Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Machu Picchu and The Sacred Valley, Peru

Our flight to Cusco was delayed by an hour but we managed to entertain ourselves with our first wifi for days. Arriving at Cusco airport, we knew that Alex would be meeting us but were not sure what the arrangements were with Lorand. We need not have worried because as we walked into the baggage area a tall, tanned man with bins immediately waved to us.  He had recognised us from a YouTube video link that Gunnar had sent him, presumably to allay any fears re joining us!

Lorand Szucs (pronounced Lauren Sooch or Lori for short) turned out to be a pretty laid back Hungarian tennis coach living in Sidney, Australia with a large world bird list and a desire to see every bird family in the world.  As well as to see lots of birds and Machu Picchu, he was in Peru to see a Trumpeter in the Amazon.  He only had this and a Picathartes (we saw one in Ghana in January) to see and he would have seen a bird from every family:  a great achievement.

After meeting up with Alex and our driver, we were whisked off to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, an hour and forty minutes from Cusco.  Here we had a very quick dinner close to the Inca ruins, dumped our extra case and laundry at the hotel we were coming back to and got on the train for Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), the town a the bottom of the hill from Machu Picchu.

The only hiccup was that when we tried to get board the train, we were told that Birdgirl’s seat was in a different carriage to ours.  However, Lori kindly offered to swap seats, though this was still a palaver as he had to be taken to his seat as he would not otherwise have got onto the next carriage.

I had a very nice Swiss gentleman sitting next to me who spoke virtually no English.  My French is normally pretty basic, but after so many months in South America when every time I go to say something in Spanish the French would pop into my head, I could recall virtually no French.  However, he was very friendly and we managed to chat quite happily with him talking in French and me responding in English with a few French words thrown in!
Meanwhile, Chris went through some work that Birdgirl had done earlier that day.

It was almost 9.30pm by the time we got to our hotel in Aguas Calientes and so it was a relief that we had opted for a birding morning the next day rather than the original planned Machu Picchu visit.  Aguas Calientes has no vehicular access except for the coaches taking people up the mountain road and virtually all of it is pedestrianised with cobbled narrow streets on the steep slopes.  It is very touristy but I thought in a Bath kind of way rather than a Chedder Gorge kind of way, which made it still lovely to wonder around.  Birdgirl commented that it was strange to go from not seeing any other tourists at all to being surrounded by them.

The next morning we had breakfast and headed off at 6am to bird around the town.  As we passed the road, the queue for the coaches was already enormous and we made a mental note that we would have to be early the next day.  Birds of the day were the endemic Green and White Hummingbird, Masked Fruiteater and Inca Wren.

It was a long birding morning and we did not get back to town until 2pm for a late pizza lunch.  Having seen virtually all our target birds and being exhausted from our long walk, we were allowed to have the afternoon off.  We took advantage of the hot showers before heading out for a stroll around town.

For dinner, we persuaded Lori to try a vegetarian Hari Krishna restaurant, which was great for us but slow and was probably not so good for Lori’s jetlag.  Birdgirl had grown confident in her environment and spent much of the time running around the street interacting with local children playing outside their parents’ tourist shops.

The next morning was an early start at 4.30am, with breakfast at 5.00am and getting to the coach stop for 5.20am.  Alex had said that he would stand in the queue for us and it turned out that he had been in the queue since 4.40am, but was still far enough back we were in the third coach to leave after 5.30am.  Poor Alex had to get up at 4.00a, to line up in the queue for us, all because I had wanted to be at Machu Picchu for first light.  That really is dedication in a guide.

We were up at the entrance before 6.00am when the gates opened and headed in with the hoards, immediately turning left to climb steps to get the famous view over the ruins and Wayna Picchu, the small peak behind.  Climbing the steps was pretty tough and we had to stop a few times to catch our breath, before we got to the first platform from which the ruins were visible.  The sky had lightened by now, but it would still be more than an hour before there was any sun.  The view of the Machu Picchu ruins with the small mountain behind it was breathtaking.    The site is surrounded by terracing and mountains on all sides and it seems unbelievable that people could build it in such a high, isolated and hidden place.

Before the visit, I had braced myself to be disappointed as Machu Picchu had been my number one place in the world that I wanted to visit, but I was not at all.

After lots of photographs, we continued to climb the steps to get better and better view of the ruins.  We then headed away from the ruins, upwards along the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate.  The trail is made from stone and a few feet wide.  We had to stop regularly on the way up, birding as we went.  Elated but exhausted tourists passed us in the other directions, completing their five day hike, with their first views of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate.  As the sun appeared over the mountain side, the rays hit the ruins and the view was magical for a few minutes.  I am sure that it was no coincidence that the Incas built the city on the highest point and the first place to get the sun.

Birdgirl on the Inca Trail

Although the American Hiram Bingham “rediscovered” the site in 1912, he was brought here over the mountains by locals who knew of it’s existence.  Also it seems that a couple of Germans looted the place in the 1860’s (probably with some money passing to the then Peruvian Government) but I’ve no idea what happened to the stuff they stole and why they never told anyone about the place.  Hiram Bingham also did his own looting (or should I say taking back to the American University) and most of what was there is gone.  I suppose that is what people did back then.  Still I can imagine that it was a bit like being Indiana Jones being Bingham or Carter a hundred years ago.

Much of the extended site is still covered in jungle and so you can see why it was not visible from below.  Alex was telling us that some sections of the terracing was only uncovered a year ago. 

Having seen the Inca Finch the day before, today was really a tourist day.  Although we still managed to see two new birds, Barred Parakeet which was new for Chris and I but which Birdgirl had managed to see flying over in Ecuador and White-Throated Hawk.

A group photo

Lori on the Inca Trail

Birdgirl loved Machu Picchu and wondered the site videoing the chambers and walls with commentary from her: the rooms that the Inca himself lived in; some for his wives and children; another for the virgins waiting to be sacrificed.  I am sure that she that she will never forget her experience and hopefully she will be able to return as an adult.

Birdgirl enjoying her video cammentary, with Lori looking on

We got back to Aguas Calientes for a very late lunch, exhausted but happy.  A great day of site-seeing but we were ready to continue our birding the next day.  After a few hours off sitting in the hotel lobby catching up in e-mails and Face Book, we were back for a quick dinner before catching the 7.15pm train back to Ollantaytambo, where we were staying for 2 nights.

Birdgirl looking very beautiful

What have we got here?

The Inca's toilet
Not sure if it still smells!


  1. the pictures are fabulous Helena - its obviously the trip of a lifetime! I am fighting a losing battle with admin so I am very envious! camping in Cornwall next week - the toilets a little better than the Inca's!

  2. Thanks Lynn, Machu Picchu really was amazing!

  3. wow that's great !!! lovely pictures . Thanks for sharing this informative information.
    Hotel in Machu Picchu