Cusco, Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu
By Anita Lum
Posted On October 6, 2018
Peru was most definitely on our bucket list, we just hadn’t thought of traveling there quite this soon. But we just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to travel with our daughter and her family to my mother’s country.
Thanks to Travelocity and Kayak alerts, I found phenomenal pricing on tickets out of LAX on Delta for under $700. That was well worth the price – flights out of our hometown in San Diego were substantially higher. We saved plenty departing from LA, even with factoring in the price of our rental car and hotel stay.
Travel day finally came and after spending a night at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott, we boarded our early morning Delta Airlines flight to Lima. We arrived around 11pm and because we had an early morning departure out to Cusco, I booked the admittedly over-priced Wyndham Costa del Sol Lima Airport Hotel. I have to say, it’s worth it – it was literally only a few hundred feet from the airport baggage claim to the hotel lobby. After a quick check in, we were more than anxious to sample authentic and complimentary pisco sours at the bar with the obligatory cancha snack. We were definitely now in “vacation mode.”
The following morning we flew Latam Airlines from Lima to Cusco early in the day – I heard an early departure would make for a smoother flight. Not wanting to chance white-knuckling it all the way to Cusco, I opted to heed this suggestion. And besides, it worked out with our schedule as we were literally going to hit the ground running in Cusco. Our flight was a little under an hour and a half and visibility was pretty good; it was a treat to see the Andean terrain from a bird’s eye view. We enjoyed excellent and on-time service with Latam.
Within minutes of landing in Cusco, I hailed a cab while Greg fetched our luggage. We headed to Tierra Viva Hotel San Blas to meet my daughter and her family. It was still very early in the morning but Cusco was already bustling – it was early August and one of the popular tourist seasons.
Our hotel was on a very narrow, cobblestone street with no sidewalk. Wider cars, minivans and trucks had to avoid the street altogether because they just were too wide. We were very happy we had made the choice to purchase rolling backpacks. Obviously, they are not for backpacking but it’s super convenient to be able to sling a bag on your back when the terrain just won’t be kind to wheels. Our bags of choice were Deuter Helion 80s. Too big for the overhead bin, however, we just might purchase the smaller version for shorter trips where we won’t be checking any baggage.
Upon our arrival at the hotel, unfortunately, we had to sort out some logistics. Let me start by saying that there is this weird little unspoken rule of sorts in most Peruvian hotels we came across where they just won’t book more than 3 people to a room – even when there is ample space for a roll away or even when there are two double-beds in a room! It’s extremely frustrating because in total we were seven (two were our 12-year old twin granddaughters) and we could easily share two rooms. I thought I had worked all this out via phone and email ahead of time but unfortunately, the girl that had booked it at their main reservations center was on vacation and there was no note of this conversation or email exchange. So, begrudgingly, we had to take that third room even though we didn’t need it!
After a bit of breakfast, we settled into our room. I skipped a nap and opted to take a walk into the city center with my daughter and her family. Hubby stayed behind and tried to nap. The walk from the hotel to the center of the town was literally breathtaking (because of the 11,150ft altitude) but fortunately, I quickly adjusted. We did some shopping and enjoyed watching dancers and musicians in the square.
I’m generally not fond of booking tours or traveling in groups but when my daughter and I were planning this trip we realized that due to the lack of infrastructure in Peru, our timing constraints and our large group, we would be able to make it much easier on ourselves if we booked this part of the trip as a private tour. We used Andina Travel and we were very happy with their services. A word to the wise: if you opt to book tours, especially in this area, please be aware that many companies “sub out” their contracts and this is highly undesirable. Most of the horror stories you hear have to do with sub-contractor issues. Try to book with a company that operates the tour from start to finish.
We had scheduled an afternoon Cusco City Tour with Andina. Our tour guide, Patricia, and our driver, Ruben, arrived exactly on time to fetch us. The street was too narrow to accommodate the van so she came on foot a few blocks up from where the driver waited. We were impressed with the new, clean and comfortable van.
On our drive, we drove by or made stops at the following places:
- The Cathedral was built between 1560 and 1654 on the foundation of the Inca palace of Wiracocha. This huge building includes the chapel of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, and the church of the Triumph. The construction lasted for over a century and it was continuously decorated for about 300 years.
- Qoricancha means “cloister of gold” and refers to the remains of the former sun temple of the Incas. It is located within the monastery of Santo Domingo where we saw the fantastic slanted Inca walls, windows and niches. The temple has withstood several earthquakes due to its anti-seismic design.
- Qenqo translates to “labyrinth” and is this are is likely named this because of the abundance of zigzag channels and large and unusual rock formations. Patricia was very knowledgeable about the area and told us she had grown up near here. Before it was prohibited to climb on the rocks, she, and many other children, used many of the smooth ones as slides.
- Pucara means “Red Fortress.” It is thought that this expansive structure was used for food storage and also as a control gate for travelers that visited Cusco during the Incan times.
- Tambo Machay means “hillside spring.” This ceremonial site was used as a place to worship water and today, the people of Cusco still associate the permanently flowing water with long life and fertility. Patricia mentioned to us how modern day people of Cusco, while mostly proclaimed Catholics, still maintain strong pagan beliefs and superstitions based on the various ancient civilizations that inhabited that region.
While the trip included a stop (not the entrance fee) to Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman”), we opted not to visit – we wanted to do some shopping instead. This word literally translates from Quecha to “decorated head of puma”. It is believed to have been used as a palace or fortress.
As the day drew to an end, it was getting dark but we were still able to catch a glimpse of “Cristo Blanco”. This statue was built in 1945 by local artist Francisco Olazo Allende. According to legend this hill is a spiritual place and some believe that the hill holds soil samples from Tawantinsuyo (all the four quarters of the Inca Empire).
We learned good tips from Patricia for the next part of our journey; specifically about ordering food at our next stop in Aguas Calientes (AC). She advised us to be sure to ask before we sat down to eat whether service was included. It is a widely common practice to add large amounts (over 20%) of a “service fee” (basically a tip) to the bill if this is not clarified at the beginning. We heard that reputable establishments will sometimes add a 10% tip; however, I don’t think we were ever charged a tip – but, just as we do here at home, we gave it based on service.
Our tour in Cusco ended. We were dropped us off at the hotel and we walked down the street to Pachapapa’s for dinner. There were many options on the menu including a local favorite, guinea pig, but it would have taken an hour to prepare and we didn’t have the time (also, my granddaughters had guinea pigs for pets so it seemed a little inappropriate to say the least). The good decision to NOT order that dish was confirmed when I saw a neighboring table receive their pig: it was served still looking like a crispy guinea pig lying on it’s back with its feet up in the air. Instead, we ordered pizzas and calzones family style and we were pleased with the quality of the food and cocktails.
Before turning in for the night we had to repack our luggage so as to only bring along a small backpack for the train ride to and overnight in AC. PeruRail asks you to limit to a bag of 5 kilos per person, however, we were never asked to weigh our bags and we observed folks with much larger pieces. It is true that there is limited space on the train for bags – behind the seats is really the only space there is – so I would agree that taking a small backpack is really best. We had also read that walking sticks and selfie sticks were prohibited up in the Machu Picchu area but that was absolutely not the case. In fact, there were many vendors selling very cheap versions of both items!
At this location they have discovered artifacts from the Lima culture dating between 200AD and 700AD, the Wari culture artifacts dating from 500AD-900AD and the Ichma culture dating from 1000AD-1450AD. The complex includes an area for workshops, a souvenir shop, a restaurant overlooking the ruins and a museum that exhibits items found on the site. This area was described and studied by travelers and explorers from the 19th century onward and professional research started in the mid-20th century when the top of the pyramid was exposed. Huaca Pucllana became a historical and cultural park in 1991.
We did want to visit Central (one of the best restaurants in the world) but we just couldn’t find the time and reservations must be made well in advance of a visit. Next time we will at least try to get in for a cocktail! For another foodie treat, it’d be great to plan our next visit to Lima around early September when they hold the annual Mistura – we saw them setting this up on the beach.
Aguas Calientes (aka Pueblo Machu Picchu or Machu Picchu Town)
Traveling from Cusco to Aguas Calientes will give folks that are sensitive to high elevations some relief as one is actually traveling downhill to a lower elevation. Aguas Calientes is approximately 3000 ft lower than Cusco.
The train was right on time and we quickly boarded and settled into our assigned Vistadome seats. I think the slightly higher cost for this car was well worth it as the vistas through the Sacred Valley were magnificent. From our seats we had a fantastic view of Salkantay (20,500ft) – a massive, snow-capped mountain in the Vilcanota Mountain Range. Over the course of the approximately three and a half hour train ride, we received breakfast and then a snack as well as intermittent announcements in Spanish and English with information on the views. Enroute, numerous Inca terraces, lookout posts and ancient riverbank reinforcements can be seen. The train journey came to an end at the busy town of Aguas Calientes around 11:00 am.
When we arrived at the train station, we were met by the Tierra Viva Cusco Machu Picchu Hotel representative with a hand wagon in tow. AC is a very small town that exists merely to service folks traveling to or from MP. It’s a quirky little town with mostly shops, restaurants, bars and several massage parlors. The train tracks run right through the center of the town – RIGHT THROUGH the center … really. There are also no taxi cabs in Aguas Calientes – no need and no space! Our hotel guy quickly loaded up our bags onto the wagon and we followed him through the town on foot.
That afternoon and evening we were on our own and enjoyed dinner at Indio Feliz (recommended by Patricia) and then drinks at El Mapi Inkaterra Hotel – we thought it was the best bar in town (the bartender had mad pisco sour making skills!). Sadly, Aguas Calientes or “Pueblo Machu Picchu” is very touristy and we were happy we had recommendations and advice from our guide in Cusco to rely on. Everything here is expensive but then again, everything has to be brought in and of course, there is a cost associated with that. During that afternoon we wandered up Avenida Pachacutec seeking out the hot springs or “aguas calientes”. At the end of the road we did find the complex but we weren’t really in the mood for a soaking. I’m assuming folks that are hiking the Inca Trail would welcome a soak in the sulfur but we passed on this little experience. We found it a little comical to see several shops renting swimsuits, shorts and other clothing items for use in the springs. (Some of the items looked quite worn to say the least).
We had arranged for our next Andina guide to meet us at the Tierra Viva hotel early the following morning. Diana arrived to fetch us shortly after we had finished breakfast (which, by the way, was quite excellent). We followed her on foot through the town and up to the bus station. She had our tickets in hand and we just had to wait in the very long line for the bus – probably an hour long. It was amazing to watch these giant tour buses make perfectly executed U-turns right in front of us between those of us in line and the Urubamba River’s edge. The drivers have nerves of steel and drove with such precision, it left us dumbfounded!
The ride up the mountain from AC to MP took about a half hour and it was hairpin turn after hairpin turn all the way up. Looking down from the bus windows, the sheer drop-offs were frightening. The sharp turns going up the mountain, maneuvering around the turns where a bus was coming downhill was quite an experience!
Our entrance fees to Machu Picchu (MP) were pre-paid so Diana led us through the long lines (another great reason to book a private tour for this portion of the trip). Once past the ticket gate, Diana led us on a walk for a bit before we stopped to take our first photos at MP. After we pinched ourselves and stared in amazement at the ruins, she pointed out the Huayna Picchu trail – it’s a very steep hill where they take only 200 persons up at a time. Tickets had sold out well in advance so we were unable to book the entrance to that hill. Next time. The vantage point from there no doubt must be extraordinary!
Diana found a spot where we sat on the ground and she explained some of the history. We learned that it is believed that most of the people that inhabited this site were children – something I did not know.
The entire tour of MP took about two hours and we had some time to meander on our own. We said our goodbyes to Diana and it was up to us to get in line in time to take the bus down and make it to the AC train station before our train departed around 5:30pm. The hotel had delivered our bags to the train station. We were impressed at the punctual service. The train arrived on time and we were soon in our assigned seats on the train back up the mountain.
The train schedules to/from MP are certainly interesting. This was one of the reasons we opted for handling this part of the trip through a tour operator. For instance, we could not go back to Poroy station in Cusco on this train. Instead, it stopped in Ollantaytambo on the return and that was the end of the line. The train ride from AC to Ollantaytambo was about 1.5 hours. From there, our Andina driver picked us up for the two-hour ride back to our Tierra Viva San Blas hotel in Cusco. The hardest part was finding our driver in the dark at the station when the train let out. All of our phones were out of battery (there is nowhere to charge them on the train so remember your back up battery!) Good thing our driver was able to find us in that crowd!While a ride to the Cusco airport the following morning was not included in the tour cost, we added that in for convenience sake and besides, we had been very happy with our driver and the vehicle. It made more sense for all of us and our luggage to travel in one van instead of 2-3 cabs. The cost was approximately $30.
Our three-day visit to Cusco, Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu was a beautiful and exciting adventure that none of us will soon forget. Our memories are filled with the breathtaking vistas, colorful textiles, unbelievable artwork and architecture, tasty dishes and the friendly people of the Peruvian Andes.