The Best of Cusco and Machu Picchu

Cusco – A Great Place for a Reunion

The best part of Cusco was getting to spend time with friends and family. We stayed in a sweet little hotel with five rooms in the San Blas neighborhood run by a Peruvian family and ate daily at some fantastic vegetarian restaurants. We ran into people we met in Chachapoyas, Yarinacocha and Potosí months before. The Cusco region is a major hub for travelers.

Cuzco was colder than we expected, but the most popular soup place in the market helped us out
Cusco was colder than we expected, but the most popular soup place in the market helped us out
The Flower Market in Cuzco
The Flower Market in Cusco

Cuzco at Night
San Blas neighborhood at night
Perú never fails to have military processions on a regular basis
Perú never fails to have military processions on a regular basis
Delicious vegan meals could be found very easily in Cuzco
Delicious vegan meals could be found very easily in Cusco

Kurt’s niece, Maggie and her fiancé, Cory landed in Cusco from Rio a few days after we arrived. We spent many days with them exploring the city and catching up. On the first afternoon with them, we were given a tour of the city by a friend of theirs that retired there. We learned some interesting facts while getting to see a variety of Incan stonework, the finest of which was inside of a restaurant.

Maggie, Cory and Richard on our tour of Cuzco
Maggie, Cory and Richard on our tour of Cusco
Kurt and his favorite niece, Maggie
Kurt and his favorite niece, Maggie
Best Incan stonework in Cuzco is inside of a restaurant
Best Incan stonework in Cusco is inside of a restaurant
Outside the Golden Temple in Cuzco
Outside the Golden Temple in Cusco

It was necessary to stop by the Choco Museo where we sampled loads of delicious chocolate morsels. It’s not really a museum, just a Peruvian chain that sells fine chocolates.

Sampling Chocolate Tea at the Choco Museo
Sampling Chocolate Tea at the Choco Museo
The chocolate brownie is no joke
The chocolate brownie is no joke

I looked at the official Machu Picchu website to determine where to buy tickets. We were directed to the cultural center or a bank near city hall. When we sought our tickets, we were told tickets weren’t sold at either place. A security guard told us we would have to take a taxi to another neighborhood far away from the city center to buy tickets. This didn’t make sense and fortunately we didn’t heed this advice. Ultimately, we made it to the official tourist office where we were directed to the official Machu Picchu ticket office, which ironically ended up being right across the street from the Choco Museo. This office was not mentioned on the official government website. A few days later, we accompanied our friends when they purchased tickets. They also wanted to buy bus tickets from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. These weren’t sold by the official ticket office. We would have to go to a bank where we would spend an hour navigating that bureaucratic comedy. I love it though. It’s all part of the adventure!

Another afternoon, we visited the Templo de la Luna. We were guided there somewhat mystically by kind people who offered to sell us a horse ride. We would have passed the temple entirely as this is not like Machu Picchu with clearly marked one way signs all over the place. We ran into a man cutting quinoa with a machete. We asked him where the temple was and he offered to tell us a little history about the place. We sat in the grass and listened to what I assumed to be Incan legends that had been passed down to him. Afterwards, we tipped him 10 soles. His eyes got big and wide and we could tell he wasn’t expecting this. The temple was incredibly peaceful and quiet. We sat there together enjoying the solitude and serenity away from the busyness of modern Cusco. We had the place all to ourselves for over 20 minutes before another couple showed up with their guide. We stepped outside to allow them the pleasure of enjoying the sacred space themselves but I think the chatter of their guide and brevity of their visit cheated them out of what was for us the most rewarding time in any Incan ruin. On our way back to the city, we met some funny people at the Monkey Temple who wanted to be fast friends with us. The girl was from Australia. Her male companion wore his hair long and dressed like John Redcorn.

Quinoa fields outside of the Templo de la Luna
Quinoa fields outside of the Templo de la Luna
Our impromptu guide for the Templo de la Luna
Our impromptu guide for the Templo de la Luna
Outside the Templo de la Luna
Outside the Templo de la Luna

Serendipitously, our friends from Austin, Kevin and Natalia, visited Machu Picchu and Cusco the same week we did. It was great to catch up with them and tour them around the city a little bit with information we learned from Maggie and Cory’s friend. We mainly spent our time dining out as old friends do and searching for authentic Peruvian coffee in the market. We also revisited the Choco Museo with them.

Hanging out at the Golden Temple with Natalia and Kevin
Hanging out at the Golden Temple with Natalia and Kevin

The Back Way to Machu Picchu

Kurt and I, in our thrifty adventure-travel minded ways, decided to take the back road to Machu Picchu. For us, this route involved staying several nights in Santa Teresa, a small village best known for its picturesque natural hot springs (spending time in which is one of our favorite pasttimes).

We caught a lift from our friendly hotelier to a bus terminal to find a car to Santa Maria, the first stop on our journey. We ended up waiting about an hour but we were able to ride in a virtually new car with just the two of us in the backseat for a mere S/25 per person. The drive was incredible. Much faster than we anticipated, the ride took us up past high snowy mountains and through the beautiful Sacred Valley until finally delivering us into the high jungle, after an amazing trout lunch.

Somewhere in the Sacred Valley
Somewhere in the Sacred Valley
Best trout I've ever had
Best trout I’ve ever had

We switched cars in Santa Maria and traveled another 45 or so minutes to Santa Teresa.  The road there would qualify as another “Trampoline of Death.” Cascades frequently poured out onto the road. The water was so high in places that the car’s engine let off steam as we crawled through it. We passed dozens of mudslides as we drove along the narrow single-lane road with 300 meter drops into the canyon below.

When we arrived, we found a hotel and headed for the springs. These springs may be the most beautiful I have ever seen. There are three enormous crystal clear pools with varying temperatures. As I looked out from the pools, I was confronted with lush green mountains hovering above the rushing river.

Kurt lap swimming in the hot springs
Kurt lap swimming in the hot springs
Lounging at the beautiful Santa Teresa hot springs
Lounging at the beautiful Santa Teresa hot springs

That night, we caught a ride back to the village with another traveling couple on their way to Machu Picchu. They told us about the hotel they were staying in, brand new and cheaper than ours so we moved to the room they were vacating the following day. For dinner, we located a great pizza place with wood-burning oven. It immediately became our restaurant for most meals.

Most people just pass through Santa Teresa for the night on their way to Machu Picchu or are there on part of their trekking tour. Kurt and I made Santa Teresa our home for several days. In fact, staying in Santa Teresa and visiting the hot springs was our favorite part of our trip to Machu Picchu. We spent several other afternoons at the springs soaking in the water and having swim races, although the water really was a bit too hot for this. The young family that ran the pizza joint noticed us and were curious about why we were there for so long. We even found a cook in the market for fruit juices and breakfasts. I love getting to witness and interact a bit with the locals, even if it is brief.

In the colectivo that took us to Hidroelectrico to begin our hike to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu), we listened to romantic ballads called bachatas as the man behind me sang along. Laughingly, he told me this is the music you listen to when with a woman or drinking a beer. He and his buddies were in good spirits.

We were told the hike would take 2-3 hours. Since we decided to haul (or rather Kurt hauled) 5 liters of water and rain began to pour on us, it took more like 3.5 hours to reach the village. The walk along the railroad tracks was absolutely stunning as we saw the terraces of Machu Picchu in the distance.

At Hidroelectrico when the sun was still shining.
At Hidroelectrico when the sun was still shining
Thank God we bought some umbrellas
Thank God we bought umbrellas in Cusco
Incan terraces in the background
Incan terraces in the background

Aguas Calientes was the most touristic place we saw in South America but for good reason. We dined on some French pastries, a rarity in South America. As early as I could get up the next morning, we got in line for the vans to the top of the mountain. I felt like a sheep being herded. We piled into a van and then piled out into the great tourist attraction of Machu Picchu. Don’t get me wrong, it was incredibly beautiful. However, it was covered with Americans taking photos. Some said they came down because of an advertisement they saw during the Super Bowl.

It was difficult to really to get into the experience because we had already seen so much that wasn’t so touristy during our lengthy travels. We opted not to have a tour guide but rather enjoy the place on our own. We spent time wandering through the ancient stones kissing and goofing around. This is still our honeymoon after all.

We purchased tickets to Machu Picchu Mountain which we hiked about half-way up. We spent most of our time on our climb talking with fellow Americans, stopping to eat snacks and admiring the view below. We didn’t feel the need to push it any further because we planned to walk all the way down to the rail station then hike back to Santa Teresa that afternoon.

A rainbow appeared for our arrival to Aguas Calientes
A rainbow appeared for our arrival to Aguas Calientes
The pre-sunrise crowds begin
The pre-sunrise crowds begin
Having fun at Machu Picchu
Having fun at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu early morning
Machu Picchu early morning
The trail we hiked is down belong, along the river
The trail we hiked is down below, along the river
Consulting the map of Machu Picchu
Consulting the map of Machu Picchu
Enjoying ourselves at Machu Picchu
Enjoying ourselves at Machu Picchu
Hiking the Machu Picchu Mountain
Hiking Machu Picchu Mountain

We hoped to see Maggie and Cory because they were at Machu Picchu the same day, ending a trek on the Inca Trail, but there were just too many people to find them. Kurt left word for them that we would see them in Cusco at the gate for the other peak that they hiked. In the afternoon, we made our way down the mountain to the rail station to began our trek back to Hidroelectrico, the pick up point about a half hour drive from Santa Teresa. After trekking 11km, we soaked in the hot springs at Santa Teresa for the last time. We were sore, happy and exhausted.

A Weekend in Pisac

We spent a weekend in Pisac with Maggie and Cory. On our way there, we stopped at an ‘animal refuge center’. Unfortunately, it seemed more like a petting zoo. I’ve never heard of rescue guinea pigs. However, it was pretty incredible to see some pumas up close. They told us they had rescued one from a nightclub in Lima. Sadly, it’s teeth had been cut down and claws removed.

The pumas at the 'animal refuge center'
The pumas at the ‘animal refuge center’

We decided to spend the afternoon at what we thought was a resort style hotel with a swimming pool. When we arrived, we found an enormous Olympic sized pool in a complex that included basketball courts, cabañas, and even a climbing wall. The place was nearly empty. We swam some laps in the chilly water and tried to enjoy the jacuzzi but it was also cold. We dined at a wonderful pizza place and went to the market the next day before bidding farewell to Maggie and Cory. We took a decrepit bus back to Cusco and caught a 21 hour overnight bus to Lima on our favorite line, Tepsa. Tepsa reminds me of Virgin Airlines because when boarding, the cabin is lit up with neon blue lights and catchy house music plays over the loudspeakers.

The Olympic sized swimming pool in Pisac
The Olympic sized swimming pool in Pisac
Maggie and Cory did some rock climbing
Maggie and Cory did some rock climbing
At the hotel in Pisac
At the hotel in Pisac