Many who travel to Machu Picchu are doing so as a bucket list item. They rush to Machu Picchu and see little else along the way after landing in Cusco, Peru. We were simply visiting to help fill the three-week void we had between one cruise terminating near Valparaiso, Chile and the next cruise departing from Lima, Peru. It was the less desirable rainy season. Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Louvre Museum, if you are in the area of world-renowned sites, they are must-see attractions. Machu Picchu is one of them.
Air Flights, Decisions Decisions…
Before you can visit the popular Machu Picchu site, you have lots of decisions to make. Getting to Lima is generally not much of a problem other than length of the flights, delayed flights and connections. Lima is probably the most common interim stop along the route. Total elapsed time is often 14 hours from the USA. We arrived in South America by cruise ship from Miami, but it is unusual to have that much time available. After departing Lima, at sea level, the next most logical stop is Cusco at 11,200 feet elevation. Unlike in the USA where there is a lot of empty security space around the airport, in Cusco homes are built right up to the airport runways. People could simply jump from their balconies and land on the airport runway if they so desired.
It is a pet peeve of mine when researching air fares on the Internet to see nothing but advertisements for the ‘cheapest flights’ and ‘bargain fares’ when checking out flight options. Is this really where we want to save our money? Especially when flying over the Andes Mountains? Ever read the book “Alive” about the rugby team that crashed and their true-life horror stories? I would rather pay a good price for a well maintained airplane and highly trained an experienced flight crew. So do you opt for the $80 flight or the $594 flight? These were the two options available. As Clint Eastwood asked “Are you feeling lucky, Punk?”
Cheap option, or…
We met a retired couple from the USA in the Cusco airport who were cutting their planned numerous weeks vacation in Peru short due to their many flight headaches. I had never seen a man so seriously mentally distraught and so on edge in my life. He was yelling at the misbehaving Spanish speaking kids around him to be quiet. The wife was trying to hold it together and attempting to get them out of the airport. This was their second full day trying to get out of Cusco, navigating cancelled and delayed flights of the cheaper airlines. Our flight left on time and landed safely.
A common route from Cusco to Machu Picchu is the train to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu where you board a bus to the site. One option is the sumptuously decorated, spacious Belmond Hiram Bingham train with tuxedo clad waiters serving you champagne on crisp white table linens, live music and a glass vista dome for viewing the magnificent scenery. This will cost you about $500 a person. On the other hand, along these very same train tracks you can take Inca Rail for about 1/10 the price. We chose Inca Rail until we found no trains were available since we were visiting during the rainy season. The section of tracks from Cusco was closed for maintenance. We then opted for a taxi ride from Cusco airport to Ollantaytambo where we could catch the train to Aguas Calientes. This taxi ride cost $75 with a non-English speaking driver and included a five hour tour of the surrounding area.
Taxi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo
We were immediately treated to many sights hidden from the Hiram Bingham crowd. The outskirts of Cusco were filled with great photo opportunities of the local culture I would like to have captured with my camera. However, it just did not seem appropriate to stop the cab and take photos of the local poverty and unusual sights. The fact that our driver spoke no English added to the challenge, which may have been a good thing.
So, armed with an iPhone in a speeding cab I snapped a few photos passing through the towns. In the most rustic, dirt track town we visited, our taxi driver told us he had selected our lunch spot. Our taxi driver had called ahead and this empty restaurant was surprisingly expecting us.
My desire to experience the local cuisine led me to order the alpaca dish. However, the waiter seemed to really want me to have the chicken curry. Maybe the Alpaca had not yet made an appearance, so chicken curry it was. The food was as elegant and good as one could expect in any restaurant in NYC. Just goes to show you cannot judge a book by the cover. If I had been crazy enough to rent a car in Cusco, I certainly would not have been crazy enough to have stopped in Chinchero for lunch.
Salt Fields of Maras
Periodically our taxi would stop and we would pay an entrance fee, not knowing what was ahead or what we had just paid to see. For the photo below, it was raining so hard that I could not stay out in the rain for long, nor really concentrate on the scene through my wet lens. The wind was howling and I was not even sure what the heck I was seeing. Reading later, I learned these are the Salinas de Maras, or salt fields of Maras.
A very small, salty, spring-fed stream runs down a mountain hillside and the water is directed into 3,000+ ponds. The tiny trickle is then cut off, allowing the water to evaporate in the hot Peruvian sun, leaving the salt behind, along with many additional minerals. This is the very same method which was used by the Incas 400 years ago to mine the same salt stream. Recently some famous chef advertised that the salt from these ponds is much of the reason for his success, really placing the salt ponds of Maras on the map. Some of their salt is pink, discolored from the other minerals.
Notice the difference in color of the ponds between the photo above and the photo below. The difference is attributable only to the use of a polarizing filter which reduces glare from the sun.
Moray Agricultural Ruins
I personally find it very difficult and tiring to listen to a tour guide for hours when they are struggling with English in a heavy foreign accent. I’m sorry I have been so lazy as to not learn the language of the many countries we visit. However, the guides generally tell me much too much detail about something of little interest to me. So this taxi tour was ideal for me. Our driver simply pointed us in a general direction and said he would wait in the car with our luggage and all my camera gear. I was always very happy to see him and our luggage waiting for us as we emerged from our self guided tour, to travel to the next site. After the tour, when we had an adequate Internet connection, I could read as much as I wished about the sites we had visited. Non-speaking tour guides may not be the next big tourist craze, but it was a most enjoyable day. At times we would use our phones to translate sentences and short explanations.
These Moray ruins were basically Inca agricultural laboratories. The temperature from the bottom to the top of these multi-layered pits can vary 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Changing the soil, sun orientation and temperature, the Incas were able to experiment with different varieties of crops and see which grew best in which climate. Notice the stone steps jutting from the walls leading to different levels. Of course I was only interested in the geometric designs.
We Finally Arrive in Ollantaytambo
We simply referred to it as O-Town. Not many tourists stay here. Since most tourists are in a rush to get to the all important Machu Picchu, they pass by and stay in the closest town to Machu Picchu which is Aguas Calientes, or worse, make it a day trip from Cusco. I cannot even imagine visiting from Cusco in a day and would not recommend that rushed route to anyone. Were it not for their more famous neighbors, the ruins of Ollantaytambo would be widely visited as well.
I also cannot imagine hiking to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail. During much of the hiking route along the Urubamba River the train is in sight. What would THAT be like, knowing you are hiking in the hot sun, sweating and swatting insects and seeing the luxury of the Belmond Hiram Bingham train and their tuxedo clad waiters on tracks just across the river? By the way, the Urubamba River is the most turbulent I have ever seen. The rapids are violent and never ending, likely making it much too treacherous for even the most adventurous and skilled kayakers.
We arrived in Ollantaytambo toward the end of Three Kings Day. Our Innkeeper apologized for the noise of the remaining few parades, but they were a highlight. These are local celebrations and not something done for tourists. We awoke at daybreak Monday morning to a loud, raucous parade out our window. What better way to start a Monday morning than with tubas leading a parade?
Next we visit Machu Picchu…