Tag Archive: Backpacking in Peru


The air is cool and a weak dawn filters through the clouds as I rub sleep from my eyes and hope that there’s someplace to buy coffee at this early hour. The heavy clouds seem to bode ill for a Machu Picchu sunrise, but visitors are undeterred as they queue up on a street corner waiting to board one of the busses that ferry everyone but Inca Trail hikers up the mountain and back.

The dirt road on which it ascends is full of switchback curves and narrow enough that the bus often has to back up a few yards to allow returning vehicles to pass.

Machu Picchu’s altitude is nearly a quarter of a mile higher than Aguascalientes’, and for the better part of a half hour the bus passes through the changing vegetation of several microclimates.

Machu Picchu 03

 

The entrance gate sits above most of the archeological site, but the famous panoramic view can only be seen from the hillside above.

 

The lookout seems like a good place to gain bearings before diving into the ruins below.

 

Machu Picchu 02

 

Wisps of clouds hang over the site and hover around the backdrop mountains, lending an otherworldly quality to the scene.

It would take an Ansel Adams to do justice to this stunning landscape.

Even at this hour, the overlook is crowded with earlier arrivals, including backpackers who’ve just hiked in on the Inca Trail.  Everyone seems to want a selfie with the ruins in the background.

The complex below doesn’t at first seem so big until I begin to measure heights and distances against the antlike streams of people passing through it.Machu Picchu 04

 

Machu Picchu 01I’m surprised to see the Urubamba River passing within hundreds of yards more than a thousand feet below, for it rarely appears in  photos.

In hindsight, though, it comes as no surprise that this inaccessible place was nevertheless built close to the Sacred Valley’s heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

At Machu Picchu, everything seen earlier in bits and pieces at Pisac and Ollantaytambo – the rounded temple walls with immaculately fitted stones, the terraces and homes, and the granaries and cemetery – are all pulled together in one incredible design.Machu Picchu 05

Machu Picchu 06

Machu Picchu 07

 

Machu Picchu 08Less than half of the ruins have been restored, but even in its unfinished state it is just as unquestionably original as it is a masterpiece.

The sun at last stabs through the clouds in a single beam that cuts all the way to the valley floor.

In less than twenty minutes the veil of clouds completely lifts and the ruins are bathed in sunlight.

Machu Picchu 09On the mountainside above, the Inca Trail winds its way down nearly 6,000 feet from its peak to pass through what was once the city’s main gate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Machu Picchu 10A family of alpaca grazes on a meadow amidst the ruins, eyeing the photographers that surround them, but otherwise as indifferent as sacred cows.

Machu Picchu 11The Inca are so often presented as shapers of land that it’s interesting to see how they also integrated natural formations into their architecture.  Only the Roman ruins at Ephesus compare with the scope and sophistication of Machu Picchu, but there’s a different feel to this place.

Machu Picchu 12Clustered around temples set within a natural cathedral, it’s a place that impresses the visitor even more with its spirituality than with its construction.  It’s a feeling that recurs often in the Sacred Valley.

This site was abandoned less than 100 years after its completion as a consequence of the Conquest, which lends a particular sadness to its majesty.

Like Pompeii, it cannot help but evoke the sorrow of leaving home unwillingly and in haste, and it leaves forever open the question of what might have been.

The train departs  tomorrow afternoon, retracing the tracks to Ollantaytambo and then turning into the mountains before arriving at Cusco.  Come  along for a walk about the Inca capital.

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PeruRail station at Ollantaytambo

PeruRail station at Ollantaytambo

River, road, and rails often run together through this part of the Valle Sagrada – the Sacred Valley – but the river road turns east into the mountains beyond Ollantaytambo , and anyone not trekking the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu must arrive by train.

The good news is that Peru Rail cars are clean and up to date, the seats are spacious and comfortable, and the ride takes little more than an hour.

Aguascalientes 02 2014-05-10

Inca platform on a cliff

The Urubamba River descends steadily from its headwaters on the far side of Cusco.  By the time it reaches Ollantaytambo, it has already dropped by nearly 2,000 feet on its way to the Amazon.  It drops by nearly 3,000 feet more as the train follows it to Aguascalientes through twenty miles of changing microclimates.

 

Inca terraces overlooking a footbridge

Inca terraces overlooking a footbridge

After three days in the Valley, the visitor’s eyes become attuned to  flyspecks of Inca terraces and buildings anchored in the vast landscape, or half-hidden by foliage.

 

 

They appear with amazing frequency along this route, which drives home the point that there was far acreage under cultivation in Inca times than there is today.

 

 

The views are spectacular, and peaks of nearby mountains are sometimes only visible through the train’s vista dome.

 

 

From time to time there’s a wait on a siding for a returning train to pass through a one-lane mountain tunnel.

 

 

 

Riverside homes connected only by footbridge

Riverside homes connected only by footbridge

 

 

The road has long ago veered away from river and rails, and the scattered hamlets along the river are now connected to the opposite bank only by footbridges.

 

 

 

 

 

Boulders worn smooth by rainy season current.

Boulders worn smooth by rainy season current.

 

 

 

The river grows increasingly turbulent as it plunges ever downward.

The rainy season is still months away and boulders above the low water mark have been worn smooth its raging currents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aguascalientes has the look of a Colorado ski village crossed with a Colorado mining town.  It’s nestled in a gorge at the foot of Machu Picchu and anyone can walk along every street of its twenty-five square blocks in little more than an hour.

The railroad runs down Aguascaliente's riverfront street

The railroad runs down Aguascaliente’s riverfront street

 

 

The riverfront street is split down the middle by the Peru Rail tracks, and although there’s little rail traffic beyond the village, it’s possible to dine at an outdoor table within its reach.

Pedestrian bridges knit the two halves of Aguascalientes together.

Pedestrian bridges knit the two halves of Aguascalientes together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The village is divided by a tributary of the Urubamba, and the halves are connected by several bridges from which much of the town is readily visible.

Walking in Aguascalientes almost always involves climbing.

Walking in Aguascalientes almost always involves climbing.

Aguascalientes is a pedestrian delight.

Connected to the rest of the world only by rail, the streets of Aguascalientes are free of any automobiles.

Trash collection without the garbage truck.

Trash collection without the garbage truck.

 

Construction materials, restaurant deliveries, and even trash collection rely on porters and hand trucks.

There is no lack of good restaurants here, but there are far more pizzerias, wi-fi coffee houses, and Peruvian restaurants with menus barely distinguishable from each other.

The "Inca Cross"

The “Inca Cross”

A walk through the village turns up dozens of images of the Chacana, popularly known as the “Inca cross”.

It’s a square superimposed upon a cross with arms marking the four compass points.  It symbolizes the Incas’ view of a three-level world:

Hana Pacha, the upper world in which the gods reside.

Kay Pacha, the world of living people.

Urin Pacha, the underworld inhabited by spirits of the dead.

Aguascalientes takes its name from the therapeutic hot spring at its upper end which can be a welcome stop for anyone who’s overdone a day of hiking.

There are also massage therapists on almost every street corner, and in combination bath and massage makes for a great wind-down after a day on the mountain

A dark-skinned Christ wears an Inca robe.

A dark-skinned Christ wears an Inca robe.

A peek into a church on the main plaza turns up the recurrent image of a crucified Christ robed in an Inca tunic.

Unlike most of the Christ images in Peruvian churches, this one is dark-skinned.

Young women in traditional garb are gathered in anticipation of the Mother’s Day celebration which is just beginning to crank up.

 

Girls in traditional garb in advance of the Mother's Day celebration.

Girls in traditional garb in advance of the Mother’s Day celebration.

Tonight’s a night to turn in early, though, because the plan for tomorrow is to beat the crowds and catch the sunrise over Machu Picchu.  Come along.

 

Some  tips:

  • Only a limited number of Machu Picchu tickets are issued for each day, which will require you to also have round trip reservations for the train and bus shuttle tickets to and from the site.
  • You may encounter baggage restrictions if boarding the train at Ollantaytambo, so consider taking with you only enough baggage for a couple of days and leaving excess baggage at the station checkroom.
  • You’ll also want to have room reservations in Aguascalientes for at least the night before or after your Machu Picchu visit… or maybe both. 

While some Machu Picchu aficionados spend every minute of a full day on the site, even a casual tourist accompanied by a knowledgeable guide should plan on spending no less that 2-3 hours there. 

The crowds are at their lightest at opening, and on Sundays.

  • I used the services of GoToPeru for all of my in-country travel, for reservations and ticketing to cultural sites.  Their guides are excellent and I highly recommend their service.

Uniquely Yucay

Early morning on a Yucay street.

Early morning on a Yucay street.

Yucay is a village located along the river road about halfway between Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and one that many tourists pass through without a second look.

With plenty of time until Peru Rail departs for the Machu Picchu station, a stroll through its streets promises a richer glimpse into daily life in the Sacred Valley.

There’s a slight chill in the air on this early Saturday morning.

The village sits in the shadows of the ever-present mountains, and the sun has not yet broken through the clouds that hover and swirl hypnotically about their peaks.

The first person to appear on the waking streets is a  woman in colorful native dress, an improbably large load wrapped in the brightly colored blanket slung across her back.

It’s a sight that will repeat itself countless times on this trip.

Man and mule... both with backpacks.

Man and mule… both with backpacks.

In the next block, the sound of mule shoes on pavement pace out the route of a man leading his beast off to a day of labor.

There's hardly a car to be seen in the village.

There’s hardly a car to be seen in the village.

Another man passes on a bicycle, a small sack of groceries dangling from his handlebars.  There is hardly a car parked on these streets, and I wonder how far these people have ever traveled from home.

It can't be a grocery without an Inca Kola sign!

It can’t be a grocery without an Inca Kola sign!

The ubiquitous Inka Kola signs hangs from a signpost in front of a neighborhood grocery store, a reminder that – incredibly – I’ve seen no Coca-Cola signs since entering the Sacred Valley.

Home on Yucay's main street.

Home on Yucay’s main street.

The colors of the homes are warm and inviting.

Sun-baked stucco in ochres and beiges.  Old adobe brick with bits of straw poking through the surface.

Home along Yucay's main street.

Home along Yucay’s main street.

The oldest homes have been here for more than a century.

The oldest homes have been here for more than a century.

 

Everywhere richly stained wood is fashioned into windows, doors and balconies that imitate the Spanish Colonial style.  They recall for me the villages of New Mexico around Santa Fe.

There’s a tranquility in this valley which surpasses the inspiration of its awe-inspiring natural setting.   Things move at a measured pace, and time is meted not in hours and days, but in plantings and harvests.  All of the villagers I encounter are gentle in spirit and steeped a quiet dignity.   Among them there’s a palpable sense of mutual respect and community that brings to mind the words written in 1542 by Fray Bartolomeo de las Casas, who described them as…

Breakfast is on and the neighborhood begins to stir.

Breakfast is on and the neighborhood begins to stir.

…”the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity… the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, neither excitable nor quarrelsome… devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance.”

The aroma of a simmering guizado begins to drift from curbside kitchen, and waking villagers begin to gather around them for breakfast.

As they talk, I can hear bits of conversation conducted not in Spanish, but in the Quechua which once served as the lingua franca of the Incas’ empire.

It’s the day before Mother’s Day, and village mothers have already begun to fill the seats beneath a soccer field canopy in anticipation of a public holiday observance.

Yucay mothers take their place of honor before a Mother's Day celebration.

Yucay mothers take their place of honor before a Mother’s Day celebration.

As I walk past the Templo Santiago Apostol de Yucay, an attendant opens the doors of the church… an irresistible invitation to a visit.

Elaborate tableau behind the altar at Templo Santiago Apostol de Yucay.

Elaborate tableau behind the altar at Templo Santiago Apostol de Yucay.

 

 

The attendant proudly informs that although this church dates from 1650 – more than 100 years after the Conquest –  the destruction of  earlier churches by earthquakes have left this the oldest surviving Catholic church in the Sacred Valley.

 

The building itself is simple and unassuming, but the altarpiece and other devotional works are carved in wood and gilded in gold and silver foil.

 

 

They’re well worth the visit, even though they beg the question of  wealth the  church accumulated under the Conquest.

Detail from the Templo Santiago Apostol de Yucay

Detail from the Templo Santiago Apostol de Yucay

As the morning walk nears its end, I hear the chatter and laughter of women’s voices behind me and turn to see a trio of nuns, making their way along the sidewalk.  It seems a fitting epilogue to the morning walk.

Sisters walking Yucay's main street.

Sisters walking Yucay’s main street.

In only a few hours until the train departs Ollantaytambo station, which means that I’ll be overlooking Machu Picchu in less than 24 hours.  Come along for the ride!

Town, terraces, and ruins of Ollentaytambo

Town, terraces, and ruins of Ollentaytambo

Ollantaytambo is where the Inca ruins come most alive.

Here the terraces creep down the mountainside to the very edge of a town in which many Inca structures survive and have been continuously inhabited by their descendants.

It was also once a stronghold of the last independent Inca ruler, Manco II, during his eight year rebellion against the Spanish that ended deep in the mountains at Vilcabamba.

Ollentaytambo is a popular stay-over for backpackers on their way to Machu Picchu

Ollentaytambo is a popular stay-over for backpackers on their way to Machu Picchu

 

Ollantaytambo is the last stop on the Perú Rail line before the Machu Picchu station in Aguascalientes

It’s also a popular stopover for the many backpackers who pick up a connection to the last leg of the  Inca Trail just a few miles down the track.

Those hikers not staying in any of the town’s hostels or lodges cluster around the wi-fi cafes, lounging on their packs and checking email on their iPhones.

 

Man in native dress sits next to a Cusqueña beer truck.

Man in native dress sits next to a Cusqueña beer truck.

On the central plaza, a man in native garb sits, chameleon-like, next to a Cusqueña beer truck of the same color.  The brew, a lager style, is Perú’s most popular beer, although at least two microbreweries now operate out of Lima.

Two women in native dress wait for tourists to arrive

Two women in native dress wait for tourists to arrive

Across the plaza, women in native dress offer to pose for pictures.  Even after only a couple of days in country, the differences in dress among the native peoples is already beginning to sort itself out.

Original Inca walls, streets, and aqueduct

Original Inca walls, streets, and aqueduct

Ollantaytambo’s narrow streets appear unchanged since they were built by the Inca.

They pass between signature walls of stone rising a full story and fitted seamlessly together without benefit of mortar.

Aqueduct gutters along each lane still carry fresh water from the mountains as they did when first built.

Only the telltale design of Spanish Colonial structures erected on these foundations testify to the Conquest.

Ollentaytambo street scene

Ollentaytambo street scene

 

Ollantaytambo seems to absorb the visitor into a time warp.

It’s often possible to stand at a corner and see nothing in any direction that gives a hint of the five centuries that have passed since people first walked these streets.

 

Entrance to traditional Inca home.

Entrance to traditional Inca home.

One home is occupied as a living museum in which the caretakers live just as their Inca ancestors once did.

Corn is only one of the foods air-cured by the Incas.

Corn is only one of the foods air-cured by the Incas.

It’s cool and dim inside.  Ears of corn and lines of fish are suspended from the ceiling, curing in the dry, cool air.  (The word ‘jerky’ comes from the Quechua term “ch’arki”, which means “dried meat”)

Stones used to hand-grind corn.

Stones used to hand-grind corn.

 

Worn stones bear witness to centuries of corn tediously hand-milled.

Corn has been a staple in the Peruvian diet for over 3,000 years, and many varieties are unique to the area.

It’s used to make everything from bread to chicha morada, a refreshing, non-alcoholic beverage made from boiled purple corn.

Guinea pigs - cuy - on the hoof.

Guinea pigs – cuy – on the hoof.

Guinea pigs graze on the dirt floor, fattening up for their unforeseen slaughter.

These animals are native to the region, and have served as a source of protein among the indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

Guinea pig – cuy  – is still to be found on Sacred Valley restaurant menus .

Main ruins in foreground, Inca granary in background on mountain.

Main ruins in foreground, Inca granary in background on mountain.

Most of the archeological site lies on the west end of the town, but a trail up the mountain opposite it leads to several isolated structures above.  A climb to explore them offers a tempting opportunity for a panoramic view of the entire area that’s too much to resist.

These granaries stand about 50 tall, placed to take advantage of cool, dry breezes.

These granaries stand about 50 tall, placed to take advantage of cool, dry breezes.

The climb along a narrow trail with steep drop-offs ascends several hundred feet and the hike takes around half an hour.  The buildings that were barely visible from the town below are now revealed to be granaries, each silo standing nearly 50 feet tall.

View of the main ruin from the slope opposite.

View of the main ruin from the slope opposite.

The hike is worth it, though, because the main part of the site is spectacularly visible in its entirety from this vantage point.

Town in foreground, ruins to right, quarry on the cloud-covered mountain.

Town in foreground, ruins to right, quarry on the cloud-covered mountain.

Towering in the distance across the river is the cloud-wrapped  peak from which the stone for this monumental construction was quarried.

As I survey the panorama from my perch at more than 9,000  it crosses my mind that the Egyptians had to contend with no mountains when they hauled the massive stones with which they built the pyramids.

I can be only more impressed by the Incas’ ingenuity and perseverance.

My train to Aguascalientes and Machu Picchu leaves at mid-day tomorrow, and I’ve got an idea about what to do with a free morning.  Come along and see.