It was difficult leaving Curahuasi and all the hospitality we encountered, but the trip had to continue. Our next big destination was the primary tourist area of Peru – Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
We spent an evening in Cusco, taking in the atmosphere. It caters extremely well to international tourism, a pretty colonial town with tons of tour agencies, and no Spanish required. There’s even a giant mall with a Starbucks. We were there during low season, and it must be crazy when it’s full of people. The funniest to us was continuing to run into “duffle bag man,” a guy carrying 2 expedition style North Face duffel bags around town – we saw him multiple times in Cusco and then again in Machu Picchu, and we weren’t really quite sure what he was doing exactly. He looked completely expedition ready, in brand spanking new neon gear, running around. Somehow we didn’t get a picture of him, maybe because it’d be stalker-ish. Did we mention that every time we saw him, he was always carrying two expedition North Face bags?
We evaluated our options for going to Machu Picchu, and had the decision made for us. As we were checking the insanely expensive train ride to Machu Picchu, it got booked out. So we decided to get there the longer but cheaper way.
After a night in the city, we headed into the central valley. The plan was to go to Machu Picchu from the back side, where you can do an easy hike along some train tracks and skip taking the insanely expensive train. The drive there was similar to the past few weeks, through fantastic mountain valleys, over a 4,000m pass. The weather changed significantly on the 2 sides of the pass, with fog and rain closer to Machu Picchu.
As Nikki was sleeping in the passenger seat, I may have been speeding down the hill, crossing some of the water runoffs just a bit too fast. At some point the tire pressure sensor went off, which can sometimes just be from rapid changes in temperature and altitude. This time it was real, I had hit a really sharp rock that went straight through the tire. Our first flat tire of the trip. Luckily we weren’t losing air too fast, so we managed to drive to the next town where we quickly found a tire repair shop and found that the rock had put a solid 1 inch cut into the tire. Half an hour later the rock was removed, a patch applied and we were on our way again – until 10 minutes later we started to lose air again. Disconcerted we returned to the same shop, but the guy had gone home for the day. After a bit of asking around we found his home, and he came back to the shop to apply a new patch, this time a bigger one. Slightly worried about the patch we spent the night in a nearby town as to not get caught on the dirt road in the dark with another flat; it felt a lot better seeing the tire still inflated the next morning!
So we hiked out to Aguas Calientes from the nearby hydroelectric station. It was mostly a flat walk. Unlike anywhere else we had been to recently, there were tons of people on the trail, and nobody cared to even greet us on the way. Regardless, we made it to the base of Machu Picchu fairly quickly, found a cheap hostel and an even cheaper food place, walked around town and then went to sleep early. The next morning we headed out at 4:30am to be there in time for the opening of the ruins. As we were walking to the start of the hike, it turned out that the hike itself doesn’t open until 5am (there’s a manned gate), and that about 100 people had decided to beat the crowds together with us. Either way, the past few weeks of acclimatization had helped a lot and we managed to be first in line at the top – just to see the tour buses arrive with even more people. I’m happy to report that Nikki was the first tourist to enter the ruins that day.
Machu Picchu is an impressive sight, and we’ve been wondering how it would compare to all the hyped expectations we’ve had. It’s certainly better to be up there with fewer people around. After a few hours, tour groups were everywhere. There’s a different feel to checking out ruins all to yourself, something which we’ve had most of the time on this trip. On the other hand, this place and especially its location were pretty special.
Heading back, we passed by the towns of Ollantaytambo and Pisac, although we felt “ruined out” and decided to skip these sights and start driving again. The Sacred Valley soon turned into altiplano, with most of the drive pretty flat at altitudes around 4,000m. For the first time in a while the driving was fast, and we managed to drive all the way to Lake Titicaca (about 450km) in one day. Before that, covering 200km was a tiring, all-day affair. We stocked up on food and gas, and then headed for the border to Bolivia along the lake.