The road to Machu Picchu: The cradle of Incan civilization is a destination of highs

Peru’s most famous attraction, spectacularly preserved in a cloud forest

By Patricia Sheridan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Patricia Sheridan/Post-Gazette The Machu Picchu Sacred Plaza where the Inca people gathered to hear proclamations.

CUSCO, Peru — If you see a red plastic bag waving on a stick like a flag, it’s a signal the chicha is ready. The sacred drink of the Incas, chicha is a fermented corn beer many locals brew themselves in and around the Cusco region of Peru. Finding and tasting chicha is just one of the many diversions travelers can embrace on the road to Machu Picchu, Peru’s most famous attraction.

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the arrival of American explorer Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu. A UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu recently beat out the great pyramid of Giza in the Huffington Post’s “1,000 Places to See Before You Die: Your Most Desired Vacation Destination” poll as the No. 1 choice of readers.

Machu Picchu is a spectacularly preserved Inca city. Its location in a cloud forest in the Andes mountains protected it from destruction by the Spanish invaders, who destroyed much of the Inca Empire, including its capital at Cusco, in the 16th century.

Today Cusco is a confluence of Catholicism and the Quechua (pronounced katch-wa) culture. Many of the colonial churches and cathedrals are built on Inca foundations.

If you are there for the festival of the Virgin of the Natividad you will witness the mixing of the two civilizations in the most dramatic and entertaining of parades with bands, dancers, costumes and customs all on display. The Quechua, who are direct descendants of the Incas, live in and around Cusco. Many still wear traditional clothing. Near the main square, Plaza De Armas, some will be trailing a llama for photo ops with tourists. Be prepared to pay a few soles for the privilege of holding a baby llama.

The nuevo sol is the currency of Peru, and right now the U.S. dollar is nearly three to one, making everything there a bargain. U.S. dollars are accepted, but they can’t be torn or worn or the money won’t be accepted.

The flight from the U.S. to Lima (where all trips to Cusco and Machu Picchu begin inside Peru) can be the most expensive part of the journey, depending on how long you stay. Many first fly to Lima on the Pacific coast and then head to Cusco, which is about 70 miles from Machu Picchu.

When you do this, you are going from sea level to 11,150 feet above. The danger is altitude sickness, or soroche. To avoid a pounding headache and nausea, take it easy when you arrive and don’t drink anything alcoholic for at least 48 hours. Rest and drink the coca tea offered at your hotel. It will help prevent problems, locals say, and it’s like sipping history. Coca, like chicha, was used by the Incas. These drinks embody the flavor of a civilization.

“Fruity Tuttie” is how one woman tending an antiques shop on a Cusco side street described the drink. After a few cups of the earthy, grassy tasting coca tea, “Fruity Tuttie” seems like a welcome change.
Chicha and Pisco Sour

If you go into one of the homes with the red bag flying on the way to Machu Picchu, you might want to bring your own cup and hope they didn’t use the traditional brewing methods that require women to chew the maize to a pulp and spit it into the concoction. The enzymes in saliva speed up fermentation.

In Cusco the places frequented by the locals where chicha is served are not easy to find — they are down alleys and behind walls. Be prepared to drink a lot if you order the chicha. It is served in massive glasses, but is hardly potent. You’ll feel more bloated than buzzed. For a real kick go into any bar on the Plaza De Armas in Cusco, and have a Pisco Sour — the official drink of Peru. Pisco is a type of grape brandy developed by the Spanish and imported to South America in the 16th century. The drink is mixed to a froth with egg whites.

Of course not everything is as easy to swallow. One man’s pet is another’s meal. Guinea pig is a widely enjoyed protein in the region. Inside the Cathedral of Cusco, which dominates the Plaza de Armas, is the famous “Last Supper” painting by Marcos Zapata. It depicts Christ and the Apostles about to indulge in a roasted guinea pig — feet in the air. Chicha — not wine — is in the goblets. Aside from the humor, it is another perfect representation of how the Quechua and Spanish cultures were blended after Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish soldiers conquered the Incas. The statue of Inca leader Pachacute in the center of the square surrounded by colonial colonnades is another.

At Sunday’s popular market in Pisac, a small village close to Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley, there is a guinea pig castle in which the furry little animals frolic, unaware they may be chosen for a meal. The castle works just like a lobster tank in a restaurant where the customer picks the one he wants.

Regional epicurean tastes aren’t for everybody. Shopping for souvenirs at the local markets is safer on the digestion as are the 3,000 varieties of potatoes grown in Peru. Every town along the way has a market. You’ll find colorful textiles, alpaca sweaters, socks, jackets and chullo hats, Inca crosses made of stone, and gourds, some so intricately carved it takes a magnifying glass to fully appreciate, as well as oil paintings and watercolors sold by artists on the street. Always use your bargaining skills, although it is harder when the seller is 7 and his big brown eyes look so pleading.

Shoeshine boys, artists and trinket sellers abound in Cusco’s main square. The Peruvian people in the region are friendly and genuinely seem to enjoy interacting with tourists, which makes the market a pleasant experience. Still, be aware of your surroundings and don’t leave your possessions unattended.

For a hit of history, go to the Inca Museum in Cusco, which is off a narrow alley to the northwest of the Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas. There you will find weavers demonstrating their skills and schoolchildren swarming the exhibits, which feature one of the largest selections of Inca drinking cups. Bingham shipped most of the artifacts he found to the Yale University Museum in New Haven, Conn. Museum officials recently agreed to send them back to Peru.

What he couldn’t get out of the country are the massive stone ruins. Above Cusco is Sacsayhuaman (pronounced Sack-sa-wahmen). It’s famous for the sheer size of its massive carved stone walls. Seeing that leaves one in awe of the skills of the Quechua/Inca people, who can create a tiny universe on a gourd the size of golf ball and also build such huge durable structures. Artists and engineers, the Incas built their foundations to withstand earthquakes, while the colonial buildings the Spanish did not erect over Inca structures have been damaged often.

The Cusco region is an active earthquake zone. According to Earthquaketrack.com there have been five in the past year. It was the one in May 1950 that revealed the long Inca wall (off Cusco’s main square) with the stone that has 12 sides all fitting perfectly in the wall.

Though you may want to stay longer in Cusco and explore the San Blas or artists neighborhood, there is more to experience ahead on the road to Machu Picchu through the Sacred Valley, along the Urubamba River and into Pisac and Ollantaytambo.
On the road

Ollantaytambo is called a living Inca town because many of the residents live in spaces built by the Incas. The irrigation system still runs through the cobblestone streets. The ruins of the fortress are nearly as impressive as those at Machu Picchu. It is worth staying overnight to experience the city. El Albergue is listed as a hostel but in every way it feels like a wonderful boutique hotel. Wendy Weeks, an artist from Seattle, is the owner. White-washed walls and simple brown furniture and comfortable beds make it the perfect place to stay. Do not be put off that it is right on the train tracks and seems to be part of the station. With the snow-capped Andes as a backdrop and an unlikely palm tree growing in the middle of the lush gardens, the place is as fanciful as the Inca black nights and starry skies.

From there you hop the train to Aguas Calientes. This town is base camp for visitors heading to Machu Picchu. There are no roads that access Aguas Calientes, you either take the train or trek in. The train ride takes 11/2 hours. There are three types of trains to chose from. The local train, or the Backpacker as it is called, is the least expensive and most crowded. The Vistadome is a great choice for tourists, with big windows, a meal and an occasional fashion show all included in the ticket price. For ultra luxury take the Hiram Bingham, complete with dining car. Whichever way you go, make sure to sit on the left side of the train going and the right side coming back. You will get wonderful views of the Sacred Valley, the Urubamba River, the Inca Trail, Inca terraces and ruins as you watch the landscape change from bare high Andes mountains to jungle.

Jungle vegetation helped save Machu Picchu from the Spanish. If you do not want to take the Inca trail, which requires more planning and permission from the Peruvian government, the train from Ollantaytambo follows the path the explorer took to find Machu Picchu.

Peruvian farmers were living there 100 years ago when Bingham was told about it and led there. He was looking for the lost city of the Incas and thought he had found it in Machu Picchu.

To this day the original purpose of the city is unclear, but its current use as a tourist destination has been a welcome boost to the local economy. The government has limited the number of visitors to 2,500 per day, so planning is necessary. You should take at least two days to see the citadel in the clouds, staying in Aguas Calientes or the Sanctuary Lodge outside the gate to Machu Picchu, but it is expensive and the town is much livelier.

You can hike from the town or take the shuttle bus up the switch back road carved into the mountain. It’s a thrilling ride and when the buses pass each other on the narrow road, your adrenaline will pump as much as if you had hiked up.

If you go

Machu Picchu

Planning: You’ll get the most out of your trip if you do some research ahead of time; www.tripadvisor.com and www.perutourism.com are good places to start.

Susanna Sanchez at www.perutourism.com will help you build a personalized trip to Peru or you can go with one of the pre-organized group tours for less. Since you will be taking planes, trains, buses and automobiles, a travel agent or service makes working out the logistics far simpler.

The best guide book is the “Moon Handbook Cusco & Machu Picchu,” by Ross Wehner and Renee del Gaudio.

Another good book to read before your journey is “Turn Right at Machu Picchu, Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time,” by Mark Adams. Mr. Adams followed in the footsteps of Hiram Bingham, who rediscovered the ruins in 1911.

Getting there: Most travelers flying to Peru from the United States land in Lima, the capital city on the Pacific coast (Frommer’s just named Lima its top Food and Drink Destination for 2012). Flights leave from Miami, and J.F.K. International airports. From Pittsburgh the flight likely will cost more than $1,000 round trip to Lima. The price of a round-trip flight to Cusco from Lima ranges from $240-$400. You’ll most likely have to spend the night in Lima before flying to Cusco the next day, which is the closest major city to Machu Picchu, 70 miles away.

When to visit: Best time of year is April-August, but to avoid the crowds, go in early September. It is the off season but still tends to be dry.

Where to stay in Cusco: • Rumi Punku hotel is a short walk to the main square, the Plaza De Armas, where you will find the Cathedral of Cusco, restaurants and shops. www.rumipunku.com. It averages between $88 to $140 per night, depending on the season. • For a more upscale option, try Monasterio Hotel. It was once a monastery built in 1592 by the Spanish. Today it is an Orient Express property, which offers the Hiram Bingham Package. www.monasteriohotel.com The Presidential Suite goes for $1,785 with the average room going for $360 per night. • Also recommended is Amaru Hostel, which is in the San Blas district. It is close to the famous Inca Wall that leads right to the central square and Plaza De Armas. www.amaruhostal.com If you book make sure they put you in Amaru not Amaru II. The price averages under $100 per night.

For dinner in Cusco: Pachacutec on the San Blas Plaza serves Peruvian cuisine, wonderful soups and pizza from an open hearth. You can eat indoors or out.

Where to stay in Ollantaytambo: The El Albergue is a bit of a walk into the town, but after a day spent on the ruins and wandering the Inca-built stone streets where residents live, staying put here is perfect. The restaurant is excellent with guests from other hotels coming to eat. Breakfast is included and it is right at the train station so making your connection to Machu Picchu is a breeze. An incongruous palm tree from the Canary Islands grows in the lush gardens where two hammocks are set up to star gaze.

Where to stay in Machu Picchu: • Sanctuary Lodge on Machu Picchu is the only hotel located next to the ruins. www.sanctuarylodgehotel.com. • Also recommended is El Mapi Hotel in Aguas Calientes, a contemporary hotel in the center of everything and a short walk from the train station. They make a nice Pisco Sour and the market is just across the river. www.elmapihotel.com.

There are three main ways to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco: • By train to Machu Picchu Town. Allow 31/2 hours from Cusco. Train service is provided by PeruRail. • By road to Ollantaytambo, then by train to Machu Picchu Town. Allow three hours. Train service is provided by PeruRail. • By foot along the 26-mile old Inca trail, a moderately challenging trek. If you’ve arrived at Cusco from Lima, spend two days there to allow for acclimatization before making the hike. Machu Picchu is actually at lower elevation than Cusco and is considered a cloud forest.

Aguas Calientes: There are no roads to Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu. The only way in is to walk or take the train. Allow four or five days for the trek. On this part of the trail, hikers must be part of an authorized tour with a licensed guide. Only a limited number of trekking permits are issued a year to licensed guides and must be purchased several months in advance. Most tour operators schedule the trek so tourists arrive at Machu Picchu at sunrise. Tickets to Machu Picchu should be purchased in advance at the Cultural Center in Aguas Calientes or through a travel service. They are 122 soles or about $45.

There are guides who can be hired at the entrance for about $20 for an hour or two. Group tours are less. If you hike in on the Inca Trail, you will enter via the Sun Gate. It is the entrance the Incas used.

If you come up by bus to wander the ruins, you can still hike to the Sun Gate and back. Getting there is all uphill, as most things seem to be in the Cusco region, including city streets. There are a lot of steps wherever you go, so a gradual long climb isn’t bad.

The hike to the Sun Gate takes about an hour one way and is part of the Inca Trail. You will want to stay awhile and take in the amazing vista. Remember to drink plenty of water. The views are stellar with jungle-covered mountain peaks and deep valleys in every direction.

An even steeper climb is Huayna Picchu (it means “young mountain” in Quechua). It is the mountain that looms over the city from the north, seen in so many postcards and snapshots. You must have reservations to climb since only 400 people are allowed per day in groups of 200. You sign in and then out to make sure you survived. It costs about $53.

It is extremely steep and there are some very long vertical drops. The climb is strenuous but as long as you don’t have vertigo it is doable. The streets of Cusco and Aguas Calientes will seem like ant hills after you conquer Huayna (pronounced why-new) Picchu.

And that Pisco Sour, with a side of potatoes, will be well deserved. After finally getting to Machu Picchu, you
may be thinking Machu Pinch-me!

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