To say my stay in Cusco was uninspired, would be an understatement. The city itself is beautiful with the best central plaza I’ve seen so far in South America. There are also some beautiful museums, ruins, and a decent nightlife. However, I arrived during the busiest time of the year. Add to that the fact that this is one of the most touristy places I’ve been in contrast with the pretty remote areas I’ve visited for weeks now, and well, I was completely unprepared to tackle Cusco and, frankly, couldn’t wait to leave. Had it not been for Machu Picchu, I would’ve left much earlier.
During June, Cusco, the center of the Incan world, celebrates all month long. The celebrations reach their crescendo on the last Sunday of the month at Inti Raymi, or Festival of the Sun. Throughout the week I was here, there were large parades in the plaza and parties at night. The energy was great. And, although I knew nothing about the traditions and costumes, I still enjoyed the parades. But, I’ve never seen parades last so long. And, there were no floats. Each group had a procession of people on foot, singing and dancing. Some of the parades lasted 5-6 hours. I’m convinced that everyone in Cusco has to be in at least procession.
The number of people was overwhelming. It was good to see that the locals came out to participate and that the parties weren’t total Gringofests. But, the festivals also brought out every hawker you can imagine. And, they were aggressive. If I had a dollar for every finger puppet, shoe shine, postcard, painting or massage I was offered, I could afford to travel for the foreseeable future without touching my savings. I’m told that Cusco is unique within Peru in this aspect. And, I hope that’s true. I snapped a few times at the vendors. Most of the time, I just declined with a “No.” or “No gracias.” But, a few times a very rude “Te dije NO” (I told you NO) came out.
My hostel experience was just OK too. I wound up with basically a homestay. For $10 a night, I got a private room, shard bathroom and breakfast which was always fresh rolls, jam, butter and cheese (typical of Peru). The family though was great. And, I am forever grateful to the owner, Carola, for escorting me to the doctor to take care of my toe.
I made it to a few museums. My favorite was Qorikancha which only cost 6 soles, less than $2USD. But, I also visited Museo del Sitio Qoricancha, Museo de Arte Religioso, Museo de Arte Precolombino, Museo Inka and Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporaneo.
On Sunday, June 24th, the city held Inti Raymi. This was touted to be THE thing to do all week. Its significance is is honor the Incan god, Inti, mark the winter solstice and mark the new year. It was held at one of the ruins sites closest to Cusco, Sacsayhuamán. There were two levels of seats. $80USD got you right up front. Free got you a dusty place on the hills far away facing the ceremony. We went up to the hills. I really wish we had paid the 80 bucks. Bill Gates, Cameron Diaz, Adrian Brody and Pamela Anderson were reportedly paid the $80. At about 11AM, we walked 2 kilometers and ascended from the 3500 meters/11.500 level of Cusco. I’m not sure how much higher we went, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we ascended another 100-150 meters/350-500 ft or more. So, by the time we reached the ruins, we were ready to sit.
The ceremony started a little after 1PM and with everyone struggling to see, the plebeian section became a bit of a madhouse with people in the front standing blocking the views of those in the back. Screams of “Sientense! (Sit down!) went unheeded. Then a mini food fight started with those in the back throwing food and water at those in the front. But, those folks fought back and threw stuff back. The crowd quieted down finally. It made for good entertainment to watch, but the bottom line was that we couldn’t see the main event. We finally crossed over to another hill and got a better view, but were too far away to see the details or follow the plot. I didn’t love Inti Raymi. The ceremony itself is impressive. But, to truly appreciate it, you gotta pay to get the good seat.
The highlight of Cusco really was in reconnecting with a couple of travel buddies I’ve met along the way. Matt from England is in Cusco studying to get his teaching certificate in TOEFL. He too left his job to travel so we’ve really hit it off. I also met up with Freya, an Ozzie I met in the Galapagos. She was passing through for a few days on her way to Machu Picchu.
By Sunday night, I had reached my limit and was totally frustrated, totally disappointed and totally uninspired with Cusco and Peru. I decided that I was going to leave for Lima and come back in the low season to see Machu Picchu. I decided that Monday morning, I would go to the Star Peru airline office to change my ticket to leave on Tuesday. Luckily, I woke up Monday morning refreshed, relaxed and determined to move forward with the original plan of going to Machu Picchu on Tuesday. Mentally I was finally able to put my Cusco experience behind me.
On Tuesday, I boarded the train for Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu. There’s not much there except markets, restaurants and hostels. But, at least the vendors stayed confined to the markets and you can go to them IF you want to. I bought my entry ticket into Machu Picchu (120 soles or just under $40USD. I also bought my bus tickets for the next morning to get me up to the top ($24USD round trip).
Wednesday morning I woke up early and was on the bus at 5:30AM, on the 5th bus to go up that day. After waiting briefly in line, we gained entry into the park. The weather was a little cool and thick with fog – just like I’d imagine it to be. I made it over to the ruins to wait for the fog to lift to reveal them. The weather teased us for a couple of hours before the sun finally burned it away. I headed over to the mountain, WaynaPicchu. This is the tall, steep mountain behind the ruins that you see in many of the photos of the ruins. Only 400 are allowed a day to climb it and I was determined not to miss it. I was number 79 and entered at about 7:30AM.
At first, the hike was fairly easy, not too terrible except for the altitude. But, at the end, the path steepened significantly and I really had to be careful I didn’t fall. I got on top about 8:30 and got a front row seat to watch the last bit of the fog burn off the ruins. It was easily one of the most spectacular sites I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe that I almost missed out on this.
There is a reason why Machu Picchu is revered the world over. In pictures and from on top of mountains, the ruins don’t look that big. But, I walked around and realized that it’s all built on the side of a steep mountain, I was shocked and awed.
After about an hour on top, I started my way back down. By the time I got back down, I was wiped. I really wanted to get to a spot to sit and admire the ruins. I got turned around at one part and ran into a dead-end. My exhaustion got the better of me and I let out an, “Oh fuck!” I turned around to go back the way I came, and when I did, I noticed a couple in the corner enjoying their lunch. I apologized and let out laugh at the same time they did. I finally got a couple more shots of the ruins and then at about 11AM, I made my way to the bus for the ride back down.
I was soaked in sweat so I went to my hostel to see if I could pay for a quick shower. With the hostel sold out, all they had available was the shower the workers used and for 5 soles (about $1.50USD), it was all mine. It was basic but the water was hot. Although I put on the same clothes I wore on the mountain, I still felt 100% better. After a 4.5 hour train ride back to Cusco, I headed back to my hostel to get some much needed sleep.
Without Machu Picchu, I think my time here would’ve been a waste. If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve gotten out of Cusco much sooner, missed Inti Raymi and headed to other parts of Peru that others I know really enjoyed. Machu Picchu was worth the trip. I wish I had more time to explore around the ruins. One more day would’ve been perfect. It certainly would’ve been more fulfilling that Cusco. But c’est la vie, right? I’m now off to Lima.
Originally Published, June 28, 2007