The town of Cusco centres around its main square the Plaza de Armas and radiates upwards and outwards on three sides. Deep red terracotta tiled roofs march up the steep hillsides whilst dark skinned small people stroll around bent under their heavy loads. Everybody seems to be carrying something on their backs stuffed into brightly coloured blankets. Babies, shopping and firewood are tied tightly in place and women with oversized bowler hats perched on top of long hair tied back in plaits stand or sit on street corners and stare as life passes by.
We spent a few days getting our bearings and then me, G, and now H and C – our new band of happy travellers set off early one morning for the Sacred Valley. We had hired a private taxi and set off for the Sacred Valley. Once we got him talking, Ronaldo turned out to be a real gem. He took us to Moray first. Moray consists of three massive terraced amphi-theatres set deep into the hillside. The bowls are suspected of being crop laboratories where the Incas would have experimented, growing different crops at differing altitudes in little micro climates. The bowls were very simple structures with nothing fancy to see, but were strangely interesting, carved into the mountain. Our next stop was supposed to be the Salinas – a terrace of salt pans but Ronaldo assured us that they were not very spectacular at all now that the rainy season had begun and instead of the sparkling white terraces, they would be brown and yellow. We followed his advice and instead he gave us a bespoke tour of the Sacred Valley, stopping at view points to point out the history, geography and nature of the area. A couple of days later I was chatting to a Korean in our hostel who showed me his photographs of the Salinas. Ronaldo had been quite correct and they were not especially spectacular. They would not have compared to Pamukkale in Turkey where the blinding white calcium deposits spill down the hillside and the iridescent ice blue water glimmers in the sunlight and which I had paddled in a few years ago.
Ronaldo dropped us in the small town of Ollyantambu where I would have loved to explore the Incan streets but a more pressing need was for breakfast. We sat in the sun for a time while the sleepy town woke up and then we rolled down the hill to the train station. The train was packed with tourists and it rattled along the tracks for nearly two hours along the bottom of a steep ravine. I have to admit to being slightly nervous as we gained speed – wondering if the next corner would be the one where we tipped into the frothy torrent of a crazy river which was running alongside us. We did however survive and we got out at the very strange town of Aguas Calientas. The four of us then found our hostel – who were not expecting us – but finally sorted out our rooms at the top of the narrow steep building. There was a moment of hysteria when we discovered that the bathroom door in the boys’ room had no panel and whoever was in there would be in full view of the other, a moment of panic when the largest hornet that I have ever seen crawled up the curtain in the room that I was to share with H and a moment of despair when we found out that our tour operator back in Cusco (never trust a man who operates out of a cupboard) had not reserved our tickets for the bus the following morning. The issues were all soon resolved – I eventually plucked up the courage to swat the hornet out of the window and our landlady sorted out the bus tickets and covered up the missing door panel with a curtain and some newspapers. Poor H was suffering with severe altitude sickness – I could totally empathise with her as I succumbed a few days later, but we were all so excited to be heading up to Machu Picchu the following day. Aguas Calientas may have a place in the guidebooks as the arse-end of the valley but it has scope for some hilarious people-watching. The town is sited on a very steep valley with the river boiling through it. Porters wearing welly boots transport all sorts of goods around on hand carts and can be seen everywhere, puffing and struggling to push the carts uphill, or else standing in front of them and straining back against them to prevent them from running down the hill. They are invariably forced into a run and in some sort of sick way you are forced to watch, perhaps wondering if they might trip and be run over by their own carts. Two small boys wandered up the main road swinging huge machetes around their heads and then to our horror had an impromptu sword fight with them. They couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old, and next a tiny toddler hurtled down the main street on a little push-along tricycle and ended up wedged underneath the back of a bus. I was concerned that the bus may start its engine but his mum just wandered up with not a care in the world and fished him out. Trains rumble slowly along their tracks on the main street, whistling as people and dogs walk in front of their path and everywhere are large posters and signs indicating the escape routes should a flash flood or a mudslide envelop the valley – BBC News
I distinctly remember the pictures on the news nearly four years previously in the rainy season and as these pictures from the BBC show, it is a wonder that more people didn’t die. The river is a noisy, fast flowing beast contained by the steep valley walls and dominates the town.
At four am the alarms woke us up and we set off to get onto one of the first buses of the day. A convoy wound up the tight hairpins on the mountainside and then pulled into the car park at the top. We queued up to show our tickets and our passports and then we were in. My reliable Lonely Planet advised us to swing a left at the entrance and to climb. We did, albeit slowly as we were all suffering from the altitude and as we rounded the corner at the top, we were rewarded with the classic view above the ruins. Photographs cannot do the place justice. If the ruins were placed in a field they would be special but set high on a plateau with towering mountains clothed with dense green jungle looming above, and the edges of the settlement scooping down to the river which looped far below, it is magical.
We had arrived before the crowds and could spend a good half hour sitting quietly and absorbing the energy of the place. And it does have an energy. I don’t know if it is because of the mountains which surround it or the remoteness of the place, but probably because it has long been my dream to visit Machu Picchu and Peru – I felt such an elation and achievement to have finally arrived.
As we sat and watched, a fog began to roll up from the river weaving like a spirit among the ruins, clothing everything with its grey shawl and casting even more magic around. We had a tour guide who explained much of the supposed history of the place and then we were free to explore by ourselves. Me and G wandered off to see the Inca Bridge. This was just a twenty five minute hike away but it felt like a lot more in the rarefied atmosphere at that altitude. The narrow path clung to the edge of a sheer cliff and ended with a large gap bridged with a couple of wooden logs. It was now out of bounds because some adventurous tourist had plunged to their death from it but to be honest, there was no way that I would have dared to cross it. The views were spectacular and we watched condors and eagles swoop around us before returning to the main site. The soft grey stones of the ruins looked a part of the mountain, built in staggered rows and arranged so that none blocked the sunlight of another, and mirrored by the terraces below which looped around the impossibly steep mountainside. A pack of some eighteen alpacas quietly moved amongst the buildings, cropping the grass and unintentionally posed for photographs. As the crowds began to swarm around the buildings we found a quiet corner and sat in the shade. H had made her way down the mountain earlier but me G and C chose to walk down rather than taking the bus. It was a long steep walk but we surprised ourselves by doing it in forty five minutes, flopping down the innumerable uneven steps and trying not to slip on the gravel. Back in the town we mooched about for a bit until the return train arrived, did some more people watching and then set back off for Cusco in a downpour
The following day was Christmas Eve and the Plaza de Armas was converted into a massive street fair with hundreds of people flocked in from the surrounding countryside. Stalls were selling the usual alpaca goods but there were also peasants from the country with piles of dried grasses (apparently medicinal plants) and men nailing together miniature wooden stables for people’s nativity scenes. The poverty was tangible as women with grubby babies strapped to them squatted under the arches where they would later settle down to sleep. Smoke from the many food carts hung over the square but even a sudden sharp downpour couldn’t put off the crowds as whole families came to buy their Christmas gifts. I visited the Inka museum and later that evening a few of us gathered for a meal on the outskirts of the town. A couple of the volunteers from the NGO were also in town for Christmas and were staying with their friend from their home town of Madrid who was living and studying in Cusco. They had prepared an amazing meal of typical Spanish foods which we washed down with plenty of wine, the language swinging between Spanish and English. At midnight on Christmas Eve families in Peru typically sit down to their Christmas dinner and let off a barrage of fireworks which resounded around the valley for the next hour or so.
Christmas Day in Cusco was bright and sunny (to begin with) and the now cleared square was host to some very bizarre sights. Villagers had come into the town and were displaying their various dances, accompanied in the main by choirs of women and the odd musical instrument. Costumes varied widely from village to village although there was a loose theme to the tune which they were all warbling. This was the first year that the villagers had presented their stuff and quite a crowd of inquisitive locals and tourists had turned out to watch. Walking around among them were people parading their little cribs containing dolls (Jesus) covered over with pieces of net curtain who were on their way to or from the countless churches and the cathedral. Me and C had a bit of a wander down to the artisan market where we bought a few little bits and pieces and then in the afternoon I took an open top bus tour around the city. The bus climbed the hill high above the town and stopped for fifteen Peruvian minutes (thirty minutes to the rest of us) while we photographed the view and the large white stone statue of Jesus standing aloft in a similar but smaller way that the statue stands above Rio. I didn’t visit the Incan site of SexyWoman (not spelt like that but it is how it sounds) as after Machu Picchu I was all ruined out but the next day I did spend a good couple of happy hours wandering around Qorikancha and the monastery of Santa Catalina. Christmas night I blagged my way into a theatre and watched a performance of traditional dance after wearing down the man on the front desk. In response to his continuing request for twenty soles entrance fee I continued to whirl my arms around like a mad women repeating ‘mis amigas, mis amigas’ until he eventually shrugged and indicated he was giving up and I should go in and find said amigas
On Boxing Day I discovered a quiet little backstreet vegetarian restaurant and I had a Mayan hot chocolate in the Cocoa museum – hot chocolate with honey and chilli. I wanted to spend a quiet day alone as I had struggled a bit the previous day with the emotions of Christmas and being apart from my children and friends. I needed some time out to sit and think. I have come on quite a journey but I think constantly of my children back in the UK and I would love to be able to share my experiences with them.
Later that evening I met up with M once again and together we headed off on yet another overnight bus for the border and our next stop -Bolivia