Been here, done this… The mother of all tourism in Peru: Machu Picchu

Peru is practically synonymous with Machu Picchu, and the thought that I would travel to the country and not see the site was unthinkable. There were plenty of obstacles along the way, some of them in my mind alone. Apparently, this is the high season, because of the influx of American tourists, and Machu Picchu tickets get booked months in advance as they only allow a limited number in each day. The other aspect is that sitting in Indonesia, it wasn’t the easiest thing to research on how to find your way to MaPi. There are 6-day treks, 2-day treks, trains, buses, tour operators, and goodness knows what else. Plus all the reading I was doing was in English blogs, whereas I’m sure Spanish ones might have better and more current information.

Luckily, there are some good sites to get the information you need. Here’s one: http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/how-to-travel-to-machu-picchu

If, like me, you’re looking for the easiest option (effort-wise), these are the steps to follow:

  1. Book entrance tickets for Machu Picchu first.
  2. Next, train tickets from Cusco or Ollantaytambo (another town with some more ruins), and back. Dates depend on whether you want to stay in the Machu Picchu town for one or two nights before visiting the site or not. We did a day trip, so no hotel required at Machu Picchu. Actually the town is at the foothills of the mountain and is better known as Aguas Calientes (hot springs), and looks pretty tacky, whatever little we saw of it, and overpriced too, because of its location.
  3. Third, hotel and flight tickets for Cusco. We flew LAN airlines from Lima to Cusco, and have been very impressed by their professionalism and customer orientation (more on that later). Hotels in Cusco are aplenty, just use http://www.tripadvisor.com for reviews and decision-making.
  4. All of the above can also be done with the help of a travel agent or tour operator, but I like to be independent, as far as possible.
  5. Don’t forget to carry your passport/ ID on your trip, because they will check multiple times.

Getting back to my blogging frame of mind, once all the tickets were booked, I should’ve been relaxed and ready, but instead, I had a couple of sleepless nights thinking of the train that we had to catch, and the bus ride to the entrance of the monument, and how I might miss something if I overslept, as even the alarm is different on the other phone (remember I lost my iPhone?). Consequently, I was waking up much before the alarm, which is probably a good thing.

Our hotel folks were sweet enough to pack us a lunch bag as we had the early morning train to catch. Quite a fancy train experience in the Perurail Vistadome:

Machu Picchu

With its enormous glass windows on the sides and the top, we could admire the beautiful landscapes along the way. Pictures from moving vehicles aren’t the best, but I can’t resist posting one:

Machu Picchu

The 3-hour+ ride is easy going, there are guide books and souvenirs of Machu Picchu on sale. We bought a book, and had the Lonely Planet guide on the iPad, as we didn’t want to have a guide there.

Disembarking at Aguas Calientes, we had a short walk to the bus terminal, paid for a return ticket, and had a bumpy, dusty 8 km, 25 minute ride to the entrance of Machu Picchu. It’s also possible to hike up the trail to the entrance from the train station. There are steps carved into the hillside, so you probably end up covering 2-4 km only, but all uphill. We were looking for the least effort, so bus it was.

I mentioned that numbers are limited, but it still seemed quite a lot of people out there. Probably because everyone was jostling for the best spot for selfies. We did our bit to add to the crowd.

Machu Picchu

As soon as I set up the tripod for a timed photo of the two of us, the guards came whistling, so poor Souvik ended up lugging it all the way for nothing.

After having a bunch of unsatisfactory ‘iconic’ shots of the monument, we started our exploration of Machu Picchu. Not much is known about the structure, and a lot is assumptive. Believed to be built at the height of the Inca period, around 1450 A.D, as a retreat for the rulers from the cold winters of Cusco, this place stayed undiscovered by the Spanish conquistadors. However it came to light in the western world when Hiram Bingham, an American historian, made an exploration in the region. He followed the same policy of other invaders though, and took back a number of artefacts to Yale University for ‘further study’, but those were never returned to the site.

Regardless, Machu Picchu stands as one of the finest examples of Inca planning, architecture and engineering. The structure is much bigger than it appears in photos. It is believed to have housed any number between 500 to 1200 people in its heyday. The mountain is terraced on all sides to prevent landslides, and for agriculture. The agricultural section is separated from the ‘urban section’ by a dry moat. There is a Temple dedicated to the Sun God, a grand central plaza, ceremonial structures, residential areas, bathing areas, working areas, even tombs for the rulers. No amount of photos and explanations can replicate the feeling of walking through the structure, and feeling it for yourself. Unsurprisingly, this place is on the bucket list for so many people, and we were fortunate to be there.

Señor San Roman had told me the day before that the Inca style of building was to mimic their natural surroundings. I do see shades of that in some of the structures. The triangular sections above the walls do look like the mountains around the area!. You don’t notice the terraces unless you look very closely. It’s beautiful. The Incas paid special attention to the stones in the scared structures. See how the temple walls and the tomb are polished to a smooth finish, as compared to other (less important) structures above? And all the walls are just stacks of stones, no mortar to bind them together. They use principles like offset alignments of the stone and trapezoidal doors, windows, niches, to withstand seismic shocks. There are channels to manage the flow of fresh water, and waste water. It’s probably all done manually, without the use of any beasts of burden.

By the time we got there, it was midday, and after a couple of hours of exploration, going through each section and figuring out its function, we were depleted of energy in the hot sun. Quite a change from the previous days of bitter cold and grey skies. Though I keep saying ‘easiest path’, there’s a LOT of climbing up and down the steps that take a toll on your feet and knees and breath. A quick look at the photos, and we could find no good ones of ourselves, so against all our good sense, we climbed back up on the hill to the guardians huts, for that iconic shot. Most of the crowd had dissipated and we had the place to ourselves. This time we got it right.

Machu Picchu

The Incas probably built this section for the guards as a lookout point, and to watch over their structure, little knowing that it would be THE spot for 99% of all photos of Machu Picchu down the ages!

We had a train to catch in the evening, so we reversed our tracks, back on the dusty bumpy bus ride to the train station. The night ride had nothing to admire on the outside, but the staff on the train put up a spirited ‘fashion show’ for us, showcasing some lovely alpaca wool garments with great flair, and of course, an opportunity to buy later.

That night I slept like a log.

There’s a lot to do in Cusco!

DSights in Cuscoay 2 in Cusco dawned a little overcast and grim, quite like my mood carried forward from the previous evening.

A breakfast sandwich loaded with avocados and olives and Cusco cheese plus tomatoes improved my outlook a little bit. Souvik and I walked down to the Plaza de Armas to meet a colleague over a coffee in a particularly cheery cafe, by which time the sun was out in full force and my gloomy spirits had lifted too.

Some quick research over the internet had thrown up a few options for me to explore, and I picked 2 sites – Qurikancha and Sacsaywaman, both within walking distance of the plaza.

Qurikancha, at its height of glory, was an opulent Temple dedicated to the Sun God, with walls of gold and solid stone masonry. After the Spanish invaded, they demolished the temple and built a church over the site, incorporating some of the Inca stonework. Those stone walls stood the test of time, through numerous earthquakes, while the church was damaged. I found little to see for my 10 soles ticket; and left largely disappointed, except while reading about the Inca theories of astronomy and such stuff. To give you an idea, the Incas observed not just the stars, but the dark spaces between stars too, and their constellations were a combination of the two (see the astronomy photo below).

The outdoor was more fun.

Sights in Cusco

Sights in Cusco

Even the llama managed a little smirk.

Señor San Roman, Souvik’s colleague, had offered to walk to Sacsaywaman with me, and I was glad to have a local expert to hang out with. Off we went, trundling along at an easy pace, all the way up the hill, catching interesting sights along the way.

The combination ticket for some 10 different attractions is quite a bit, but I opted for the partial ticket of 70 soles to enter Sacsaywaman. If you think this is a tongue twister, say ‘sexy woman’ and you’ll be very close to the correct pronunciation. See, the Incas were visionary – with all these names for future generations to remember easily.

This site is a fortress, started by a pre-Inca culture, but expanded by the Incas. The stonework is breathtaking, even if it is just a ruin, after the Spanish tore down most of the structures to build their own city in Cusco. I learnt that the Inca method was to cut the stones to the perfect size, and stack them in a precise manner without the use of mortar to bind them. Amazing! And the size of the stones, especially the lowest ones!! The mind boggles thinking about how they must have transported and constructed such buildings.

Since this is built on a hill, I was able to get some beautiful views of the historic centre of the city.

And some words of wisdom:

Sacsayhuaman ruins

I obeyed, and was rewarded with some alpaca sightings. Had to follow them around for a few minutes to allow them to get used to my presence.

Here is a ‘working’ alpaca – will pose for money, but the ladies were on a break and I took advantage.

Coz nothing is cuter than an alpaca with tassles, right?

Señor San Roman owns a beautiful B&B near the Plaza de Armas, called Rumi Wasi, where we stopped on our way back, for a traditional afternoon snack of choclo con queso and mate de coca.

After a long day, it was time to catch the last rays of the sun at the Plaza, and a quick self-timed rare photo of Souvik & I together.

Sights in Cusco

Just Another Gorgeous Sunrise at Borobudur

Going to Jogja and not to Borobudur? Next to impossible! I believe I’d covered most of the angles of the largest Buddhist temple in the world, except the one where you watch the sun rise from behind Gunung Merapi, and the temple emerge from the misty landscape. The day after Dieng, Sara and I thought it wise not to waste too much time catching up on sleep, but to rouse ourselves at another unearthly hour to make the short drive to Puntuk Setumbu behind Borobudur.

The ‘safe’ driver and my awesome climbing speed ensured that it was a race against time to the top before the sun appeared. The hill is as cute as its name. For a change, the local villagers have claimed the site, added some rudimentary ‘just right’ development, access to which is a paltry sum of Rp 15,000 (about a dollar). That’s a far cry from the sunrise tour at Borobudur from the hotel which costs about $35! This spot has got popular; we had a good sized crowd of sun worshippers.

Sunrise from Setumbu

After the mild disappointment from the day before, we were rewarded for our patience with a bright sunrise.

The landscape is magnificent! Merapi, furiously puffing up clouds of sulphur towers over Borobudur, and everything else in the vicinity. It’s a humbling sight.

After the sun was up, we enjoyed those famous mint-chocolate brownie treats as a mini-breakfast. At which point this guy rolled his tobacco and struck a pose that was too good to resist. I don’t ever endorse smoking, but it does look exciting in a photo!

The Hotel Plataran en route to Setumbu offers good views of Borobudur and an even better breakfast spread. We had a bit of both.

As profiles and silhouettes go, here’s some food for thought.

Sunrise from SetumbuSunrise at Borobudur

Palatial Splendour

Among the most impressive buildings in Mandu are the Royal Palace complex with its Jahaz Mahal and Hindola Mahal, plus all those water storage and filtration systems that Chetna described in an earlier post

Jahaz Mahal is named such because it is an enormous structure set amid two lakes, and appears to float over the water, or must have, once upon a time. I don’t have any picture that represents it such. The architecture is stunning though, with its water channels, rooftop pools, and even a provision for fountains, all coming from rain water!

 

Hindola MahalThe other interesting building is the open-to-sky Hindola Mahal. Our guide told us tales about how the princesses would swing in their saawan ke jhule (during the monsoons) and the king would arrive on his elephant, be deposited on his royal seat at the upper level to admire the women. Creepy that sounds! I didn’t know whether to believe him, but it does make a good story! As it happened, he (the guide) walked off in a huff because we weren’t paying 100% attention as a group, and the kids were having fun, scampering around, catching frogs. Whatever!

People and poses Hindola Mahal

 

More fun aspects of the royal palace were the “air-conditioned” underground levels (we couldn’t enter those), all water-cooled, and the hamam (baths) with their hot & cold water features. As well as the elegant corridors and channels that carried water everywhere.

 Mid morning, at the peak of a hot day, with teeming crowds, probably wasn’t the best time to visit this place, and I do wish I’d been able to spend some more time exploring here!

 

A Legendary Love Story

I’m still hungover from the travel to Mandu – it shall continue to haunt me until I blog about it! 

I knew nothing about Mandu, except a half-story of Baz Bahadur who fell in love with Roopmati, a shepherdess with a lovely singing voice. She agreed to go with him on condition that she would always have a view of the sacred Narmada river, Legend has it that she got her wish at the structure now known as Roopmati Pavilion on top of the hill from where you can sight the river on a clear day. Lower down the slope was the palace of Baz Bahadur – he had a clear view of the pavilion and probably of Roopmati when she visited. 

We were meant to wait for our Tempo Traveller transport for a sunrise visit, but when the vehicles were delayed, we set out walking impatiently, and were treated to some lovely village sights of people getting ready for a new day:

Our vehicles arrived just as we made it to the gate of the Pavilion. While they parked, a random car backed into one of the vans, dented the car and injured the driver. They then spent the next 2 hours arguing. We had no choice but to walk down to see the palace. Thankfully, they settled the matter in time to drive us back to the hotel. So much for the love in the air.

The landscape more than made up for these glitches – lush greenery mingling with solid stonework, elegant architecture and a hint of mystery. 

There’s romance, but there’s also the practical ‘water’ consideration satisfied by Rewa Kund, a reservoir that supplied water to the buildings here. 

Baz Bahadur was devoted to the arts, and probably spent hours gazing at his lady love, but his kingdom suffered attacks from the mighty Mughals. Sadly, when the going got tough, he fled alone, leaving his Rani behind. Bahadur (brave) he was not, and met with an ignominious end, after spending some years as a fugitive.

Roopmati proved to be far more loyal, and killed herself rather than be captured by the enemy. 

The guide book from the Archaeological Society of India suggests that, to experience the magical beauty of the place, you should visit on a clear moonlit night. If only they stayed open after sunset… and it wasn’t the middle of the rainy season… and the crowds would magically disappear……….

 

Day 15: Urban Drama

I had just 24 hours in Chicago before driving off to Madison, and my cousin Varun was in charge of the itinerary. Chicago has a reputation for fine architecture, it’s arty vibe was obvious as soon as we hit downtown, and I was excited.
Our first stop was lunch by the river (naturally), and then the Magnificent Mile walk, taking in the big pretty buildings.

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We were walking up to the Millennium Park when we came upon this zombie parade, complete with morbid make up and protesting placards. Thank goodness I knew about the zombie craze, else it would’ve been a creepy sleepless night!

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Millennium Park is one of the most interesting urban spaces I have seen. There’s the obviously well-known Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, and the Pritzker Pavilion, but Varun showed me so many interesting spots around the park that I was charmed.

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The Cloud Gate was wonderful, nicer than I expected, but my favourite on that hot day was the dipping pool.

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We walked through the Art Institute without looking at the exhibits, but these windows by Chagall stopped me in my tracks.

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We then headed for a boat tour. The architectural tour was sold out, but we got another that took us on both the Chicago river and Lake Michigan, with a lot of welcome sprays and some good views of the Chicago skyline.

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There was still some light when we finished the tour, various street performers had started their shows, and there was a general festive air all around. Simply lovely!

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