Machu Picchu – the most expensive, the most mind-blowing place you’ll visit in South America

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu. What more can be said? These stunning Inca ruins perched on a high mountain  in Peru are one of South America’s top attractions. The Spanish never found their way here and the abandoned city remained lost in the jungle until American explorer, Hiram Bingham, came across it during his search for the lost city of Vilcabamba in 1911. Today 2500 tourists pour into the site every day, but somehow it still manages to thrill.

Machu Picchu

Bingham’s conviction that Machu Picchu was Vilcabamba, the refuge of the last Inca King, has since been refuted, but in some ways that makes the site all the more fascinating. It remains shrouded in mystery, since nobody knows for sure when it was built, by whom and  for what purpose. The buildings, with classic Inca architecture, are incredibly well preserved, but it’s really all about the location. 

Looking down on the ruins from the summit of Machu Picchu mountain

I arrived in Cusco after travelling overland from Lima through the Central Sierra, an adventurous and scenic route, but a lot less time-consuming now that the roads are mostly paved. It was remote and in places very off-the-beaten track. 

Llama at Machu Picchu

Cusco, however, as the gateway city to Machu Picchu, is full to bursting point with tourists and has all the horrors that go with being a top travel destination. For the first time in five months I experienced in-your-face hassle. You can’t walk for more than a few minutes along the main streets without being approached by travel agency touts, trinket sellers and restaurant waiters brandishing menus like weapons. Want your photo taken with a ridiculously overdressed local woman with a llama on a leash? You’ve come to the right place.

Fiesta in Cusco

Luckily, though, Cusco is more than just a tourist town for foreigners with no taste. It’s the former centre of the Inca empire and has some wonderful examples of their architecture – walls constructed with interlocking stones and slabs without mortar. The Spanish destroyed much of the city and often built their churches and houses over Inca buildings. 

Fiesta in Cusco

One example is the church and convent of Santo Domingo built on Qorikancha, a great palace once covered in gold. The huge irony is that while many colonial buildings have suffered during the years from earthquake damage, the early Inca constructions have survived.

Santo Domingo – you can see the grey stone Inca wall of Qorikancha below

We were also lucky enough to arrive at the start of the festival  to celebrate the anniversary of the city. For several days, huge parades snaked through the streets, and it seemed like the whole city was taking part, from children to teenagers and adults. 

Fiesta in Cusco

An hour or two from Cusco is the Sacred Valley where you can find a wealth of Inca towns and ruins. Most impressive are the buildings and terraces above the towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo. 

Inca terracing at Pisac

But the jewel in the crown sits at the end of the Urubamba valley – Machu Picchu. The only way to get to Machu Picchu Pueblo from Ollantaytambo is by one of the biggest rip-off train journeys in the world. That, plus the entrance fee, will set you back at least US$200. In the town you’ll find plenty of overpriced hotels and mediocre restaurants. Unless you want to walk up to the ruins you’ll need to fork out another $24 for the return bus trip, 30 minutes each way. If you need the toilet, which you will if you spend all day there, it’ll cost you extra. And don’t even think about visiting the cafes if you’re on a budget. 

At the summit of Machu Picchu mountain

All this expense can leave a nasty taste in the mouth, but once you start wandering around in awe, you realise why so many people are prepared to be fleeced. I even paid extra to climb the Machu Picchu mountain, which was a steep two and a half hour uphill slog, but the views from the narrow ledge at the summit were breathtaking. It was the perfect place to sit and contemplate the mysteries of the Incas and also reflect on the fact that five months of travelling in this amazing continent were finally coming to an end.

Fiesta in Cusco

Overland through the Central Sierra – Part 2 – Huancavelica to Ayacucho and Cusco

En route to Cusco from Abancay

If there’s a rough, off-the-beaten road to follow, I’m always keen to take it. But even I was apprehensive about getting from Huancavelica to Cusco through Peru’s central highlands. The guidebooks warn of tough, unpaved roads along a route rarely used except by hardcore travellers. The good news is that the roads are now mostly all paved, but there are still hardly any other tourists to be seen en route. Even better, the scenery is absolutely phenomenal.

Alpaca seen from the road to Lircay

We decided against travelling via Rumichaca which is one option, but entails getting up for a very early bus. Instead, we took a colectivo, or shared car, to Lircay along a spectacular road which led us up over a high pass where we lucky enough to see not only alpacas, but also the rarer vicuñas. But it was when we arrived in Lircay that the problems started. We were only about a third of the way to Ayacucho and no driver seemed willing to take us there. 

Street in Ayacucho

After an hour of wandering around, we finally found someone who was prepared to drive to a place called Julcamarca. He deposited us in an empty, dusty square which was like something out of a spaghetti western. By now time was ticking on and the only transport coming down from the market town above us was full. Luckily, a minivan came along soon, which seemed to be quite an exciting event for the town, and in a few hours we were in Ayacucho.

Street in Quinua

For much of the 80s and 90s Ayacucho was off limits as it was one of the centres of activity for the Shining Path movement. Nowadays, it is an attractive, prosperous city with a really impressive main square.  It’s also quite cosmopolitan, with enticing restaurants, but it isn’t yet overwhelmed by tourists.

Huari ruins

Outside the city you can visit some fascinating ruins of the Huari people who came before the Incas. In fact, the Incas took many ideas from the Huari, including architecture, although the Incas famously improved on this by not using any kind of cement or mortar. Blocks of stones are cut and pieced together in intricate patterns and have stood the test of time for centuries. Inca buildings truly are strong and stable.

Pacay – how do you eat this?

We also visited the little village of Quinua, famous for making ceramic figures and buildings which are placed on the roofs of houses. In the market I also tried pacay, a weird furry fruit in elongated pods.

Limatambo

Roads south to Cusco have also recently been improved and we were able to make it as far as Abancay in one day. Again we drove over high passes which afforded magnificent views for miles around. From Abancay to Cusco it’s only four hours, so we hired a private colectivo so we could stop off at a few sites along the way. First we visited an interesting carved boulder, the Saihuite stone, and then continued to Limatambo, where we had our first real taste of Inca architecture.

Limatambo

We arrived in Cusco feeling not a little smug that we’d travelled for days along such awe-inspiring roads. You can fly from Lima in less than an hour, but you’d be missing so much. The other advantage is that we were already acclimatised to the altitude which is quite important since Cusco stands at 3326m above sea level. But the most difficult thing for me was getting used to so many tourists and so much hassle. After the remote places we’d been to, it was quite a shock. But luckily we’d arrived in time for yet another festival …

Fiesta in Cusco

Overland from Lima to Cusco through the central Sierra – Part 1 – Lima to Huancavelica

Fiesta time in Huancavelica

There were two surprises in store for me when I arrived in the highland town of Huancavelica in Peru. The first was how cold it was, although as it sits in a valley 3700m above sea level, it wasn’t that surprising. The second was much more pleasant. My visit coincided with the first day of a vibrant Andean festival, the Fiesta de las Cruces. Pretty much everyone was dressed up in colourful costumes and ready to have a good time. It was one of those wonderful serendipitous moments when you stumble on something spectacular, and, best of all, there were hardly any other tourists.

Fiesta in Huancavelica

I spent a few days in Lima which didn’t really appeal to me. There are a few attractive buildings in the centre, but it’s quite rundown in places. I stayed in the southern neighbourhood of Barranco which was quiet and relaxing, but the climate was what really got to me. This part of the country is notorious at this time of year for the garúa, a grey blanket of cloud that covers the coastal strip and blocks out the sun for days on end. 

Fiesta in Huancavelica

When two friends from the USA joined me in Lima, I was ready to escape up into the mountains. I knew it would be colder, but at least there’d be sun. It was a nine hour bus ride up to Huancayo where we stayed for a couple of nights. The city itself is pleasant but not full of attractions. However, it lies in the fertile Mantaro valley and we took a day trip through some local villages and lakes. 

Santa Rosa de Ocopa

The standout attraction was the convent of Santa Rosa de Ocopa, a beautifully preserved colonial building from where missionaries would set off down into the jungle. We were the only three tourists there on a guided tour. The small village of Cochas Chico was also interesting for its handicrafts of gourd carving. We were invited to watch part of the process by a man who explained his father and grandfather taught him the techniques and he also has children and grandchildren continuing the family tradition. 

Local artisan carving gourds in Cochas Chico

The highlight of this part of the trip, though, was the train journey to Huancavelica on the world’s second highest passenger railway. The train departed at 6.30am and took about 6 hours to reach Huancavelica, winding up the river valley, crossing bridges and plunging through pitch black tunnels. 

Train to Huancavelica

It was a service used by locals as well as tourists. We were in buffet class which entitled us to food, although breakfast catered for local tastes, with fried trout or huge steaming bowls of chicken soup, which the waiters miraculously managed to deliver on the lurching carriage without spilling a drop. In the class behind us were the locals who got on and off at various stops. The women wore striking hats and carried huge bundles on their backs of produce or sometimes children. 

Local kid on train

We checked into a hotel right on the Plaza de Armas where a stage was being set up. Back near the station we went to watch brass bands playing near the tracks, then saw people dancing outside a church in traditional costume. It was a fascinating mix of indigenous culture and a Catholic festival. 

Fiesta in Huancavelica
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As night fell the temperature plummeted, yet this didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the locals who seemed determined to party through the night. The huge amount of alcohol being consumed probably helped. We, however, had a long day ahead of us travelling to Ayacucho the next day and the guidebooks indicated that it was a long and complicated journey. So, we had an early night to prepare ourselves for what turned out to be a challenging but magnificent trip through stunning mountain scenery.

Plaza de Armas, Huancavelica

Four day hike in the Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru

Heading up to Punta Rondoy

As we arrived at the campsite on day one of the Huayhuash trek, the rain started. Putting up a tent in the pouring rain is absolutely no fun, I can tell you. The rain continued all night and the next morning Abraham, our guide, pointed out fresh snow on the mountains and advised against continuing up the pass. Conditions could be treacherous, he explained, due to snow melt.

Around the first campsite

I’ve experienced a lot of rain this trip as the El Niño phenomenon has been dramatically affecting the continent. The Sierra in Colombia and Ecuador experienced five times the average rainfall in March and April. A few months ago many parts of Peru were devastated by floods with roads and bridges washed away and many casualties. Luckily, I’d planned to arrive in the Peruvian mountains to do some trekking in the middle of May, the beginning of the dry season. Except it wasn’t. Abraham told me he hadn’t seen rain at this time of year for twenty years.

A moody start to day three

The city of Huaraz sits in a valley with the white peaks of the Cordillera Blanca looming above, including Peru’s highest mountain, Huascarán. I’d originally planned to do the four day Santa Cruz trek, the most popular and busiest. The Cordillera Huayhuash, further to the south, looked more remote and enticing, but the trek demanded ten nights. But when I went into the agency, Monttrek, they told me they had a four day trek to Huayhuash leaving the next day. Despite not being fully acclimatised, I leapt at the chance.

Crossing Punta Rondoy

Unfortunately, several things worked against my enjoyment of the trip, not just the rain. The trek was badly and cheaply organised, with just one person looking after five of us. His priorities seemed to be taking care of the mules rather than guiding and we rarely saw him on the trail. Despite all that, however, the scenery was staggeringly impressive.

Pocpa

Day one began unpromisingly when it turned out that, instead of private transport, we were being put on local buses to the trailhead at Pocpa. Having been picked up at my hostal at 4.30am, I was too tired to argue. By late morning we were walking along a dirt track for three hours to the first campsite at Rondoy. Due to the heavy rains, we ended up staying there for the whole of the next day. There were a few breaks in the rain, which allowed me to do some short walks and acclimatise to the altitude. 

The descent to Laguna Solteracocha

On day three we began the long ascent up to the pass of Punta Rondoy at 4750m. The clouds and mist swirled around us as we set off at dawn, but luckily the sun came out later, giving us astonishing views of the mountains. We descended past the brilliant blue Laguna Solteracocha where we had lunch, then continued to the camp at Laguna Yahuacocha.

Admiring the view at Laguna Solteracocha

The last day involved getting up at 4am and beginning the trek in the dark, since we had to get a bus from Llamac at 11am. This made things a little stressful. The path led us over another high pass at 4300m followed by a knee-busting descent into the valley. We saw condors and humming-birds. 

Parade at Carhuaz

I decided to have a rest day in Huaraz and then took a day trip to the Lagunas Llanganuco. In the first village of Carhuaz, we witnessed a religious parade with school kids. Then we moved onto Yungay to visit the site of Campo Santo, the place where the original village of Yungay existed before it was totally destroyed by an earthquake and an avalanche from Mt Huascarán which towers over it. More than 25,000 people lost their lives on that day in 1970.

Huascarán seen from Campo Santo

The last stop was Laguna Chinancocha high up in a gap between the mountains with amazing shades of blue. Luckily, the sun shone all day, but, at this altitude, the wind can be quite chilly. The rains have passed now, but I’m heading to Lima on the coast, where it’s the beginning of winter and the notorious cloud cover envelops the coast blocking out the sun. At some point soon, I hope, I’ll be in the right place for the best weather.

Laguna Chinancocha

From Zumba to Chachapoyas – the exciting route into Peru and the land of the People of the Clouds

Llamas at Kuélap

Of the three border crossings from Ecuador to Peru, I was embarking on the least travelled and most dramatic route. I spent my last night in Ecuador in the small attractive town of Zumba. My destination the next day was Chachapoyas, once home to the Chachapoya, or People of the Clouds. They are aptly named, for the bumpy unpaved roads lead high into mountain passes and cloud forests, while mist swirls atmospherically in the valleys below. 

A ranchera

It was an all day journey involving at least 6 different modes of transport. The most charming was the local ranchera, an open sided bus with bench seats, which left Zumba at 8am. It trundled down to the frontier village of La Balsa, which is really just a few huts. After an easy exit from Ecuador and an equally easy queue-free entry into Peru, I was then in a shared taxi to the nearest town of San Ignacio. From there I had to take a sequence of three more minivans via Jaen and Bagua Grande, but thankfully they all linked together perfectly with very little waiting.

En route to Chachapoyas

One of the great pleasures of travelling in South America is the chance to visit old archaeological sites and learn about cultures which had often disappeared well before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. With no writing or historical records, we only have the remains of their towns and cities to give us some insight into their civilisation. It’s amazing to consider how many great cultures were flourishing here in complete isolation from the rest of the world.

Main square in Chachapoyas

Chachapoyas is capital of the Amazonas region which occupies the eastern slopes of the Andes and stretches down to the great river. The Chachapoya were a warrior like race and inhabited this area for about a thousand years until the late 15th century when they were conquered by the Incas. Of course, it was only another 30 years or so, before the Incas were themselves overthrown by the Spanish. 

Cable car to Kuélap

Kuélap is a huge Chachapoya site and is now relatively easy to visit with a tour company, especially since a new cable car was opened just a few months ago. It’s not as dramatic as Machu Picchu, but it’s still a fascinating day out. The setting is superb and the llamas, as always, are photogenic.

En route to Cajamarca

My next destination was Cajamarca, south-west across the Andes. Most buses travel at night, which I hate, particularly since you miss the scenery. However, I found one company, Rojas, which runs a minibus leaving at 5.30am. The road was one of the most spectacular so far, with incredible views. The route clings to the side of mountains and climbs up and down valleys. If you saw these hairpin bends first, there’s no way you’d want to do this journey at night!
Cajamarca

Cajamarca has a sad and tragic history. It was here that Francisco Pizarro arrived in the highlands and where he met the last Inca King, Atahualpa, in 1532. The latter came peacefully to meet the Spanish invaders, but Pizarro and his men turned on them, captured Atahualpa and brutally murdered 7000 local people in the name of Christianity, the King of Spain and imperialism. Yes, 7000! And that was just one day of the Conquest. 

Cajamarca

The story continues with Atahualpa promising to fill a room with gold and silver in return for his release. Over the next few months wealth arrived from all over the Inca empire, but the perfidious Spaniards still executed Atahualpa. You can visit an Incan building which may be where Atahualpa was imprisoned or where he deposited the treasures. The next day I took a tour to Cumbemayo, a site of pre-Incan water channels which were carved out in this rocky, dramatic landscape over 2000 years ago. 

Cumbemayo

So far in Peru I’ve noticed far more people in traditional dress, in particular the women who wear the most extraordinary high hats. Sadly, I’ve also noticed more poverty and all the beggars on the streets are indigenous people. The Spanish conquered this continent through force, but also a lot of luck, since their arrival coincided with a civil war between the Incas. It’s fascinating to think how different things might look if the Spanish had lost and never colonised South America. There could be an Inca Kingdom still in place today. 

Local woman, Cajamarca

Cuenca and the scenically stunning but alarming road south to Peru via Zumba

High above the valley en route to Zumba

The bus slowed down as we approached another 180 degree bend high up in the mountains in southern Ecuador. I heard the gears crunch and glanced out the window. And then down. The wheels were centimetres away from the edge. There had been a lot of rain and, although it was now nice and sunny, several parts of the unpaved road had been washed away. I caught my breath as I saw the muddy track crumbling under the tyres and cascading to the valley below.

The road to Zumba

It was my last day in Ecuador and I was heading south on what is described as the less travelled route to Peru. There are three border crossings: the Panamerican along the coast, the road through Macará which is less hassle and this one via the remote town of Zumba. The lush green scenery more than compensated for the hair-raising sections. It was the first time I felt compelled to take out my camera on a bus this trip. The scenery is sure to get even more dramatic as I move further into the Peruvian high plains, the altiplano. 

Cuenca

Even though the heat and humidity in the Galápagos had sometimes left me drained, I told myself I’d miss the sun once I was back in the mountains. And, sure enough, as soon as I arrived in Cuenca on the bus from Guayaquil, the temperature dropped and the drizzle and clouds moved in. 

Casa del Sombrero

Cuenca is Ecuador’s third city and gets rave write-ups for its colonial architecture. I found it a little underwhelming, to be honest, although I really liked that it’s not just a tourist town, but a real working city. There are some distinctive churches and the usual attractive streets, but it was the curious hat museum which really caught my attention. Panama hats are made all over this area and the Museu Municipal Casa del Sombrero provides some history and insight into the process.

Ingapirca

I saw pretty much everything I wanted to on the first day, so on the second day I caught the bus for the long 4/5 hour round trip to Ingapirca, Ecuador’s only real Inca site. It’s certainly no Machu Picchu, but the setting is nice and it whetted my appetite for the bigger glories to come in Peru. Around the site you can see the beautiful flowers called angel’s trumpet which are in fact poisonous. They are also being used in scams and attacks. If inhaled or ingested, it can disable the victims and render them helpless and susceptible. Our guide told us of someone he knew who’d been robbed of $7000.

The deadly angel’s trumpet

Loja was my next stop. It’s another colonial town and probably missable in favour of nearby Vilcabamba. But I’d been there before and this time decided to stay in Loja. I ended up staying three nights, as I came down with the usual travellers’ sickness. It turned out well, however, because I did nothing and ate nothing, thus saving a bit. My Galápagos trip had severely damaged my funds, to the extent I needed to rob a bank. Or worse, get a job. But a few days’ rest did the trick instead.

En route to Zumba

I caught a 9am bus to Zumba which was supposed to take 5 or 5 1/2 hours depending on whom you ask. It took almost 7. But I wasn’t complaining, because the view out of the window was so exhilarating. We climbed up and down valleys along a twisting, vertiginous road. The highest point took us through the Podocarpus National Park, where visibility was reduced to almost nothing in thick rain clouds. But on the other side the sun came out to reveal small towns and farmlands thick with fruit trees, papayas, lychees, guanábana (soursop) and bananas.

Scenery en route to Zumba

I decided to break the journey and stay in Zumba for a night. When you’re constantly on the road, you don’t always realise how tired you can become, especially if, like me, you try to be doing something every day. But my enforced rest in Loja had also reinvigorated me mentally. When I boarded the bus to Zumba and the sun came out, I felt a new lease of life and excitement as Peru and a new country awaited.

The Galápagos – Part 3 – San Cristóbal – my last stop

Sea lion at La Loberia

In many cities and towns around the world public spaces are overrun with pigeons. In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the island of San Cristóbal it’s sea lions. Swimming in the shallow waters by the port, basking in the sun on benches and snorting and grunting as they heave themselves onto land. Just a few kilometres out of the town, you can also swim with them, which was a hugely privileged experience.

Sea lions in the harbour

San Cristóbal is east of Santa Cruz and another two hour boat ride away. The main town is a bit more developed than Puerto Villamil, but still quiet and relaxing and you can walk everywhere. It’s still hugely expensive, though, and there weren’t so many cheaper places to eat that I’d found elsewhere. There are several attractions close to the port itself, as well as boat trips further afield. Again, I had to make a choice of what to do according to my limited budget. I spent day 9 of my trip heading back to Santa Cruz and overnighting there before moving onto San Cristóbal on the afternoon ferry of day 10. 

View from Cerro Tijeretas

Day 11. A short walk out of town takes you to an Interpretation Centre which has some displays on the islands. Behind the centre I walked along the trails up to Cerro Tijeretas with wonderful views, then wandered down to the bay and watched sea lions swimming and pelicans fishing. The sea lions are incredibly tame and curious and one came right out of the water and onto the steps where I was sitting. In the late afternoon I walked in the opposite direction out of town to a dramatic beach, La Loberia, with huge breaking waves and a colony of sea lions. Cost = Free.

Giant tortoise at La Galapaguera

Day 12. I caught a taxi to take me up to the highlands in the interior. It was my first opportunity to see giant tortoises in the semi wild at La Galapaguera. On the way back I stopped at a lagoon, Laguna El Junco, which, due to its altitude was misty and refreshingly cool. There a short trail I took which goes all the way round. Cost = $40.

Snorkelling through these narrow gaps at Leon Dormido was not easy

Day 13. My big splurge here was a boat trip to Leon Dormido, a huge rocky outcrop an hour away. Snorkelling was not easy here, as we were in the deep ocean which meant large swells and cold water. I’d recommend hiring a wet suit. It was worth it, however, because we saw Galápagos sharks and more turtles. Blue-footed boobies nest high up in the rocks. After lunch on the boat we had some free time on a beautiful beach, Cerro Brujo. Cost = $100.

Playa Cerro Brujo

Day 14. My last day in the Galápagos I returned to Cerro Tijeretas and La Loberia this time with a mask to snorkel with the sea lions. One sea lion played for ages with me and two others and when I dived down it also dived and spun around, a lot more gracefully than I could manage. Cost = Free, but mask hire was $3.

Sea lion at La Loberia

I’d spent a lot of my time during the trip wondering if it was worth the outrageous expense, and on the whole I think the Galápagos are overpriced for what you get. There are many places around the world where you can snorkel with exotic marine life and spot other types of wildlife. But swimming with these sea lions on my last day made me realise how special these islands are. Are they worth the money? No. Are they worth visiting anyway? Yes, absolutely. 

Sunset at La Loberia