Posts Tagged ‘cusco’

Photos from Cusco including rain damage

I just realised the other day that while I had stuck a bunch of photos up on Flickr at various points from Cusco, I had never actually posted any of them in a blog entry. Well, here goes. 

Plaza de Armas – the main square at the heart of the city. To get from anywhere to anywhere else in Cusco inevitably involves traversing this square, with the smart move being to walk through the square itself rather than along the colonnades at the sides, infested with persistent restaurant and massage touts. But it’s all worth it for views of the Cathedral, the church of the Society of Jesus, the fountains, and the colonial balconies teeming with restaurants and bars.

Water damage – While I was in Cusco, as regular readers are well aware, it rained like it was going out of style and caused all manner of problems in the city and the surrounding area, washing out bridges and trapping people in Machu Picchu. Typical of the scenes around Cusco were this collapsed shop – fortunately, nobody was killed – other buildings being braced up with wooden beams, and very typical scenes of utterly rained-out streets. 

Sacsayhuaman – This largish Incan religious complex is on a hill overlooking central Cusco, and is accessible by a breathless walk up a street and a trail. I really enjoyed the Imperial-style stonework (massive 50-ton rocks fit together with millimetre precision and no mortar) and mostly enjoyed my time up there, bar the persistent guides/touts who kept intercepting me throughout the site, and the one local on the top of the hill who walked up and asked me what I knew about Scientology. I told him where to stick it.

Qorincancha (AKA San Domingo) – The Incas built a temple complex including a Temple of the Sun and a Temple of the Moon near the centre of town. When the Conquistadores arrived, they built a Dominican church on the Inca foundations. An earthquake in the 1950s destroyed the church but left the Incan foundations intact. In the gardens outside I saw a black bumblebee with blue wings, a new one for me.

Nightlife – Since it rained a lot, and I ended up spending more time in Cusco than planned, I got to know a few of the night spots – and the inhabitants – pretty well. Highlights were KM 0 in San Blas (always a fun night of live music), Indigo behind the main square (really friendly staff and fantastic Massaman curry), and the time I was randomly invited to join in on a Quechua birthday party in a bodega. I also really enjoyed the food in Fallen Angel, and Macondo, and of course Indigo. But I think I’ll steer clear of guinea pig (cuy) in future as it was simply too much hard work for little morsels of meat which, in the end, weren’t that tasty. 

Although I am glad to be out of Cusco (and boy, Lima and then Buenos Aires successively are a real shock to the system) I am also glad of the time I spent there and the opportunity to get to know the place and some of the people there. On the whole, I found the people (both local and otherwise) to be very friendly and helpful, especially in comparison to Lima, where I found the opposite. But more on that later…

Lucky escape from Cusco

I am in Cusco airport, about to board a flight for Lima.

I feel very fortunate to be able to do this, as a state of emergency has been declared due to the continuing heavy rains. Many previous flights were cancelled, and the airport is only going to get busier as the entire countryside around Cusco is a literal disaster area. Rivers overflowing, houses collapsing (a shop down the street from me in Cusco imploded), just yesterday bridges that I had crossed on Saturday were washed out. All routes, both rail and road, into and out of Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu are now blocked. Machu Picchu itself has been closed off, and thousands of tourists are stranded in Aguas Calientes. Airlifts have started to bring out the most vulnerable people. I met a father and son couple who were airlifted out by helicopter last night, who told me that apparently the American military are bringing in their own helicopters to assist in the evacuation. Thousands more tourists who had planned to walk the Inca Trail, or who wanted to visit Machu Picchu, are milling around Cusco and most are evaluating where to go next. In a lot of cases the answer is Lima, so I was lucky to have booked my flight out today. It´s going to get messy around here soon, I sense chaos on the near horizon as everyone tries to leave the region. I feel lucky for having decided not to attempt to get to Machu Picchu by taxi on Saturday night – very likely I would still be there now, and miss my flight.

But the problems of me and a few thousand other tourists are insignificant. Whatever happens, eventually we will go on to other, sunnier destinations, to continue our vacations and our lives. The poor people who live here, especially the already poverty-stricken Quechuas in the valleys and the mountains, are the ones that have to live with all this devastation, and over 3000 of them have already lost their homes. We go away with a travel story to tell, but the people we leave behind have to pick up the pieces.

I will write more when I get to Lima.

Categories: South America Tags: , , ,

A beautiful day in the Sacred Valley, and a gamble fails

As you may know if you follow this blog or know me on Facebook, weather woes have dominated the last week or so of my trip. When Peru does the wet season, it doesn't mess about. However, ever the optimist, I arranged a 2-day tour this weekend: the Sacred Valley of the Incas on the first day, and another attempt on Machu Picchu for the second day. I hoped that the weather would be at least less crap than the first time round. I was half right.

Amazingly, to start the day, and for the first time in days, it was not raining in Cusco. I took this as a good sign, and boarded the tourist bus as 9AM hopeful of a break. We took off in the direction of Q'orao, one of these obligatory handicraft market stops on these tours. Just once I'd like to go on a tour that didn't involve being flogged cheaper tat than I see every day in whatever town I am staying in at the time. But I came away with some photographic goodies, in the case of one of the local market puppies and an old Quechua weaver woman.

We got back in the bus and headed for Pisac, our first set of Inca ruins for the day. Along the way we encountered many rockslides across the road that required careful negotiation, evidence of the bad weather of the previous days. Once at Pisac, while we hopped out and got our tickets checked at the gate, I spotted this kitten playing in the shadows:

An easyish climb along a short Inca path and we were among the ruins of Pisac. They were somewhat like a mini-Machu Picchu, situated on the saddle between two mountain rises, with terraces stretching away down the slopes to either side. I was a little more energetic / photo-driven than most so I managed to go up both rises in our allotted 15-minute "free time".

Soon enough our time was over, and we re-mounted the bus for an hour's drive to Urubamba, for a buffet lunch. Along the way, not only was it not raining, but unless our eyes deceived us, there was an appearance of actual, honest-to-god, blue sky. I finished my lunch quickly, bought a bottle of beer, and went outside to sit in the sun. I began to think that maybe my gamble would pay off, that the weather might have finally broken, and that I might at least get the chance to see Machu Picchu in something other than fog and torrential downpours.

We sallied forth down the road to Ollantaytambo, a town I was already familiar with from the previous week, where it had been the first stop on our Jungle Trek. This time, we sailed through the main square and on towards the ruins, which were much less remote than either Pisac or Machu Picchu. These literally rise out of the side of the town, terraces running up the side of a hill, with temples and guard houses sprinkled around the crest of the hill. I had a hard time deciding if the ruins themselves, or the setting (in a beautiful valley with staggering mountains surrounding the town of Ollantaytambo itself) were more impressive. The utterly brilliant sunshine was the overall winner, though.

At the end of the tour of the ruins, I parted company with the rest of the tour group as I was going to stay in Ollantaytambo until 7PM to catch the train out. That meant I had another 2-3 hours to play with and I intended to get as much shooting done as I could while the weather held. There are few things I enjoy more than plopping in the iPod headphones, getting in the zone, and clambering around ruins shooting away to my heart's content, getting into parts of sites I probably shouldn't be, and working to my own schedule. Total indulgence.

Eventually the light started to go, so I decided to go have a poke around the town itself. Ollantaytambo is an original Inca town so most of the streets and buildings have Inca stone foundations. It makes for a very charming base, despite the over-touristy facade. On that note, they seem to have a pretty entrepreneurial spirit:

On many of the houses were fertility totems, depicted as two bulls.

I wandered the streets a bit until I saw a wooden pole with a red plastic bag tied to it. This is the Andean sign indicating that chicha (an alcoholic drink of fermented corn) is brewed inside. I stepped through the plain entrance into a modest but welcoming courtyard, full of sunflowers and a snoozing German shepherd.

A woman stepped out to welcome me, and I asked for a vasito of chicha, something I was curious to try for the first time. She must have known I was no veteran, for instead of the plastic pint glass so often associated with the drink, she brought me a dainty juice glass and a pitcher full of maybe a pint's worth of the stuff. Bitter, yes, but drinkable. While we chatted I ended up draining almost all of it, but eventually the sourness got the better of me. I don't know if I could do a night on the stuff. I made my excuses, grabbed a coffee on the way, and shuffled down towards the train station. On the way, ominously, it began to rain.

My train was at 7pm, but they required that everyone be there a half hour early, to counter the Peruvian sense of punctuality. So it was that we waited around until nearly 7 in the pissing rain, with no word or hint of entry onto the platforms. That's when a serious-looking woman made her way out into the crowd, mounted a box, and summarily announced that the 7pm train – the last one of the night – was cancelled. This was due to no less than 6 different rockslides across the train tracks between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes. I had an instant feeling of dread, that I was about to be thwarted at the last minute from my ambition to return to Machu Picchu.

We all made our way back up to the Peru Rail ticket office to see about getting refunds. Unfortunately, the ticket office was an utter shambles, with 4 different queues for 4 windows which seemed to arbitrarily open and close, literally seeming to process one person every 10-15 minutes each. There were 150 people at least trying to get refunds. The queues did not move. It continued to rain, with greater intensity. Some of the people in the queues were poor souls who had taken off at 7AM from Ollantaytambo and been trapped in the train between rockslides over the course of the day, and who had failed to get to Aguas Calientes. Those with multiple group members assigned some to go and see about accommodation in Ollantaytambo. I talked with some taxi drivers on options of how to get to Aguas. They wanted 100 soles, or about £25, per person. I thought that sounded reasonable, until we got into the details. That was for a best-case 4 hours, worst case 6 hours or not at all if the road was washed out, to get us not to Aguas but to Hidroelectrico, where we would have to walk the last 7 miles to Aguas. Now this is the same walk we did on the afternoon of Day 3 of the Jungle Trek, and it took 3 hours in the pissing rain then, along the dodgy sleepers and loose gravel of the railway tracks. This would be at night, still in the pissing rain, with active rockslides happening and rail crews working to clear them. Not my idea of fun. The rail staff refused to say if the trains would be running tomorrow, either.

What I couldn't work out was any way in which I could responsibly visit Machu Picchu without jeopardising my flight from Cusco to Lima on Tuesday (non-changeable, non-refundable). In the best case of getting a taxi Saturday night and walking the 7 miles, starting at 8pm, I wouldn't get to Aguas Calientes until at least 4AM, and I would be already exhausted from the walk, wet, miserable, and I would then have to hike an hour up the hill, now 5AM, by which point I would have missed the tickets for the mountain Waynu Picchu, which I had tickets for last time but didn't use due to the weather. Without Waynu Picchu access, and with it raining, I would have exactly the same Machu Picchu experience as last time. The alternative was to stay the night in Ollantaytambo, and try to get to Aguas over the course of Sunday, making the Machu Picchu attempt on Monday. However, given the state of the weather and the undependability of the trains, I thought the risk of getting stranded in Aguas on Monday night after visiting Machu Picchu, and missing my flight to Lima, too great to accept. Reluctantly I accepted the offer of one of the collectivo drivers of 10 soles (£2.50) for a drive back to Cusco. Defeated, I sat next to a French couple who had enjoyed a beautiful sunny day on Machu Picchu, but who had then themselves been shunted onto a 50-seat diesel train car from Aguas, hours after they were meant to have returned. We drove back to Cusco through the rain and fog.

So now I am back in Cusco. I have to go back to the travel agency to see what kind of refunds I can get, though without much hope of cooperation. I have a feeling I will be sorting out refunds with Peru Rail and the Machu Picchu ticket folks myself tomorrow, when the offices open. Not exactly the end to my Cusco time I had in mind.

But I am feeling better than I did last night. After a night and morning of constant rain, there are hints of sun in Cusco, and knowing how fleeting this is likely to be, I am going to get out amongst it. And I know that when I look back, I will be thankful for the chance to have visited the Sacred Valley in sunshine, and to have taken one or two photos that go in the Keepers file.

A last word of advice: When the guidebook says a place is best avoided in the wet season, listen.

I think I shall have to return to Cusco and to Machu Picchu when things are a bit drier.

Off to Macchu Picchu, and first thoughts on Cusco

It is now my third night in Cusco, and now that I've finally blurted out the last blog post about Bolivia, it is fair to turn my sights on my present abode, Cusco.

Cusco has the reputation of being the "gringo capital of South America" and so I was prejudiced against it from the start, prepared to wave it aside dismissively as just the South American equivalent of the Khao San Road in Bangkok. My previous experiences of high gringo concentrations in South America (e.g. Copacabana and Uyuni) touched a raw nerve of self-loathing. I had steeled myself for the worst.

However Cusco turns out to be (mostly) chilled out, cool, and stylish. Sure, there are a lot of tourists here, and there are a lot of lowest common denominator rip-off operations going on, but the bigger tourist market means that there is a wide variety of choices in restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops, and it's possible to find something more up one's particular alley and not just generic one-size-fits-all joints.

I have already met some cool folks randomly through exploring some of the peripheral cafes etc (Las Blas is the nighlife area for instance with a bit of a boho vibe) and it seems pretty easy to meet randoms here. And I've managed to get the feel for the city's layout very quickly; it's a great walking city, even taking into account the hills. Just wandering from street to street, admiring the Inca foundations of almost all the modern buildings, is a treat unto itself. I have managed to explore some of the Inca temples around town, including the Temple of the Sun that was superseded by the Dominican Church, and the hilltop ruins of Sacsayhuaman.

Tomorrow (Friday) I am starting the Inca Jungle Trek, which is 1 day mountain biking, 2 days trekking, and the final day visiting Macchu Picchu. I hope the weather holds up as it has been raining on and off again, but occasionally when it is on, it is ON. See below:

I will be out of contact until (probably) Sunday evening when we get to Aguas Calientes. I am thinking of seeing out most of the rest of my trip in the Cusco region so I will be sure to post some thoughts and pictures etc of the trip – and of Cusco – next week.