We spent the third part of our trip to Peru in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley. Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire, and today is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Cuzco is one of Peru’s larger cities, and is also the center of tourism in South America. This is primarily because it is the jumping off point to visit Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas.
We planned to spend 3 days in Cuzco before starting our trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. We needed those 3 days to acclimate to the altitude. Cuzco’s elevation is over 10,000 feet, and we were coming directly from sea level. Fortunately Cuzco offers plenty of things to see and do. In fact, the more I researched the area, the more I realized that we’d never be able to see it all in the short time we’d be there.
Our hotel was supposed to pick us up at the Cuzco airport, but we missed them due to our late arrival. We picked up our luggage, and walked with Jeff and the family out to the street running past the airport. Jeff helped us get a taxi there, which was cheaper than taking one from the airport itself. We each headed to our hotels, but made plans to meet for lunch after checking in.
The ride to our hotel was exciting. Our hotel, the Hostal Pension Alemana, is located in artsy San Blas district of Cuzco. San Blas is in the hills on the north side of city. Getting up there involved winding our way up steep, narrow alleyways. Some of the streets were barely wide enough for the taxi to pass. On several occasions I thought we’d lose a mirror, or worse. The roads reminded me a little of the back alleys of San Francisco. I thought we might have to walk the last stretch, but somehow our driver managed to deliver us to the front door of the hotel.
We checked in and dropped our luggage off in our room. The room was quite nice, and the entire hostel was pleasant. There was a lovely garden outside our room, full of a variety of blooming flowers. The view was nice, too, looking out over Cuzco.
We picked up a map of Cuzco from the front desk and headed out. Our goal was to meet Jeff and the family at Jack’s Café for lunch. Our taxi was long gone, and hailing another one up there wasn’t an option. The hotel could’ve called one for us, but we decided to hoof it. Using the map, we headed back down through San Blas towards the Plaza de Armas in the center of town. We wound our way through narrow cobblestone alleys and down precariously steep staircases, passing an assortment of restaurants and shops. We eventually stumbled upon the cafe and found Jeff and the family waiting for us there. We had a pretty good lunch and discussed our plans for the afternoon.
Our visit coincided with Inti Raymi, the ancient Inca festival of the sun. Inti Raymi is the biggest holiday in Incan culture, and people from all over Peru and the world travel to Cuzco for it each year. We had missed some of the festivities that morning, but the culmination of the festival was taking place that afternoon at the nearby ruins of Saqsaywaman. Christy and I wanted to go, as it promised to be a unique experience. Jeff was also interested, but Luz was definitely not feeling up to it. Nikki decided to take her back to the hotel, while Jeff, Bonnie, Christy and I headed up to the festival.
I was still feeling squeamish myself, and I wondered if I was making a wise choice. There would be thousands of people up there. What would the bathroom situation be like? I swiped some toilet paper from Jack’s bathroom, which proved to be the best decision I made all day. In Peru, toilet paper is like American Express – don’t leave home without it!
Our first challenge was getting up there. Saqsaywaman is a couple of miles from town, but it’s all uphill. Cuzco’s elevation is over 10,000 feet, and we had just arrived from sea level. Trying to walk up there would’ve been asking for altitude sickness. In fact, just walking around the hills of San Blas was exhausting. We decided to get a taxi.
This turned out to be more difficult than expected. The first two cabs we hailed couldn’t take us. The drivers explained (to Jeff, in Spanish) that the police had closed off the road and weren’t letting cars through. We had better luck with the third driver to stop. He had a press pass, and instructed us to tell the police that we were with El Television if questioned! The fare was 30 soles (about $10), which would normally be outrageous, but today it was understandable considering the risk the driver was taking.
He whisked us up the mountain, and we were only stopped once. We waved our cameras and smiled at the police and they let us through. Our driver dropped us off on the road adjacent to the ruins. I was stunned by what I saw. There were massive crowds everywhere! There were people scattered up and down the hillsides. Cooking fires were burning everywhere. The scene reminded me of a giant concert, or tailgate party.
We walked through the zoo, and passed the longest line of port-a-potties I’ve ever seen. I was definitely relieved to see them! From there we climbed over a hill overlooking the ruins. On the far side we found a view of the pageantry below. There was a horde of people surrounding us, but at least it was free. A ticket for a seat in the bleachers below would’ve cost us $90 each. We could watch the festival and not know what was going on just fine from where we were!
The festival included music and dancing and processions and priests in armor and warriors in loincloths. It also featured the ceremonial removal of an Alpaca’s beating heart (these days, alpacas are not harmed during the festival, although that wasn’t always the case in the past). The festival was hard to follow, as everything was in the native language (Quechua). Watching the crowd may have been more interesting than the festival itself. It was really an authentic experience. There were only a few gringos on the hillside surrounding us. I knew we were in a different culture when I witnessed a toddler pull down her pants and pee in front of the whole world. I guess she didn’t want to use the port-a-potties. I found out why a little later.
We stayed for a couple of hours before getting restless standing on the side of the hill. By that point, we all needed to brave the port-a-potties. We headed back out and found our way to the toilets. We all got in one line, and Bonnie went first. When she came out, she looked like she’d seen a ghost. This was not encouraging.
What followed was the second worst port-a-potty experience of my life. It wasn’t the worst – that occurred at a 2-day Phish festival concert in the south Florida heat. This was only slightly less disgusting. In fact, I don’t want to think about it, so that’s all I’m going to say on the subject. Don’t worry though, there will be lots more about toilets to come!
Getting a ride down to Cuzco didn’t appear to be an option, so we hoofed it. Walking back down wasn’t so bad, and we joined a throng of revelers down the main trail towards town. Somehow we managed to figure out where we were and find our way to our hotel. As we walked, Christy and I discussed our options for the next two days. We were scheduled to begin our trek on the Inca Trail on Sunday, so we had two full days free. Our primary goal was to acclimate to the high altitude before our hike. We also wanted to see some of the sights in and around Cuzco. Unfortunately, visiting some of them requires purchasing a tourist ticket. The tourist ticket, which is rather expensive at $43 per person, provides access to many of the most popular attractions. However, we knew we’d never have time to visit many of those places.
I left Christy at the hotel, while Jeff and I went into town to visit SAS Travel. I discussed our options for the next two days with a representative there. I ended up booking us on a tour of the Sacred Valley for the next day. We wanted to see the Inca ruins of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and doing so on an organized tour seemed like the easiest option. The tour was reasonably cheap, and we could purchase a pass covering the three sites on the tour for considerably less ($23) than the full tourist ticket. On Saturday I figured we’d explore Cuzco and visit some of the places that didn’t require the pass.
Jeff and I concluded our business and walked back towards San Blas. Along the way we were propositioned every few seconds by someone selling something. Every few seconds one of us said “No Gracias” and waved some hopeful vendor away. Most persistent were the young girls offering massages. We must’ve passed ten of them during our 15 minute walk. After walking through the massage parlor gauntlet, I turned to Jeff and said, “How do you say ‘Happy Ending?’ in Spanish?”
Later that evening Christy and I met Nikki and Bonnie for pizza. Jeff stayed back at the hotel with Luz, who still wasn’t feeling well. It was nice to see Nikki and Bonnie again, as they were heading to Puno and Lake Titicaca the next day. We made tentative plans to meet up in Agua Calientes the next week, as their visit there would coincide with ours, after we finished the Inca Trail.
Christy and I went to bed early that evening, but I had a rough night. The altitude made breathing difficult (I actually woke up gasping several times), and noise from the partying going on out in the streets kept us awake. I also spent a fair amount of the night in the bathroom, which worried me. How was I going to survive a day-long bus tour of the Sacred Valley?
THE SACRED VALLEY
We were up at 6:45 on Friday. We enjoyed eggs and toast for breakfast at the hotel before walking to the SAS Travel Office in the center of town. We arrived early for our tour, but a last minute toilet stop left us last getting on the bus. Our group was fairly small – about 10 to 15 people, including our guide, Martin. Martin spoke good but heavily accented English. Martin was from Chinchero, which would be our final stop on the tour. As we drove, he told us that as a child he attended school in Urubamba. He had to walk (or run) there, and back, every day. That’s 30 KM (about 18.6 miles) each way! He said he made it down in 2 ˝ hours and back up in 3.
We drove up past Saqsaywaman and three other major ruins on our way to Pisac. Our first stop that morning was at a small market, where we each purchased alpaca wool hats. From there we continued on to a viewpoint overlooking the Sacred Valley and the Urubamba River. After a brief stop there, we passed through the town of Pisac and continued on up the mountain to the ruins.
The fortress of Pisac wasn’t crowded when we arrived. The best thing about doing the tour with SAS Travel is that we always seemed to be a step ahead of the other tours. It was nice visiting each site without having to battle hordes of people.
Pisac was my favorite part of the day. Pisac was a fortress and village situated high up on the cliffs overlooking the valley. Pisac is famous for its terraces, which were cut into the flanks of the mountain for farming. The terraces form lovely curves, and the view out across the terraces to the gorge below and the mountains in the distance was breathtaking. The ruins also include a ceremonial center featuring several temples and baths. The site also features Inca tombs built into a cliff wall. Unfortunately, these are off-limits to tourists.
Martin gave us an informative guided tour. Afterwards, we had about 20 minutes to explore on our own. This was nice, but more time would’ve been better. It would probably take an hour or more to really see everything there. I spent every bit of those 20 minutes running around trying to see as much as possible. If we return to this part of Peru, I would like to visit the ruins of Pisac on our own.
It was beginning to get crowded when we left. We headed back down the mountain, and continued down the valley towards Calca. Along the way I spotted an impressive high waterfall cascading down the northeast side of the gorge. Oddly, the waterfall had no apparent source. It may have originated from a spring or cave in the side of the mountain. Another possibility is that it came from an old, broken aqueduct.
We stopped at a restaurant in Urubamba for a buffet lunch that was pretty good. It was a decent meal, and priced reasonably at $8 each. From there we continued on to Ollantaytambo. We passed through the town and arrived at the ruins of the fortress. Ollantaytambo is famous for being one of the few sites that the Conquistadors weren’t able to immediately conquer. Of course the Spaniards were eventually victorious.
Martin led us up the stone steps to the top of the fortress. There we found a temple and ceremonial center. The buildings are impressive stone structures, built without mortar. The stones are fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Despite this, the structures have stood for hundreds of years.
From the top we spotted the Inca quarry, where the stones used to build the fortress were mined. Amazingly, the quarry is on a mountainside on the opposite side of the river! Hauling those massive stones must’ve been a major undertaking. We also observed granaries built for storage high up on another mountainside. That same mountain features huge carvings of two human faces in the stone. According to Martin, one of them catches the morning sun at dawn on the winter solstice.
We descended by a different route, passing Inca baths that are still being excavated. Once down, I took the opportunity to visit another toilet. Unfortunately, this one had been absolutely destroyed. Cleaning it would’ve required a pressure-washer. I guess somebody must’ve been in worse shape that I was! I decided I could hang on until we arrived at our next stop.
We returned to the bus and attempted to get out of town. Unfortunately, most of the other tour buses were on their way in, and there is only one road in and out of Ollantaytambo. That road is one-lane wide, and getting out of town was quite the fustercluck. We couldn’t figure out why the police were letting traffic in, when there was a huge line of vehicles waiting to get out. Before long, the entire town was gridlocked.
We finally made it out to the open road and backtracked to the town of Urubamba. There we headed up the mountain to our final stop at Chinchero. On the way we were treated to views of snow-covered peaks (Nevados) to the north. Our visit to Chinchero was limited to a brief tour of the lovely colonial church and a craft demonstration by local women. We did purchase a couple of alpaca wool sweaters, which are incredibly warm yet absurdly inexpensive by American standards.
We left at dusk and endured a long, tedious drive back to Cuzco. The last part of the drive featured lots of fast driving on winding mountain roads. At one point, we found ourselves trying to pass a truck while heading uphill. We could only wonder if we’d end up colliding with oncoming traffic or flying off the cliff. Between the winding roads, the ever-present diesel fumes, and the terror of wondering what was coming around the next bend, we were both pretty nauseous when we arrived in Cuzco. Christy looked absolutely green, which didn’t surprise me, as she’s prone to getting car sick under less challenging circumstances.
EL DIABLO (THE DEVIL INSIDE)
We walked back up to San Blas from the center of town. The clean air was refreshing, and we were feeling a little better by the time we neared our hotel. We stopped at The Muse for dinner, which featured some amazing artwork and festive music. We each ordered pasta, though I accidentally requested my lasagna sin carne instead of con carne. I ended up with veggie lasagna, but it was my own fault. Getting con (with) and sin (without) straight is definitely important! My favorite thing about The Muse was their policy on water bottles. Instead of selling disposable plastic water bottles (which are a growing environmental disaster in Peru), they had a large cooler of purified water. For a small fee, you can get a water bottle filled. We ended up getting most of our water there for the duration of our stay. This was both cheaper and less wasteful.
The food was good, but neither of us had much of an appetite. We were both exhausted and nauseous. We ate a little before heading back to the hotel. We went to bed early and slept for a couple of hours. We were both tossing and turning though, and alternating turns in the bathroom.
It was around midnight when things went from bad to worse. Christy ran for the bathroom and didn’t emerge for 10 or 15 minutes. When she did, it was only briefly. Soon she was back. She was extremely ill, and I really didn’t know what to do. Her symptoms were awful – vomiting, diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, and cramps. I convinced her to take an antibiotic we had brought with us, but she immediately threw it up. After her third trip to the toilet, she told me that she needed to go to the hospital. I cringed. What would we be in for? I envisioned sitting in a crowded waiting room full of screaming babies and moaning elderly people missing limbs and random folks running around with hatchets buried in their heads.
I went to the lobby and eventually tracked someone down. I explained the situation in poor Spanish, but she eventually understood. She called for an ambulance, and I brought Christy to the lobby. The ambulance (which was more of a glorified minivan) arrived about 15 minutes later. The ambulance ride was quite the event. The doctor onboard checked Christy over while the driver attempted to back down the narrow alley in the dark. Eventually he gave up on that and tried to turn around at a wide spot in the road. By “wide spot” I mean it was the only part of the street where both side mirrors weren’t scraping the walls. What ensued must’ve looked something like this:
Meanwhile, Christy was moaning and groaning with every bump. Somehow we eventually got turned around. We arrived at the Hampi Land clinic a few minutes later. Hampi Land isn’t exactly a hospital. Actually it’s a clinic that is geared towards travelers. We were shown immediately to a room with two beds. I settled into one while they went to work on Christy. The first thing they did was take blood and set up an IV full of antibiotics. They also tested her blood oxygen level. It was extremely low, so they hooked her up to an oxygen tank. The tank gurgled frequently in an amusing way. Sometime later, after Christy’s condition had stabilized, I decided to test how she was feeling. After a particularly impressive gurgle I said, “Hey dude, easy on the bong. Save some for the rest of us!” She laughed, which was quite a relief.
The doctor ran some tests and we discovered that Christy had salmonella and Intestinal Parasites. They upgraded her antibiotics, and we managed to sleep most of the rest of the night. Later, we puzzled over how a vegetarian had managed to acquire salmonella. The prime suspects seemed to be the café we had lunch at near the canopy walk on our last day in the jungle, as well as the eggs that we’d had virtually every morning we’d been in Peru. These are possibilities, but we’ll never know for sure.
In the morning, they informed us that Christy would need to spend most of the day there. The fed us breakfast (toast and juice) and lunch (soup and jello for Christy, chicken, rice, and potatoes for me). I spent most of the morning watching World Cup soccer on the tv in our room while Christy slept. That afternoon we talked with the doctor and mentioned that we were supposed to start the Inca Trail the following morning. He advised that attempting the trek would be a very bad idea.
This was heartbreaking. Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu had been the whole basis for the trip. Everything else was added from there. Plus, the trek was expensive. We had been required to prepay, and it was completely non-refundable. That evening, I walked over to the Inca Trail Reservations office, which is the agency we had booked the trek through. I explained the situation, and asked if we could skip the first two days of the trek and join the group farther down the trail on Tuesday. This would’ve meant missing more than half of the hike, but it would’ve been better than nothing. Unfortunately, this wasn’t possible. Due to government regulations, only a limited number of people are allowed to start the trail from any point each day. As a result, we couldn’t change our start date.
We were able to salvage part of the trip. The trip we had booked included transportation to the trailhead and back from Agua Calientes, as well as one night in a hotel there. It had also included our entry fee into Machu Picchu as well as a guided tour. After a lengthy discussion with the agent, I came up with a new plan. We would go the tourist route. On Tuesday morning we would take a bus and train to Agua Calientes, the town in the valley below Machu Picchu. We’d spend Tuesday and Wednesday night in Agua Calientes, and dedicate all day Wednesday to visiting Machu Picchu. We’d then return by train and bus to Cuzco on Thursday.
I paid for the additional hotel and transportation and walked back to the clinic. This was an exciting walk, as the clinic is NOT in a touristy part of town. Still, people were friendly and I never feared for my safety. Back at the clinic, I found out there had been an incident while I was out. Christy tried to go to the bathroom unassisted, and she rolled the I.V. cart in with her. When she went to get back into bed, the I.V. stand fell over and the I.V. ripped out of her arm. The nurse came eventually, but she’d had considerable difficulty reinserting the I.V.
We got everything squared away with the clinic and our travel insurance. Christy was released at 8pm, and they gave us an ambulance (minivan) ride back to our hotel. There we extended our reservations for two more nights. Christy went straight to bed, while I checked my email using the public computer in the hostel. I went to bed shortly thereafter, and actually slept fairly well for a change. At this point I was on the antibiotics we’d brought with us, and my intestinal issues seemed to be gradually improving.
FINALLY, A HIKE
We slept in the next morning and had breakfast around 8:30. We then watched Germany whoop England in the World Cup. By that point I was getting stir crazy. I had to get out. So, while Christy napped I hiked around Cuzco. I started out by heading down to the Plaza San Blas, where I watched a group of natives in colorful dress doing a dance performance. There were several musicians around the plaza, including one guy blowing into a long, hollow log. I also got suckered into paying a young girl for the opportunity to photograph her holding a baby alpaca. I totally got punked, as several other girls jumped into the photograph, and each one wanted a coin.
From there it was down to the Plaza de Armas and past some original Inca walls. Then I headed over to Qorikancha (The Temple of The Sun). From there I headed back up through San Blas. I climbed all the way up to the Iglesia San Cristobal, which is high on the hill overlooking Cuzco. At that point I had a great view of all of Cuzco as well as the snowy Andes in the distance. Before I left, I spotted an Alpaca grazing outside the church.
I tried to head back down from there, but ended up in a maze of homes and alleyways. I stumbled across a structure that appeared to be an old aqueduct, and passed a man-made waterfall. I crossed the creek on an old, rickety bridge, passing an old man doing his laundry in the creek. On the other side, I picked up a trail into the woods. I climbed to a hillside overlooking one of Cuzco’s ghettos – where I had just been. Ghetto or not, the people there had been extremely friendly, if a bit surprised to see a gringo wandering around.
I thought the trail would take me to the road leading to Saqsaywaman, but that didn’t work out. I was almost to the statue of Jesus overlooking Cuzco when I decided to turn around. I’m guessing that I was actually on a back way into Saqsaywaman, but I wasn’t interested in trying to sneak into the ruins. Instead I found a way back down to San Blas. On the way back to the hotel I picked up some Powerade and crackers for Christy along with some toilet paper and batteries.
That evening I roamed town again, taking photos. I eventually wandered down to the Plaza de Armas, where I hoped to catch the full moon rising over the spires of the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus. I’d seen that breathtaking sight two nights earlier, but didn’t have my camera with me. It was the one that got away, as the moon was rising later on this evening.
Instead of a full moon, I was accosted by a pushy young boy trying to sell something. I said “No gracias”, and he responded with “Yes right now”! I couldn’t believe it. While almost everyone we met was extremely nice, there were a few exceptions like this. I eventually ran him off and returned to the hotel. I met Christy, and we walked a few blocks to a restaurant for a pasta dinner. We headed back afterwards, and went to bed early. Christy managed to sleep straight through the night, which was a relief.
FUNGI HAS AMOEBAS
We slept in the next morning. Christy was feeling better, though she was still weak. We got off to a sluggish start, as it was actually raining. Rain is pretty rare during the “dry” season, but apparently it can happen. The mountains surrounding Cuzco were lost in the clouds, and that made me happy. If we were going to miss out on hiking the Inca Trail, at least we were missing out on hiking it uphill in the fog and rain!
Initially we planned to visit The Cathedral, the Inca Museum, and The Temple of the Sun on Monday. However, my intestinal problems had worsened the previous night. I was extremely frustrated with this, so I decided to try the same clinic Christy had been to. They did a blood test, which revealed that I had Amoebas. Lovely.
I left the clinic and met Christy at the Inca Museum. We took a one-hour tour with a guide who spoke English well. The tour was interesting, but I probably would’ve enjoyed exploring the museum more on my own. The best part of the tour was the Inca mummies. There were several on display, including one with a mummified dog. It was creepy, but fascinating.
After the tour I returned to the clinic to pay my bill and pick up my medicine. The total cost was about $90, but it was worth it. The medicine they provided ended up being far more productive than what we’d brought from home.
By the time that was taken care of it was late in the afternoon and we’d missed our chance to visit The Cathedral and The Temple of the Sun. This was a bit disappointing. I was really looking forward to seeing the Cathedral’s most infamous painting. It is a depiction of Jesus at The Last Supper, but with a twist. In the painting, Jesus and the disciples are dining on roasted guinea pig (a local delicacy).
We returned to the hotel and met our travel agent. She brought us our train tickets and our vouchers for our hotels there. She told us that a driver would pick us up the next morning to take us to the train station. The driver would also have our tickets to Machu Picchu. That was something we definitely needed, as the price of admission into the ruins is quite high.
We returned to The Muse for a late dinner. Soup and grilled cheese sandwiches were all we could stomach, but we weren’t even able to finish those. We really liked the restaurant, it’s just a shame that we were sick both times we ate there.
After dinner we returned to the hostel to pack. We loaded our backpacks with everything we’d need for 3 days in Agua Calientes. Everything else went into our suitcases, which the hotel stored for us while we were gone. Once we finished packing, we were ready for bed, as we had to be up early on Tuesday for the train ride to Agua Calientes.
Back to Peru
Back to Hiking and Backpacking Trip Reports
Please remember to Leave No Trace!