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
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The other side of Bolivia – cloud forests, convents and a Che Guevara pilgrimage – in the Oriente

Llama
The llamas must have good agents – they get all the good press. There they are on the front covers of the guidebooks and all the tourist literature, along with the volcanoes, brightly coloured rugs and shawls and Aymaran women sporting bowler hats. But there’s much more to Bolivia than alpacas and the altiplano, as I discovered when I set off to explore the east of the country (The Oriente) where Che Guevara finally met his end at the hands of the Bolivian army (with a little help from the Americans). 
Che mural at the Lavanderia, Vallegrande

 My first stop east was the town of Cochabamba. I’d booked a day bus with TransCopacabana and had high hopes for a luxury bus. In adjacent bays stood double-deckers with on board toilets and aircon. Then I found mine. As so often happens, I seemed to have booked the most decrepit vehicle possible, broken seats, no aircon, no loo with a 7 or 8 hour journey to look forward to. Despite being rushed onto the bus, we left an hour late. I’ve discovered that bus departure times in Bolivia are merely an expression of vague hope. In fact it’s only on the big intercity routes that you have buses (flotas) with set times. In the smaller places you are dependent on shared taxis and vans (trufis) and small buses (micros) which often only leave when full.
Plaza 14 de septiembre, Cochabamba
Cochabamba sits at 2500 metres above sea level and has a Mediterranean feel to it, very different to La Paz. There’s not a huge amount to do, but there’s a beautiful colonial square and the fascinating Convento de Santa Teresa where you can take a guided tour. For centuries nuns lived here all their life with no contact with the outside world whatsoever. I also went to La Cancha, Bolivia’s biggest and most frenetic market. It seemed as if you could buy just about anything there and it was easy to get lost. I did twice! 
Santa Cruz
Further east way down in the lowlands lies Santa Cruz, where it’s supposed to be hot and steamy, but the cold front that’s been following me around made it there too. It’s a city that moves to a very different beat. It’s an agricultural heartland and its inhabitants are generally rich landowners who do not support the president, Evo Morales. Everywhere you go in the highlands, Evo’s power base, you see graffiti proclaiming “Evo Si” – Evo Yes. Here you can see graffiti encouraging people to vote no in the recent referendum in which Evo asked the people to support a change in the constitution which would have allowed him to stand for a fourth term.

Samaipata

A few hours away in the hills outside Santa Cruz is Samaipata, a great little village with lots of restaurants run by expats from France, Spain, Canada and Brazil, which means you can finally get some decent food and eat something other than fried chicken. On the outskirts of town is El Fuerte, sometimes billed as Bolivia’s Machu Picchu. It isn’t, of course, but it’s an intriguing site all the same. It’s basically a huge rock with animals carved into it and ceremonial shrines. 
Giant ferns, Parque Nacional Amboro

I had a wet, muddy but rewarding hike into the cloud forest of Parque Nacional Amboro which is just 40 minutes away. It lived up to its name by being completely shrouded in mist and cloud, so there were no views to be had of the surrounding mountains, but it was very atmospheric and the giant ferns were impressive. 
Street in Vallegrande

My last stop in the Oriente was Vallegrande, where in 1967 Che Guevara’s corpse was laid out in a hospital laundry room to show the world he had been killed. I took a trufi from Samaipata. The driver was driving with one hand and using the other to stuff coca leaves in his mouth. At first when you arrive in Bolivia it looks like a lot of men are suffering from inflamed molars, but in fact their cheek is full  of coca leaves. To me the taste is very bitter, but the tea is good and really helps with altitude sickness.

The Lavanderia where Che’s body was laid out

In Vallegrande I visited the hospital, the Che museum and the mausoleum which marks the site where the remains of Che and six of his comrades were finally unearthed in 1997 after one of the Bolivian soldiers involved in the secret burial finally revealed the location. All the sites are quite poignant and moving. The laundry room is covered in graffiti, the museum has a book of remembrance still in use and the gardens of the mausoleum have trees planted by his brother, a daughter and other heroes of the Cuban Revolution. 

Che’s unmarked grave now housed in the mausoleum

Whatever your opinion of Che, it’s a fascinating look back at history and his total dedication to the revolution is undeniable. Even after almost 50 years he still exerts an influence on many people. My guide told me he was 20 when the body was disinterred and from that moment his curiosity was aroused. The sites are tranquil and the countryside surrounding Vallegrande is beautiful. It provided the perfect conclusion to my Eastern odyssey.