Most people only come to Aguas Calientes for the day or at best overnight. Breakfast at our hotel started at 4:30 in the morning because some people get up and hike up the mountain to be at the ticket gate when it opens at 7:00! Others get in line to get the bus so that they can be at the gate at 7:00. The buses are fairly new and comfortable for the ride up the mountain with 14 switchbacks.
Since we didn’t have a schedule to keep we stayed in the town several days. The things to do in the town aren’t as exciting as going to Machu Picchu but they were pleasant. In addition to looking at the stone carvings, there are hikes, tourist shops, hot springs, butterfly gardens, museum, and just exploring the town. While we walked up to the hot springs (to see some of the carvings along the way), we didn’t have bathing suits with us (we had traveled with only some of our things and had left them in Guayaquil with some of out things) and didn’t want to rent suits. We did buy a few things at the tourist shops but we mostly just hiked and walked around town.
Walking towards the museum, we passed men that were creating stone building blocks by hand. There were a few power tools but most of the work was done by hand, one stone at a time. Hard, hot work.
There was this funky old bus at a restaurant on the way to the museum as well. Love that it is used to hold plants and the satellite dish!We wandered into the area that is where the locals live. There was a lot of renovations in the past 5 years or so. New government buildings and a wonderful soccer field where we saw a game going on at night.
The bridge that crosses over to the other side has chain link on the sides and as in some large cities, people have added a variety of padlocks as a symbol of their love. Cute although I understand it there get to be too many locks, the authorities have to cut them off.In Peru, there are three important symbols: the condor (sky/heaven), puma or cougar (earth), and the serpent (wisdom). You see the three symbols together frequently. There is a nice explanation of them here.Drainage is done in two ways. Walkways on the slopes tend to have a grate down the middle. Along the short street and a few other areas, there are holes in the concrete next to the curb. We saw this in other towns as well.
Cusco was founded in 1100, probably making it the oldest city we visited. It is high, 11,152 feet and probably has close to 500,000 people. We were there briefly before we went to Ollantaytambo and then a bit longer after we left the Puno/Arequipa areas. Like many towns in Latin America, it is built on steep land.
One thing we saw very quickly is that the old parts of Cusco has very narrow streets. That wasn’t surprising but what was strange is that these old streets are two ways! This makes for very interesting traffic, lots of horn honking and frustration until one person gives up and backs up out of the way.
We went to a very interesting Inca museum and did some sight seeing. Sadly, most museums don’t allow any photography so we have little record of what we saw.
We didn’t see this often but it was not uncommon for an indigenous person to earn money allowing their picture to be taken. This one has a 2 week old lamb and a 2 month old llama.
Despite what the sign says, you are going to take a train or hike the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu. They take you as far as possible by car but then you still have to take the train the rest of the way. (Don’t you love the spelling of the word “by”?)
Here you see some people in costumes representing some of the figures in the Aguas Calientes stone carvings. (Sorry it isn’t clearer, this event was going on as we passed in a taxi or bus.)
All of the buses I remember in Latin America have a driver and someone to collect money. In this case, the woman has her daughter riding along. While she was good for her age, 3?, she was bored and climbing all over. Not very safe but I am sure the woman didn’t have an affordable choice for day care.
There are many stalls and people walking around selling crafted items as well as this beautiful mural.
When we left Aguas Calientes, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo. We wanted to see a few more of the ruins and the general area before we left the Sacred Valley. We enjoyed walking along the sidewalks with ancient stone walls built 500 years ago.
We went on a tour to see some ruins up in the mountains. It was about a 15 minute hike from the car to an isolated area that was once a training facility for the Incas. Now there are a few partial buildings and some llamas grazing in the area. We didn’t see the owner of the animals but there was a young German Shepherd there to guard the animals. He was very friendly, I guess he could tell we weren’t going to hurt the llamas. He followed us partly down the mountain when we left.
When we got down the mountain, the guide told us to wait and he’d go get the car. We didn’t realize we were being set up to have our own, private market! We saw these two females walking down the road with big bundles on their backs. As soon as they got to us, they unslung the bundles and put out their wares. We bought one thing from each of them. It was quite fun except we found out one of the females was 7 years old. Why wasn’t she is school???
We rode to another area where the indigenous welcomed people to their village. There had just been a village meeting so there were a lot of people milling around in their local dress. We talked to one man and he joked that the beaded strap on his hat was for his wife to pull him. The guide told us when to pay a small sum (the equivilent of a dollar or less) for the photos and when not to. Not sure what his criteria was.
I’d been curious when babies started to walk because they are in the slings so much of the day so I asked one mother about this. Children don’t start to walk until age 2 since they aren’t spending as much time crawling, kicking, and moving when they are in the sling.
We saw one lady weaving on the side of a mountain. She was all alone, working away. In the village we also saw people weaving. I would think that it is very hard on their backs to sit on the ground for long periods of time weaving.
Dyes are made from plant roots, leaves, seeds, and berries. The colors are beautifully bright and they wear their clothes with much pride.
There are ancient terraces almost everywhere you look. It was not uncommon to see cows or llamas grazing on one of the tiers.
Roofs often have a little bull on the top which is thought by the locals to bring good fortune to the house. It was fun to see them.
It is difficult to explain the feeling when you arrive at Machu Picchu. After 14 switchbacks on the bus, you are discharged into the parking lot. Until you go a little way past the ticket stalls, you can’t see the ruins. But once you get where you can see them, they are everything that you ever imagined or saw in a picture.
When they commercialized the area, they were careful to preserve the actual ruins and surrounding area so that you can have an inspiring view. And it is truly inspiring! While the ruins are not that high, 7,972 feet, about the same as the Blue Spruce RV park where I am typing this post, they are on a peak and there is a lot of openness in the area that is awesome in the fullest sense of the word. I felt on top of the world.
People have asked us what our favorite place in our travels was and this place is it for me, hands down.
Even though thousands of people visit the ruins every day, we were fortunate to come on the end of the low season so it never felt really crowded. Currently, 2500 people are allowed per day to this UNESCO World Heritage site, split between morning and afternoon entry. You can find tickets on several sites online, about $70 per person (Peruvians are less). The bus was $25 per person, round trip.
If you are adventuresome, there are 500 people allowed to hike the 4 day trail to Machu Picchu each day. The hike requires a guide and is a bit expensive because you are well fed and there is staff to carry the tents, tables and chairs, food, and sometimes some of your own gear. The days are sometimes a bit challenging but the lady I spoke to about her experience was delighted (and amazed!) that she had done it.
Pictures can’t really share the sacred, awe-inspiring experience but they will help.
The architecture is typical Inca with no mortar needed to hold the stones together. You can even put a level on the stones and they are level! The stones were carved on sight and workers have to work continuously to keep things in good shape. And of course, there were llamas roaming freely…ignoring the tourists that invade their home.After we looked around the ruins with our guide (optional but recommended), we hiked up to the Sun Gate. Not a really long or hard hike but longer than I expected. LOL
Aguas Calientes is the nearest town to Machu Picchu. The only way to reach Aguas Calientes is walking several days or by train (2-4 hours from Ollantaytambo or Cuzco). Once you get to Aguas Calientes, be prepared to walk up and down hills. The distances aren’t that far but they are fairly steep.
The people of Aguas Calientes have done an amazing job of making this a pleasant place to stay near the iconic Machu Picchu. The town is almost Disney Land clean. They have cute recycling containers like in the posting for Ollantaytambo. They also have dozens of beautiful stone carvings in the huge boulders and rock hillsides of the town. Here are a few of the carvings. Most of them are at least 6′ high and 4 or 5′ across!
Just as there are no roads to the town, there are no roads in the actual town. There is one very short paved section at one end of the town where the Machu Picchu buses load (and turn around). This means that everything comes in one the train: people, food, water (remember the water isn’t potable!!!), materials, etc. Once they arrive, they are manually unloaded from the train and put on small carts and hauled up the hills. The men who do this (I didn’t see any women hauling carts) must be very strong since they are loaded down. Many of the pedestrian “streets” are sloped or have ramps along the side of them for the carts.
If you walk from Aguas Calientes towards Machu Picchu or the museum or the hikes that some people take, you pass a work area on the outskirts of the town where the stone blocks are being carved. There are a series of very nice signs.
Huayna Picchu is a mountain peak that is seen behind many of the pictures of Machu Picchu. After reading reviews that it wasn’t that long or hard, we had bought tickets to hike it the day after Machu Picchu (only 400 people per day can get tickets to climb it). By the time we went to the Sun Gate, 8,924 feet (an elevation change of about 950′) I decided I didn’t want to hike Huayna Picchu the following day. The altitude at Huayna Picchu is also 8,924 feet.
Dan went and said it was a good thing that I didn’t go since there were very steep steps/rocks to climb that would have been difficult for a shorty like me.
His comments about Huayna Picchu? Awesome! Steep! Surprised to find ruins at the top…it would have been a lot of work to get the stones up there. Incredible view. Here are some pictures from his hike.
His advice is that although tickets are sold to visit Machu Picchu and climb Huayna Picchu the same day (because you have to go through Machu Picchu to access the trail to Huayna Picchu), it is best to separate the two activities over different days if you aren’t a youngster. This means buying a second ticket just for Machu Picchu if you want to spend much time visiting that famous site.
We flew from Guayaquil Ecuador to Cusco Peru using airline miles. From there we took a bus to Ollantaytambo.
Ollantaytambo is a small, sleepy town that is less than 2 hours by bus from Cusco and a more reasonable altitude of 9,074 feet above sea level, it has lodging, restaurants, a few tour guide businesses, and not much else. It is level in most of the town although 5 minutes away you can start a climb to some ruins.
We stayed in a relatively recently remodeled hostel with a lovely courtyard. The room itself was in good condition except the floor wasn’t level (interesting in the middle of the night) and the entrance door is about 5’ high. I didn’t have to duck to go in and out but Dan did.
As with most towns, there is a river that runs through Ollantaytambo. The difference in this river is that it goes through a series of open culverts which are less than a foot wide/deep. This makes it quite rapid. The water is crystal clear and safe for bathing but not drinking.
We started up one path and ran into a guide who was hoping to run into someone like us who would like to hire him. We did and walked up a fairly steep path to some ruins that had been a lookout in times past. From this point you could see the start of the Inca Trail and we actually saw some horses coming back from the trail (I think it is 2 days by horseback but 4 days hiking).
We enjoyed the town enough to return to it after we went to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.
Since there are no roads to Aguas Calientes and we didn’t want to hike 4 days on the Inca Trail (OK, Dan did want to hike a day or two but you can’t decide this at the last minute since there are so few tickets permitted and besides it is an all or none proposition…no hiking part way).
The train to Aguas Calientes wasn’t completely full but the return train was. On the train out, there had been a problem with our meals not being vegetarian/gluten free (easiest way to order for Dan’s preferences). The conductor/manager/whatever his title was remembered the date/time of our return trip and he presented us with a small bottle of Pisco and a shot glass. Pisco is an alcoholic drink from Peru and Chile and is used in many mixed drinks. It was nice of him to remember us.
The ride itself is scenic and we chatted a lot with our seatmates on the way out. They were from Switzerland but they were actually from some other countries.
It takes just under 2 hours one way for the ride on these modern comfortable trains. There are two companies who provide this service, Inca Rail and Peru Rail. We rode both trains during our stay in Peru.
I enjoyed Ecuador quite a bit. People are friendly and open. The scenery is gorgeous. Life is easier as an American there because they use the US coins.
I enjoyed seeing the various indigenous people in their native clothes. The food was tastier than Colombia (which is very bland) and very inexpensive.
Dan’s favorite city was Loja. I enjoyed Ibarra because we spent time talking with our neighbor and host more than some other places. This allowed me to get a better feel for life in Ecuador. Quito was fun because of the Equator activities.
Generally museums are free or extremely inexpensive.
If you go to Latin America, be sure to spend time here. Plan ahead more and go to the Galapagos Islands if you can. It is expensive, about $3000-40000 for 2 people for 5 days. Maybe some day…