50. Cusco & Pisac
Tag Archives: Pisac
50. Cusco to Agua Caliente
We drive out through the Sacred Valley to Ollatatambo.
First we must walk down to the cochera and awaken the proprietor, in order to ransom El Bandito, the quatro por quatro [visible up there in the background of the photo to the left]. Selma does so [in photo at right]. Eventually we pay him, then go back up to the Hostal Qorichaska to pick up Ragna.
The drive begins with the same long, slow climb up from Cusco, and the road to Pisac. [These two pictures and the one below left show the view down toward Pisac. ]
Pisac today, a market day but not a Sunday, is somewhat different. The market takes up a smaller proportion of the town’s streets, and in the Plaza de Armas most of the market stalls aimed solely at locals aren’t there. Today’s market quite obviously exists because this is one of the days on which tour-buses appear in Pisac during the morning. It’s less crowded, and not half so interesting photographically. We stop long enough to have a quick walk around the Plaza and stop at an ATM. The vendors look lonely. At least one of the little old ladies is making a little money by having pictures taken of her. We drive back up into the hills toward the ruins at Pisac, which are just a few km. up a steep mountain road.
The ruins must command a magnificent view; but there are an obscene number of tour-buses parked by the side of the narrow road for several hundred meters. We consider parking and walking in, and would do if the place weren’t so crowded; but instead we drive back out to the main road, knowing that among the things we don’t yet know is where we’re going to stay in Agua Caliente.
The Sacred Valley is a pleasant drive. It would be pleasant to spend a few days here. There are ruins and small villages and nice countryside. We don’t have the time to explore it as it deserves.
At Ollatatambo we drive down toward the train, only to learn that there is no provision for parking a private vehicle at the bottom of the hill near the train station. The traffic cop points me to a certain driveway blocked by a big sheet of metal, and tells me to bang on it, but no one responds. I do find a nice-looking hotel on one side of the street, and a small restaurant and hostal on the other. Being a budget traveler, I try the smaller one, where our request to park the car for a few days, and pay for it, is so unusual that the young lady in charge has to phone the owner. He consents. We park the car as far into the corner of the very small parking lot as possible, then start the hike down toward the train.
If you need to know, it is possible to buy some food and coffee and use a clean toilet at the little train station. The train is just two cars long, at least in this season, and very clean — and nearly empty. Peruvian music plays during the 35-minute ride along a river at the bottom of a tall, narrow canyon. The uniformed attendants serve a snack-box, although not a very helpful one if you don’t eat meat.
The view is beautiful, although photography is difficult. The train moves at a moderate speed past river, forest, occasional farms, and a few other buildings, all dwarfed by the high peaks on both sides of us most of the way.
Suddenly we are there.
Our exit from the train is a confused rush through a maze of market stalls from within which we haven’t a clue which direction the main part of town is in or whether we’re meant to be going uphill or downhill or sideways. We’re also carrying a bunch of stuff. I’m trying to glance at the Lonely Planet guide-book, call budget hostals, and walk at the same time, unable to hear because of the noise all around me. I also don’t yet know where I’m going, so at least I stop walking for a moment and ask. It takes several calls to locate an affordable hotel with a vacancy, and the vacancy turns out to be an extremely crowded three-bed room with its own small bathroom. Hostal Bromeliad.
We find the place, check in, and shower, then wander out to explore Agua Caliente and get something to eat.
Opinions vary concerning Agua Caliente. It’s an odd place, because the main purpose of its existence is for everyone to hurry from it to somewhere else. It’s dedicated to tourism, but because of a combination of factors — the fame and beauty of the place, the rugged mountains, and the availability both of luxury tour-buses and difficult treks — the tourists run the gamut from the very wealthy, some of whom can even afford to spend a reported $1,000 per night to stay in a hotel just outside the gate of Macchu Picchu, to the poor but determined, some of whom camp out then walk up the incredibly steep and tall mountainside to Macchu Picchu.
The evening has an odd feel to it, somewhat festive. Maybe that is because there are so many places to eat and drink, all of them with
balconies overlooking streets or the small Plaza de Armas, and most of them with shills out front announcing that one particular restaurant has the others beat all hollow. Maybe it is because we are excited by the imminence of our visit to Macchu Picchu. Maybe it is because everyone is either anticipating a morning visit to Macchu Picchu or celebrating a day spent at Macchu Picchu (or the end of a trek). Maybe it’s because at the restaurant we choose [the one to the left of the three fronting on the opposite side of the Plaza from the Bromeliad], the food is slow in coming but the Pisco sours are not. Soon I’m on my third, feeling a general benevolence toward my companions and all the people crossing the Plaza or taking each other’s pictures by the statues there, as the local folks wander in and out of the church across the Plaza.
The music is loud and the air is clean. I laugh a lot, take ridiculous pictures of Selma and Ragna at the table, and fall silent a lot too, just thinking.
I do wander down into the Plaza for a moment to play with the camera, long after dark. Eventually, when the food comes, it tastes wonderful, perhaps because it is and perhaps because I am hungry and perhaps because I am working on my fourth Pisco sour.
We turn in early because the train for Macchu Picchu leaves at 5:30 in the morning, and the line starts forming about an hour before that.
We stayed in the Hostal Bromeliad, which was adquate and relatively inexpensive.
Agua Caliente boasts a quite varied set of accommodations in various price ranges. Still, I’d recommend booking ahead of time, even if you usually don’t do that, because (1) it’s the sort of destination place it is, without much through-traffic for locals, values are different, and you’ll pay more for a particular sort of room here than you usually would elsewhere in Peru, and (2) arriving there in the afternoon was a real zoo. Agua Caliente was crowded, and probably is crowded at all seasons; the lobby of the Bromeliad was a madhouse, with all sorts of folks begging for accommodations, and I was glad I’d at least managed to call from near the train station to book our room [and even so got just a three-bed room, with the right to switch to two rooms the second night]; and because it’s a small village that sees many tourists, you could find the budget places full and end up paying a lot more than you want to. As anyone reading this blog knows, we rarely booked ahead, preferring to arrive and form our own impression of the hotels and their surroundings. I wouldn’t try that again in Agua Caliente.
The place we supped in was good, although service was slow. The place next door was not as good — and I’d guess some of the better restaurants aren’t on the Plaza. There are plenty of restaurants to choose among in Agua Caliente, all within a couple of blocks. The two we ate in faced the plaza. Looking across the plaza from the church, the one we ate in the first night would be the one on the far left among the three or four establishments on the opposite side.
Be sure to buy your ticket for Macchu Picchu. If you arrive in Agua Caliente without one, go immediately to the ______ and buy one, if you plan to go to Macchu Picchu early in the morning. Note that you will also need a bus ticket, but you can purchase that early in the morning, as your partner waits in line.
I mention “early morning” often for at least three reasons: (1) Huayna Picchu is limited to 400 people, and since most folks capable of it would like to make that climb, they’re in line early, and you might miss it if you snooze; (2) since most of the early birds are headed for Huayna Picchu, the early morning is a great time for you to experience Macchu Picchu in relative solitude — and you won’t have to spend quite so long in Photoshop zapping the human forms in your pictures; and (3) as a photographer, I like the better light of early morning or very late afternoon. In addition, since some big tours give their cattle just a couple of hours in Macchu Picchu in the middle of the day, either early morning or late afternoon means a quieter and more enjoyable experience of the place.
To maximize enjoyment of the early morning, make a sharp left turn uphill at pretty much your first opportunity, about 100 yards after passing through the gates where you show your ticket.
For the truly budget-minded, there’s a “back-packer special” train from Cusco that’s much cheaper than foreigners pay otherwise. The authorities don’t exactly advertise it, but it’s there.
I’m not sure that if I had it to do over again I wouldn’t have left the car in Cusco and taken a tour bus. (That’s assuming you don’t hike in on the Inka Trail, which Ragna wouldn’t have considered.) Mostly I prefer to drive. This particular route I might have been better off riding, getting let off near the various ruins, seeing what the experts thought I should see, and not having to figure out where to park. Maybe. In a perfect world I’d have done that, and then returned a few days later to explore the area by car on my own.
Cusco is a marvelous city. (I cannot disagree with the oft-voiced complaint that it begins to resemble Santa Fe in New Mexico, St. Miguel de Allende in Guanajauto, and other great spots now top-heavy with tourists; but it’s still beautiful, it still has a wonderful feel to it, and there are still places in the area where you won’t find so many fellow foreigners. ) My own experience and account of it were marred by personal issues, which I mention only to explain why this and the next several posts will not provide as much detail on this fine city as I might like. (The post is in draft form because some further information from my notebooks isn’t available to me right now but soon will be again. Note also that two additional posts, after our return from Macchu Picchu and from Puerto Maldonado, will concern Cusco.)
Cusco is also the gateway to Machu Picchu — as well as to Manú and Puerto Maldonado. The presence of numerous agencies [including the eight entitled to take you into Manú itself] within block of the Plaza helps with comparison shopping. If you aren’t locked into a particular days, you can select the tour that most fits your taste and budget.
We spent our first day or two in Cusco looking into possible trips to the interior. Selma’s departure schedule nixed several attractive possibilities, and Ragna wasn’t interested in anything that involved camping out at night, and we ultimately settled on a five day, four-night trip to Corto Maltes on the Rio Madre de Dios. This would allow us a day or two in Puerto Maldonado before and after the jungle. [Posts to follow will describe that trip.]
We also lazed around the Hostal Qorichaska, which I found to be a very reasonable budget lodging in a convenient location. The thick walls made some rooms silent as tombs at night; the courtyard provided a pleasant and sometimes warm spot in which to enjoy the complimentary breakfast and read or write or gab with other travelers; and the kitchen allowed for saving money by making one’s own meals.
Sunday we set out reasonably early for the Pisac market. From Cuzco we drive through beautiful mountain countryside that would delight us even if it were not full of Inca ruins and small villages, and were not called the Sacred Valley.
Pisac is crowded and chaotic, as we’d expected. The market itself fills the Plaza de Armas and extends a long way along two of the eight streets that run outward from the Plaza. We enter in the corner where folks are selling vegetables and meat, and I start shooting like crazy, as I always do in markets. Most vendors and customers don’t notice or don’t care: they’re accustomed to foreigners from all over the globe photographing them. A few put up there hands or cover their heads with their hats, and of course I immediately apologize and move on, not trying to steal a shot of them. Some, including children, extend a palm or say, “Propina.” Of these, some say it with stern faces, to dissuade anyone from photographing them without paying; some say it smiling; and a few, who perhaps have not yet tried this and aren’t quite sure they can earn a few extra soles so easily, say it shyly, giggling.
So here are a few faces from the marketplace. Some were candid shots in which the people weren’t aware of being photographed or more or less ignored the fact. Others — like the girls with the lambs — were in the market specifically to be photographed, and particularly to be paid for being photographed. So, I think, was the old lady in her chair. When I visited Pisac again on the way out to Macchu Picchu a couple of days later, she was in the same chair in the same spot, and some fellow from New York was photographing her.
Despite the tour-buses parked back at the entrance to town, this wasn’t a tourist market. It was extensive, and there were certainly jewelry and clohing stalls aimed at tourists; but I also saw plenty of fruit and vegetables, meat, sandals, tools, and what-not, as well as a few food-stalls where locals, but no foreigners, were chowing down. Again, a quick sampling:
At one point we see a couple of little girls and a third, smaller child, each of the two older girls carrying a tiny lamb half hidden in her jacket. Of course we want to shoot that picture, and willingly provide the requisite propina. What a neat image! Of course, after we see the girls two or three more times, circulating throughout the market to have their photos taken by tourists, and see at least two other pairs or trios of girls with tiny lambs also wandering around for the same purpose, the image loses a little lustre.
We eat lunch at an outdoor table in one of the restaurants on the plaza.
Later I get talking with some expats from the U.S. who live around here. They’re at the ______ — an eaterie on the Plaza that’s almost hidden by all the mercado tents. The talk is of healers and shamans and the countryside here. One of them runs a local b&b, the _________ — and proudly introduces me to ____ and ____, two large, friendly dogs sitting at his feet. (Memory claims that the b&b was called the Thunder and Lightning, and that the dogs were, respectively, Thunder . . . and Lightning; but I need to check my notes.) In any case I enjoyed talking with the guy who runs the place, and a couple of other expats who lived in the Valley; and they were serious about healing. If you plan on visiting the area to see a shaman or drink ayahuasca, those folks would be reasonable folks to contact about that.
We drive back to Cusco in a light rain. In the evening we dine at ____ on the Plaza. It ain’t cheap, but the food’s fine and for awhile there’s a floor-show, five or six musicians in local garb playing old Beatles tunes and some classical music on local Andes instruments, and some dancers (who dance together then circulate and invite diners or drinkers to dance with them – beware!). . .
After a long search we end up at Hostal Qorichaska, which we recommend. [see below].
Aurelio, our landlord in Arequipa, had recommended S on El Sol, and it sounded appealing:
But the evening we arrived it had limited availability. We called several other possibilities, and visited a number of them. ______ was in a location that was appealing [very high up, nice view, far away from everything] but impractical [cochera a good hike away, the last portion of the road up to the place a one-lane, cobblestone street that we weren’t sure taxis would choose to go up, having to back down 100 meters or so].
_______ was in a nice area, also high up, but convenient to Plaza ____ and some nice-looking restaurants, and the man who showed us the rooms was pleasant and helpful, even walking with us to another hostal and then providing directions back down to the Plaza de Armas] but there were a lot of dogs barking in the area, and on this particular day a couple of the rooms we saw suffered from the effects of a cat having been accidentally locked in the room for an extended period. However, there was a restaurant and courtyard area, and the price was right. The nearby ____ was also a possibility, but we decided we felt like being closer to the plaza.
The Hostal Qorichaska is an old building with thick stone walls, and we’d highly recommend it as a budget hotel, although the rates were a good deal more than those at the ones we saw higher up [and much further from the Plaza de Armas]. We slept marvelously every night. Calle Nueva Alta gets little late-night traffic, and almost no sound penetrates to our room [which was ground-floor and not hear the front gate]. The courtyard was a great place to breakfast, or to read or gab or catch a few rays during the day, or to drink a glass of wine at night. The rooms were adequate in size and cleanliness: undecorated, but pleasant. The place was convenient to the Plaza, a very modest walk or a quick cab-ride. The staff was generally friendly and helpful, and laundry was done and returned fairly quickly. Phone number, I think, is 228 974 – from elsewhere in Peru, preface that with (84) for Cusco; and from outside Peru, (51)(84) 228 974.