Sunday, February 10, 2013

Cuzco and Machu Picchu

We arrived in Cuzco about a week ago, expecting a contrast from the Iquitos area. And wow, the areas are so different that it's stunning. The amount of cultural and geographic diversity in a country as small as Peru is simply amazing.

When you arrive in Cuzco, the first thing that hits you is the altitude. The city is at around 12,000 feet, and at first the simple act of walking around takes your breath away. It's completely bizarre to walk up a very slight incline and find yourself panting like you've just sprinted that distance instead. The locals have traditionally drunk mate de coca (tea made from coca leaves) or chewed the coca leaves to alleviate altitude sickness, and this remedy is definitely encouraged for visitors. It's a bit like caffeine in its effect when you drink the tea, though chewing the leaves will leave the side of your mouth feeling a little numb. Whether it actually helps with the altitude or not, I can't say. I drank a lot of it and Doug didn't, and I'm not sure if our experience was any different!

Unfortunately, we both arrived in Cuzco with upset stomachs, and it was a few days before we felt like doing much outside of the hotel. We stayed at a very nice hotel, the new JW Marriott, which was built inside a 16th century convent. It had a large central courtyard that Carter enjoyed playing in, as well as an underground pool that he swam in every day. 

And I have to admit, it was nice to have access to a kids' menu! Carter ate mac & cheese every day, which is amazing because it's a dish I've never seen in South America before.

We eventually felt well enough to explore town a bit and visit the central square, the Plaza de Armas. There are beautiful old buildings lining the square, most of them currently containing shops and restaurants for tourists. The city is much more tourist-focused than it was when I was here 18 years ago.  There's even a Starbucks here, which blew my mind. 

The British pub Doug and I hung out in all those years ago had moved off the square and down the street. If we'd felt better, I'm sure we would have spent some time there. Alas, we really just hibernated in our very nice hotel, for the most part.

As an aside, this is something that is different about traveling for a year. If we were just on vacation for a couple of weeks, I would be so completely bummed out about having lost a couple of days to being sick. But when you have a year, two days of taking it easy and not going out to see the sights doesn't seem to be as big of a deal.  Maybe I'll feel differently about that when this year is over, but after two weeks of almost constant activity, it was nice to not have to do anything for a few days.

Carter enjoyed running around in the square and chasing pigeons, checking out the fountain, and generally being out of the hotel. 

Carnaval is coming up, and part of the way the kids celebrate it is to throw water balloons and shoot water guns at each other. These kids were trying to fill their water balloons in this fountain, and Carter was fascinated.

The big reason for coming to Cuzco is to go to Machu Picchu, and that was definitely our primary destination. We headed next to the small town of Urubamba, one of several that serve as tourist gateways to Machu Picchu, located along the banks of the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The drive to Urubamba was stunning, I have to say. The scenery reminded me of Austria or northern Italy with its rolling, flower-carpeted hills, patchwork fields of crops, and adobe houses with terra cotta roofs. The Andes in the background are covered with temperate rainforest and striped with ancient terraces left behind by the Incas who farmed the hillsides centuries ago.  

Unlike Europe, livestock roam around freely, and there are many donkeys, horses, cows, sheep, chickens, and even the occasional hog along the roadside. Most people dress in modern clothes, but it's not unusual to see women in the traditional Quechua dress, complete with a jaunty straw top hat and a large colorful piece of fabric over her shoulders, laden with shopping, crafts to sell, or even a small child. 

The hotel we stayed at in Urubamba is called Tambo del Inka, and it was a really beautiful building with a lodge-like feel.

It had a fantastic indoor/outdoor pool, and Carter spent a couple of hours in it each day.  He also had fun running around on the grounds. It was nice to have some open space for him to play in.

On Friday we went to Machu Picchu for the day, a trip that is significantly more expensive than it was 18 years ago. When we were there before, we spent two nights in the hotel at the top of the mountain. It was about $150 a night in 1995 – expensive for us at the time, but totally worth it to be able to stay in the ruins after the last bus left and night and before the tourists began arriving again the next morning. Now that same hotel costs $1000 a night! Entry to the park is nows $70 each; 18 years ago, we probably paid $10 each to get in. The number of visitors to Machu Picchu has increased dramatically in the intervening years. Doug read somewhere that in the high travel season, Machu Picchu now receives as many visitors in a single day as it did in an entire year twenty years ago. So clearly the economy in the area has improved!

The only way to get to Machu Picchu is to take a train to Aguascalientes, the town at the bottom of the mountain. The train ride is amazingly beautiful; it follows the Urubamba River as it winds through the mountains, so the scenery is often dramatic. I tried to take pictures along the way, but it was just impossible to capture much of anything. 

The town of Aguascalientes is much larger now than I remembered, with a lot more tourist-centered activity. The train station was also much nicer, and apparently in a different place than it used to be. It was once little more than a shelter at the base of the mountain, but now it's in the middle of town, where there are now many hotels, bars, and restaurants. We had to walk a ways to find the bus, but the bus ride up to the top was just as I remembered: going a little too quickly on a narrow road with many switchbacks and no guardrail. In other words, exciting!

Once we made our way into the park (and dodged through the crowds following their tour guides), the view was spectacular. 

Machu Picchu is one of those stunning places in the world that you've seen so many pictures of, and then when you get there it looks exactly as dramatic and beautiful as you imagined. And of course, all of your photos look exactly like all the ones anyone else has taken, ever.

Hiking around the ruins of an ancient Incan city at the top of a very tall mountain with steep drop-offs everywhere, with a five-year-old, is definitely a challenge. We arrived around 9:00 am and had a train ticket back at 6:00 pm, and so we had to keep Carter entertained for the entire day. Fortunately he tends to adjust to a new situation pretty quickly, and we only had to have a few talks about how he could not run ahead of us, or walk along the edge of what was essentially a cliff, or pick up rocks and move them around, or dig holes in the ground… so essentially, he had to realize that this wasn't a day at the park. Once he accepted that, he seemed to have a lot of fun exploring the site, which is actually quite large. We dragged him around for much of the morning, and in the afternoon, we let him take the lead and decide which paths to walk down and which buildings to explore.

There are wild llamas roaming all around the site. This one caught us by surprise!

One of the cool things about Machu Picchu is that the mountains that surround the site are incredible. They're shaped like gumdrops and are covered with dark green vegetation, and the clouds drift around them like smoke. They look surreal. The first time I saw Avatar, I thought that whoever designed the world of Pandora must have been to Machu Picchu.

After a day of exploring, we rode the bus back down the mountain, arriving at the bottom just as the skies opened up. (I don't know if it's been on the news wherever you are, but Peru has received some record rainfall in the last week.)  And of course, Carter had fallen asleep on the bus on the way down. I tried to carry him and an umbrella, but it wasn't going to work. I had to wake him up and set him down on his feet in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. He looked completely befuddled, but he always adjusts quickly.  We found a restaurant to hang out in and Doug and I had a few drinks while Carter ate an enormous bowl of chocolate ice cream, and then caught the train back.

We flew from Cuzco to Lima this afternoon, and tomorrow we'll fly to Buenos Aires, where we'll spend almost a week before our cruise to Antarctica begins. In the meantime, please check out our Tumblr blog (LINK), where I'm posting all the extra pictures I don't post here. They're queued up so that a new one posts every few hours, so check back regularly to see what's new. 


  1. wow! I keep adding more things to my bucket list because of your amazing travel reports! I think I either have to hit the lotto or find a great job that will allow me save for trip like yours.
    Amazing pictures, thanks again for sharing/
    Susan (Winstonmom)

  2. Hey, we will be there (Cuzco and Machu Pichu next week)!!! Enjoy...