Leaving Europe for a while to explore the unknown which lurks in the depths of south america - the land of the Incas!
Well, all my friends/readers probably have noticed that I am more of an "Europe traveler" and that is very true! On the other hand, I am also aware that there are many more beautiful and cultural places out there in this world.
South America is part of the "new world" - a term associated to this continent, since it was "discovered" by Europeans about 500 years ago. I found this term to be unfair. What about the first men to ever settle this huge landmass? History of the Americas can be perhaps as old as Europe's. The Incas were a civilization that inhabited the so called "sacred valley" much earlier than European navigators reached the new continent. I then thought of adding one more country to my list of visited countries and came in person to Peru to check it out by myself. I came to see Machu Picchu - the famous Inca town situated somewhere 2000 meters above sea-level in a place where a country named Peru is located now.
I know that Peru is more than just the sacred town of Machu Picchu, but for this trip I decided to complete skip Lima and Arequipa and focus on Cuzco and Machu Picchu. I believe that the country side can show more identity of a country than its capital city.
Getting to Cuzco
Cuzco has the nearest airport to Machu Picchu site. From Europe, I would recommend the KLM flight from Amsterdam to Lima - a direct flight to Peru. Even though we took a different route to save money, that one would be the most comfortable option. KLM uses either a Boeing 787-9 (Dreamliner) or a larger B777-300, which is OK for such a long-haul flight. Then after take an Avianca flight from Lima to Cuzco. That is a Star Alliance member (popular frequent flyer program in Europe), so you can earn points when flying with them too.
Cuzco is a cozy Andean town, very underdeveloped though, but not dangerous. People are very friendly and prices are very low for goods, services, especially taxis. One thing to have in mind is that Cuzco is situated somewhere at 3400m above sea-level. Get ready for some altitude sickness symptoms like headaches, tiredness, vomiting. For reference, even though I was the oldest traveler (34yo) in our small group of 6 people, I was among the 2 who didn't vomit. So, take some pills and upon arrival try the local Coca tea (yes, coca leaf tea) which is believed to mitigate high altitude symptoms your body may face on the first couple days. So I recommend two days buffer time in Cuzco before taking the trip to Machu Picchu hills, even thought M.P. itself is situated in a lower altitude - I think about 2500m above sea-level.
There are a whole sort of bars, restaurants and night clubs in Cuzco. Try to get a hotel near "Plaza de Armas" where most of the nightlife is going on. A beer would cost from 10 to 15 soles in a bar and a meal in a good restaurant from 35 to 50 soles. If you get out of touristy area and try to live like a local, you could eat for half of that. A taxi to airport (in 2017) costs around 10 soles. A airport pick-up (implying that the taxi driver arrives earlier and prepares a banner with your names to wait for you at the arrival area and etc, might cost twice as much. We paid 20 soles for airport pickup per car).
Reaching Machu Picchu area via Ollantaytambo
There are some different ways to reach Machu Picchu, including the famous "Inca trail" path through the jungle that takes few days, so one can feel like a real "conquistador". Keep in mind that you have to book this tour with some local operator and these sell out fast.
The easier option is to ride a van to Ollantaytambo town, then getting a train to Aguascalientes, which is the base village for Machu Picchu hills. The government of Peru has imposed a daily limit of visitors since the infrastructure is not so good. There are limited trains and limited housing in small Aguascalientes village. So, one has to book Machu Picchu national park tickets in a official site run by the government of Peru, the ticket is a non-transferable, and associated to specific names and nationalities filled out when buying the tickets. They check documents when entering the national park of Machu Picchu. The official website is: http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/ - Keep in mind that the website is a bit obsolete and still uses Flash technology. You might have browser compatibility issues. Before buying directly with this website, check if you can buy a whole excursion package which would include vans from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo, train from there to Aguascalientes, hostel for one night prior to the ascent and tickets to national park itself. I took that option for about 250 USD.
Aguascalientes (Base town to Machu Picchu)
Get your mosquito repellent ready 'cause these beasts bite deep and draw blood. Some people might have allergic reactions to mosquito bites. Bring sunscreen as well. The sun is severe even in winter. I chose September for this trip, and arrived in Machu Picchu national park before 7am. It is the best time to arrive there, before the first streams for light pop out from behind the hills. By 9am the sun is already annoying!! Even being above 2000m altitude, Peru is fairly close to the equator line and it will get hot no matter what. It might be a bit chilly during early morning hours but if you wear too many layers you will regret later.
The little village has many restaurants and is full of tourists. There is also one SPA with hot water which would reason the name of the town - Aguascalients ("hot water" in Spanish). Relax the day before the ascent drinking one "Cusquena" beer. Really good taste.
Definitely a reward after so much traveling through small towns, narrow roads and waiting times between connections. A photo (or a selfie) here is the most memorable souvenir from this trip. Some people would also say that a photo with an alpaca or llama would be necessary too, but that I skipped.
This sacred town was a self-sufficient society, with schools for men and for women separately, plantations areas and livestock. Their religion included sacrifice of children. They also had stone calendars, primitive way to see what time of the year just based on how the sun casts a shadow on some of their stones setup. Their steep ways and paths could protect them from external tribes or threats of any sort. No one knows where they migrated. Some historians still believe that there should be another hidden refuge of the Incas which is not yet found. A mystery to be solved.
Some more photos (click to enlarge):