After the long adventurous ride from Colca Canyon to my slightly weird hot spring camp spot, it is now time to drive to Cusco before Vincent arrives tomorrow. It’s not very far and I left early so I can take some breaks along the road through the Sacred valley. I’ll be driving this same road back when I head to Bolivia and I’m planning to keep the actual sights for then. But the valley along the river is pretty and the weather is nice. I was expecting the famous Sacred Valley to be busy and touristy but it looks like the same rural Peru as before, beautiful. I’m also clearly heading in to cuy area. Cuy is guinea pig and it is the local food specialty. Along the road there are many ginormous sculptures and murals of guinea pigs. The only campsite in Cusco is on the steep hills right on the other side of the city. I got warned not to drive through Cusco itself because of narrow steep roads, loads of one-ways and tourists. Of course after I miss one badly posted turn on the way in, my GPS only wants to send me through the city. I get stuck in terrible traffic and after a while I finally make it to the old town. Because the Inca mid winter festival is coming up next week loads of roads are blocked and you have to take some others against the one-way direction posted. My GPS doesn’t like that. So after loads of zigzagging I end up at the infamous steep road. It’s cobblestone, really narrow and at least 15% steep. There’s not really another way out so I decide to give it a go. First gear, pedal full down. At about three quarters of the road I stall. The road behind me is filled with black smoke. Nope, can’t do it. So I back down very slowly. By the time I get to the intersection there is a line of four cars blocking it, refusing to move for me. Well, I guess I can give it one more go. More smoke, more speed but I still stall, two meters before the turn. I back down again and after loads of yelling, blinking lights and waving the cars move away enough to let me out. The streets are so narrow and busy that it takes me a while to find a place to stop the car so I can look on the map and find a way back to the detour. The detour is still steep, but wider and better paved. The campsite is big and there are more than 10 cars, including a few people I know. Vincent will land tomorrow morning at 5. I told him I would pick him up at the airport, but after my driving fun of today I ask him if he would mind taking a taxi. No problem.
Even though he only landed at 5, Vincent already knocks on my van before 6. Half sleeping, it is time for welcome hugs. Vincent is the first person I see who I knew before the trip since Maarten’s visit in Costa Rica almost six months ago. So weird that I had not seen anyone I knew for such a long time. Vincent had to be in Oaxaca, Mexico for a conference and his flights to Cusco had stopovers in Mexico City and Lima, all together it took him more than 30 hours to get here. So not very surprisingly he could really use a nap. After that we head into Cusco. As the Inca capital, Cusco was the biggest and most important city of the area in those times. Many colonial buildings are built on the remains of Inca constructions. There are Inca walls everywhere and loads of indigenous people. It is also one of the more touristy cities I have seen in a while with everything written in English and loads of souvenir vendors. The city is even busier than normal because of the Inca mid-winter festival. There is a parade going on with interesting groups of people: military guys with grenade launchers and cool bushy camouflage outfits, the market ladies (section fruits only) and the local judo school kids. For our Peruvian experience and because of the altitude we get some coca tea before heading back to camp.
Vincent is only here for six days so our schedule with fun trips is pretty full. The first day we drive from Cusco into the nearby Sacred Valley. This is a valley filled with Inca ruins and other interesting spots to visit. Our first Inca ruin is Tambomachay just outside of Cusco. It’s not very big but it has some cool canals and waterfalls running over the buildings. After this we stop at an animal sanctuary where animals that are impounded by the police are taken care off. We are shown vicunas, monkeys, toucans, spectacled bears, llamas (including a rasta llama), a turtle, two pumas (they were taken from a night club in Lima) and some condors. Our guide made the condors fly over our heads, Vincent had to duck to not get hit by one of these huge birds. At the door they also had some Peruvian naked dogs. They already look weird normally, but the Disney/camouflage sweaters they made them wear made it even weirder. We camped on the steep hills just outside of Pisac at a very very tiny eco lodge. In this case this basically meant barely any facilities except for a hole in the ground toilet with some sawdust. However, the views over the valley were great and the dogs pretty hilarious (we named one of them Senor Humpsalot for obvious reasons).
The next morning we drive a bit further up the hill to go to the Pisac ruins. It is a fortress on the top of a hill build by the Incas, surrounded by terraces. More great views and some fun building climbing. For lunch we stop at the Inca ruins in Ollantaytambo. Another fortress, this time build against the cliffs. The only time the Incas beat the Spanish in a battle was at this fortress. They won by flooding the battlefield with their irrigation systems. A classy Swiss move. Sadly we don’t have more time to explore this place because we still plan to drive to the back entrance of Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is not reachable by car. You can take the train but that costs at least 150 dollars per person (not including the minimum 50 dollar entry to the ruins and the 20 dollars for a bus to get you from the train station up to the mountain). So we decided to drive 4 hours to get to the back entrance of Machu Picchu, walk 2 hours on the train tracks and 1 hour up the steep hill where the buses go. Less costs and more adventure. At 2400m Machu Picchu is pretty high in the mountains for normal standards, but after Cusco (3400m) and Pisac (3000m), you’ll actually have to go quite a bit down. The road goes from Ollantaytambo at 2800m over a pass of 4300m down to 1800m at our campsite. The road over the pass is pretty good, but the last 30km is narrow dusty dirt road. It leads through a really pretty canyon but with our stops on the way it’s now getting late and we only arrive at the campsite after dark.
Today will be a long day visiting one of the most famous sites of the whole trip. Everybody knows the picture of Machu Picchu’s citadel on the steep cliffs with the pointy mountain in the back. It’s so busy that they had to limit the amount of tickets for sale per day to 2500. (Two weeks later, from the first of July the rules are further changed so that you can only buy tickets for half a day, with both 2500 tickets available and you have to take a guide. They still expect to sell out most days). We get up just when it’s getting light at 6 in the morning to start our hike along the train tracks and the river. There are not that many trains and they make loads of noise, so you can easily get off the tracks before they run you over. There’s also plenty of restaurants next to the tracks so there’s clearly more people hiking this road, but today we only see two other people. From the tracks it’s a bunch of steep stairs to get to the ruins 500m higher. The stairs are pretty empty too but we see loads of full buses come by. When we get to the top it is clear that we are at one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world. Herds of loud selfie-stick waving tourists. Luckily the site is much bigger than expected so it’s doesn’t feel ridiculously crowded and the weather is pretty good too. We spend quite some hours enjoying the views and exploring the site, switching to speaking (Swiss) German to make fun of other tourists. At some point Vincent even gets cornered by some llamas. It’s getting pretty gray and we still have a long walk back so we decide to leave. Just when we’re outside of the gate the sun comes back, probably giving amazing pictures but we can’t go back in. So we go down the stairs and back along the tracks. Now it’s clear why we didn’t see anyone hike this morning. Because there are no hostels where we are camped, most backpackers stay in Aguas Calientes overnight and hike the tracks in the evening. We see hundreds of people, including the American girls I met in Huaraz. Actually, we saw the Polish couple from Colca Canyon yesterday on the drive up, the Colombian couple from Huaraz while we hiked up and the Germans from Arequipa when we were at the ruins. After 12 hours, 30 km and s0me 1200 height meters we are back at the van and very tired.
The road back is the same as we came yesterday, except for that the pass now starts at 1200m. So that’s a single slope of more than 3000m, I’ve never done that much in one go and expect problems, but the van makes it up fine. At a police checkpoint we have to open up everything when they want to search us for cocaine. I’m glad we’re two people now so we can keep an eye on everyone, making sure the police doesn’t plant anything on us and the locals hanging around don’t steal our stuff. But everything is fine and we are back on the road. With all the chatting going on, we drive quite a bit slower than normal so when we get to the Salinas de Moras it’s already getting a bit later, but the evening sun casts beautiful light on the salt pans. This salt harvesting system has been in use since Inca times. Extremely salty spring water is led over a system of shallow terraces where the water is evaporated by the sun so that the salt can be harvested. We had planned to visit another Inca site here but it is too late and the bush camping spot isn’t too nice so we head on to Cusco. The festival and busy traffic means it’s already getting dark when we get back, but we managed to stay away from the steep roads. We do not manage to stay away from the narrow roads and Vincent has to get out to guide me between to awkwardly place concrete blocks where I only have a few centimeters of space on either side of the van while everyone behind me makes sure their horns are still fully functioning.
It’s already the last day of Vincent’s visit. We start the morning with some more Inca ruins. Between the campsite and the city are the ruins of Sacsayhuaman (AKA Sexy Woman) and Tipon. Sacsayhuaman has enormous walls of huge stones that fit perfectly together. From between all the old rocks you have a great view over the city. After all the ruins Tipon was not very impressive. Rather small and average stone work, but it did have a nice tunnel to go through. After Tipon we walked down to town for a Peruvian lunch: Alpaca burger. Pretty tasty, kind of like deer. We visit the food marked and two museums that were included in our Cusco ticket. The art in the museums isn’t that good but making up captions for religiouspaintings is always fun. We have dinner at the fancy beer bar where we get Peruvian beers and cuy (guinea pig). Guinea pig seems to be a bit of a combination between rabbit and pig, but taking the worst of both. It’s loads of bones and little meat like a rabbit and has large amounts of belly fat like a pig. Not the greatest success. After dinner we walk up through the dark enjoying the views over Cusco. We say goodbye and Vincent takes a taxi to the airport. That was probably my last visitor of the trip. Unless you want to come join me!