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