Friday, 31st October
I didn’t get the best night’s sleep on the bus last night. The problem with everyone having their own entertainment TV screen is that it makes the bus very light and the seats in front of us have theirs mounted up high as they are the first row, so I had to wrap a jumper around my head. It blocks out the light but leads to a rather hot head. There’a also less leg room on this bus as you can’t get your feet under the seat in front, so I properly awoke with sore legs around 6am. It also didn’t help that we had a snoring man in front of us. But, having said that, it is a comfortable bus. I guess no bus is going to be that great for a nights sleep. We have decided that the ‘Cruz del Sur’ bus is the best for the daytime and the ‘Tepsa’ the best for night-time travelling when you need to sleep and stretch out. The landscape outside when I awoke was very barren, sandy coloured and rocky. There were herds of llamas out grazing on the few scraps of grass they could find in-between the rocks. Judging by the landscape we were up high. Cusco is 3,400m above sea level and Lima is pretty much at sea level so we were making quite a climb along the winding roads. We made our way along these roads, through towns, alongside grazing llamas and I settled in for a day of watching movies and snacking, not unlike being on a plane except that you get the nice views as you drive through the country. The colours changed from the sandy colours that I awoke to, to greener colours as we got closer to Cusco. We could also see snow-capped peaks alongside us as we drove through the Andes range. It was interesting to see the villages we passed through, most of them had all the building walls by the road covered in the political propaganda graffiti we saw a lot of in Central America. There is a party of here sporting a rainbow flag as their symbol. They aren’t for gay rights though as you might expect. The rainbow flag is actually the state flag of Cusco and we were warned not to get the two confused. The flag also has connections with the local Inca people here and when we got to Cusco it was flying alongside the Peruvian flag.
Cusco was the site of the historic capital of the Inca Empire and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1983 by UNESCO. It is a major tourist destination and receives almost 2 million visitors a year and has been designated as the Historical Capital of Peru by the Constitution of Peru. We have come here to see the city but mainly to see Machu Picchu and some of the villages in the ‘Sacred Valley’.
We arrived at the bus terminal in Cusco around 4pm, having been held up by seem serious road works along the way. We were greeted with the usual throng of cab drivers but they weren’t that hassling this time. We chose our man and paid our 15 Soles for the ride to our hostel for the next two nights – ‘Hostal Mama Simona’. We are staying in the historic district of Cusco and have the usual cobbled streets, town squares, churches and bustling street activity all around us. It is the day of the dead tomorrow and in Peru they celebrate by eating roast suckling pork (Lechon). One of the streets we drove along was lined with shop after shop selling butchered suckling pigs in various states of display. Everyone getting ready for a day of feasting I guess. We checked in without any dramas and after a shower we headed out to explore Cusco and find a bite to eat.
Cusco is a very nice city for wandering; very picturesque and it seems as though the rich traveller has spawned an array of nice places to eat and drink. We just wander around aimlessly for a bit. It’s Halloween tonight and there are groups of children everywhere dressed up in all sorts of costumes. When we get to the main square (another ‘Plaza de Armes’) it is literally covered with pirates, superheroes, witches and anything else the imagination can conjure. We wander around until we get hungry then head to ‘Mr Soup’ for a bowl of traditional Peruvian soup. As usual the soup is excellent, something I didn’t expect in Central and South America but in my opinion better then European soups (I know, controversial). On the way back we find more market stalls getting ready for the festivities of tomorrow, this time selling not pork but sweet bread (or ‘tanya wawa’, as it is known locally). A sweet bread in the shape of a baby, horse or other shape and decorated with icing. I have heard that tomorrow Cusco will attempt to bake the world’s biggest ‘bread baby’, something we will try to get to although we have some planning of Machu Picchu to get out of the way first. It seems as though we have left booking of hostels a bit late and we also have to get train tickets and the actual entrance ticket for Machu Piccchu itself, of which the numbers are limited, so we will see to this first thing then seek out the sweet bread and roast pork.
Saturday, 1st November
I woke up early toady so decided to go down and check out the breakfast leaving Kirsty to rest some more. As usual the breakfast is not a gluten intolerant person’s friend and consisted of bread with coffee. Today they had the sweet bread which is kind of like panettone. Incidentally, they sell panettone in most grocery shops here, it must be popular. After breakfast I went back upstairs to grab the laptop to start researching Machu Picchu and get to booking some accommodation, trains and hopefully a ticket into the site itself. The accommodation proved to be the easiest part of it all, the train not so difficult but the tickets for the site were challenging. I never actually managed to purchase them as I will go into later. For now though I had booked our next six nights accommodation, two in Ollantaytambo and two in Aguas Calientes before returning to Cusco for a further two nights. We would be visiting Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. There are no roads from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, hence why we needed the train tickets.
As we walked into town past the Plaza de San Francisco we saw today’s festival in full swing with music, serving up of a massive bread cake and roast suckling pigs all around. It seems as though this is a very popular festival but then with food on offer why wouldn’t it be? The main activity seemed to be outside the Church of San Francisco but there were places all over town selling the roast pork. It is prepared a special way, marinated in herbs and spices then spit roasted in the early hours so that it’s ready first thing. The festival begins on November 1st with the Day of the Living. Relatives and friends get together to enjoy a typical meal called lechon (roasted pork) with tamales. This is followed by the Day of the Dead, on the 2nd of November, where people visit cemeteries and take gifts to their family members who passed away. Peruvians tend to attend Mass and then head to the cemetery, bringing flowers and food to share symbolically with the souls of the dead. At night on the 1st November, the relatives hold a candlelight vigil in the cemetery until dawn the next day. The worship of the dead was a integral part of Inca culture (the mummies of the dead Incas were present at all important rituals) and part of that tradition, combined with Christian elements, still lives on today. The sweet bread rolls also play an important part in the tradition – they are shaped like horses (caballitos) and babies or dolls (called t’anta wawas).
Once we had had a look around the festival briefly we walked on to find the PeruRail office and booked ourselves on a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientses and a return trip two days later, returning all the way back to Poroy, as close as you can get to Cusco by rail. These trains are expensive being run by the same company that runs the Orient Express, we paid around US$250 return for both of us for a total train ride of around six hours. You don’t have a choice though unless you walk (some hike into the site) as there are no roads for the final part of the journey. It should be a nice rail journey though, we haven’t done that many on this trip. The carriages are set up for viewing with windows even in the roof. There is also entertainment in the form of traditional music and dancing. Now that we had our train tickets, the next task was finding a bank or the ‘Cultural office of Cusco’ that we could pay for our Machu Picchu tickets in. The ticketing system works where you reserve the tickets online then pay for them either online or at a bank or at the ‘Cultural office of Cusco’. The online system charged a bit more though so to save some money I thought we would pay for them at the bank. The bank is usually open on a Saturday but it’s a public holiday today so the bank was shut. We walked on to try and find the ‘Cultural office of Cusco’ in the hope that this might be open. As we walked along the road it should have been along we noticed the building numbers jumping all over the place so we had no hope in finding the office. We gave up and returned to the Centro Historico for a cup of something and a snack. On the way back into town I found a place serving the Lechon (roast suckling pig) so I got a portion. My serving wasn’t the best though, mostly bone and gristle so a little disappointed we walked on further to find a cafe. Close to one of the main town squares we had a sit down and had a cup of coffee and slice of cake after which we went back to our hostel for a rest. The altitude is quite tiring up here and we have come from sea level up to 3,400m straight away so it’s a bit harder to adjust to than last time where we had a staggered climb. We are both feeling the effects. Back at the hostel I tried to pay for the Machu Picchu tickets online and failed. Their website kept refusing my card, a card I know to work as I had used it just the previous day. I looked online and it’s a common problem apparently. So, our only option now is to begin our journey to Machu Picchu without the tickets and buy them when we get to Aguas Calientes from the official ticket office (the other branch of the ‘Cultural office of Cusco’). It’s low season though so we should be okay.
Feeling a bit aggravating from my failed attempts to book the tickets I went for a walk about town, leaving Kirsty to rest at the hostel. I found the main market still on so wandered around, took some photos and bought some nuts for our upcoming trip. We would be leaving our large backpacks at the hostel we are currently in and just taking small backpacks with enough for four nights, at the end coming back to Cusco and the same hostel so collect our luggage. We decided on having a nice dinner out tonight as we were keen to try some more good Peruvian food. Kirsty found a voucher in the hostel reception for a place in town that serves up traditional Perusivan food called ‘Marcelo Batata’. We were lucky to get a table as it was fully booked out but we turned up around 6:30pm and a 6pm booking had failed to show so we got their table. I tried some alpaca, served as kebabs, alongside a potato and corn dish covered in slightly spicy sauce. They were delicious and not at all what I was expecting in the texture. It was a really tender, lamb-like meat. Kirsty had a smoked trout and quinoa dish. Both local ingredients, trout is served in a lot of places (I assume there must be trout lakes close by) and quinoa a traditional grain. With our nice dinner done we wandered bak to the hostel and retired for the night.