Sunday, 31 August 2014

Traveling to Aguas Caliente

At 5:30 the alarm went off and I dragged myself into the shower, and then laid down on the bed.  I hadn't been physically ill for a few hours so we decided to go for it.  We were heading from Cusco to Aguas Caliente and then on to Machu Picchu. John hustled about the room trying to pack both his and my suitcases.  I sat on the bed and indicated which things I wanted to put in my backpack for the trip to Aguas Caliente and which things were going in the suitcase; he passed things to me and I packed my backpack, which took all the energy I could muster.  John took both of our suitcases down to the front desk to check them overnight, while I sucked on my electrolyte drink (YUCK!) and rested.  Then the moment of truth - the cab had arrived.  Poor John carried both backpacks and his camera bag down the stairs to the street while I managed to carry my small travel purse, walk down the stairs and collapse into the back seat of the cab.  I brought a plastic bag with me, just in case, and vowed to avoid all food until we were safely in Aguas Caliente.

We left the hotel, both of us curious where this mysterious bus depot was located.  We wound through narrow cobblestone streets and drove up to a big green wall right only a few doors down from the hotel where we had stopped for directions the previous day. But now the big green wall was open; it was a gate which lead to the bus depot.  No sign, no indication that it was a bus depot.  One day it's a big green wall, the next day it's a bus depot. 

There were lots of attendants working at the bus depot, and as people arrived we boarded the buses and once the bus was full, it departed.  John and I quickly grabbed seats as close to the front as we could, in order to reduce the amount of motion I would have to deal with (no bathroom on the bus) and we were off on the next leg of our journey.  The bus wound its way along dirt roads and pavement, through little towns and villages and finally arrived at the train station which was pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  We disembarked and had different tickets for boarding the train.  We had to wait about 20 minutes to board the train but it was nice to stretch our legs, walk around in the fresh air and take a few pictures.  You could feel the excitement in the air as tourists from around the world waited together, all  bound for the same destination.  We were almost there. 

Waiting to board the train!

I had booked the train tickets online from PeruRail quite a long time in advance and hadn't noticed that we weren't sitting together but were sitting across the aisle from each other.  Many other people had the same experience.  I think they sold the window seats first, and then filled in the aisle seats, assuming you'd rather sit by a window than sit by your travelling companion.  John and I sat together and enjoyed watching the scenery roll by.  It was hard to take photographs as the windows were a bit steamy and we were moving pretty quickly.  At one point we went past a rope suspended over the river with a seat attached to it.  If people wanted to cross the river, they simply hauled themselves across on the wooden seat, hand over hand.  Much faster than travelling miles and miles out of their way to the nearest bridge.

There are three different classes of tickets on the PeruRail train to Machu Picchu and different tickets are available on different routes and at different times, so you might want to check and see what is available when you are travelling.  We chose the midprice Expedition and it was great.  The seats were large and comfortable, there were snacks and souvenirs available for purchase, and the bathrooms were spotless. 

When we finally arrived in Aguas Caliente, we were all so excited to disembark and we all streamed into the modern train station.  When we left the train station we had to wind our way through the Mercado Artisanal, which is a very long maze of stalls covered with galvanized metal roofs, to cross the bridge in to town.  Our hotel, Mi Pequena Casita, was only about a block from the bridge and the buses to Machu Picchu stopped right outside our hotel's front door.

John standing outside of the Mercado Artisanal; train station sign in the background

The train pulling through Aguas Caliente (note the steep mountains in the background)

We checked in and dropped off our bags.  The hotel was clean but super basic and the decorations were a throwback to the 70s with lots of orange and brown upholstery, bedding, and paint. But as long as the bathroom is clean and the bed is comfortable, that's all we need! 

Our room - flashback to the 70s

The view from our room - the bridge to the Mercado and the train statin

We wandered around town, looking for a spot to stop for lunch.  Normally we check TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet for recommendations, but today we took a chance at Apu Qoyllor Rit'i which had a nice outdoor patio and was offering 4 for 1 pisco sours.   What a mistake!  It is ranked 41 of 46 restaurants in Agua Caliente on Trip Advisor and no wonder.  The food was awful, the service wasn't great and they added a huge service charge to our bill and charged us a tax which they aren't allowed to charge to tourists.  When we pointed that out to them, they removed it but if we hadn't know that in advance we would have had to pay.  I wonder how many other tourists have paid, not knowing that it is illegal for restaurants to charge additional VAT. 

Relaxing on the patio for lunch and watching the world go by

After lunch, I went back to the hotel and napped for most of the afternoon while John had a glass of wine and used the free wifi at the restaurant patio next door. Once again, no pushy wait staff urging you to order another drink or vacate. They are quite content if you order one glass of wine or one pot of tea and then linger all afternoon. 

A three hour nap did me a world of good; I felt energized and ready to explore the city.  We went for a long walk through the winding streets with no particular location in mind and then decided that after such a horrible lunch we were going to go to the number one Trip Advisor restaurant in Aguas Caliente - The Tree House.  We showered and changed and then went off to find the restaurant.  As usual, we ended up wandering all over town for about 45 minutes often doubling back over ground we had already covered.  In a small plaza we noticed a tourism information office and went in to ask directions.  The girl in the office gave us very good directions which involved a lot of landmarks rather than street names.  The restaurant was just around the corner from the plaza and we had walked by the stairs a few times in our search but there was no sign that indicated that The Tree House was up those particular stairs. 

As we were wandering the streets looking for The Tree House we passed this restaurant built on and around a huge boulder.  The red bricks, most likely laid without the use of a level, are ubiquitous in Aguas Caliente.
It was worth the scavenger hunt and the climb up yet another set of stairs.  The dinner we had at The Tree House is probably one of the best meals I've ever eaten in my life!!!!  We were the only ones in the restaurant so needless to say the service was impeccable.  The waiter told us lots of interesting information about our entrees and how they were prepared.  I had a quinoa risotto made with three different kinds of risotto that was AMAZING!!!  We ordered a lucuma mousse for dessert. Neither John nor I had heard of lucuma before and the waiter brought out a big book and showed us pictures of the lucuma fruit and explained how and where it grew.    They offer cooking classes and if we had been staying in AC longer, I would have loved to have gone back for a class.  It is obvious that the staff at The Tree House love food and love to share their passion with others. 

After dinner we waddled back down the stairs and headed home to bed.  I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve - Machu Picchu tomorrow!!!

Monday, 25 August 2014


On Tuesday we decided to skip the all day bus tour and after breakfast we took a hike to find the bus depot for tomorrow.  In the past when travelling from Cusco to Machu Picchu, travelers would simply board the train for the four hour ride. During the rainy season from November to May there were often problems with mudslides, landslides and rockslides so now travelers during the rainy season take a two hour bus ride to a station just beyond Ollantaytambo and then a two hour train ride the rest of the way to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. 

After a quick breakfast we headed down the hill, past Q'orikancha, looking for the bus depot.  We wandered around and around several blocks, stopped in to hotel lobbies to ask for directions, and ended up at a local market.  I had seen these vendors in Lima as well:  there is a bunch of hard-boiled eggs in what looks like an aquarium - a small glass container.  On the side of the glass container is a bowl for holding the egg shells and below is a group of quail who are laying the eggs for the vendor to cook and sell.  Customers purchase the eggs and the vendor peels them, puts the egg shells in a bowl and then puts the peeled eggs in a plastic bag, sprinkles them with salt and gives the bag to the customer.  The other street food that was very popular was a boiled/steamed cob of Inca corn which is much larger than our sweet corn at home.  These are also sold in a plastic bag which customers use to hold the corn as they eat it.  I did not try either of these local treats.

Quail egg vendor

As we waited out a quick rain shower at the local market, John used the data on his phone to once again search for the bus station.  We saw lots of other interesting things in the city, but no bus station.  By now I was feeling tired and dizzy.  I suggested to John that it was time to go back to the hotel, and that we needed to grab a cab rather than walk.

Some of the sites from our strolls around Cusco:

I like the juxtaposition of the traditional dress and modern dress.  We saw women everywhere in Peru, including the airport, wearing the flat-brimmed beige hat, braids, brown pleated skirt and flat shoes, and carrying colourful bags slung over their shoulders carrying all sorts of things including their children! 

Just down the street from our hotel

Turns out this fountain is very close to the bus depot.
We walked around this plaza countless times; we knew we were close!

When we got back to the hotel, I laid down and was sure I would feel better once I had a quick rest.  WRONG! By 2 pm I was sick.  Really, really sick.  I won't go into graphic detail but I was vomiting and had diarrhea nonstop all afternoon and into the evening.  John relaxed just outside the hotel door on the patio, reading his book and playing games on his computer, and came in periodically to make sure I was still alive.  As the day progressed and my condition showed no signs of improving he somehow managed to find a pharmacist who spoke English and got me antibiotics, a Spanish version of Gatorade to restore my electrolytes and a canister of oxygen just like the Japanese tourist had at Sacsaywaman.

As  afternoon faded into evening I was still spending most of my time in the bathroom and I began to have serious doubts about my ability to embark on a two hour bus ride followed by a two hour train ride in the morning.  Our bus left at 7 am and we had strict instructions to be at the bus depot no later than 6:30 am.  We had made arrangements ahead of time to check out in the morning, leave our suitcases at the hotel and then check back in on Thursday evening.  We just planning to use our backpacks as overnight bags for the trip to Aguas Caliente.  The staff at the front desk assured us that the taxi driver would take us to the mysterious bus depot in the morning.  But I couldn't imagine leaving the bed, except to go to the bathroom, let alone leaving the room.

I was sure that I was going to miss out on our trip to Machu Picchu, which was the whole point of this trip and I suggested John go ahead without me, but he argued that he would rather stay with me and  not leave me behind.  I figured at least one of us would get to see it; he figured it would still be there and we could see it together another time.  I was too weak to argue, which is unusual for me!  I woke at 3 am, still sick and even more convinced that we were going to be spending another day in Cusco.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Cusco and the Sacred Valley

There was a free breakfast buffet at our hotel in a tiny dining alcove just off the front reception area so we had a quick breakfast and then headed out for our first full day in Cusco.  Every book, article and webpage that I had read said that the must-see site in Cusco was Qorikancha, so we went there first.  Tickets were only 10 Soles ($4 Canadian) and we hired a guide from the group of locals who were gathered outside the front door. 

Q'orikancha was a beautiful Inca temple with consisting of four small sanctuaries and a larger temple set around a courtyard.  Everything in the temple was covered with sheets of gold or silver and encrusted with precious jewels.  The Spaniards tore down much of the temple and built a church on the site in the seventeenth century and they carted off all of gold, silver and gems.  The locals note that Spanish portion of the building has been damaged by earthquakes but the Inca portion of the building, made of tightly interlocking blocks, stand firm.   Having the local guide was a great addition, as there were very few signs and no real pamphlet to use as a guide book.  He showed us how the Inca sections were built and explained how it was used as a celestial observatory.  We took lots of photos of the interior as well as the beautiful gardens, which are visible from the street. 

The Spanish Church built upon the Inca Foundation

The courtyard - two views

beautiful painted wooden ceiling in the courtyard
Inca StoryBoard
When you looked through the window in one small room, you could see through the a row of windows in all the other small rooms so that you were looking from one end of the building to the other. Amazing!

Looking through the windows

Inca building blocks

By the time we were done our tour, it was time for lunch.  We chose a restaurant from our guide book but as we followed the directions, we realized that the restaurant was at the top of this flight of stairs:

Time for plan B!  We found another restaurant, Los Perros, and settled in for a relaxing lunch.  The food was good, the service was good, and the restaurant was nice and clean.  Not a rave review, but it was OK.

After lunch we were wandering downtown and we signed up for a package tour of some of the sites in the Sacred Valley.   The tour would take place over two days.  We would go this afternoon to Sacsaywaman, Q'enqo and Tambomachay and then tomorrow we would tour Pisac, Ollantaytambo and other sites.

Sacsaywaman is located high above Cusco and is mostly a series of huge stone walls that zigzag across the plain.  Once again we heard the familiar refrain about 'when the Spanish came...' as to why so much of it was destroyed.  Our tour guide was very informative and we spent about half an hour hiking around the site and taking photos.  The Lonely Planet guide had directions on how to hike up to Sacsaywaman but I'm so glad we took a bus.  It's about 2 km straight uphill from Cusco and would have taken quite a long time.  Perhaps if I was twenty years younger and was in Cusco for a very long time I might hike to Sacsaywaman, but it doesn't seem like a good use of time and energy when tours are so inexpensive.

While we were there I noticed a Japanese tourist who was carrying what looked like a big can of hairspray with a fancy plastic lid on it.  Every once and awhile she would hold the lid over her mouth and take a hit from the can.  It was canned oxygen!  I have asthma and altitude is always a trigger for me.  I've had a few bad trips when I've brought the wrong puffer and struggled to catch my breath. My allergist had prescribed special puffers for me leading up to this trip, but the altitude was still causing some shortness of breath.  I was intrigued but too shy to ask her where she got it.

Cusco from Sacsaywaman; Plaza de Armas in the foreground

After Sacsaywaman it was on to Tambomachay, also known as 'the bath of the Incas.'  These ruins consist of three tired platforms and water springs feed the platforms and create a waterfall/shower.  The best thing at Tambomachay was that there was a group of women and children in traditional clothing with llamas and you could give them a donation and get your photo taken with them and the llamas.  I was so excited!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

We travelled on to Q'enqo which is a great stone, formerly carved in the shape of a puma but destroyed by the Spanish who wanted to force the Incas to convert to Christianity.  Like many of the Inca sites we visited, it depends on which guidebook or which reference you read as different scholars have different ideas about exactly how this site was used.  It was interesting to see the amazing rock work sculpted so many years ago.  There are platforms and niches on the outside and then a huge chamber with a raised platform inside that was most likely used in some sort of ceremonial ritual. 
Puma statue (destroyed by Spaniards)

We rode the bus back to town and since we were at the Plaza de Armas we decided to have dinner and then head back to the hotel.  We found a restaurant upstairs (and if John or I remember the name of it, I'll add it here later.  I wasn't intending to blog this trip so I didn't keep accurate notes.)  We ordered a pisco sour and some appetizers - alpaca kabob and some other things - and then went to the washroom to freshen up.  I had been holding a llama, after all.  In the ladies room, there was a bucket of water with a spigot in it next to the sink.  Apparently the sink wasn't working.  When John returned from the men's room, he informed me that the sink wasn't working and there wasn't even a bucket of water. He hadn't been able to wash his hands.  Luckily I had some hand sanitizer in my purse so he just used that instead.  But if there was no way to wash your hands in the men's room, what about the staff?  How clean could the kitchen be?  We decided to just have our drinks and then head out and get dinner somewhere else.  When the food came, we changed our minds.  It was so delicious; we ate it and ordered more!
Then it was time to call it a night! 
Cusco at Twilight from Sacsaywaman


Monday, 18 August 2014

On to Cuzco

We slept in til almost 9:00 and then got ready and went downstairs to the breakfast buffet.  Wow!  It was really good with foods from around the world.  In addition to the usual fruit, yogurt, meat, cheese, eggs, pancakes there were tamales, sushi, dim sum, and the best chicken shawarma.

John and I went for a short walk around a nearby park. It was very hot and humid and there were stands on the street corners selling Inka Kola, this yellow soda pop.  After seeing it everywhere, John bought a bottle to try.  It tasted like a combination of bubble gum and cream soda.  Not my favourite.
The ubiquitous Inka Kola

Reynaldo picked us up and we were off to the airport for our flight to Cuzco.  For a Sunday morning there was really heavy traffic.  Reynaldo explained that today was a day for college admission exams.  Students can receive free college education but there are over 25000 applicants for 1500 spots. 

Our flight to Cuzco was quick and uneventful and we grabbed a cab ride to our hotel, the Terra Viva Cusco Saphi. When researching hotels on TripAdvisor, and other websites, I had noticed that at some hotels the cab had to drop you off at the bottom of a hill and then you had to hike upstairs to the hotel.  At such a high altitude I knew I didn't want to be doing extra hiking, and I was thrilled when the cab dropped us off right at the front door.

our room with traditional alpaca decoration

the front of our hotel in Cusco

It was a great hotel and only $100 per night - close to the Plaza de Armas but far enough away that it was quiet at night.  Our room was big and bright, and there was a lovely interior courtyard where we could sit outside and relax.  In the lobby there was a pot of coca tea as well as loose coca leaves to help combat the altitude sickness that many people experience. 

Image from
Here's John in the doorway to our room. Notice the two bulls on the roof - one male, one female.  These are seen on homes and businesses everywhere around Cusco and mean different things, depending on who you ask.  There is usually a cross and sometimes a ladder as well.  According to some it brings good luck and good fortune to the residents, and the ladder and cross are there to ensure a speedy journey to heaven.  If you ask five people, you'll get five different answers!  For some differing opinions check out Yahoo, or this website or even this website.

We went for a walk downtown to Plaza de Armas and there was some sort of water balloon and shaving cream battle going on.  I'm not sure why, but everyone seemed to be having a great time.  There was a large crowd gathered to the one side so we went over there and watched some sort of dramatic presentation that involved two men in costumes having a pretend battle.  I really need to learn more Spanish so I can ask more questions! 

Some of the shaving cream fight participants

wearing a hat of shaving cream

Plaza de Armas was beautiful and I'm glad we stayed nearby.  I loved all the cobblestone streets, the historic buildings, the gardens - a great homebase for exploring Cusco. 

Shops and restaurants along the perimeter of Plaza de Armas

The Inca fountain - a new and controversial addition to the Plaza


The Plaza is beautiful and filled with restaurants, shops and people offering massages.  I guess they figure you need a massage after all the uphill hiking that you are doing in and around the Sacred Valley.  Facing the cathedral is a tall golden Inca statue which was added in 2011 and caused a great deal of controversy.  Some residents feel it is helping to restore the Inca presence to the city and others feel that the Plaza is a colonial area and the fountain should have been left in its original form.  I guess there used to be a statue that someone brought from New York with a Native American Indian with a bow and arrow at the top of the fountain.  I think that would look weirdly out of place in Cusco, but that's just my opinion!

We settled on a patio for a leisurely dinner overlooking the street and then were off to bed.  After all this walking and fresh air, the bed felt wonderful!