Cuzco is a small city nestled among the Andean mountains. From air, you can see houses (none more than a couple of floors) hugging the valley. A group of local musicians playing near the airport exit added to the magic of the place.
Our stay was at ‘Casa Familiar Ochoa’, a place run by a sweet old ‘grandpa’ and his wife. The entrance to the place is not very impressive, but the rooms certainly were. I think he was letting out the rooms in his own house. Hence, the place had a very homely touch to it and was very neat and clean. Not at all like other highly commercialized hotels and hostels. For the same reason, there was very less noise and disturbance as it wasn’t crowded at all. The rooms were spacious with lots of storage space and a great view of the mountains surrounding Cuzco, from the window. There was 24hr supply of hot water. Right opposite the house is a supermarket and all other amenities are very close by. In fact, we walked from this house to tour the city.
As soon as we got there, we were served Coca Tea which is very good to adjust to the high altitude (chewing on coca leaves when climbing also helps). Grandpa then took a lot of interest in us. He was surprised we were from India and were Christians. I don’t think he was expecting that. He repeatedly kept saying that Dilip was a lucky man! Of course, that really pleased me!
He then took us to the terrace upstairs and showed us a grand view of Cuzco city, pointing out various landmarks. He even got out some traditional ponchos and hats for both of us and enthusiastically took pictures for us. He is very friendly and helpful and can speak English.
After a short rest, we went to the railway station to get tickets to Machu Picchu. There are 2 ways of getting there. One is by PeruRail and the other by trekking the Inca Trail which usually takes 4 days one way. To our shock and dismay, we found that there were no train tickets to Machu Picchu for the dates we wanted. Also none of the travel agents had any vacancies. Absolutely nothing left! We had assumed that this being the off-season (summer in Peru is also the rainy season) it wouldn’t be difficult to get tickets. Booking of PeruRail via the internet is a pain. Travel agents book tickets only as a complete Machu Picchu package which cost about $170 and includes rail tickets, entrance fee, guide, bus tickets to the ruins and transfers. So we decided to book the train tickets alone, directly from the station. But we nearly lost out on Machu Picchu. The Grandpa with whom we stayed offered a lot of help he told us about buses that took a convoluted route via Santa Teresa. He also told us about Peru National trains to and from Machu Picchu meant only for Peruvians. However under some circumstances (and with some cash) foreigners could use these trains. He even offered to accompany us to see the manager of PeruRail the next day. He did a lot to lift our spirits that day. But thanks to God grace, we didn’t have to bother him. The next morning, one travel agency managed to find two last tickets for us and we made it to Machu Picchu!
In Cuzco, we first visited Koricancha which was one of the most impressive buildings in Cuzco during the Inca times. This Inca Temple had interior walls covered in gold. The various Inca mummies were placed in niches in the wall. The Inca temple also had a huge golden disc representing the Sun. When sunlight enters the hall and strikes the strategically placed disc, the light gets reflected off the walls as well, bathing the mummies in golden light. Every summer solstice, the sun’s rays shine directly on to the tabernacle where only the Inca was permitted to sit. The gold from the wall was stripped for Atahualpa Inca’s ransom. The gold disc was successfully spirited away by the Inca priests and it is missing till date. In the mid 1500s the Spanish built a Dominican convent and church over the original structure of Koricancha. The church suffered damages in an earthquake in 1650. But the Inca temple wall of polished stone still stands intact below it. The Inca masonry did not use mortar for sacred sites and important buildings. They relied on the tight fit and precise interlocking of the blocks of stone. Parts of the cloister has been gutted to reveal Inca temples to the moon, stars, thunder, lightening, rainbow etc.
Cuzco’s Main Square (Plaza de Armas) was an important ceremonial and military location for the Incas. When an Inca conquered new lands, some soil from the new area would be brought and mixed with the soil of the Square to symbolize the incorporation of the new territory. Inca palaces once surrounded this Square.
The Cathedral of Cuzco was built in two stages. The ‘El Triunfo’ (The Triumph) chapel was built on top of ‘Suntur Wasi’ an Inca Temple, to celebrate the intervention of the Blessed Mother in protecting the Spaniards when Manco Inca waged the first rebellion against the hugely outnumbered Spanish force in Cuzco. The Cathedral itself is built right next to it, on top of the palace of Inca Wiracocha. The Cathedral has a huge collection of colonial paintings, including a depiction of the Last Supper showing Christ and his apostles about to dine on guinea pig and chicha (fermented corn beer which is a typical Inca brew)! Legend has it that when the Cathedral was built, an Inca prince was walled up in one of the towers and that when the tower falls, the prince will emerge to free his people and claim his birthright. After the earthquake of 1950 thousands of believers waited hopefully. Despite suffering severe damage, the towers did not fall and were later repaired. Entrance to the Cathedral is using the general Cuzco Tourist Ticket or you can purchase individual tickets at the gate. We were able to avail student concessions with our college ids. Photography is not allowed inside.
Another side of the Plaza is occupied by the Jesuit church ‘La Compania de Jesus’ which was built in late 1500s on top of the palace of Huayana Capac, the last Inca to rule over an undivided and unconquered empire. This church is smaller but more ornate than the Cathedral.
The Museo Inka is also a stone’s throw from the Plaza. Entrance fee is not included with the general Cuzco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistico). No photography is allowed inside.
The fortress of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced sexy-woman by guides to amuse tourists) is less than 10min by taxi from Cuzco’s main square. Taxis are cheap in Cuzco, about 2-3 Soles or $1 per ride. The entrance fee is very high, even with student concession. But the ruins are included with the Boleto Turistico. We didn’t have the time to explore the ruins in detail. So we just went as far as the small gate and then had our taxi driver drive us around the ruins and to the nearby San Cristobal Hill.
Sacsayhuaman Fortress. This was a scene of fierce fighting during Manco Inca’s first rebellion. The Spanish were aghast to see the huge walls of the fort though they finally managed to break into the Inca defences. The construction includes stones weighing between 90 to 128 tons. Manco Inca was defeated and forced to retreat further into the jungle. Sacsayhuaman fort has 3 concentric walls of stone. The complex within could have been used for military or religious purposes as well. Even the existing parts of the fort walls are sufficient to dwarf any human standing next to it.
Close to Sacsayhuaman is San Cristobal Hill on which a large statue of Christ stands overlooking the city of Cuzco. This trend is common in most cities. Lima has a huge Cross overlooking the city.
After Sacsayhuaman, we had to get to Ollantaytambo, to catch the train to Machu Picchu. We decided to try the bus to Ollantaytambo. The entire 2 hour journey cost only about $4. We took a bus to Urubamba and then a ‘collectivo’ to Ollantaytambo. It was a very nice experience. The route through what is known as the ‘Sacred Valley’ is very scenic. The bus went via Pisac, which is known for its colorful Indian markets on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. There is an easier route to get to Urubamba via Chinchero. But for some reason the bus we got into was taking the Pisac route.
A little into the journey, our bus was stopped by police who got on to check documents. All of us tourists in the bus immediately took out our passports. But they just glanced at it. Apparently, they were more interested in the local people, who are not allowed to travel from one region to another without proper documents. It was almost like the checking at state borders.
The Ollantaytambo Fort hugs the Andes. After retreating from Sacsayhuaman, Manco Inca took refuge in this fort. Though this fort was also very difficult for the Spanish to penetrate, they forced Manco Inca to flee to Vilcabamba, deep inside the jungle. The terraces of Ollantaytambo are beautifully cut into the rocky slopes. The streets are stone paved and the mountains and the rushing Vilcanota (Urubamba) river are a treat to the eyes.
We boarded PeruRail’s VistaDome train from Ollantaytambo. The train is tourist oriented, with glass windows cut into the dome for unobstructed viewing as far as possible. The route to Machu Picchu is a very pretty one. A meal was also served on the train.
From Ollantaytambo, Peru Rail goes upto a town called Aguas Calientes, at the base of the ruins of Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes, only buses or trekking can get you up to the entrance of the ruins. We had booked a room at ‘Inti Punku’ for the night. Before sunrise the next day, we planned to go up to the ruins. The first bus to the ruins leave Aguas Calientes at 5:30am and takes about half an hour to get there.
Aguas Calientes is a small touristy town with a lot of native shops, narrow cobbled streets and many places to eat. Some tourists prefer to halt here to be at the ruins early in the morning. Others just do a day trip from Cuzco, spending time between 11am-4pm at the ruins. At Aguas Calientes, we tried the local Andean dishes of Alpaca meat. We also tried the Inca brew Chicha, which is fermented corn beer. It tasted like yeast mixed with water but wasn’t very bad at all. The town also has huge baths each filled with waters at different temperatures- from the icy mountain water to very warm waters. It is a favourite first stop for trekkers who arrive in the town via the Inca Trail. There are no vehicles on the road (makes sense, the only way to get here is by train or trek). You can’t help but fall in love with this small charming town.