We’d already stayed in Puno, seen the male knitters of Taquile Island, and had our introduction to the crafty building skills of the Incas; now it was time for the final push to Machu Picchu on our Majestic Peru tour (if you need a quick recap, click back to Part 1 and Part 2).
Day 11 – Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
Whilst we didn’t have time to trek up to the higher narrow terraces in the mountains, we got to visit the lower ones, just a short walk away from the town centre in the Archaeological Park. I then popped into the Museo de Chocolate (Chocolate Museum) to refuel, before watching some colourful street processions. Lunch was at the Hearts Cafe, a local business and charity supporting women in highland communities facing issues like nutritional problems or domestic violence.
That afternoon we caught the train to Aguas Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu. The journey, with Peru Rail, was quick and simple, and a cut above British rail travel – we were given a free snacks and a drink on board, as the train rushed past choppy river views. Arriving at Aguas Calientes, it soon became clear this would be our most tourist-centric destination, with few landmarks in the town, other than the well-advertised hot springs, but plenty of shopping and eating opportunities. I checked out a small temporary exhibition on Hiram Bingham in one of the main squares, grabbed a massage at one of the many beauty parlours dotted along the main streets (they all have similar prices, so just take your pick), and left refreshed for another group dinner.
Day 12 – Machu Picchu and back to Cusco via Ollantaytambo
This was the day that the group was most eagerly anticipating, though I’d done a lot of research and found that many die-hard travellers thought Machu Picchu wasn’t the be-all and end-all of their time in Peru, so let’s just say I wasn’t expecting a semi-religious experience when I hit the site. We began with a guided tour at about 8am, which really helped to get some perspective on each area, providing an overall picture of what Machu Picchu means and what it was used for. The best way of describing the place is to compare it to a vast film set, because that’s what you feel you’re stepping into, only with fellow tourists instead of extras and film crew standing around. It’s an amazing sight, but you almost feel like you’ve Photoshopped yourself into the scene when you look back at your photos.
After the tour I wandered around to reabsorb everything, made a point of visiting the Guardhouse and the Inca Bridge to take those all-important photos, and got my passport stamped with a Machu Picchu emblem. Returning to Aguas Calientes and modern civilisation made things seem even more unreal, as we found ourselves moaning about train delays and feeling far away from the super-human achievements of the Incas.
Day 13 – Cusco (Free Day)
At this stage, we didn’t really feel that another day in Cusco was necessary, despite its attractions, but I can see we needed the flexibility in case of weather or transport issues. I visited the Spanish church of Santo Domingo that had been not-so-lovingly plonked on top of an Incan sun temple, Coricancha, which was once home to 4,000 priests. Next I headed over to the Plaza de Armas and up to the Inca Museum, in the Admiral’s Palace, where I spent ages wandering around the exhibits. One of the most interesting parts of the museum compared paintings of similar scenes by indigenous artists and Spanish artists who looked down on the native population; the Spanish had exaggerated the features and clothing of locals, trying to portray them as outlandish and uncivilised.
There are loads of other options of things to see in the city, but you need to really absorb what you’re seeing and not just zip through an attraction in 20 minutes, so take your time and pick a few places to visit in a day. You can then finish up with a less brain-taxing visit to one of the indoor or outdoor markets selling souvenirs – if there’s any room in your luggage for them. I managed to squeeze in a few more gifts for people back home, such as alpaca wool socks and delicate silver earrings.
Day 14 – Flight to Lima
With our flight check-in not until midday, we had even more spare time in Cusco, not that anyone really needed it. I walked down to the Pachacutec monument, a short walk from our hotel. Pachacutec (also spelt Pachacuti) was an Incan emperor who fought against rival armies, vastly expanded Cusco and its sun temple, and also found the time to write a bit of poetry. Admittedly, until I visited Peru I only knew him through a Horrible Histories song.
At Cusco Airport we said goodbye to our guide, Olly, and prepared to meet another guide in Lima for the final part of the trip. We’d all grown attached to him, and he’d taught us so much about Peru that it was really sad to see him go. Whilst there were many great independent moments for each member of the group, we would never have learned half as much, or seen half as many hidden sights, without his help. Back in Lima, we came full circle with an evening meal near Parque Kennedy, where we’d had our first group dinner two weeks earlier.
Day 15 – Departure
Suddenly the trip was over and we went our separate ways. I had my last few cups of coca tea and my last bottle of Cristal beer, then adjusted to being a solo traveller for this final day. As my flight wasn’t at the crack of dawn, I caught a taxi to Mario Testino’s MATE gallery (20 soles entry fee) to see some cutting edge art in the Barranco district. Bizarrely, MATE requires you to surrender your passport in order to use an audio guide at the gallery, but it’s worth the hassle as the English commentary gives you loads of extra insights into the artworks. There’s a permanent collection of Testino’s own photos, and the temporary exhibitions provide a great platform for Peruvian and international artists.
Leaving Peru, I felt that I hadn’t fully understood this country – I hadn’t seen the jungle framing the Amazon, or places in the north like Trujillo – but I had been given a great introduction to it. Every expectation I had when booking the Majestic Peru tour was met, such as exploring Arequipa and Cusco, plus there were so many other brilliant experiences I couldn’t have anticipated. I didn’t know I’d eat alpaca, try home-brewed beer, stroke a vicuña, be invited into the house of someone who lives on a floating island made of reeds… the list goes on.
If you’re debating whether or not to book this trip, I can only say that, for me, it was worth every penny. Sure, I didn’t trek to Machu Picchu, and I didn’t rough it with accommodation, but I picked the itinerary that put Peruvian history and culture first, which is nothing short of majestic.