wanted to dress up as an Incan princess while we wandered around and as she had just finished making herself a dress felt this was the place to show it off.

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Also while we were in Cusco it was the World Cup semi finals. As we were in a town it meant I could finally get to watch some of the football. For the first game I went to an English pub, the Cross Keys and watched Germany annihilate Brazil while enjoying a couple of pints of Old Speckled Hen (English Bitter). The next day was slightly more upmarket as I headed to the Pisco Museum for Pisco Cocktails to watch the dreary Argentina v Holland game with a bunch of overlanders from the campsite. As many of these were German though they were still quite excited from the previous day.

Whilst I was watching the football the girls first went to see some local dancing at the cultural centre.

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Then on the second day Granny treated the kids to another chocolate making course which as you can imagine went down very well with Alisha and Lucy.

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We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Cusco as it was a lovely city to wander around and despite all the tourists wished we could have stayed longer. It was also nice to escape to the peace of the campsite each evening and catch up with some fellow overlanders.

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We left Cusco to head out into the Sacred Valley to see some more of the Incan ruins. The first stop was Salinas. Salinas is set in spectacular countryside of flowing barley and wheat fields with snow capped mountains as a backdrop. The site itself is hundreds of salt pans that date from Incan times but are still been used today to extract salt. They made for a fantastic sight.

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From Salinas we went to Moray. This site is a series of amphitheater terracing that was used for farming. Supposedly each layer had its own different micro climate and some people theorise it was used by the Incas to experiment with crop growing.

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Rather than return through the town of Maras, which had very narrow streets, we decided to take the shorter route to Ollantaytambo. This proved to be a pretty adventurous route as there was a steep dirt road down the mountainside. Once we got down to the river there was no bridge to cross to get onto the main road. However there was a track down the side of the railway which people drove on so we followed that until we came to a bridge.

Ollantaytambo is a beautiful village with an impressive terraced Inca ruin overlooking the village. Unfortunately the village was not designed for driving and the narrow streets combined with all the tourist buses meant it was grid lock in parts. After squeezing through the town to our hoped for camp spot we found out the hotel no longer accepted campers. As we did not want to drive around the town we parked the truck at the station car park and Gilly and I set off on foot to try to find somewhere to stay. Eventually we found a parking lot where some of the buses parked and they were happy for us to park there for a few days. There was also a convenient hotel for Margaret nearby.

The next day we set out to explore the steep Inca terraces that tower over Ollantaytambo. It was a beautiful day and lovely wandering around the site.

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One of the reasons we had come to Ollantaytambo was that it was from there that we were catching the train to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu has been declared one of the seven modern wonders of the world and as a result everyone wants to go and see it. Because of this and its location it’s expensive to get to and also quite difficult especially if organising independently. Whilst there are a number of ways to do this it usually involves catching a train to Aguas Calientes, spending the night there, catching a bus up the mountain and then visiting the sight. As our time was short we decided to go this way even though it is the most expensive. There is a cheaper way where you can drive most of the way and then walk in but we did not really have the time.

Gilly and I had walked the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu 15 years ago. So we remembered Aguas Calientes as a ramshackle tourist trap at the end of the train line. It’s still a tourist trap but it seems to have grown in size and gone up market in the intervening years since we last visited. Fortunately we did not need to stay long.

We were up at 5am the next morning, on the bus by 6am and on the terracing overlooking Machu Picchu as the sun came over the top of the mountains to light the whole site up. And it is an impressive sight. The ruins themselves are spectacular in their own right but the setting is what makes it magnificent. The ruins are set on a hill with steep sides flowing down to the river way below. Behind the ruins stands the impressive peak of Wayna Picchu.

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The city was built by the Incas as a ceremonial centre and was never discovered by the Spanish. It is also likely it was abandoned before it was fully finished.

We spent several hours exploring the site, seeing the famous temples such as the Temple of the Sun and the Condor Temple.

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After about 3 hours Margaret kindly took Alisha and Lucy for a drink while Gilly and I hiked further up the mountain to the Inca drawbridge. This was further away from the site and the hordes of visitors and also allowed us impressive views down the valley.

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Machu Picchu certainly lives up to its billing and it is a truly impressive sight well worth the effort and cost of getting there. It is though very busy and as the day wore on we needed to squeeze past the multitude of tour groups to get around.

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After grabbing lunch in Aguas Calientes we caught the train back to Ollantaytambo for an early night which everyone needed after the day out.

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