Wanting to celebrate my birthday in March with an adventure, I decided to go to Machu Picchu with my mom. After my usual meticulous planning, I purchased tickets in January, made all necessary reservations, and was ready to spend the month of February packing and looking forward to my trip.
Then the area surrounding Machu Picchu was hit with massive flooding, destroying part of the railway tracks that go from Machu Picchu to the town of Cusco, where most tourists stay. I wasn’t worried, as I was sure they would have it repaired by March. I contacted the rail company, and was told that they were working on other ways of getting tourists up to the site, perhaps even with helicopters.
A few weeks before my trip, I checked on the status of my helicopter reservation. I was told that the government had nixed that idea, and decided to just close Machu Picchu until all repairs were complete, most likely in April. It was recommended that I reschedule my trip. Then I worried. Of course, the one time I did not purchase trip insurance, which meant paying hefty penalties to change my ticket. And I wasn’t even sure if I could get away from work in April.
Totally stressed and getting conflicting advice from everyone I talked to, I ultimately decided that I wanted to wake up the morning of my birthday and be in Peru on an adventure. If it wasn’t to include Machu Picchu, then I was sure there was something else awaiting us. So, we went ahead with our plans, although I secretly hoped that when we got down there, we would discover some back alley, hush-hush way to get to Machu Picchu. As we packed our bags, I told my mom that I felt like we were going to Wally World.
Our first day of travel was spent flying to Lima. We arrived close to midnight, and were scheduled to fly to Cusco early the next morning, so we stayed at the Ramada across the street from the airport. It was a very modern and comfortable hotel, and we were given vouchers for two welcome drinks at the bar, which I would have loved to redeem, but was simply too tired. Next time.
The flight to Cusco was just over an hour, and we were checked into our hotel by noon. It was recommended to me by multiple sources to spend the first day resting and acclimating to the high altitude, but I chose to disregard this wise advice. We made plans for a city tour that afternoon and tour of the Sacred Valley the following day. I had brought altitude sickness pills from my doctor, which I was supposed to start taking before I left for my trip, but disregarded those as well. The side effects sounded worse than the symptoms. We had some coca tea at our hotel, as well as some amazing chicken soup, then were off on our tour.
Our tours were arranged through Travel Connections, who works with the hotel, which made everything very easy for us. We started in the Plaza de Armas, at the main Cathedral, then went to Qorikancha, which is just south of the Plaza. Both of these structures were originally Inca – a palace and a temple – and built over by the Spanish. Qorikancha has Spanish Colonial style architecture atop Inca architecture, the result being hodge-podge from inside, but quite stunning from the outside.
We then traveled to up to the Sacsayhuamán Fortress, which looks down upon the city of Cusco. Our guide told us that the pronunciation sounds like “sexy woman”, which led to a chorus of our group saying the name repeatedly and chuckling. The layout of the structure reminded me of the Cliffs of Moher. While we were there, it started raining pretty heavily, so I was also reminded of my trip to Stonehenge. Despite the rain, I was able to marvel at how the Incas aligned the massive stones so perfectly, without using any mortar. These structures have withstood multiple earthquakes, so clearly they knew what they were doing. We next went outside the city to the Inca ruins of Tambomachay – where I had my first llama sighting! – and Pukapukara.
Our last stop on the tour was Qenko. It was getting dark and fatigue was setting in, so at first I was unimpressed with what seemed like just a big rock. But then we were led inside it by way of a narrowly carved out path that ended in a small room where the Incas performed animal sacrifices. Suddenly, I was very alert, as my imagination placed me in the middle of an Indiana Jones movie.
We returned to Cusco, where my mom and I enjoyed an amazing meal at Chi Cha, a restaurant specializing in modern spins on traditional Peruvian dishes. The decor and clientele would have fit right into New York City. We were told by the hostess that normally we would have had to make a reservation weeks in advance, but due to the flooding they had a high volume of cancellations. It never occurred to me to make a dining reservation before my trip, nor did it occur to me that we’d discover such a cosmopolitan dining scene in Cusco. I considered myself lucky, wondering what our entire experience would have been lucky if Machu Picchu had not been closed.
THE SACRED VALLEY
The next morning, we were up bright and early again for our day tour of the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was Chinchero, which is not in the valley but rather sits at a higher elevation than Cusco. It was here that I first noticeably felt the effects of the altitude. Some people in our tour group had coca candy, which I very skeptically tried. I felt better almost immediately.
In Chinchero, we once again saw a church with Spanish Colonial style built over Inca remains. As much as I love to travel, I have seen so many churches and cathedrals that my attitude at this point is, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. So I walked into this church unenthusiastic, and walked out absolutely awe-struck…..from the view outside. It was so beautiful I gasped, and not because of the altitude. I could have stayed all day soaking it in, but we were soon off to Ollantaytambo.
Ollantaytambo is at a lower altitude than Chinchero and Cusco, and is the starting point for the Inca Trail. This was as close as we were going to get to Machu Picchu. Our guide told us that tourism had dropped significantly since the flooding. It seemed to me that there were plenty of tourists, and again I realized the mixed blessing that was the closure of Machu Picchu. I got the impression that the crowd size must feel like Disney World during the peak season.
The fortress at Ollantaytambo was massive, and we needed a couple of breaks before reaching the top. I don’t know how the Incas did it, and while hauling large stones. It rained a bit while we were at the top, so the steps were slippery coming down. I tried to assist my mom, but was struggling a bit with my own footing. Then this older man in our group – white, tall, thin, gray-haired, asked the most questions to our guide, talked to all the locals, in other words a spitting image of my father – came from behind us and took my mom’s hand to escort her down. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself, “you found us all the way down here in Peru, dad?” Which was then followed by, “but you couldn’t get us to Machu Picchu?”
Our day tour included a stop for a buffet lunch. The phrase “buffet lunch” of course conjured up expectations that we would pull into some dive of a restaurant for a sub-par meal, so I couldn’t believe my eyes when we stopped in the town of Urubamba, and were led into a beautiful courtyard for our lunch. The buffet was fresh and delicious, and I enjoyed a heavenly mousse cake made with Sauco berry, a local fruit.
After lunch, we made our way to the ruins of Pisac. The sun was shining throughout our hour long journey, but as soon as we got to the ruins, the skies darkened and an intense downpour began. The view was stunning despite the rain, and as soon as we were all appropriately soaked, we got back on the bus and went down to the town of Pisac, where we dried off while strolling through the market in the main square. I’m not the best price negotiator, but I think I held my own against a young girl whose picture I wanted to take, as well as the eight-year-old boy who controlled access to the only bathroom around.
The journey from Pisac back to Cusco is usually short, but the flooding had damaged a bridge along the route, so we had to take a longer way home. The long way provided us with breathtaking views of the region as we went up and down the mountains. I couldn’t get over how vibrant and green the mountains were. At some points, I felt like I was in Ireland. Our guide said that the color was due to all the rain, as the land is normally more brown. Another unexpected benefit.
The next day was my birthday. I had planned to go to Machu Picchu on this day, and in fact had tickets for the Orient Express train, which is how I convinced my mom to join me in the first place. We had the option of some half-day tours outside of Cusco, but decided to spend the day leisurely exploring the town. We slept in, had a yummy breakfast, then headed out to be leisurely. We made our way up the very steep climb to the neighborhood of San Blas, which overlooks Cusco, and is considered the “hip” neighborhood, full of artists and students. Along the way, we stopped in lots of little stores, and by the time we got to San Blas we were hungry.
My mom went into a tiny store selling the threaded silver jewelry she was looking for, and just behind that I saw a charming courtyard restaurant with a wood-burning stove in the center. I had read that the pizza in Peru was good, and at Pacha Papa, it was amazing. I had a total zen moment with veggie pizza, orange Fanta, plus sunshine and a slight breeze in the courtyard. Then the waitress brought me a chocolate fudgesicle type dessert in a vanilla bean sauce and wished me a happy birthday. Extra zen.
We continued to stroll around and shop. At one point it started to rain, so we ducked into Jack’s Cafe for a coffee. Jack’s was full of young tourists, and I had a feeling that a hostel must be close by. We sat by the window watching the rain, until a llama walked by and stopped to stare back at us, which was just about the coolest moment ever. I told my mom that I was already looking forward to coming back to Cusco. That night at dinner I finally had my first Pisco Sour. The next morning we flew to Lima, and had about eight hours to explore the city before our overnight flight back home.
Lima was much warmer than Cusco, as it is right on the Pacific coast. I would have loved to have just hit the beach and get a tan before going home, but since we didn’t have a chance of cleaning up before our flight, we decided to take it easy. We took a cab to the neighborhood of Miraflores, where we got tickets at Mirabus for a night tour of the city. We figured we’d have lunch and stroll around in the meantime. But our stroll turned into a seemingly never-ending search for a post office so I could mail my postcards (which never arrived at their destinations).
Feeling hot and cranky as it hit me that we were no longer in the charming cobblestone streets of Cusco, but rather the crowded sidewalks of a capital city at rush hour, we ducked into a Starbucks and cooled off with some iced coffee before heading out on our bus tour. After three hours atop a double-decker bus, my mom told me that my hair looked like Monica on “Friends” when they went to Barbados. I told her that I wanted to go back to Cusco. But, alas, we headed home.
I’m glad I decided to go on the trip, despite not getting to see Machu Picchu. It was a great way to spend my birthday, and was exactly what both of us needed to rejuvenate after a record setting snowfall in DC in February. I still hope to get to Machu Picchu, hopefully as part of an extended tour of South America. I really feel like this just whet my appetite.