During our route through South America we came across hundreds of beautiful locations. There were some of them though that we found it difficult to leave behind and Lima was certainly one of them. Unfortunately in the overlanders’ world the road must go on, so one fine morning we left the capital behind and headed to Paracas National Park, a vast desert reserve that occupies most of the Peninsula de Paracas. There we visited a sand dune lake oasis hidden away from the busy Pan-American Highway, drove by some stunning rocky beaches and finally our visit was completed with a spectacular last sunset over the Pacific Ocean to which, as in Lima, we said goodbye for the last time. This was our last day on the coast because the following day we started our ascent in the Andes, with destination Ayacucho. After a couple of long drives and quick overnights in small villages we finally reached Ayacucho. This traditional settlement offers a telling insight into its past. Ayacucho’s status as an isolated capital of a poor region came to the world’s notice from the Sentero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist revolutionary movement that attempted to overthrow the government, causing thousands of deaths in the region during the1980s and ’90s. In our days, the shadow above Ayacucho’s dark past has long been lifted and travelers are floating here to discover the area’s local colourful market and richly decorated churches, alongside with peach/pastel-coloured colonial buildings with wooden balconies. Ayacucho’s development has been tasteful and its commercialization is very limited. Another reason for adding Ayacucho in your itinerary is the several interesting excursions in the surroundings of the city. During our time here we explored the extensive Wari Ruins (20km above Ayacucho, on the road to Quinua), some of the most significant surviving remains of the Wari culture that are now scattered among fields of opuntia cacti. Further 17km beyond the Wari ruins, we drove through the pretty village of Quinua, where someone can find the room where the Spanish troops signed their surrender, leading to the end of colonialism in Peru. A bit further, a 40m-high white obelisk marks the place where the last Battle of Ayacucho took place. After the usual adventure with our GPS getting us lost every time we needed to get out of a city, we took the road to the next destination on our list, the cosmopolitan Inca capital of Cuzco. It took us almost two more days to get there driving through the small roads of the Andes. On our way there, we had our first near death experience. A local crazy driver came from the opposite side of the road into ours in full speed and almost crashed straight on us. Beside this we also had a couple of other close encounters (in the corners they don’t seem to like to stay on their side of the road) that we would like to forget but we mention them here as a warning. So be careful, “ANDEAN DRIVERS CAN BE LETHALLY DANGEROUS!!!
But let’s move onwards with our visit in Cusco (or Qosq’o in Quechua) that today thrives with contradiction. Ornate cathedrals squat over Inca temples, every corner offers local massage on the narrow cobblestone streets, a woman in traditional skirt offers bottled milk to a pet baby llama for a photo, and finally the finest boutiques display the softest alpaca knits for small fortunes. The foremost city of the Inca Empire is now the undisputed archaeological capital of the Americas, as well as the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Walking around the city makes it obvious that very few travelers to Peru skip visiting this premier destination that by the way also functions as the gateway to Machu Picchu.
Visitors to Cuzco can get a glimpse of the richest heritage city married to 21st century hustle, that at times is a bit disconcerting (the KFC, McDonalds and Starbucks are located behind the Inca stoned walls on the main plaza). Yes!!! Rochelle did buy a new coffee mug from Starbucks, by the way!!! After a free walking tour that depending on your guide can be everything from informative to completely boring (we were lucky to get the first option) it was time to continue our Inca ruin quest. We started with the four ruins closest to Cuzco, Sacsaywamán, Q’enqo, Pukapukara and Tambomachay. They can all be visited in a day and with a combined ticket -the boleto turístico- but if you only have time to visit one, Sacsaywamán is the most impressive and within the immediate area around Cuzco. The long Quechua name means ‘Satisfied Falcon’ though tourists will remember it as ‘sexy woman.’ Sacsaywamán feels huge, but what you see today is only 20% of the original structure. The site is composed of three different areas, the most striking being the magnificent three-tiered zigzag fortifications. In the signs under the walls someone can read that some stone, incredibly, weighs more than 300 tons. We were also told that the walls are formed in a extremely effective defensive mechanism that forces the attackers to expose their flanks when attacking. Unfortunately most of these structures were torn down by the Spaniards in their attempt to build their part in Cuzco.
Impressed by the Incas, we pushed further in order to explore the rest of the area of the beautiful Río Urubamba Valley, also known as El Valle Sagrado (The Sacred Valley). Only 15km north of Cuzco as the condor flies, via a narrow road of hairpin turns, this area of attractive colonial towns and isolated villages has become a destination of its own. The main star attractions are the markets and the lofty Inca citadels of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, while the rest of the valley is still packed with other uncovered minor Inca sites. Our first stop was Pisac, the most convenient starting point to the Sacred Valley and a bustling colonial village at the base of a spectacular Inca fortress perched on a mountain spur. The Inca citadel is just breathtaking so as soon as we entered we did not follow the rhythm of the groups running through and took our time getting lost and wander around the labyrinth of alleyways before we moved forward. On our way further and between Pisac and Urubamba, we discovered a series of pretty, non touristy villages that offer boutique accommodation and food options and can be easily explored in a day. Heading up from Urubamba, we tackled the impressively deep amphitheater-like terracing of Moray, where different levels of terraces are carved into a huge earthen bowl. Each layer has its own microclimate, according to depth, that the Incas used to determine the optimal conditions for growing crops of each species. Next up was Salinas that is among the most spectacular sites in the whole Cuzco area, with thousands of salt pans that have been used for salt extraction since the Inca times. A hot spring at the top of the valley discharges a small stream of heavily salt-laden water, which is diverted into salt pans and evaporated to produce salt; the overall site can only be described as surreally beautiful.
With that done it was time to reach Ollantaytambo or in short Ollanta, a lovely place to be. Except the impressive Inca ruins preached on the steep side of the mountain, this place is perfect to wander around the narrow paths, past stone buildings and babbling irrigation channels, a time travel really!!! The next day, while exploring the ruins, we learned that the specific site was a castle, stopping invasions from the Amazon area, a temple for worshiping the Sun-God as well as the area’s administrational centre. Today this village serves as the point from where almost all visitors to Machu Picchu embark their train. We had planned to return here as the festival of the Señor de Choquechilca was coming up so after two days we as
well took the road to Machu Picchu. In our case though, we picked an alternative route so after driving up to the hydroelectric station, we started walking the last 20km before reaching Aguas Calientes. This route proved to be rather easy but at the same time scenic way, full of spectacular views topped by an unexpected view of Machu Picchu from way below. Our last stop before we climbed up was as mentioned earlier Aguas Calientes, this town lies in a deep gorge below the ruins. It’s cut off from all roads and enclosed by stone cliffs and two rushing rivers. Despite its gorgeous location, Aguas Calientes has very little to offer. Part tourist trap, part Wild West, this shabby town has always been used only as “the place where you pick the bus to head to Machu Picchu”.
For many visitors to Peru, including ourselves now, a visit to the Inca city of Machu Picchu is the long-anticipated highpoint of their whole trip. The day of our visit, we woke up at 4:30am in order to get the first bus up before the sun rises lighting up this spectacular site. This inspiring ancient city was never revealed to the conquering Spaniards and was virtually forgotten until the early part of the 20th century. Despite the great tourist influx, the site always manages to retain an air of grandeur and mystery. Shrouded by mist, lush vegetation and steep escarpments, the sprawling Inca citadel of Machu Picchu is one icon that lives up to everyone’s expectation. This icon has been long seared into our collective consciousness but believe us, nothing can diminish the thrill of being here. It took us eight hours to finally come to a conclusion that we had enough of it and started our way back to the hydroelectric station, where we had left our car waiting the previous days (a hard four-hour walk).
The Inca valley tribute was complete back in Ollantaytambo, where we spent two more days celebrating with the locals the Señor de Choquechilca festival, the town’s most important annual event that commemorates the local miracle of the Christ of Choquechilca, when a wooden cross appeared by the Incan bridge. It’s celebrated with music, dancing, colourful processions and lots of alcohol. We shared this experience with another two Greek travelers, Nikos and Georgia, that nowadays work in Ollantaytambo in order to fuel up their trip. “The Pin Project” has taken them to three continents through a six-year period till this day. You can find out more about it in their book.
After the end of the festival and on our way back to Cusco, we had a quick stop in Chinchero, known to the Incas as the birthplace of the rainbow. A typical high Andean village that combines Inca ruins with a colonial church, some wonderful mountain views and a colourful Sunday market. They are also famous for the textile demonstrations, the natural way that is still practiced and passed from generation to generation. Here was the end of our Inca quest and now that it’s done, we can assure you that it was much more awarding than originally expected.
Last destination before exiting Peru was Lake Titicaca, the world’s largest high-altitude lake at 3808m, divided between Peru and Bolivia, the 8400 sq km that feels like a journey to the top of the world. We picked the northwestern part of the lake, the Capachica Peninsula and the village of Llachon that has the same beauty as the lake islands but without the crowds and a white sand beach. Each pueblito (tiny town) boasts its own glorious scenery here and a few days among the local people (men in vests and black hats, and shy, smiling women in colourful headgear), with nothing to do but stare at the lake, provided us with the perfect retreat (like we needed one!!!) Homestay is the only accommodation available in the area and believe us, a major element of the fun here. As last we left the visit to the Uros floating islands that unfortunately proved to be a tourist show and nothing like we had imagined.
Our adventures continued around Lake Titicaca but in order to keep you excited we will tell you more about them in our next episode. Keep on following since Overlanddiaries adventure never stops!!!