Like many other people, I dreamed for a long time of seeing Machu Picchu, the mysterious Inca ruin, with my own eyes. But a journey like that is long, expensive, and involved, which is why this was a distant dream. Sometime, I thought, the way there will open for me, but it won’t be any time soon.
Then on a blog page, I saw pictures of Cuzco—the city of stone, with its red roofs and steep alleys. And suddenly I was seized by the idea to travel to Peru in the much nearer future. So it was Cuzco that brought me to Peru, and not Machu Picchu.
Cuzco, Capital of the Incas
The Inca Empire stretched from Columbia to Argentina, and Cuzco was its proud, beautiful capital. Its population, however, totaled no more than 1000 people—only the king’s family was permitted to live in Cuzco. Today, many structures remain intact, delighting the city’s visitors. Tourists come in droves: after all, Cuzco is the starting point for a trip to Machu Picchu. We stayed in Cuzco for several days, in the Illa Hotel. There are lots of hotels that are housed in former, historic villas, and ours was one of those, with its beautiful courtyard and ornate stairways. If you do choose a hotel of this kind, bear in mind that Cuzco is very chilly and that it can get really cold behind the thick walls. Of course, the modern hotels have central heating. All in all, Cuzco became our home base. We did the Inca trail and traveled through Bolivia—and each time, we were happy to return.
Cuzco is very touristy, though it still doesn’t get lost in the crowd, instead drawing everyone into its narrow streets filled with shops and cafes. As far as eating and drinking goes, there’s nothing to complain about! Our favorite spots were Cicciolina—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and Marcela Batata, for drinks at sundown. But we can also recommend Pachapapa. In Peru, cooking classes are very popular. You prepare specialties from Peruvian cuisine and enjoy eating them afterwards. We took a class in Cuzco at the Rooftop Kitchen Peru and found it fascinating. Those who like to shop will soon come across alpaca. This wool, which is used to produce everything from mittens to ponchos in every imaginable color and design, dominates the scene and presents a feast for the eyes at the market stalls! In Cuzco, you’ll also find several shaman shops, where you can buy gemstones, herbs, and music.
Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail
Unlike Rome, here there are only two ways to get to Machu Picchu—by train or by foot. The last option involves the legendary Inca Trail: in four days, you can cover the same path to Machu Picchu that the Incas walked. The tour is a real favorite, so you’ll need to book six months in advance. You can view the availability online. Since our decision to go to Peru was relatively spontaneous, we were unfortunately unable to get a place. Luckily, there are various alternatives. For one, there’s the Salkantay Trek, which leads you through the mountains around Machu Picchu over a period of five days. This one is more suited to hardcore hikers who don’t mind camping out in the cold. We decided on a warmer option and walked the short Inca Trail, which took two days. After rising early in the morning, we rode with the shuttle to Ollantaytambo, where we took the train for an hour to Kilometer 104. There we got off and covered 12 km in about 6 hours. Not that we were exactly dead set on arriving in Aguas Calientes two hours ahead of time to have a beer, but our group really made tracks. I’m sure our guide’s remedies also helped. From the very start, he informed us that coca leaves aid against altitude sickness and that you should chew them like a llama. His motto: “No coca, no power!”
What a joy it was, after a strenuous hike, to glimpse the ruins of Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate! Nestled in the majestic mountain scenery and familiar from thousands of pictures, they take your breath away. On even closer view and in spite of making out the hordes of tourists, Machu Picchu is still a feast for the eyes.
Along with 5000 other tourists (which was twice as many as officially permitted), we wandered through the ancient structures, learned about the history of the Incas, and witnessed their architectural craftsmanship. The famous step terraces were actually the laboratories where they domesticated and cultivated wild plants. To the Incas, the astronomical year was very important, and a number of temples are aligned with the sun and the seasons. These were where they sacrificed black llamas and also children to ensure the grace of the gods.
The best time to visit is early morning, just as the sun is rising and its long rays illuminate the landscape. At noon, when it gets seriously hot, the tourists who took the train arrive as well. This makes it the best time to return to Aguas Calientes. You can either walk down the stone steps for an hour and a half or ride the bus in comfort, which takes 30 minutes and costs $12. Aguas Calientes was built for tourists, which you can tell from the many wannabe pizzerias. If you want to eat really well, go to Indio Feliz, which is run by a Frenchman who fell in love with a Peruvian woman. Together they opened a restaurant that’s absolutely worth a visit. For drinks in the evening, I found Inka Wasi to be very pleasant.
Sacred Valley—Still More Inca Terraces
To be honest, I was pretty skeptical at first about whether the Sacred Valley was worth an entire day of travel when you’ve already been dazzled by the beauty of Machu Picchu. Regardless, we booked a last-minute private tour through the hotel for $180, and we were able to see a whole lot extra as a result.
Of the ruins of Pisac, what made the biggest impression on me were the graves. The mountainside has thousands of holes where mummified remains are laid to rest. The Incas believed that the condor carries the souls to heaven, which is why it’s better to be buried as high up as possible. Later, we stopped at a small but nice local village market, where we saw lots of handmade items that we found nowhere else.
The little village that’s the starting point for the inexpensive train to Machu Picchu is also home to ruins and to the epic love story of a warrior and a princess, a story that had a happy ending in spite of the war. If you look closely, you can see the faces of kings carved in the mountainside, and at the beginning of the year, they’re streaked by the rays of the sun.
For us, it was then onward up the mountain to the circular terraces where the Incas domesticated a lot of plants. To be precise, the temperature difference between the terrace rings is five degrees, and the plants were gradually conditioned in this way. The Incas didn’t dig the giant hole themselves. It was apparently the point of impact for a meteorite. The surrounding scenery is breathtaking—snow-covered peaks, wide fields, and endless sky.
Once a thriving market town, today Maras is a dreary sight. It is home, however, to the amazing salt terraces, which are definitely worth a visit. These are small pools of hot water that’s spewed out from inside the mountain. Through the sun and wind, the water quickly evaporates, and what remains in the end is a lot of salt. The local families own their own pools and work there in the early mornings and in the afternoons. At noon, the work is harmful to the eyes, since the white pools are glaringly bright. You can buy the mined salt locally and to some extent in Cuzco as well.
The last stop on our tour was Chinchero, where we had the opportunity to see how alpaca material is dyed. The alpaca wool and other materials are dyed with natural ingredients: maize, fruit, leaves, and even garden pests. The technique has remained unchanged for centuries and is handed down from mother to daughter. The process is demonstrated over a cup of tea, and later you have the option of buying yourself a souvenir made of alpaca wool.
Conclusion: Unfortunately, we started out very late at 10 a.m. and ended up somewhat stressed out because most of the sights already close at 5 p.m. In hindsight, I would leave out Ollantaytambo to have more time for the remaining stops.