Of course our primary reason for visiting Peru was to see Machu Picchu but we were pleasantly surprised by the other things Peru had to offer. We started our journey in Lima but only stayed one night on our way to Cusco. I had no expectation for Cusco but found an old, interesting city with some great restaurants, loads of shopping and the “hub” for most other destinations in the area.
Cusco is at 3400m which is especially noticable after flying in from sea level. But we took it easy the first day, drank lots of coca tea, and felt pretty good the next day. Our objective for Cusco was to plan and book Machu Picchu which may sound straightforward, but if you’re not on a tour, is anything but. Everything is booked separately – from Cusco you must take a 20 min. taxi to the train depot, a 3 hr train into Aguas Callientes, then a 20 min. bus up to the ruins – and separately, you also need to purchase the national park ticket and all these things book up so we were lucky to get it coordinated for a next day departure (although we only got our second choice Macchu Picchu ticket). It’s pretty easy to just go to the ruins but we wanted to climb one of two mountains above the ruins: Huayna Picchu (1st choice) or Machu Picchu Mountain. A combined ticket for ruins + Machu Picchu Mountain was 148 soles in Peru (about $50).
I had heard some negative things about the town of Aguas Callientes and we thought about spending only one night there but we opted to chance it and stay for 2 nights and I’m glad we did. The town was enjoyable and except for the tourist food (bad and expensive), I enjoyed it.
We got up at 4am the next morning, queued up for the first set of buses which departed at 5:30am, arrived at the ruins before the doors opened at 6am. Getting up there early is definitely worth it. We took some great photos then headed to the mountain to start the climb before it got too hot. The mountain opened at 7am (although the door remained locked well beyond, so a bunch of us snuck around the gate to start the climb). We got to the top around 8:30am after a moderate climb. It was cloudy so we had to hang out at the top for awhile until the clouds finally cleared up around 9:30-10am. The view was stunning and gave context to the challenging location of the ruins.
Us with Machu Picchu in background after first entering the ruins around 6:05am:
Arriving at the top of Machu Picchu mountain after a 90 minute hike:
View from top of Machu Picchu mountain overlooking ruins – this is where John re-proposed:)
After the mountain hike in the morning, we headed back down (China ring on finger) for lunch on the lawn overlooking the site, fighting off several banana-loving alpacas, then explored the ruins. It’s pretty open, with only the Intihuatana stone and center lawn roped off. We did our usual trick of downloading a guide on our iphones so we gave ourselves the tour as we walked around.
Back in Aguas Calientes, we celebrated with a great dinner of alpaca steak then turned in early as John was feeling a chest cold settling in. We took the train toward Cusco but instead of going all the way, we stopped at Ollantaytambo to see some more amazing ruins. It’s a small town with a lot of character and a dearth of tourists (our favorite combination) so we walked around, enjoyed a coffee and lunch before heading out.
We took a collectivo from here back to Cusco (about 90 minutes) for 10 soles ($3) each! We decided to treat ourselves and stay at a nice hotel for a couple nights near San Blas Cusco – easy walking distance from everything. Finally had some chicha morado with some very delicious alpaca burgers. Next day we planned our trip to Lake Titicaca staying in Puno.
Our choices for getting to Puno were – fly (too expensive), tourist bus (8-10 hrs) or public bus (6-8 hrs). We opted for tourist bus one way as it stopped throughout the journey at a few interesting places along the way. Then a one-way flight back to Lima. The drive was a great way to see the country side and parts of the country we otherwise would miss.
View from the highest altitude of our drive: 4500m
We arrived in Puno and explored the town, it’s pretty cute and about the same “feel” as Cusco although it’s a bit smaller. It’s hilly and centered around the lake bay. There are cute restaurants, vendors on the street and it’s bustling with more locals than tourists. We arrange a half day tour on the lake for the next day to visit Uros – a group of floating reed island villages.
The pre-Incan Uru people have lived in isolation on these reed islands for centuries to escape fighting on the main land. They evolved from boats to islands which house up to 8 families. There are 44 islands which were designed to be mobile – and all house high watch tours used for communication amongst islands and for defense. They need constant maintenance and when walking on it, you sink a little- more in some parts!
Since the 1960′s the Uru people are dependent on tourism, after a presentation on how the islands are built and maintained, the women showed us their homes and their crafts. We bought this textile as a souvenir:
Back in Puno town, we enjoyed a great dinner across from this square featuring two traditional Peruvian dishes- Papa Rellena- stuffed peppers with beef, olives, spices and Aji de Gallina – a chicken yellow curry with rice.
The next day we flew from Juliaca (near Puno) to Lima to start our 3 days of flying to get to Galapagos!