The main thing which brings people to Peru is the Inca heritage. This meant that once we got to Cusco we were on the tourist treadmill with all the crowds and chaos that implies. Yet despite being trapped on sweltering coaches with stupid Americans (‘No I’m not Australian’; ‘It´s the Andes, not a mountain called Andy’) and despite finding myself in tour groups full of people incapable of following instructions, keeping up, or asking even remotely intelligent questions (´So, they still have Incas in Mexico, then?´), despite all this, I wish we´d been here longer.
This is mainly due to there being far too much to see in only three days, but also due to spending a couple of nights at splendid hotels. At Urubamba, in the heart of the Sacred Valley, we stayed in a wood-beamed bungalow set in flower-filled gardens. At the Machu Picchu Pueblo we were in a cloud forest garden next to the sacred river with orchids and hummingbirds outside our balcony. Our hotel in Cusco was nothing special, though it was located close to the main square, and built against the foundations of a pre-Colonial building, giving us a chance to peruse some amazing stonework over breakfast.
I have mixed feelings about Cusco itself, though due to a combination of too many early mornings and the sorache entering a new and interesting gastric phase I was not at my best while we were there. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire – or rather the Quechua Empire, Quechua being the name of the people and their language, Inca just being Quechua for ‘King’. Cusco suffered under Spanish rule, and these days it contains more people trying to extract money from tourists than any place I have ever seen. Even finding somewhere to eat is stressful, as most restuarants have touts who accost passing tourists and, if you show the slightest interest in the menu they shove under your nose, try and physically drag you into the restuarant. I understand why – they’re on comission – but nothing kills my appetite like hard sell. I did wonder about getting a badge made up saying ´No, gracias´. Beggars are common almost everywhere in Peru, but most sit with quietly, cup on lap. In Cusco, I´ve seen true derelicts, men lying oblivious in the gutter, muttering to themselves. On the plus side, in Cusco we had the best guide of the tour, a Quechua shaman – not that he called himself that, but he obviously had the respect of his people and he certainly wasn’t Catholic. He it was who corrected my Inca/Quechua confusion: ‘You are English, you speak English. I am Quechua, I speak Quechua. I do not call you ‘Queen’, and you do not call me ‘King’, OK?’. Fair enough. He took us to several Quechua sites outside Cusco, explaining them not in terms of historical places he had learnt about, but as part of a living culture. In Cusco itself we visited the Cathedral and the St Domingo Monastery. In the former he pointed out how his people had subverted the Catholic icons by, for example, painting the virgin in the shape of a mountain (i.e. as Pachamama, mother earth). At the Monastery he showed us how the Quechua sacred buildings which had been used as foundations for the colonial structures still stood intact whilst the later buildings had succumbed to earthquakes.
In the Sacred Valley itself the guides were still good, though the whole process was more ‘touristy’. Our journey from Cusco involved the bus stopping for a series of photo-opportunities with llamas and Andean kids in traditional costume. Despite myself I enjoyed these, as both kids and llamas were friendly and way too cute, and unlike in the towns, where money must change hands for a photo to occur, many of the children were happy to pose for sweeties (‘caramellos’, they cried when a camera appeared) and the llamas just did their thing, unless you had managed to pick some alphapha, in which case they followed you around until physically discouraged. At our first stop in the Valley, Pisac, the tousists headed down into the market, but we headed uphill to the Quechua terraces above the town, buying cups of fresh orange juice from the women at the base of the old stone steps, then enjoying them, and the view, from the terraces while everyone else shopped. In the afternoon we joined the heaving crowds clambering over the Quechua fortress of Ollantaytambo where we seemed to be the only people in our group capable of picking out the figures of the Inca and of Viracocha carved into the hill opposite.
After a peaceful night but too early morning at our lovely hotel in Urubamba, we boarded the train to Machu Picchu. I’d been told this journey is as scenic as the Puno-Cusco train journey we’d done a few days before. Unfortunately, this is only true if you sit on the correct side. From the right hand side of the train I mainly saw overhanging rocks, unstable mud cliffs and other reminders of how often bits of this line get taken out. Despite the limited view I could tell that the terrain was changing. The mountains drew closer and steeper, until they filled not only the windows but the viewing plates in the roof. Gone were the terraces and fields – now were were in cloud forest, with dark green vegetation running wild across every surface, including the vertical ones. We transfered from train to bus via a short but hawker-haunted walk through Machu Picchu village, the modern settlement at the base of Machu Picchu mountain; no one knows what the ancient city itself was called, or why it was deserted, so today they name the site after the area. The bus drove up to the ruins along a single-track switchback cut into the jungle-covered mountain. By now travel-related stress and exhaustion, plus irritation with my fellow tourists, had destroyed much of my original enthusiasm, though Beloved did try and raise my spirits by singing the theme to ‘The Italian Job’ as the bus veered erratically round the hairpin bends.
My initial impression of Machu Picchu was that it looked just like the pictures, except full of bloody people. Our tour group was both large and idiot-filled, which meant that much of the time the guide could have spent telling us about the place, she spent trying to wrangle the more difficult group members. One woman complained that she’d had no idea there would be so many steps. Had she not seen pictures of the place? It’s built on top of a mountain for gawd’s sake! My mood was lightened when, about half way through the tour, I spotted some of llamas which have the run of the place up to some hanky panky. The female was suffering the attentions of the big white alpha male, while two other males tried to muscle in on the action. As the female gets to sit down during the process, she just let them squabble until she got bored, then got up and walked off.
We returned to the site after lunch at the hotel outside the gates, the rest of the group having moved off to the next entertainment, but it was even more hot and crowded, and I was exhausted. We gave up and went back down into the village to refresh our spirits at our marvellous hotel, and get an early night, because, as Beloved said, there was only one thing to do now. So, we got up at 4.30am the next morning, walked through the sleeping village, and got the first bus up to the site. We reached the ruins by 6am, in time to stand at the Hitching Post of the Sun and see the rising sun gild the mountain tops before being swallowed in thickening cloud. Of course we weren’t alone, but in a place that size it’s easy to lose a few dozen people, and everyone up there at that hour had made the extra effort because Machu Picchu was more than somewhere to tick off the list before getting back on the coach. When we did see anyone we either nodded a silent acknowledgement, or exhanged a few quiet words of wonder. At one point I thought I heard someone running up the stone steps towards us, but when we moved aside who should come round the corner but the female llama, pursued by the male. Ah, spring in Peru.
I could try and give detailed descriptions of the views from the city, the different parts of it, the thoughts and emotions which went through me in the three hours (3 minutes? 3 centuries?), we wandered round the ruins, but anything I say will be inadequate. I’ll give you a few adjectives – uncorrupted, verdant, peaceful, insular, commanding, harmonious – but they’re just words. You need to see it for yourself, and then decide. But make sure you get there early, before the hordes. And watch out for the llamas.