Monday, 30 December 2013

Cusco and Machu Picchu

The courtyard at Estrellita hostel
Plenty of bike company
I had to laugh when I arrived into Hostal Estrellita with 9 motor bikes parked in the main yard and several bicycles in the store room, I was in good company. It was by no means a plush hostel but very reasonably priced by Cusco standards and the next day I was happy to find out that they even included breakfast. Three more cyclists arrived an hour or so after me, one American, one Spaniard and an Irish guy from near Derry. I think Simon was the first Irish cyclists that I had happened to bump into on the road to date. It didn’t take long to get to know the friendly gang in the hostel most of whom would be spending Christmas there. On my first day there I went off to get that hamburger that I had promised myself about a week ago, accompanied by Simon and his Colorado girlfriend Olivia. We had been told that one of the best burgers in town was to be had in the Irish Pub so off we marched. The cheeseburger in Paddy’s Irish pub didn’t disappoint and it was certainly worth the visit if for no other reason than for the two Irish men getting their photo beside the Christmas tree made out of Guinness beer cans…. extra cheese with that cheese burger please.

It doesn't really feel like Christmas unless there's a Guinness beer can Christmas tree in the room
On Christmas Eve a large gang of us from the hostel headed over to another hostel where there was an organised all you can eat Christmas spread being put on with Christmas turkey. Arriving back to the table with a plate piled high one of my Aussie motorbike buddies Lindsey, said there’s no way I could eat all that food. He underestimated the hunger of a touring cyclist, not to mention how excited I was to get some turkey for Christmas having missed out on it last year. We rolled out of the hostel and half of us went for a pint in the Wild Rover hostel while the other half went for a stroll around the central square. We sat there, the average age between us being older than the younger back packers we were surrounded by, getting blasted by trance music. While I like some electronic music there’s a time and a place and some cheesy Christmas tunes would have been more appropriate… more cheese with my turkey please. We sat there, most of us in a food coma, staring at out pints. One pint was enough and we headed for the hay. It won’t go down as my maddest Christmas night on the town but the traditional Christmas dinner box had most definitely been ticked.

Central Cusco
Loads of Irish in Cusco for Christmas

La Merced
Mike and Karen (, a cycling couple from Edmonton, Canada  had taken the initiative of putting a list up where you could sign your name if you wished to prepare and share in a communal Christmas dinner on the 25th. The closer we got to the big day the longer the list of names became so the kitchen was quite the hive of activity in the day or two leading to Christmas and especially on the 25th. I was on Spanish (Irish) omelette duties. By about 6pm the feast was ready. Close to 30 people eventually sat down to dinner and there was a truly impressive array of food and drink along with the variety of nationalities. As with the previous night I ate too much. It’s hard not to when your regular diet week in, month out consists of oats, bananas and stale white bread rolls! It was a fantastic evening and I think everyone enjoyed their Christmas at Estrellita. As Bill, another one of our Aussie biker friends had put it that morning; “You ain’t exactly family but you pricks are alright!” I wasn’t the last to bed as a few of us had decided to head in the direction of Machu Picchu the following day.

Karen, Mike and Kathy put a huge amount of time and effort into the Papas Rellenas
Christmas feast
Spanish - Irish - Omelette...!
...which even got a thumbs up from a real Spaniard!
Simon's delicious banoffee pie didn't last long
A big happy "family" enjoying their Christmas dinner 
 The trek to Machu Picchu

Simon, Olivia and I left the hostel at about 7.30 in the morning of the 26th of December bound for Aguascalientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu. There are numerous ways of getting to the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site such as bike, bus, taxi, train, hike or combination of some or all them. We decided to take a break from the bikes but being long distance touring cyclists went for the most budget public transport option. The journey started with a 1 hour bus journey to Urubamba via minivan, then a packed old bus where we didn’t have seats and had to stand for over four hours. Although the three of us did a good job of impersonating a bob sleigh team at one stage when we all reverted to sitting on the dirty floor in the isle of the bus. I had hardly slept a wink the night before after over eating for a second night in a row with the Christmas festivities. Stomach cramps and dashes to the bathroom seemed to have been the theme for most people in my dorm on Christmas night. Knowing that a big trip to Machu Picchu lay in store I had bunged myself up with Lomotil before leaving the hostel but the packed stuffy bus rocking over and back and up and down on the crazy Peruvian roads didn’t do my sensitive stomach any good. Despite a female Brazilian tourist, who was also standing, fainting during a 10 minute stopover there was still no sign of a seat for her when we all got back on the bus. After the bus journey it was time for a stint in a Toyota Corolla where Simon and I were lumped into the boot (trunk). It’s been a while since I’ve travelled in the boot of a car. I was almost glad to be looking out the back of the vehicle as our stunt driver sped along the gravel road with a steep cliff to one side. Once we made it to the village of Santa Maria we changed back into a minivan where I had the luxury of a seat! Thankfully our new driver seemed to have less of a death wish. The minivan dropped us at the hydroelectric plant at about 5.30 in the evening where the last stretch of the journey involved a 3 hour hike along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes the last half of which was in the dark so luckily we had brought our head torches. We finally staggered into Aguascalientes, exhausted and more than 12 hours after leaving the hostel. We bumped into some of our Aussie biker mates who had got the train and had even had time for a massage upon arrival to Aguascalientes. But as Lindsey admitted himself, they’re more flash packers than backpackers! If you ever go to Machu Picchu and the budget isn’t too tight, get the train.

We weren't the only ones to find the bus journey tiring. (Photo Simon & Olivia;
A fast flowing river beside the train tracks
I shared a room with Simon and Olivia and was sound asleep by 9 o’clock.
We were up and out of the hotel by 5.45 the following morning and took roughly an hour to hike our way up to main entrance to Machu Picchu. Again there is an overpriced USD 18.00 bus that can take you up… maybe next time! By 7 o’clock in the morning I was standing in the middle of one of the world’s most famous landmarks mouth open at how impressive the place was. I have been privileged to see some spectacular ruins on this trip like the incredible Teotihuacan in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala but I think Machu Picchu took the biscuit for me. As much for its stunning location among the steep lush misty mountains of the Sacred Valley as for the size and beauty of the ruins themselves built into the mountain side. Simon, Olivia and I (a.k.a. team fart) pretty much walked up and down every path that there is to walk in these extensive ruins and after sheltering from a midafternoon down pour it was time to say goodbye to this special place.

Machu Picchu

I can't wait to go for a snooze when I get to Machu Picchu (Photo Simon & Olivia)

We weren’t sure if we were going to make it all the way back to Cusco that evening but we were going to try our best.
After another tiring 3 hour hike back along the train tracks we luckily caught a taxi straight away to Santa Maria and from there were fortunate to catch a minivan heading all the way straight to Cusco with seats and all. We made it back to Cusco shortly after midnight where we all went straight to bed shattered from our two days of travelling and hiking.

The next few days were spent exploring Cusco (formal capital of the Inca empire), eating well and preparing for the onward journey. On our last night a large gang of us went to Paddy’s Irish pub again where I made sure to get another cheeseburger as I didn’t know when the next chance for a quality burger would be.

Giving the bike a scrub
A great send off from our friends in the hostel

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