Travelblog SA#23: Machu Picchu & Ollantaytambo – Peru

23rd-24th October 2018,

3 am. That is how early you have to get up to guarantee to be on the first bus to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. I felt like a zombie as I put on my shoes and met the others in the lobby. We began the walk to the bus stop. It was a dark and miserable morning. It was raining, and it was a thick, heavy kind which drenching everything. We waited there for almost three hours in all, and it showed no sign of letting up.

About an hour in, hoards of people began to swarm past us, all on their way towards the trailhead for the steep climb up to the ruins. The previous evening, I had toyed with the idea of heading up by foot myself – as the bus is quite expensive – but at the last minute changed my mind. I figured that I am only going to see Machu Picchu once and I didn’t want to be worn out before I even reached it. And it seemed, considering the weather, I had made the right decision.

I was beginning to worry though. This was my only shot at seeing Machu Picchu. Coming here is a very expensive venture and I already had my train ticket out booked for later that day. It wasn’t just pouring with rain, it was foggy too, and you couldn’t see anything further than a few dozen feet.

By the time the bus came, the queue was huge, but we were – thanks to our early rise – the first on. The rain calmed down a little, but the thick fog prevailed.

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Simba – who’d been our guide for the last four days around the Salkantay trek – began to escort us around the ruins. It was still very foggy, so we didn’t get a decent view, but I guess it had a certain eerie quality.

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Machu Picchu is bigger than photos make it seem. It took us around two hours to walk around it. Simba told us some of its history. How it was abandoned by the Inca’s during the Spanish Conquest, and it is possibly thanks to that course of action it can still be admired today. Most of the other monuments of this empire were raided for their treasures and the stones were used to build the churches and mansions of colonial power. But this one, possibly the most treasured and sacred of all, remained hidden within the towering peaks of the Sacred Valley, where the Spaniards never felt the need to tread. It was rediscovered and brought to international attention in 1911.

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Although Machu Picchu is surrounded by terraces, it is believed that it was not enough land to produce food for all its people so they would have relied upon supplies brought up from other settlements in the valley. A large number of the skeletons found here belong to young women and many of the buildings seemed to have served a ceremonial function. All of these factors indicate that Machu Picchu was a sacred place, reserved for people who served a religious function.

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Simba explained to us some of the areas to give us to give us a better idea of how the people here lived. We were taken to the quarry, where the stonemasons who built this place worked. The Temple of the Sun, whose windows are aligned to where the sun rises and sets during the solstices and equinoxes of the year. There was also a stone platform where offerings were placed to Inti, the Incan god of the sun. The urban sector, whose water-channel system still functions today, is large and home to the Royal Palace, where it is believed the Emperor and his family resided.

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One of my favourite areas was the Sacred Plaza, which is home to not just the main temple, but the smaller – and yet visually more iconic – Three Windowed Temple. The windows represent the three realms of the Incan cosmos; Uku-Pacha (the underworld) Hanan-Pacha (the upper-world, where the gods dwelled), and Kay-Pacha (the present day world humans existed within).

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One piece of advice I would give to people visiting Machu Picchu is to book to climb up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, even if you don’t actually plan to climb them. They have recently implemented new rules which allow visitors to only enter the premises once and created a strict one-way system around the complex. Guards are placed in strategic positions, and they do not let you turn back once you have moved on to a new section. Being such a vast site, it would be very easy to accidentally miss parts of it.

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Weather is also another reason I advise this. The first time I walked through it was foggy, but on the second time, the air began to clear.

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Having a fear of heights made Huayna Picchu not an option for me. Even the path up Machu Picchu Mountain has some cringe-worthy sections which will trigger vertigo but it is doable if you grit your teeth during certain parts. The mist helped, I guess, as I most of the time I couldn’t actually see the drop below me, but this also worried me too. This was a steep and difficult climb, but was it actually going to be worth it in the end? I passed some people who were on their way down, and they said saw nothing at the summit and got bored of waiting for the weather to clear.

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I saw a coati whilst on my way up. It ran across the path in front of me and back into the forest. It was way too fast for me to get a photo of it but, for illustration purposes, here is what one looks like.

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By the time I reached the top the mist was beginning to clear. I drank some water, ate some chocolate and then walked over to the mirador where around a dozen people were all waiting – cameras primed – for a break in the clouds.

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It happened eventually, and I have a video of it here.

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The mist continued to clear whilst on my way down and I even saw some sunshine. When I reached the bottom and was back within the ruins, I finally got the view I had been waiting for.

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Despite my initial concerns, I actually consider myself to be very lucky with the day I saw Machu Picchu. I got to see it in two different lights. All shrouded in mist and atmospheric, and then, later on, in all of its majesty. And the views of all the mountains around it were incredible.

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I made my way back down to Aguas Calientes by foot down along an old Inca trail. By the time I got back, it wasn’t long until I needed to catch my train to Ollantaytambo. From there the rest of the people on my tour were headed on a bus back to Cusco, but I had arranged to be left Ollantaytambo.

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Ollantaytambo was a charming little village set within the heart in the sacred valley. It had old, cobbled, narrow streets and still retains much of its original Incan groundwork.

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I had a bit of a strange experience with the hostel I was staying at though. It came up as a last-minute deal on Booking.com at only 10 soles (about $3) a night for a twin room including breakfast. That is very cheap, even for Peru. Almost unrealistically so. It was a new place and she didn’t have any reviews yet, so I figured that maybe she was just running off a very small profit for a while to build her customer base. I booked it with the mentality that, if she gave good service, I would tip her generously and make sure I leave reviews for her not only on my blog but also Booking.com and Tripadvisor.

When I arrived, her demeanour toward me was a bit strange and cagey. She acted like she was only vaguely aware of my booking and when the matter of the price came up she claimed that it was a mistake and that she didn’t know how it had happened. Her tone was a bit accusative, and I felt like she was trying to make me feel guilty. I offered to pay her double (at 20 soles a night), and she agreed, saying she would still give me the free breakfast.

The thing is, another man (who had booked the same deal) arrived a couple of hours later, and she did the same routine with him too. Acting like she was surprised. She wasn’t a very good actress, and it all started to feel a bit fishy.

To be fair, her rooms were clean and nicely decorated, but that was the only nice thing I can say about the place. When I went to use the shower there was underwear hanging in it and a pile of bathmats on the floor. She kept turning the WiFi off for some reason, and whenever I asked her about it she acted like she didn’t know.

In the morning when I came downstairs for breakfast she pushed an overpriced menu in front of me and asked if I would ‘like to order something’. I asked her about the included breakfast she had promised me, and she pulled a face like I had just slapped her and said, “There isn’t any breakfast, but, out of courtesy, I will give you some papaya.”

That was the point when I decided to leave. I told her I didn’t want any papaya, went to my room, packed my bags, gave her twenty soles (which she eagerly snatched from my hand, in a manner which was almost cartooneqsue) and moved to a place a few doors up the road. They were actually more expensive than her, but they were nicer-mannered, honest, and I didn’t mind paying a few extra soles to not have to put up with her weird passive-aggressive behaviour.

I will name the place on here – it is called ‘Hospedaje Inka’s’ – but I have decided to not write anything on Tripadvisor or Booking.com because I don’t want to sabotage her business. I do genuinely hope she eventually figures out how hospitality works. She is new, so she should be undercutting the other hostels in the area ever-so-slightly and treating her guests well to build a reputation, not luring people in with crazy-cheap prices and then using weird passive-aggressive behaviour to try to extract extra money. I checked her place out on Booking.com a week later, out of curiosity, and noticed she still had not fixed the ‘mistake’, so I can only assume that this is an ongoing tactic she is using.

It is a shame, but I guess what goes around comes around. Like I said earlier, if she had behaved better I would have given her glowing reviews on several platforms, a tip (of my own volition, not because she had guilt-tripped me), and stayed there longer but, because of her behaviour, she got nothing but twenty soles and an early departure.

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Now that I had escaped from the strange lady, I spend the rest of the day exploring Ollantaytambo, which is home to some rather beautiful Inca ruins.

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They are not quite as spectacular as Machu Picchu but they had their own charm and, most blessedly, were much less crowded. It has a Temple of the Sun (which Inca temple doesn’t?), but the primary theme of Ollantaytambo seemed to be water. Its complex irrigation system still works, fuelling numerous fountains and channelling all the way to the ruin’s centrepiece, the Temple of Water.

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Ollantaytambo is actually a place I would advise people to not get a spoken tour for (or at least if you do, maybe consider walking around again afterwards alone) as the complex is quite spread out and I think the guides there are a little lazy because they were not taking people to the farther reaches of the complex, such as Inkawatana.

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I enjoyed having these areas to myself though. As I was walking back I saw Pinkullyuna, another set of Inca ruins on the other side of the valley, and decided to head there after lunch.

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Pinkullyuna can be accessed by a steep pathway in one of the back alleys of Ollantaytambo. Historians actually believe them to be a series of storehouses, and they are definitely worth seeing because during the walk you get to glimpse Ollantaytambo from even more angles.

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The next morning I caught a bus back to Cusco, which will be my base for the next few days as I explore more of the Sacred Valley.

 

For more photos from Machu Picchu, click here. And for photos of Ollantaytambo, click here.

 

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Travelblog#45: Sagada – the Philippines

19th-20th February, 2015

Sagada was a bit of a surprise for me. It was one of the places I had ringed in my travel guide as a somewhere to visit – mostly because it sounded like there were some interesting caves to see there – but it wasn’t a location I had been expecting too much from. The Ifugao Rice Terraces had always been the principal reason for visiting the north of the Philippines, and Sagada was just an afterthought.

Well, I visited. And, as expected, the caves were quite interesting. On our first morning there me and my three companions – James, Chloe and Pedro – started off the day by visiting Lumiang Cave, which was home to over 100 coffins.

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The coffins were filled with skeletons, and some of them even had carvings of lizards (symbols of fertility) on them. The people of Sagada have a tradition of ancestor worship which is hundreds of years old.

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We then ventured to the next cave; Sumaging. The travel guide never mentioned how the road which runs between these two attractions has stunning views of a plateau.

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Sumaging Cave itself was a little bit mediocre. We wandered around inside it for a few minutes and then turned back – none of us had a very powerful torch, and it didn’t seem like there was anything in there which was interesting enough to warrant hiring a guide and spending a couple of hours of our day scrambling around a series of dark chambers. We wandered back up to the town, stopping at a lovely vegetarian cafe called Gaia for a lunch, and then making a little detour through a chain of small villages: Ambasing, Demang, and Dagdag.

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In the afternoon we went for a walk around Echo Valley, which was, like most of the terrain around Sagada, covered in beautiful pine trees. It is also home to more coffins, which had been hung from a series of limestone karsts – a tradition which is still in practice today by some of the Applai people who have remained faithful to their animist roots.

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The following day James, Pedro and myself caught a jeepney to a nearby village called Banga-an, with the intention of taking a leisurely stroll to the nearby Bomod-ok Falls.

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With it being Chinese New Year there were typically lots of tour groups being guided along the path, and the ladies who were escorting them kept asking us where our guide was. Which confused us, as the path in question was paved and we had been told by the Tourist Information Center in Sagada that a guide wasn’t needed for it.

We ignored them and carried on walking, but a few of the ladies we walked past got out their phones and called their friends, and thus, when we reached a small hamlet and at the bottom of the hill a group of them were waiting for us. They blocked our path and were very insistent that we could not venture any further unless we hired one of them to lead us.

At first they claimed it was because of safety – what if we got lost or hurt? – but then James told them that he had GPS on his phone and the trail was marked out on an App he had downloaded. They then said it was possible for us to walk it without a guide if we paid them a handsome ‘ordinance fee’ of 300 pesos. Each. We immediately pointed out the logical flaw: that, if they were prepared to do that, then this really wasn’t about our ‘safety’ at all. I asked them how long this new procedure had been in place for – at what point, exactly, was it decided that guides were mandatory? – but they wouldn’t tell me, so I am guessing it was very recent change. After I asked their ringleader three times, if there was any law against foreigners walking down that trail without a guide, she, very reluctantly, admitted it was just a ‘policy’ decided by the ‘Banga-an Tourist Center’ (aka, the village mafia).

The argument went round and round in circles, and I got very frustrated. Eventually I just walked away.

“You taking a guide then?” she said, siding up to me with the registration book and a pen.

“No.”

“Why not?” she asked, looking incredulous.

“Because I think what you lot have got going on here, is very weaselly.”

I know what you are probably thinking: that I am just a privileged person from the First World and they are just trying to make a living. Why didn’t I just pay up?

It wasn’t about the money – I would have paid that much as a conservation fee and not thought much about it – it was the method they were using to try to get money out of me which vexed me. Schemes like this keep popping up all over Asia, usually in places which are quite touristy, and they are nothing more than institutionalised scams. Walking people up and down a paved pathway is not a valid job, and forcing such a service upon someone, when they neither want nor need it, isn’t all that different from begging – in fact, in many ways it is worse, because beggars are not usually plump middle-aged women who own mobile phones; they can be ignored, and they will not block you from somewhere you want to go if you don’t pay them. Guiding is a profession which I have the upmost respect for, and I quite often employ the service of one when I think they can provide me with some information about an area I am venturing to or escort me to a place where I actually need to be guided but, as far as I am concerned, those ladies back there were not guides, and predatory way that they stalk around Banga-an, leaping upon any foreigner they see, lacks dignity.

Forced to turn back, by the time I reached the road in Banga-an again I was feeling very grouchy and I decided I needed some time alone to clear my head, so I began walking in the direction of Aguid; a nearby village which I could remember being described as quite scenic in something I had read.

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On my way there another three more ‘guides’ jumped upon me from the roadside, suspiciously asking me where I was going – obviously hoping that I was going to the waterfall and they could ‘guide’ me – but I didn’t even credit them with a response. I just ignored them and carried on walking.

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The views I saw from the roadside as I walked to Aguid were great, and my mood soon lifted. When I reached the main village where I was greeted by a few wide-eyed locals who seemed surprised to see a foreigner wandering around their neighbourhood. This surprised me, because it was probably one of the most picturesque places I had seen in the Philippines so far. I would certainly recommend it to any future travellers who end up reading this. Hoards of people come to see a waterfall which is just a stone’s throw away every day, but yet it seems that not many visitors make it here:

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I walked down some steps, past a few more houses, and around the terraces for a while, enjoying the quiet simplicity of the setting and the wonderful scenery.

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I eventually realised that I was going to have to go back to Banga-an, as I had been gone for a while and James and Pedro were probably waiting for me, so I started to navigate my way back up to the main road. The villagers I passed were all very happy to point me in the right direction, and none of them asked for any money.

 

For more photos from Sagada, click here.

Travelblog#44: Ifugao Rice Terraces – the Philippines

15th-18th February, 2015

Leaving Manila in behind, me and my three travelling companions – James, Chloe and Pedro – made our way to the bus station, where were loaded upon an aged vehicle. Once every space was filled, extra chairs were assembled in the aisle and more passengers were loaded on. This kind of thing is generally the norm in Asia, if you are travelling during the day, but this was night and… wasn’t this service advertised as a ‘sleeper’?

Ohayami are certainly not a company I would recommend to future travellers.

As the bus drove out of the city, engine straining from the weight of over 60 passengers, I discovered that my seat didn’t recline, and accepted the fact that sleep was going to be near impossible that night.

 

Banaue

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Banaue is a mountain town in the highlands of North Luzon. It is the gateway to the Ifugao Rice Terraces; an ancient complex of paddies spread across the Philippine Cordillera which archaeological evidence suggests are over 2,000 years old. In 1995 the area was awarded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was one of the places which had originally inspired me to come to the Philippines.

When we arrived in the morning it was raining and we were very tired, so we resigned ourselves to a lazy first day. We settled into a nice guest house called Querencia Hotel, which had restaurant overlooking the mountains, and we relaxed, occasionally turning our eyes wistfully to the window, where the downpour seemed to carry on relentless.

It eventually cleared up for a while, and during this brief lapse we ventured outside and made our way over to a local viewpoint, where we caught sight of mist drifting across the valley, blocking much of the scenery from view but making for an atmospheric landscape.

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We then wandered over to a nearby museum, which was filled with artefacts and had lots of information about the culture and history of the Ifugao tribes who call these lands home.

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After a good night’s sleep – and much improved weather – the following morning we were ready to start exploring the area properly. We went for a wander along a trail which followed an old irrigation canal through some of the rice fields outside Banaue, passing Tam-an – a humbly picturesque village – and then Poitan, which had some traditional Ifuago huts.

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We then returned to Querenia Hotel and packed our bags before jumping upon a jeepney heading to Batad. We had ideas in our minds of venturing out on a trek from there so we could see some of the terraces and villages which are a bit more off the beaten track. By a stroke of fortune we met a woman on the jeepney called Joy who was a registered guide. She was from Batad and spoke very good English, so we told her that we were interested in hiring her to take us out on a trek the next day if the weather was agreeable.

 

Batad

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Batad isn’t properly joined up to any roads so we had to get off the jeepney and walk the last few kilometres. We managed to make it to the village in time to see its breathtaking terraces before the sun went down, and then we claimed a dormitory-style room in a simple lodging house. It rained all night, and when we got up the next morning the entire village was so enveloped by fog that all we could see from the balcony was white. We began to worry that we were going to have to rethink our plans to venture out on a trek that day, but luckily the haze gradually lifted and the sun came out.

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We contacted Joy and told her that we could be ready to leave within a few minutes if she was still free to take us.

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Shortly after that, she was leading us out of the village through the terraces. Along the way she told us lots of interesting facts about the area and its people, and she was also happy to do her best to answer any questions we had. All but 2% of the people living around Batad have converted to Christianity, but some of their old summer festivals are still in practice, and she was able to tell me that the wooden effigies of a sitting man I kept seeing everywhere were depictions of Bulul, who, back in the days when they were animists, was placed around the fields to guard the rice.

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Once we had crossed the Batad terraces Joy led us over a mountain and through some woodlands. At around midday we reached a village called Cambulo, where we ate lunch, and then for the rest of the day we were hiking along a ravine with very striking scenery.

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Later that afternoon we reach Pula, a small village perched upon one of the mountain peaks.

 

Pula

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It only had one guesthouse, which was owned by an elderly lady whom everyone called “Aunty”. There was a French couple also staying there that night, and their guide and ours worked together to rustle up some vegetables and rice for dinner. While they were cooking Aunty’s grandson, Marvin, chatted with us about his life growing up in the terraces and his plans to get a job abroad for a while to improve his English. When we had finished eating we all sat around a fire and Marvin initiated a few puzzle games.

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In the morning we rose bright and early. We were all keen to get going, as we were hoping to get back to Banaue by lunchtime so we could catch the midday bus heading to Sagada. We were accompanied by the French couple and their guide for the remainder of our journey as we walked for four hours through a terrain of forests until we reached the main road. Once there, we thumbed a passing dumpster-truck and jumped onto the back.

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For more photos from the Ifugao Rice Terraces, click here. My travel-buddy James also has his own photography website.

If you are interested in embarking upon a trek around the area with Joy (whom I would highly recommend as a guide) then she can be contacted via email (jpoligon@yahoo.com) or her telephone number (+639366580357).