Finding the ‘real’ Peru

On any adventure the fun things that happen on the journey are as important (and some times more surprising and fun) than what happens at the destination.

I’m hoping Machu Picchu lives up to the destination hype tomorrow morning, but today (Saturday) Zoë and I have had a fabulous time getting to Aguas Calientes, the closest village to the World Heritage site.

Our taxi in Cusco picked us up in the dark at 5.20am and took us on a wild 30 minute ride to Poroy on the outskirts of town. We boarded our 6.30am PeruRail Explorer class train to Aguas Calientes. The Explorer class has windows in the ceiling so you can watch the view overhead as you descend into the valley.

About an hour out of Cusco the train stopped, reversed down a different track, then stopped again and went forward down a third track. This ‘zig-zag’ track allows the train to descend from the altitude of Cusco down to the Valley of the Incas and then along the Urubamba River into Aguas Calientes. The entire journey takes 3.5 hours.

The views were stunning. The landscapes at train level were tropical with the snow capped Andes towering above us.

We arrived around 10am and dropped our bags off at our hotel. We opted for a small place tonight called Samuel’s House. It’s in a small alley off the main streets and hopefully it will be quiet tonight. Our room is comfortable, basic and very clean with our own bathroom and shower.

The manager of the hotel gave us a map of the town and showed us which side of town to eat at to avoid paying a 16% tourist tax (very helpful). She also explained to us where to buy our bus tickets for Machu Picchu tomorrow morning.

There are only three ways to get to Machu Picchu. Two start by train to Aguas Calientes and then it’s an 8km uphill walk to the site or a 25 minute bus ride. The last, is to hike the Inca Trail into the site over a number of days. Zoë and I looked at hiking the Inca trail but decided against it for a number of reasons. It’s VERY touristy, you have to have a permit (and they sell out months in advance) and it’s expensive. There’s also the fact that this trip to Peru was a last minute decision and we are very unfit.

We’re trying to do Machu Picchu on the cheap. But between train tickets, admission tickets and bus tickets as well as accommodation and food, Machu Picchu isn’t cheap any way you look at it. I wouldn’t mind paying a huge amount if I felt like the money went to the local people or helped the local communities. But PeruRail is a private company and I bet they aren’t helping the locals.

There’s just no way around it. If you come to Peru, you have to come to Machu Picchu. You just need to be prepared that it’s a bit like going to Disneyland. Or any other big touristy attraction. Petra in Jordan, earlier this year, was similar. Both involve lots of walking, a huge site, overrun with tourists, managed by the government and expensive. But another ‘must do’. And it’s the one thing Zoë wanted to do. My one thing was the Nasca Lines. Oh, and the Amazon jungle which we’re visiting next weekend.

As we walked around I was struck by how much this place feels like a gold rush town. It’s all based on tourism. You can’t get out of the train station without going through a labyrinth of market stalls all trying to sell you the same t-shirts, alpaca jumpers, gloves, hats, silver jewellery, and number of souvenirs that read ‘Machu Picchu’. Each street is lined with restaurants and in front of each one is a young person with a menu trying to get you to come into their establishment. They all try to out do each other with offers. Happy hour here isn’t 2 for 1 drinks, it’s 4 for 1! (Not that I am drinking alcohol at this altitude.)

The river divides the town and there are a number of wooden bridges over the water. We’re staying on the less touristy side of town. And in fact, at the end of our street is the local soccer field where this afternoon almost every local school kid (and loads of parents too) all seemed to be hanging out.

Zoë and I walked past the town school late this afternoon and could hear loud traditional music playing. We peered in through an open gate and saw kids dancing in traditional costumes. So we went in. It turns out it was a dance competition for various schools. We found a great vantage point and watched for quite a long time. I loved watching the kids in their traditional costumes. And some of the dances obviously have meaning (even if we didn’t know what it was).

The last group was hilarious. They were great dancers, but by the end, part of the dance had the girls attacking the boys, then the boys attacked each other, then the girls pulled the boys apart and started attacking the boys again, and finally the boys carried the girls off over their shoulders. Some sort of Inca dance maybe???? It was great fun to watch. And the best part? Zoë and I were the only white faces in the crowd. In a town where there are tourists from every country and corner of the world, we found a bit of the real Peru. And loved every second of it.

Today was definitely about the journey.

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