Peru Christmas 2013
This trip had been a long, long, time overdue and very likely too late with Peru Rail having modified their train service over the last 10 years quite dramatically; there now being no service at all to Arequipa and the trains to Machu Picchu no longer start at Cusco San Pedro. Still, things are what they are and as the trip was actually more of a holiday than a railway trip everything train wise was a bonus. The trip was however based around getting around by train; the only unfortunate thing being that the tourist train from Lima to Huancayo didn’t run over the Christmas or New Year period at all.
Having booked everything hotel & logistics wise online before we went, all we had to do was get on the plane and take some spending money for the day trips etc…….
Booked through Expedia – £1349.30 each
IB3179 1850 Heathrow – Madrid (Iberia)
LA2707 0035 Madrid – Lima (LAN Chile)
LA2075 0925 Lima – Cusco (LAN Chile)
LA2111 1645 Cusco – Arequipa (LAN Chile)
LA2140 1655 Arequipa – Lima (LAN Chile)
IB6650 2105 Lima – Madrid (Iberia)
IB3164 1635 Madrid – Heathrow (Iberia)
We went hand luggage only throughout with 40L rucksacks. Both LAN and Iberia have decent hand luggage allowances but beware Iberia have “Hand Luggage Monitors” at Madrid airport. Also be warned that Iberia (in my opinion) are a shocking airline and the service they offered wasn’t adequate; neither the plane’s, staff or food/drinks service were anywhere near what I’d have expected.
Cusco – Kenamari Hotel; we used this place on three separate occasions during our trip, spending 4 nights in total. It was clean, had hot water and a heater in the small rooms. Unfortunately our room was over the side street adjacent and right above the Chinese restaurant opposite; from which we could hear the woks being tossed every time a meal was being cooked. The staff were friendly enough and breakfast is included in the room rate.
The location of the hotel was convenient for Avenue El Sol, which leads to Plaza de Armas, a 10 minute walk away, and is home to most of the tour operator shacks and money changing places. It is also a 5 minute walk away from Cusco Wanchaq train station.
Ollantaytambo – El Albergue Hotel; this place is a cracking place to stay and is very convenient for the trains to Machu Picchu with it being located on the station premises of Ollantaytambo station itself! The room we had was spacious, kept clean and tidy by the maid, had hot water, heater and free bottled water which was replaced every day.
The hotel staff were very pleasant and even collected my bags off a train from Cusco to Machu Picchu as we passed through on our first day; they were in our room waiting for us when we arrived that night. All spoke good English and the food in the hotel’s restaurant was excellent every time. Breakfast was included and cooked freshly once you’d chosen from the menu. The attached café had a relaxed feeling about it; allowing you to just watch the world go by as trains arrive and depart with their train loads of passengers; feet from the railway tracks.
Puno – Intiqa Hotel; it’s a short walk from Puno Railway Station but also offers free pick-up from the Andean Explorer to save the walk. Return transfers to the station or airport are charged for. The hotel is a short walk from Puno centre. The room we were given was massive, with two double and one single bed! It was clean had a heater and hot water. Breakfast was included in the room rate and the staff at the hotel reception were attentive and helpful; giving a welcome explanation of the local area and sites with every check-in.
Arequipa – Tierra Viva Arequipa Plaza; this hotel was by far the best of the trip and had us wishing we’d paid the minimal amount more to use Tierra Viva hotels for the rest of our trip (taking nothing away from the other hotels mind). The Tierra Viva has a modern outlook with spotless, clean and very well presented rooms, with massive beds in them (way beyond king size!). Toiletries were included in the bathrooms and the shower pumped out red hot water. Breakfast was included and the breakfast room was kept spotless and tidy by the staff on duty, we never saw a dirty table at all. The staff at the front desk were helpful and answered everything we threw at them; ultimately giving us all the direction we needed and even printing our plane boarding cards out when the printer in the hotel business centre was out of ink.
All train tickets were booked online through the Peru Rail website. PDF tickets can then be downloaded and printed before your trip. Ticket prices for the Machu Picchu trains differ based on their train type (Expedition or Vistadome) and the time of day the train runs; these do not increase as the trains fill, or the booking date gets closer. The price for that train is the price for that train.
Our trains booked through Peru Rail included the following:
Cusco Poroy – Machu Picchu & Machu Picchu – Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo – Machu Picchu & return
Ollantaytambo – Machu Picchu & Machu Picchu – Cusco Poroy
(Above between $48 & $71 depending on time of day train operated)
Cusco Wanchaq – Puno (Andean Explorer) ($255 each)
Puno – Cusco Wanchaq (Andean Explorer) ($153 each)
The only tickets we didn’t book online were the following; which were booked on the day at Machu Picchu station:
Machu Picchu – Hidroelectrica & return ($18 per person, each way, on both Expedition & Vistadome)
These were not available online and the route doesn’t even get a mention on the Peru Rail website; it wasn’t until I picked up a 2013 timetable in their office at Cusco that it became apparent that trains ran to Hidroelectrica that foreigners were allowed to travel on. Previously Hidroelectrica had been served by local’s only trains.
Friday 20th December 2013
Our Doncaster to Cusco journey started with the 1245 train from Doncaster and would end at 1045 (local time) the following day, after 27 hours of travelling! The train journey to London was harmless but the tube journey onwards was standing room only virtually the whole way.
As I’d already checked in for all the flights online it was plain sailing once we arrived at Heathrow and we had plenty of time to spare before boarding flight 1 of 3. This was my first taste of Iberia; having never flown with them before. They say first impressions last; well it seemed the first impression gave a very true taste of what Iberia would offer on the return trip also! As with many short-haul flights these days a trolley service was offered yet the only money the staff would take was Euro’s, which of course I didn’t have and didn’t need for where I was going. The result being I couldn’t buy any drinks so I asked for a glass of water for us both, from the galley. The response I got was “I must finish the trolley service first” and that is exactly what the guy did before bringing one small glass of water which we had to share; first impressions lasted alright and I was so glad to get off the plane at Madrid.
Saturday 21st December 2013
With plane 2 of 3 began the very long day that would be 21st December; as we departed Madrid at 00:35. The long-haul flight from Madrid to Lima was operated by LAN Chile; another airline I’d never flown with. The plane, staff and service on-board was refreshing compared to that of Iberia and was ultimately very acceptable.
Arrival into Lima was early but any spare time we had was eaten up by the fact that all arriving passengers from outside Peru have to go through immigration and ultimately exit the airport; thus anyone with a connecting internal flight must then re-enter the domestic part of the airport and go through the rigmarole of security again! Luckily we had 2h30m between flights; and needed it with the queue lengths. The queues not being very well sign-posted or coordinated either. Plane 3 of 3 was also operated by LAN Chile and unlike the short-haul from London to Madrid it had a free meal service of light snacks and drinks; despite being only 1h30m in duration.
Cusco airport is only a small airport and once outside it didn’t take long to spot my name being held up and a piece of paper; this being the collection arranged by our hotel. While transfer to the Hotel Kenamari wasn’t free, it only cost 20 Soles and the journey only took 15 minutes. The hotel had to pay the taxi driver for me as I hadn’t had chance to change any money at that point. We were treated to our first Coca Tea of the trip upon arrival, while we filled in the relevant arrival paperwork. The staff were friendly and told us what we needed to know about the hotel as well as giving out a map while pointing out where everything of interest was. The room wasn’t a big room but was clean; it was also quite cool but did have a heater that soon warned it up a little. It took no encouraging to lay down on the bed, once we’d finished our Coca Tea; it had been a long trip and a little solitude was welcome at that point.
After we’d recovered a little from our flying we used the remaining daylight hours to walk up Avenue El Sol and into the Plaza de Armas. Money changing places are plentiful along Avenue El Sol and the going rate appeared to be 2.75 Soles to the $US. Also scattered along Avenue El Sol were banks and tour operator shops, most of the latter having a money changing facility.
Of course we were at 3300m above sea level and the walk to Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is uphill along Avenue El Sol; we had no immediate effects of altitude sickness (and thankfully didn’t suffer from it at all during the trip) but we could tell we were at altitude; neither of us feeling the need to rush about at all, due to the thinner air.
Having had a quick scan round the Plaza we chose a place called Paititi Plaza, in the Plaza itself, for a much needed lunch. While the pizza served wasn’t bad, it wasn’t cracking either. A siesta followed lunch but I managed to drag myself out of bed to walk down to Wanchaq station to watch the Andean Explorer arrive from Puno.
As the station entrance was locked up I followed the wall down Avenue El Sol until the roadway crossed the line, where I found the gates that allow trains access into the station area were still closed. It was getting dark anyway and the fact that the train turned up 15 minutes after its booked arrival of 1800 didn’t help for photographs. On-board which, I could only count 6 people! The train was preceded into the station by a track machine, which at the time I didn’t really know why; ultimately every train on the broad gauge was preceded by a track machine through large towns to prevent accidents on the road crossings; all of which have no barriers or warning lights at all.
The necessity to eat saw us walking back to Plaza de Armas that evening; where we found a far better place to eat and used it for every meal we ate in Cusco from that point on. Don Marcelo, an Italian based restaurant, is tucked in the corner of Plaza de Armas; immediately to the right of the Cathedral. We only went in because it was the only place in the whole of the Plaza that didn’t have someone at the door, menu in hand, trying to entice you into their restaurant. It was also quite busy but with a bit of space. The Lomo Saltado (Peruvian dish of fried beef, peppers & onions mixed with chips) was excellent, and reasonably priced.
Thankfully our evening out had us back at the Kenamari before the heavens opened and it literally hammered it down; it was the Peruvian rainy season after all……..
Sunday 22nd December 2013
After a leisurely breakfast, at which it became very evident that we could have quite possibly been the only people staying at the hotel that night, we chose to stroll to the ruins of Sacsaywaman. We paid a lot more attention to the other sights that Cusco had to offer en-route; Qorikancha on Avenue El Sol, Cusco Cathedral and the other churches in Plaza de Armas and the general scene on the way.
It was an uphill slog all the way and quite steep from the Plaza de Armas onwards. We could certainly tell we were at altitude that morning and going was slow; far more so that the previous evening’s walk up Avenue El Sol. Still it was a nice enough walk through deserted cobbled streets to the entrance of Sacsaywaman; where we found the gates open but the ticket booth closed! Some guy wanted to escort us round the ruins and told us we could avoid paying the entrance fee, of course we opted to be good citizens and walked up the hill towards the ruins, where we found another ticket booth. Entrance fees cost 70 Soles for a one off entry or 130 Soles for the Boleto Touristico, which allows entrance to the following within a 10 day validity period:
Sacsaywaman, Qenqo, Pukapukara, Tambomachay, Chinchero, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Moray, Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo, Monumento Pachacuteq, Museo de Arte Popular, Museo Historico Regional, Museo Municipal de Arte Contempoaneo, Museo de Sitio de Qorikancha, Pikillacta & Tipon
As we were definitely going to visit Ollantaytambo ruins we bought the Boleto Turistico, which would save us 10 Soles each; at least.
From this entrance point to the ruins there is a footpath over the adjacent hill to the statue of the White Christ which stands above the city; from which are great view of the City below, including the Plaza de Armas. The steeples of the various churches stand out from the rest of the city, pinpointing their location better than any map will do and on the far left of the panoramic view is Cusco’s airport; giving a very real concept of scale and allowing you to trace your whole pathway through the city from airport to hotel to the very point you stand at admiring it all……..
The weather forecast for Cusco had said it would be overcast and cloudy; it was wrong and it was sunny and clear! The weather forecast being wrong was something we soon learned to take as part of the norm. The only thing that we learned was certain is that it would rain, quite heavily, in the afternoon.
Sacsaywaman took up at least 2 hours of our time and it was worth paying the money to enter the ruins; you can admire from a distance on the hill opposite it you so wish. It didn’t seem to be too busy either and the sunshine in the morning was on the ruins, by the time we left, after midday, not only had the sun gone but it had been behind the ruins when it did poke though the cloud that had built up.
The walk back down to the Plaza de Armas was easier than the walk up; for obvious reasons! We discovered though that both of us had “caught the sun”; me because I was stupid enough to not put any sun cream on based on the weather forecast and then wrongly assumed that Danielle had some in her bag. Danielle on the other hand had put sun cream on in the hotel but not brought it with her; she’d still caught it on her arms and even more so on the back of her hands!
After another excellent Lomo Saltado at Don Marcelo we had a wonder back to the hotel, admiring Qorikancha & Santo Domingo Church on the way back down Avenue El Sol.
The evening wasn’t taxing at all; Qoirkancha offers excellent night shots and it would have been rude not to find somewhere to rest the camera and take a few on our way to the Plaza de Armas. Once in the Plaza I had to get some questions answered, that were rattling around in my head, based on the Peru Rail timetable I’d picked up from their office in Plaza de Armas the previous day.
The rear cover of the Peru Rail timetable showed 3 sets of trains (2 x Expedition & 1 x Vistadome) that ran from Machu Picchu (or Aguas Calientes) to Hidroelectrica and return. Firstly I hadn’t even realized that there were now trains to Hidroelectrica that foreigners could travel on as previously the only trains running were for locals only. Secondly I wanted to confirm if the trains were full and thirdly I noticed that one of the trains listed was in fact the locals only train (trains 21/22) from Cusco San Pedro and I wanted to know it the Expedition class was available from Cusco or not. None of this information is shown on the Peru Rail website!
It turns out that each single journey between the two points is $18, regardless of train type. The Expedition accommodation is not available on trains 21/22 from/to Cusco at all and this train is definitely for locals only Cusco – Machu Picchu & return. By the time I left the Peru Rail office I’d changed my arrangements for 26/12, which had originally been just a return from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu on my own. I’d now booked the 0745 Ollantaytambo – Machu Picchu vice the 0610, for both of us, and had also booked tickets for the following: Train 21 1235 Aguas Calientes – Hidroelectrica (Expedition) and Train 504 1500 Hidroelectrica – Machu Picchu (Vistadome).
As we were up early the following morning to travel to Cusco Poroy for our train to Machu Picchu, we retired early that night; to the sound of the wok, from the Chinese restaurant opposite our room window, being tossed about as it was used to cook food!
Monday 23rd December 2013
As the hotel staff had told me a taxi would take moments to arrive at the hotel I ordered on the moment we got down for breakfast; it was sat outside waiting 5 minutes later! Of course we finished breakfast before setting off for Poroy.
The journey cost 30 Soles and took 30 minutes for the 7km trip; taking us up steep hills and narrow streets to get to the opposite side of the dominant hill that splits Cusco City from the outskirts town of Poroy. We crossed the railway lines as we headed out of town, that form part of the zig-zag section from Cusco San Pedro to Poroy; which is now only plied by one train a day in each direction and is for the use of locals only. Hence the mass exodus of taxis and mini-buses to Poroy of a morning to transfer passengers making their way to Machu Picchu!
Poroy station has its own booking office, a decent sized card park and a covered waiting area with a buffet type place selling hot/cold drinks and snacks. Coaching stock is stabled in the adjacent sidings and about 5 minutes after we arrived Alco DL532 #358 turned up light engine (presumably from San Pedro) and shunted the stock for train 33 0742 Poroy – Machu Picchu Expedition service into the platform.
Our train was boarded approx 30 minutes before departure. To get through the entrance to the platform we had to show our tickets and were directed to our respective coaches; all of which had coach letters attached to the side before boarding. To get on the train we had to show both our tickets and passports, before half of your ticket is taken by the Peru Rail staff and you’re directed to your allocated seat.
We were in coach A, seats 48 & 49, which were in the bay right at the front of the train, behind the loco. Unfortunately though this wouldn’t make much difference on the way to Machu Picchu as it was downhill all the way; but I was told in the Peru Rail office at Cusco that coach A is always at the front of the train, in both directions and we were booked in coach A on every journey I’d booked!
Prior to leaving the UK I’d had a lengthy discussion with Peru Rail regarding me being able to drop our big bags off at Ollantaytambo when we passed through on train 33. Initially I’d been concerned that they were too large to convey on the train but once I’d figured out they were well within size my next concern was to confirm that I’d be allowed to hand the bags from the train to the hotel staff on the platform at Ollantaytambo on our way through; the train isn’t shown to stop there to pick-up passengers but I was given it’s arrival time by the guy I’d been in conversation with so at least I was able to make the relevant arrangements with out hotel staff in Ollantaytambo. I was given assurance by Peru Rail that the train staff on the day knew of what I wanted to do and that everything was in hand; they didn’t even know my name, let alone understand what it was I wanted to do!
We departed bang on time at 0742. Once on the move I approached the on-train staff to resolve my still outstanding issue of dropping our bags off. They spent time on the phone to their control office and then thrust the phone in my face; the woman at the other end thought I had left some baggage in the Peru Rail luggage office at Ollantaytambo in September and that I wanted to collect it. The staff had drawn this from me telling them I wanted to drop luggage off at Ollantaytambo and had made the arrangements through their customer services, via e-mail, back in September! When I produced my hotel booking form it engaged the right switch and everyone understood what I wanted to do; at last! At Ollantaytambo I was allowed to step off the train, where it was actually picking up people anyway, hand my bags to the hotel receptionist and even have a conversation with him; we were staying at the El Albergue Hotel, which is actually the station building at Ollantaytambo! All I needed from Peru Rail in the first instance was confirmation that our train actually stopped at Ollantaytambo and that I would be allowed onto the platform for 30 seconds but no it had to be turned into some sort of endurance test rather than just giving the answers required.
Other than the obvious the journey to Machu Picchu was simple enough, the on-board staff were friendly enough and a trolley service was run offering a free drink and muffin as part of the ticket price. Further to that the staff also try and sell books and Peru Rail memorabilia and during the whole journey Peruvian music is played over the speaker system; which I have to say wasn’t that bad and was definitely non-offensive to the ears.
The scenery en-route is a lot better beyond Ollantaytambo where the train stays close to the UrubambaRiver as it snakes towards Aguas Calientes and the terrain is more mountainous; various ruins are visible en-route if you keep your eyes peeled.
Once off the train at Machu Picchu there are facilities to use prior to making your way to the buses that run up to Machu Picchu ruins; the walkway to the buses is through a makeshift market, rigged up to sell souvenirs to tourists only, and isn’t very well signposted at all. We found the correct route signposted better when we returned later that evening; having only then realised where we’d gone wrong. Either way you wont miss where the buses depart from and tickets are available at the yellow hut adjacent to the bus stand; do make sure you have a ticket to enter Machu Picchu before you get on the bus as they are not available at the entrance to the ruins; we bought ours online before leaving the UK but they’re available in Aguas Calientes, with signs directing to the offices where they can be purchased from.
Buses depart from Aguas Calientes when they’re full and the journey is nothing short of a 20 minute uphill slog, following a series of zig-zag roads all the way from Puente Ruinas (once across the UrubambaRiver) all the way to the entrance to Machu Picchu ruins. When we arrived there was no queue at all to get into the ruins; at approx 1130. We produced our tickets, as printed in the UK, showed our passport to match with the name on the tickets, they were stamped to allow access and that was us into Machu Picchu.
Decent maps are available on the counters as you enter the ruins and they give suggested routes round the place, along with other guidelines that should be met while inside the ruins. Anything you hear about not being able to take plastic bottles inside the ruins, or food, is true; however nobody checks bags as you enter and even the tour guides we saw had plastic bottles of water clearly visible in the side pockets of their rucksacks! So the rules seem to be very lax indeed……..
Again, despite the weather forecast being rubbish, it was a lovely sunny afternoon and we kept well protected after our burning related incident the previous day in Cusco. While you know what to expect from Machu Picchu, as regards the famous views across it, it doesn’t stop that awe inspiring moment when your eyes are cast across the ruins for the first time; the best views being from the Guardhouse and terraces nearby. Of course the views offered from Machu PicchuMountain and Wayanapicchu give a much better perspective of the city itself from an elevated viewpoint.
Tour guides are available at the entrance to the ruins, offering their services to all as they walk in. Its easy enough to cling on to a tour group as they’re walked round the ruins as well; we chose to go it alone and amble around at our own pace as opposed to someone else’s; after all everything the tour guides are telling their groups is based on hearsay and not fact and we even heard one guide telling his group that “perhaps this room was occupied………”. Personally I didn’t want to hear perhaps and was happy enjoying the ruins for the sight that they are as opposed to trying to understand what they “may” have been used for.
Our walk round took no more than 2h30m and we didn’t rush at all. Not only are the views over the ruins exceptional but the views of the surrounding mountains, partially shrouded by cloud, and down into the valley below, carved by the Urubamba River are also as spectacular; and from the ruins near the Main Gate to the city you can see the railway line that runs from Machu Picchu to Hidroelectrica; we watched train 21 0700 Cusco San Pedro – Hidroelectrica appear round the mountain, having heard it leaving Puente Ruinas, stop at San Miguel in the valley below, cross the Urubamba River and reverse on the zig-zag as it approached Hidroelectrica in the distance. Attached to the rear of the four local coaches and van was one Expedition coach…
We were back in Aguas Calientes by 1430 having thoroughly enjoyed our time at the ruins. To allow me to keep an eye on things going into town off the Hidroelectrica line we chose a restaurant by the railway line, which also had a great view of the UrubambaRiver. La Payacha didn’t really have anything else going for it other than its location as the food wasn’t up to much and the pizza bases were of the pre-made variety and not fresh at all. The food was overpriced as well; which is apparently the case for Aguas Calientes. I guess though that for a place that is connected only by railway the transfer costs of the goods the restaurants use has to be passed on somewhere; although I guess it could also be that Aguas Calientes has a niche market and the prices are just what they are!?
We took a walk down the railway tracks in the late afternoon, to allow me to do a bit of photographing, unfortunately the light had deteriorated quite badly by the time the next train departed from Macchu Picchu so my evening of photography was cut short; it had been interesting watching the locals hump their wheelbarrows backwards and forwards with whatever they seemed to be collecting from out of town. I did feel for the guy that managed to wheel his over the wrong piece of ballast and tip his load all over the tracks; he looked distraught at the fact he would have to carefully reload, especially as it started to rain……
Back at the station there were lots of train movements as everything was prepared for returning folk to both Ollantaytambo & Cusco that evening. The set for our train 84 1845 to Ollantaytambo was hunted into platform 3; the back platform. Once “the local” had departed at 1820 our train was boarded through the far left hand gate; just as it started to hammer down with rain quite heavily. What I’d been told by the woman in Peru Rail’s office in Cusco about coach A always being the front coach was not true; it seemed that train 84 was the exception to this rule with coach A being at the rear. This was not a bonus at all for me as we were booked on this train every time we traveled in the uphill direction towards Ollantaytambo, with the exception of our journey back to Cusco!
When we arrived into Ollantaytambo it was absolutely pounding it down; I’d never been so glad to step off a train, take four steps, and enter my hotel! Check-in was straight forward and the bags I’d dropped off that morning we already in our room waiting for us. The room was an annex at the rear of the main station building, it was quite large, clean, offered hot water and toiletries but strangely no TV; the latter not bothering us at all.
After a quick wash we were straight into the hotel restaurant; which closes at 2100 with only 30 minutes to spare. The menu wasn’t too diverse but the food served was nothing short of excellent and surprisingly plentiful. The price reflected the food quality and the staff in the restaurant were a friendly bunch. The El Albergue is actually self-sustained with all their produce being farmed on site; tours of the farm are available during your stay.
It had been a very long day and we’d been on the go constantly we were both looking forward to the lay-in the following morning when we went to bed that night; with the heater very much on to take the chill out of the air.
Tuesday 24th December 2013
A leisurely morning with breakfast being done at the last minute but with a birds eye view of the platform! What could be better than stuffing your face while watching passing trains?
The walk from the El Albergue to the Ollantaytambo ruins was pretty straight forward; straight up the station approach road and left at the end. To be fair we couldn’t miss the ruins on the hillside anyway! Our Boleto Turistico which we’d purchased from Sacsaywaman was produced at the ticket office window and a hole duly punched in it to denote we’d visited Ollantaytambo and we were in. The Boleto Turistico is actually only valid at each location for one visit; hence the hole being punched in it at each location.
While not quite as spectacular a location as Machu Pichhu the ruins at Ollantaytambo are still very much worth spending some time at. While most of what you want to see is at the top of the hillside it also appears that plenty of what you might like to see is buried beneath your feet as you walk around the base of the hillside. Randomly dug holes in the ground, which are cordoned off, reveal ruins that have yet to be full excavated. Other ruins at the base of the hillside reveal intricate water delivery systems which channeled water to where it was needed; this still evident today after a heavy downpour the night before.
The climb up to the ruins at the top of the hill is over the series of hillside terraces; which were being kept nicely in shape by sit staff during our visit. It’s a steep climb but nothing as strenuous as the climb up to Sacsaywaman, for example. I counted only 105 steps on the first set which takes you to the top of the terraces.
The ruins at the top are nothing too spectacular and it appears some are off limits due to their location, but the views offered allow clear sight in all directions and it becomes very apparent why the ruins are situated in the location they are and the view to the bottom of the ruins gives clear perspective on what was/is located in the valley below; including the narrow streets that form the “old” town. Also visible, directly opposite the Ollantaytambo ruins, are the Pinkulluna ruins which are spread out along the adjacent hillside; almost as though they were stuck onto its side amidst some very steep terrain. Access to these ruins is free via the not very well signposted access door on Lares Calle. We chose to walk up to these after lunch at the deserted Tawachaki restaurant where I tried their special Tawachaki Saltado which had mixed meat; including Alpaca! It wasn’t bad at all; although I’m not entirely sure I knew which meat was beef and which was Alpaca……
The afternoon walk up to the Pinkulluna ruins is via a not so well kept footpath but it was easy enough; it seemed like everyone had ventured up there earlier in the morning as we’d seen quite a lot of people up there when we were on the Ollantaytambo ruins; which made sense as the sun was perfect on the Ollantaytambo ruins earlier in the morning, prior to midday. Again the views over the town below and across to the Ollantaytambo ruins were excellent; and again the site offered a panoramic view in every direction!
Having walked up and down two quite steep hillsides we were ready for a rest when we got back to the El Albergue; 5 hours after we’d set off that morning. I chose to attempt to do some photographing in the late afternoon, which turned into one of the worst hours of photography I’d ever done. Rain soon stopped play; not the most productive hour I’d ever had by a long shot and I literally just managed to get back to the station before the rain began bouncing off the floor! Something it barely stopped doing for the rest of the evening.
Not being able to photograph anything, I settled for the next best thing in watching everything from the comfort of the El Albergue café while drinking hot chocolate. Once the hotel restaurant actually opened for its food service we had our table set and even ate our evening meal while watching the evening presession return folk from Machu Picchu.
The food in the restaurant was just as good as it had been the previous night and the whole chilling out in the hotel topped off a nice relaxing Christmas Eve indeed; which would be very unlike Christmas Day…….
Wednesday 25th December 2013 (The Christmas Morning Dreams are made of!)
As if our Christmas Day wasn’t starting early enough with the 0610 departure from Ollantaytambo; we were both rudely awoken by the sound of a loco starting up in the station at 0428! We didn’t really sleep again after our sleep had been interrupted; the constant drone from it was quite noisy and there was a revving up every now and again as it shunted. I was guessing it made quite a racket when on full power.
As breakfast in the hotel didn’t start until 0530 we didn’t have a lot of time before our 0540 boarding time for the 0610 departure to Machu Picchu so breakfast was taken onto the train in a takeaway carton; which was awfully nice of the staff to do. Christmas Day got off to a good start with Alco DL535 #484 sat purring away at the head of train 81 0610 Ollantaytambo – Machu Picchu.
Christmas morning or not the train’s atmosphere reflected everyone’s mood; which still seemed like one of general tiredness. Of course there’s always one boisterous one who wanted to “get this party started”; his words! Thankfully said person was someone who didn’t want to travel backwards and ultimately moved seats shortly after his comment which allowed everyone else to wake up at their own pace and not have to listen to him.
After the morning Coca Tea & muffin from the trolley everyone seemed that bit more lively and we got chatting to the group of Americans in the from bay with us; we thought we’d been up early but they’d started their day before the GM had even woken us up! They’d been staying in Urubamba and hadn’t been able to get a reservation on the only train of the day out of there so had to travel to Ollantaytambo in a minibus for the 0610 departure; this vice the 0650 departure from Urubamba which does make quite a difference. Still they were in good spirits about things and were a nice sociable bunch.
We wasted absolutely no time at all as we arrived into Machu Picchu and followed the Americans off the train through the door at the opposite end of the coach to where everyone else was exiting; this was something that wasn’t allowed but as the door was wide open it would have been rude not to; and it did give us a head start and get us all a telling off from the staff mind…..
There were only two people in front of us at the ticket office for bus tickets to Machu Picchu yet it took almost 10 minutes to get served. One woman was buying tickets for a large group and then the guy in front had some of his US Dollars thrown back at him as they were not in the “just printed” condition that everyone in Peru expected! Still, the bus waited until it was full anyway so it didn’t matter how long it took; although time was of the essence as the sun seemed to be breaking through the cloud and burning it off quite quickly and we wanted to be at the ruins before this happened.
We were at the ruins by just after 8 o’clock and the cloud was still clinging to the surrounding hills. As we walked into Machu Picchu we could hear a racket coming from the railway down below in the valley; it was of course GM G12 #500 disturbing the Christmas morning karma as it headed back towards Machu Picchu from Hidroelectrica with train 72 0754 Hidroelectrica – Ollantaytambo. I was right, it did make quite a racket when on full power; this being the same loco that had woken us that morning!
While there is that sense of awe when you stare at Machu Picchu’s ruins for the first time, there is also that sense of I’ve seen this before and know what to expect; let me tell you that the latter sense doesn’t even enter your head when your eyes cast themselves over the ruins when they are shrouded in cloud. Your senses hardly have time to process what you’re witnessing and every second offers a different perspective while the panoramic landscape is constantly changing as the cloud glides silently between the mountains. For me this sense of awe was far more prominent than the first visit, two days previous. It’s a far more atmospheric location when seen as we saw it, on what will likely remain one of the most memorable Christmas Morning’s of our lives! As we’d already done the walking round two days previous we chose to work our way round to the terraces by the Guardhouse and just sit and watch; as the skies literally passed us by. Despite the people about it was a tranquil morning and we admired it for what it was for over an hour; once the sun had burnt off the remaining cloud though the whole complexion of the place change dramatically and it turned from a tranquil haven in the skies to “just Machu Picchu”, at which time we chose to head back down to Aguas Calientes.
Despite having tickets booked to Hidroelectrica the following day we opted to go on Christmas Day as well and what a good move it turned out to be as well. Tickets were purchased from the empty booking office at Machu Picchu station and the lady explained that the train would depart from Aguas Calientes station; in the “Main Square” as everyone refers to it as, which is not a square at all! Basically Aguas Calientes station is just down the tracks from where the buses to Machu Picchu depart from and there’s a booking office for the locals to buy their tickets from on the right hand side as you look down the tracks. We bode our time at the Hot Springs II restaurant, one of the many that line the railway tracks near Aguas Calientes station, while waiting for our train to arrive.
Train 21 0700 Cusco San Pedro – Hidroelectrica arrived round about 1130 with, a van right behind the engine and load 5 local coaches only. I’d suspected that what happened next would do so having seen MLW DL535 #482 in Machu Picchu station sidings attached to a coach. #482 shunted Expedition coach #1529 onto the rear of the train almost immediately after it had arrived; this of course begged the question as to why tourists weren’t boarded at Machu Picchu station and then transferred down to the train via the shunt move. One staff member soon turned up to allow people to board the Expedition coach yet strangely he boarded people from the booking office side of the train, which opened straight onto the tracks as the train had run into the left hand loop, and while there were no platforms at all it was easier to get out on the opposite side onto the elevated public walkways by the restaurants. All was kind of irrelevant as we’d already boarded when he turned up, along with the other couple waiting. While I’d nipped out to get a photo the coach attendant had told Danielle that I should not get out of the train on the wrong side and only board through the door he had open on the track side……..
When taking my photos of the loco it became apparent why the train had arrived so early when I spotted all the goods being offloaded from the van at the front and a group of folk waiting patiently to collect what was theirs. This didn’t stop a right time departure from Aguas Calientes at 1235, 1h05m after the train had arrived.
Unfortunately it had started to rain before we’d departed so our view through the panoramic windows was obscured but it didn’t stop us moving around the empty coach in our attempts to spot Machu Picchu as we skirted the base of the mountain it is perched on. Views of the ruins are clear at Puente Ruinas station, this is the station that can be seen from the ruins and as you travel up the roadway to the ruins by bus. The ruins can also be seen at the opposite side of the valley as the train approaches San Miguel station; this section of line is visible when at the ruins from the far end of the terraces by the Guardhouse and the ruins by the Main Gate.
At San Miguel station one of the local coaches is knocked out of the train; it became clear why when we entered the only zig-zag of the Machu Picchu – Hidrelectrica section. This zig-zag is on the approach to Hidroelectrica itself, and you can see trains doing the zig-zag from the ruins. It drops trains down towards Hidroelectrica and can only take a finite amount of coaches. When the Expedition coach is added at Aguas Calientes it makes the train too long so the solution is to knock a coach out at San Miguel so the train will fit. When the coach was being knocked out at San Miguel I also noticed that the loco had been turned prior to us leaving Aguas Calientes as it was the opposite way round to when I’d photographed it prior to boarding; it was obvious on arrival at Hidroelectrica that there was no way of turning it there, the station area consisting of just two roads.
Hidroelectrica station has its own booking office, covered waiting area and toilet facilities and the whole station is lined with makeshift stalls selling water, pop and snacks. Immediately after arrival the locals made a mad dash for the waiting transport to take them on towards Santa Teresa; some of the tourists from our coach looked to be hiking onwards to Santa Teresa and while we were at Hidroelectrica we saw other hikers going in both directions, as well as plenty between there and Machu Picchu also. Others arrived in a hiking group and bought train tickets forward to Machu Picchu; so many options I guess but now people have the option to use the train to/from Hirdoelectrica it allows for options to be factored into a days hike.
Once the people had disappeared, leaving the tracks clear, the loco ran round and shunted the van from the Santa Teresa end of the train to the Machu Picchu end and then stood off its stock but was left running. Some local village idiot, who’d clearly had a bit much to drink I reckon, was walking around the place with a 2 litre bottle of Coke and was trying to get the attention of any train crew he could by hammering on the cab sides of the loco! All he wanted to do was give them a glass of Coke and judging by the train crew’s reaction they didn’t want to offend and accepted his offer; whether it actually contained Coke, and only Coke, I don’t know, and whether the crew actually drank it or threw it straight out of the opposite cab window I also don’t know but the plastic cup the guy was using came back quite quickly both times it had gone into the cab……..
Train 504 1500 Hidroelectrica – Machu Picchu only had about a dozen folk on board which allowed us to sit where we wanted. Unlike our outbound run to Hidroelectrica the return dropped us into Machu Picchu station as the set, after a bit of shunting to lose the Vistadome coach, then forms Expedition train 504 1622 forward to Ollantaytambo.
A cheeky ploy of getting a photo of the loco after arrival at Machu Picchu gave us the prime motive to just walk off the end of the platform and the 50 yards further up the tracks to the Inkaterra restaurant; which we’d chosen from Lonely Planet to have our Christmas lunch at. This move saved a 10 minute walk round the roadway.
The restaurant was just emptying out, although I don’t want to give the impression it was full as it was far from it, with probably only 4 tables being used and they had the cheek to ask if we had a reservation! Despite the slow start to proceedings, while a table was freshly set for us in the area being used by the staff at that time, the Christmas Lunch of Lomo Saltado was excellent. Unfortunately what wasn’t excellent was the price of hot drinks and I ordered hot chocolate based on the prices I’d paid in other places; big mistake! Lomo Saltado was reasonable priced at 30 Soles but the two hot chocolates I had cost the same at 15 Soles each; beware! The one thing that the Inkaterra does have going for it is that any train movements have to pass by the front door, even if only a shunt move in the station area; so it allowed me to see everything that was going on that evening while we ate.
The rain hadn’t really eased much all afternoon and we used the dead time after lunch to roam round the souvenir market outside the station entrance; more to keep dry than anything else. As per two nights previous our train 84 1845 to Ollantaytambo was boarded after train 22 1635 Hidroelectrica – Cusco San Pedro local train had departed at 1820; this being the train we’d left behind at Hidroelectrica. We’d already met with the group of Americans we’d travelled up with that morning on the station concourse before boarding; both them and us had exactly the same seats on the return journey to Ollantaytambo as we’d had on the outward journey so we all got to discuss our day’s expeditions during the trip back. By the time we’d all got our day’s stories out of the way the mood of the train was pretty much the same as it had been when we’d set off that morning; at least half of the coach was asleep!
Stepping off the train and straight into the hotel was definitely a luxury; the poor Americans still had a 30 minute taxi journey ahead of them! Unfortunately I’d made the mistake of not reserving a table for dinner that night; which almost completely ruined our Christmas Dinner. Luckily the very accommodating staff turned one of the small café tables into something like and we had a makeshift table to eat our Christmas Dinner from. The food was as good as any previous meal, as were the puddings which we treat ourselves to. A thoroughly enjoyable end to a very long but equally as memorable Christmas Day it was.
Thursday 26th December 2013 (Boxing Day Blues…..)
De ja vu! The only difference being was that the loco starting up woke me at 0432, 4 minutes later than it had done the previous morning. This time I managed to get back to sleep; despite its drone.
We didn’t get up until 0630 and had time for breakfast before our 0745 train to Machu Picchu. Upon arrival at Machu Picchu this morning there wasn’t any urgency to be anywhere and we let everyone else get on with their own sense of urgency; we used the morning to amble round Aguas Calientes. Our plan had been to go to the hot springs at the top of town but once we saw the pictures at the entrance gate we soon turned round and walked away. Unless you want to take a dip in the springs I wouldn’t waste my time even walking up to them; they’re nothing more than glorified hot-tubs!
A bit of train photographing followed as Aguas Calientes only just seemed to be waking up and there was very little open. While we were sat at the Hot Springs II restaurant having an early lunch the coach to be attached to the rear of train 21 0700 Cusco San Pedro – Hirdoelectrica was shunted down and into the loop; it was exactly the same coach as the previous day.
Train 21 was a good 25 minutes later than it had been the previous day; hence loco 481 already being sat waiting in the loop with the Expedition coach I guess. As a result of this later arrival there hadn’t been enough time to turn our loco on the wye before departure so we pulled up alongside it en-route and it turned while we waited. The local coach was knocked out at San Miguel again; the biggest difference from the previous day was the weather in that it wasn’t raining and it allowed for cracking views of the Machu Picchu ruins during the run round the base of the mountain.
The heavens opened at Hidroelectrica though and there seemed to be more people about than there had been on Christmas Day; some were having a rest before carrying on to Santa Teresa while others were just sheltering from the rain. Some people that had set off towards Aguas Calientes returned when the heavy rain started and chose to take the train instead; lightweights eh?
When train 501 1330 Machu Picchu – Hidroelectrica arrived there were a lot more people getting off than the previous day, with the coach being almost full. There were also quite a few more people on train 504 back to Machu Picchu that there had been the previous day, although it wasn’t full at all. #482 didn’t disappoint at all as it hammered back up the valley to Machu Picchu, it also using the wye en-route to turn; much to the amusement of the folk on the train who though their engine was leaving them in the woodland.
The late afternoon was spent at Totos House restaurant, keeping warm with hot drinks, while sitting outside and videoing every set of stock that was being hauled up to Machu Picchu station as it passed through the streets of Aguas Calientes.
This was the third day in a row we’d been on train 84 1845 Machu Picchu – Ollantaytambo and the third day in a row we’d been in the back coach for the uphill section back towards Ollantaytambo. I was hoping for better the following day when we returned to Cusco but my hopes weren’t that high!
Having almost made a mess of dinner arrangements on Christmas Day I’d made a reservation at the El Albergue for Boxing Day; which of course I hadn’t needed to as there were plenty of tables free when we walked in at 2030. Our last meal at the El Albergue was just as good as the first and every other in between; the staff seemed to know we were leaving the following morning and truthfully we could probably have stayed there for another 4 nights as it was a lovely place, with friendly people and everyone was helpful. We went to bed that night knowing there was nothing to get up for the following morning and it seemed to make a difference to our sleep.
Friday 27th December 2013
For the first morning in three we hadn’t been woken by the drone of the loco starting up for the 0507 departure to Hidroelectrica. With the late breakfast we had I didn’t see many trains that morning at all. One train we did see though was train 21 0700 Cusco San Pedro – Hirdoelectrica local train; with the Vistadome coaches of what should have been train 203 0825 Poroy – Machu Picchu attached to the rear! Which gave the impression to me that Cusco appeared to be an engine short that morning and were thinking outside the box…..
As we had to vacate our room at the El Albergue by 1000 we left our bags at the hotel reception while we walked into town. I’d already paid the bill and changed some more money as I was running out of Soles. A word of warning though if paying by credit card the price in $US has to be converted to Soles, which is generally at a rate of 10 Soles more to the $US than you’d get when exchanging money in Cusco so ultimately it costs more and you’d be better off paying cash where you can. Also the exchange rate for cash at the hotel was 10 Soles less to the $US so I got screwed both ways! The guy at reception couldn’t apologise enough though and was almost embarrassed to have to charge me what he did.
The morning passed us by while we ambled round Ollantaytambo’s Plaza and people watched for a while. Our train to Machu Picchu was train 73 1258 Ollantaytambo – Machu Picchu which was formed of both Expedition and Local coaches.
Train 73 actually terminated at Aguas Calientes rather than run into Machu Picchu station; Meanwhile a loco had been waiting immediately in front of us as we’d arrived and it instantly dragged our train loco off to be turned on the wye out of town and then deposited it back at Machu Picchu in time to work back to Ollantaytambo with train 74 at 1455. It was a tight turnaround as it was and made perfect sense to terminate the train at Aguas Calientes to save on the shunting in Machu Picchu station.
With only a couple of hours to spare before we set sail for Cusco again we ate at the Hot Springs II again; knowing the food was ok and in full view of train movements as well.
As far as I was concerned the best journey was quite rightly saved while last and we departed Machu Picchu bang on time with train 34 1643 Machu Picchu – Poroy; in coach A, right at the front of the train! As it was quite a warm evening most windows in the coach were open and as we were sat at the rear of the coach I managed to keep mine open all the way to Poroy; I did find that the best place to sample what the loco had to offer was from the toilet at the front of the coach, and I also found a queue waiting for me to come out when I’d been listening to 356 departing Ollantaytambo. The run back to Cusco was a fitting end to a cracking 5 days in the area travelling by Peru Rail Alco’s.
Unfortunately the Kenamari Hotel seemed to have forgotten to send a taxi to Poroy to collect us as nobody was holding a sign with my name on it when we got back; thankfully though there was no shortage of taxi drivers wanting to take us back to Cusco and none wanted to overcharge us either. We paid 30 Soles, which was exactly what we’d paid on the outbound run, and we were back at the hotel before 2100. A quick bag dump has us at the Don Marcelo restaurant in the Plaza de Armas by 2130 and we were back at the hotel and in bed by 2300!
Saturday 28th December 2013
We were up at 6am for an 0630 breakfast, followed by the short walk to Peru Rail’s Cusco Wanchaq station. The entrance to the station isn’t very visible and we walked straight past it while trying to locate it earlier in the week; it’s just a metal door in the wall, which was open when we arrived just after 0700. We were soon checked in, at the check-in desk, for our day’s train journey to Puno aboard Peru Rail’s Andean Explorer train. While checking in we were moved to different seats; which we were told were two seats together and not sat with other people like our original seats were.
The waiting hall is a grand affair with comfy seats and has a band playing traditional pipe music while you wait; the same band then accompany the train.
The train was boarded at 0730, for its 0800 departure, and was done in very much the same way that the Machu Picchu trains were, the only exception being that our passports were shown at the check-in desk so weren’t needed again to get onto the train. As we passed through the access door to the platform I could hear a familiar sound and thankfully my ears were telling me that the loco at the head of the 7 coach train was the correct type; it turned out to be MLW DL560 #659 when I went to investigate.
With Peru Rail being run by the same group that run the Orient Express I’d expected the train to be very well kept and well presented on board, and it was; it was just freezing cold with no heat. Peru Rail’s solution to the cold morning was to hand out blankets and pillows; airline style. Unfortunately it took us 1h15m from departure to get a warm drink to take the edge off the morning; and when that came the Coca Tea had no taste at all so it was returned and we asked for the next one to have the tea bag left in to brew a little. Unfortunately that request got lost in translation and we ended up using two Coca Teabags I had in my bag to give the tea some taste; further to that the 2nd cup was only lukewarm! The third cup we eventually got was piping hot though but in a different coach; that’s another story though…….
When I got my camera out of my bag I’d rested my little bag beside me on my seat; when I put the bag back onto the floor though I noticed a wet patch on the seat. Investigations soon revealed that the floor beneath my seat was saturated and the bottom of my bag had been soaking up water for two hours. Luckily nothing valuable got damaged but things in my bag were wet. It had hammered it down the previous night and water had obviously found its way into the train. A quick chat with the on-train manager had us moved into the next coach in no time at all. Not only were we nearer the engine, the coach was emptier and we’d managed to get away from the pair of ignorant twats that were sat at the side of us; who just kept commenting to each other when I opened the window a little to take photos. To be honest it was probably a good thing we moved as I was sure my girlfriend wouldn’t be able to hold herself back for 10 hours!
Menu’s for the day’s service are on all tables and the coach attendant comes through to take your order for lunch almost straight away. Breakfast is not included in the ticket price and anything ordered is paid for breakfast wise. Coca Tea, Camomile Tea & water are available throughout the day and included in your package and soft drinks are available only during lunch; these have to be purchased at any other part of the day. Other than lunch there is an evening tea service which consists of a light finger sandwich selection, tea and Peach Bellini, the only other service being a complimentary Pisco Sour. The food served at lunch was very good but just wasn’t enough to fill us up and we found ourselves snacking on our own goodies most of the day.
During the day there is on-board entertainment in the train’s veranda car at the rear. There are two sorts of entertainment; one is traditional Peruvian dances and the other a clothes show of traditional Peruvian dress. Both shows are done by different teams of folk with one being before the train’s stop at La Raya and the other after it; this as the performers actually swap trains when the northbound/southbound trains cross at the passing point of Araranca just south of La Raya.
The only time people are allowed off the train is during a 10 minute stop at La Raya, the highest point on the line from Cusco to Puno at 4313m. There is a small market set up by the locals to sell souvenirs to folk on board the passing trains and the scenery is fantastic. Unfortunately the weather chose to absolutely hammer it down from the moment we approached the summit to the moment we began to descend; so getting photos there was a bit of a wet affair! The on-board staff did take my pack-a-mack and hang it in their staff quarters to dry out though.
It’s slow going coming out of the Cusco suburbs, mainly because there are so many road crossings. In an attempt to speed things up, and prevent accidents, a track machine precedes the train through the suburbs. Once out into the wilderness though the train speeds up to its maximum allowed speed of 48kmph. The scenery becomes more mountainous the further away from Cusco the train gets and the cloud over the range gave such an atmospheric feeling to the day.
Arrival into Puno was in darkness and only a few minutes late at 1805. Unfortunately Peru Rail don’t allow people off the train immediately and everyone had to wait on board for 10 minutes until the luggage van was emptied and everyone’s bag made ready for collection in the booking hall; of course if you don’t have bags in the luggage van the 10 minute wait is nothing but a small inconvenience, as it was to us.
We’d arranged collection, which was included in the Intiqa Hotel room rate, and a sign with my name on was clearly visible in the waiting hall. The journey to the hotel was actually only 3 minutes and was less than a kilometer so we cancelled the return transfer upon arrival and opted to walk back on our day of departure.
The hotel staff were friendly, handing us a map of Puno and explaining where everything we might need was. The room we were given was massive and had two double and one single bed in it; it was clean and well presented with a TV, hot water and heater. Having dropped our stuff off we didn’t wait long before heading out for food; having not felt like we’d eaten enough at all during the day on board the Andean Explorer. Most eateries were situated on Pasaje Lima and we’d had two places recommended by the tour guide who accompanied us to our hotel during our pick-up; these being La Casona, which was full when we tried, and the Hacienda, which was busy but had room for us. The food was very good and more reasonably priced than the La Casona had been.
Having had an enjoyable day on our 10 hour train journey from Cusco we spent the remainder of our evening relaxing in the hotel room, trying to keep warm.
Sunday 29th December 2013
A leisurely 0730 alarm call; which wasn’t needed as it seemed our body clocks had been fixed on getting up at around 0630 by this point! Breakfast at the Intiqa was self-service but anything egg related was cooked fresh by a waiting chef.
Our day in Puno had been pre-planned and I’d arranged two trips through Edgar Adventures via their website. They’d confirmed my requests almost immediately and were happy me making payment at their offices when we arrived in Puno. I’d booked their Classic Uros trip for the morning and then their Classic Sillustani trip for the afternoon; this allowing us plenty of time for lunch in between the two. For both trips we were collected from our hotel, by minibus in the morning to be ferried to the docks for our boat to the Uros and by bus in the afternoon for the 45 minute journey to Sillustani. It turned out that the tour guide was the same person for both trips, who was very informative and gave his speeches in Spanish & English; but at the same time, splitting his sentences in Spanish & English, rather than doing the whole thing in one language and then the next.
Our boat trip out to the Uros Islands was pleasant and not too long. The weather for the morning was fantastic with white fluffy clouds dotting the clear blue skies making for excellent photographs on the journey out; let alone at the Islands themselves. We were told that there are 80 islands in the Uros and each island is only visited by tourists once per week to keep the foot traffic down.
We visited an Island called Sumabalsa; which had 15 occupants, consisting of 4 families. The island President demonstrated to us how the islands were constructed and afterwards the island’s women gave a little dance and sing-song. Once the show was over we were allowed to roam the small island freely; some people were shown into the homes on the island, others went out for a trip on the lake in the islander’s straw boat; meanwhile the women had set up their stalls to sell souvenirs to people. Everything was made by hand and was either made of straw or hand sewn. I paid 50 Soles, about £12, for a small straw boat and a nicely made mobile which I thought was very reasonable and didn’t even bother to haggle.
Photographing on Sumabalsa was without incident and it was explained to us that the islanders accepted the fact that people would photograph them while visiting their island and no money was expected for this; however when being taken out on the boats and being shown around their homes it was accepted practice to offer money. It seemed to me that Edgar Adventures “took care” of the islanders they used as many reports from trips to the islands give the impression that islanders expect money to take their photographs and photographs of their homes, etc, etc; this was not the case at all on Sumabalsa and it was very relaxed indeed.
We spent about an hour on Sumabalsa Island in total, admiring the surrounding islands from the elevated tower on the island; before moving on to nearby Quechua Island. This Island was more of a refreshment stop than anything else and set up was a shop selling drinks and snacks and the island also had toilet facilities; which the boat also had if required.
We were delivered back to the docks at Puno by midday and did lunch at a very empty Hacienda restaurant before our afternoon jaunt. Just as we were about to leave the Hacienda the Irish family we’d met at Machu Picchu walked in; they were heading out to the Uros that afternoon, while we headed for Sillustani; small world it was, and it wouldn’t be the last time we bumped into them either……
As it turned out the office of Edgar Adventures was on Pasaje Lima and only just round the corner from our Intiqa Hotel. The woman behind the counter was very friendly and even though we’d already been out on one trip, was very relaxed about me paying my bill after we’d already done a trip.
The 1h30m minutes we had spare in the afternoon was just right to get food and deal with my bill paying and we only had 15 minutes back at the hotel before our second pick-up of the day arrived. This time to take us to the Funerary Towers of Sillustani. Unfortunately after everyone had been rounded up the fantastic weather we’d had in the morning began to change for the worst and by the time we arrived at Sillustani the last of the sunshine disappeared before our eyes and the skies were getting darker and darker by the minute as an impending storm headed our way.
The Funerary Towers at Sillustani are situated on a hilltop and are quite well preserved to say they’ve been battered by the elements for hundreds of years. The views from atop of the hill are excellent and even though a storm was imminent, and rain could be felt in the air, the dark skies gave the place a fitting feeling of impending doom and gloom; wind preceded the rain that eventually came and our guide was quick to round everyone up and ask that we headed back down the hill to the bus. Our trip was cut short as a result of the storm and everyone had pack-a-macked up by the time they were back at the bus as the rain got gradually heavier. Little did we realise quite how intense the storm would be until we returned to Puno.
As we were dropped off in Plaza de Armas we chose to go straight to the Hacienda for an evening meal. It was empty when we arrived but was as good a place as any to shelter from the storm. Not only was our meal leisurely but it was candlelit thanks to the storm knocking out the power to the city; power was restored every now and again but the lightening kept knocking it back out again. At points we couldn’t actually hear the thunder that followed the lightening as the rain had turned to hail and the noise it made while pounding the restaurant roof drowned out the thunder; it was hitting with tremendous force. I can honestly say that our meal in the Hacienda that night was the most interesting of the trip. When the power came back on for the third time I wasted no time in getting the waiter to take my card for the bill; while the card machines actually had power! Just as we were about to walk out, in walked the Irish family again; apparently they would have been there sooner had the woman of the family not been stuck in her hotel lift when the power went off! Again though this would not be the last time our paths crossed in Peru……..
Despite the storm having eased a little and the hail having turned back to rain we still got soaked while walking back to the hotel; nothing that the room heater didn’t cure though. What a thoroughly enjoyable day we’d had in Puno; even though we’d only been there for one day it had seemed like longer.
Monday 30th December 2013
Our walk to Puno station that morning only took 5 minutes and thankfully it had stopped raining; there being no evidence of the previous night’s storm at all, other than a few puddles. We found the loco for our train just turning the stock when we arrived and I managed to get some photos of it when it backed out onto the roadway while doing so.
The waiting hall at Puno isn’t as grand as the one at Cusco but the same Peruvian pipe music is played while you wait to board the train. Even though it was exactly the same set we’d had south the reservation list at check-in only had one coach loaded with people; so not as many going north as had come south two days previous. The check-in guy split people between two coaches during the check-in process and I managed to get us into the leading coach of the two and at a table for two in the process; where I knew there was an opening window (seats 10/11 as per our outward journey).
The same staff accompanied the train back north as had done southbound two days previous. The food service was exactly the same, as was the entertainment, albeit in the reverse order to coming south. Thankfully the weather was a lot warmer, which not only dried the dampness of the train out but also allowed for the window to be left open all day!
As it was a nicer day we used the veranda car and spent time there during the run through Juliaca; which is literally straight through the town’s market! Not only were the stalls very close to the train, no sooner had we gone by did folk reset their stalls on the tracks; some hadn’t even bothered to move their stuff from between the rails. Books, diy bits and even vegetables all revealed themselves from beneath the train as we passed though Juliaca at a slow pace.
Having passed the southbound Andean Explorer at Araranca this time we got to enjoy the stop at La Raya while the sun was out. The whole return journey was far better than the outward had been despite everything being the same but the weather; so maybe the warmer day was the answer? Or maybe it was the fact that the journey cost $102 less than the southbound run? This it turns out, as per a response from Peru Rail, is Peru Rail’s attempt to increase passenger numbers on the Puno – Cusco run as they get far less patronage than in the Cusco – Puno direction.
Arrival into Cusco Wanchaq was at 1815, 15 minutes late; we then had to endure the 10 minute wait while bags were offloaded and made ready for everyone to collect. All the time we stood at the door, with the foot-boards up to allow folk to disembark, yet still we weren’t allowed onto the platform!
We were soon back at the Kenamari Hotel, for the 3rd time and 4th night during our trip. Bags dropped off I tried to check-in online for our LAN flight to Arequipa the following day but wasn’t successful in doing so. Luckily the LAN shop on Avenue El Sol was still open when we walked by; we made it through the door by 2 minutes as it was closed when we were let out of the shop. It took moments to get our boarding cards printed.
Of course we used the Don Marcelo for food that evening but it was very busy and had been all day according to the girl that serviced us; as a result they had no beef left for my Lomo Saltado so I had to have something else. It turns out that Cusco is the place to be for New Year in Peru; hence the reason it was so busy. Even the streets were a lot busier than they had been during our previous stays; I was quite thankful at that point that we weren’t in Cusco for New Year as it had become a chore to walk down the street since being there three nights previous.
Tuesday 31st December 2013
It was the fullest we’d seen the breakfast area, let alone the hotel; which the staff at the front desk confirmed was full for New Years Eve. Strangely I wasn’t able to pay my bill by card that morning so had to get some money out of a machine while we passed the morning by with a final walk up to the Plaza de Armas; our bags were kept at the Kenamari in their locked storage room.
While we sat in Don Marcelo for one last time we watched guys carrying barriers about outside and by the time we’d finished our meal they’d cordoned off the front of the Cathedral and erected some scaffold at the top of the steps in front of it; we assumed this to be in relation to the New Years celebrations that evening.
Our flight to Arequipa wasn’t until 1645 but we ended up at the airport at 1400 with plenty of time to spare. At one point in the afternoon I actually thought we might not make it to Arequipa that night as the airport was officially closed when a storm passed through Cusco; preventing our plane from landing. Luckily it was nothing like as intense as the one in Puno two nights previous and it passed through quite quickly; the skies brightening up behind it just as quickly as they’d turned to darkness! Our plane was only 5 minutes late off the stand in the end.
The LAN flight we traveled by was actually a Cusco to Lima flight which stopped at both Juliaca & Arequipa! It wasn’t the greatest of flights but it wasn’t LAN’s fault that some guy had wanted to move Danielle’s bag in the luggage rack, which resulted in a bit of a commotion; unfortunately then came something that frustrated her even more. Some big fat guy had the seat next to her and he wasn’t shy when it came to taking up her space; this only infuriated her even more and I was so glad it was only a short hop to Arequipa.
For the second time during the trip there was nobody waiting to collect us an take us to our hotel of choice, the Tierra Viva Arequipa Plaza. It had been pre-arranged and I’d had confirmation from the hotel yet we ended up in a taxi that cost us 25 Soles and took about 25 minutes, which I paid myself and the hotel agreed to give us free transfer back to the airport when we departed. They were adamant that there was someone at the airport waiting for us though.
The Tierra Viva Hotel was nothing short of cracking, the staff were friendly, it was spotlessly clean, the rooms were the most modern we’d stayed in during the whole trip, the bathroom was stone almost throughout and the bed was the biggest bed I’ve ever slept in! There were toiletries provided, and decent ones too, there was plenty of drawer and hanging space, the TV had decent channels and the WiFi was decent throughout the hotel. I was certainly going to enjoy the room more than any other we’d stayed in while in Peru.
We didn’t waste any time in going out to find somewhere to eat and thought we might actually struggle for food on New Years Eve. The hotel staff had recommended Zig Zag and Chi Cha, both of which are near the San FranciscoChurch; the menus at both looked very limited and we considered both to be “posh nosh” places, the prices probably reflected the quality of the food though. While we both like decent food, we also like to keep it simple and have a plate of food as opposed to some food on a plate. La Italiana restaurant, on San Francisco near the Church, was crying out to us as we studied its menu and when we were seated upstairs, overlooking the street below, we were the first folk up there; it was just before 2100.
The pizza we were served was very good and decent enough for us to return again, and again, and while waiting for our food we had the pleasure of watching bars outside decorate their fronts with hundreds of yellow balloons.
Having got the necessities out of the way we had a walk round the Plaza de Armas and admired the prominent Cathedral, which was well lit and stood out against the night, then we returned to the hotel to relax for a while; truth be told we could both probably have dropped off to sleep and stayed that way. As we were in a foreign country and it was New Years Eve we made an effort and were back in the Plaza de Armas, camera poised on its gorillapod, 10 minutes before midnight. When midnight actually came it was hard to tell when it was officially New Year as fireworks had been randomly going off all over the place since a couple of minutes before midnight and then bizarrely the lights on the front of the Cathedral went out, leaving it in darkness. The fireworks were a complete free for all and nothing was coordinated at all; which kind of spoiled the moment a little really. It was actually a little dangerous with fireworks being shot in all directions so we didn’t hang around to become a statistic and were back at the hotel by 0015 on New Years Day; ready for a good nights sleep in our massive bed!
Wednesday 1st January 2014 (New Years Day)
At breakfast that morning it seemed that everyone had the same idea of turning up late yet it still wasn’t too busy. The breakfast room was as spotless as the rest of the hotel and every table was kept immaculate by the room attendant; who was quite possibly more OCD than me when it came to laying tables and making sure everything was cleared away immediately. Breakfast was buffet style and everything was kept topped up and always available.
By the time we left the hotel it was gone 1030 and with no plans at all really we armed ourselves with the map the hotel staff had given us and just went for a wander. The streets were very quiet and lots of places were closed with it being New Years Day; including churches and monasteries. Our walk took in most of the sights in walking distance, including the following: San Francisco Church, Tercera Orden Church, Santa Catalina Monastery (from the outside only), Plaza de Armas & Arequipa Cathedral, Santa Marta Church, Santa Rosa Church, Santa Teresa Convent and Santo Domingo Church. After this walk we ended up back in Plaza de Armas where we made the mistake of eating at one of the restaurants that have balconies overlooking the Plaza. It was the blandest and worst meal we’d had during our time in Peru and from that point on we ate only at the La Italiana for the rest of the trip.
In the Plaza there are plenty of tour guides trying to sell bus tours to anyone passing by; I was actually already thinking of doing one the following day anyway so was interested in what the guy that stopped us had to say. The printed price of the 4 hour tour is 45 Soles, this came down to 30 Soles almost as soon as I began pondering and by the end of the conversation we were signing up for a trip at 0915 the following morning at 25 Soles each. We were marched to the corner of the Plaza where we handed our money over at a registered operator’s cabin and were given tickets with allocated seating for the 0915 tour. It doesn’t actually matter which of the four operators you do the tour with as the buses all follow each other round exactly the same circuit; the only difference being the colour of the bus!
Having asked the hotel reception staff where the best location to see El Misti was; we spent our afternoon walking to nearby Yanahuara where there is a viewpoint giving exceptional views of both El Misti and the nearby Chachani. We didn’t rush to get there and the walk took us about 45 minutes at a very slow pace. Unfortunately it was quite hazy and El Misti wasn’t capped with snow either. There are plenty of stalls selling local souvenirs and we loaded up with a few things before heading back off to central Arequipa; again on foot.
Back in town we were just walking to Starbucks for a much needed drink when we only went and bumped into the Irish family that we’d met in both Machu Picchu and Puno! We were practically best friends by that point, knowing more about each others trips and having swapped tips in almost every city we’d visited. Unfortunately for them it was home time the following day so it would definitely be the last time we bumped into them; on this trip anyway…….
Our evening was spent milling around the Plaza and San Francisco getting some decent night shots of the various churches. La Italiana supplied us with an excellent spaghetti bolognaise and while eating it we were treated to live music from a blind guy playing an accordion; unfortunately the music was better suited to Blackpool than Peru. It gave us something to joke about over dinner though……
Thursday 2nd January 2014
We were in Plaza de Armas with plenty of time to spare for our morning bus trip with Tours Class Arequipa. Despite everyone being told to gather by the booths they’d booked tickets at we all got marched back up Avenue San Francisco by the tour guide to where the bus was waiting. Bizarrely it already had people on board and was only 2 minutes from our Tierra Viva Hotel and could have saved us a walk, and time, had we known we could board there. The daft thing was that the bus then went back through Plaza de Armas and picked a couple more folk up as it did so!
The bus trip should take 4 hours; ours took 4h45m and to be honest after the first 3 stops we were just along for the ride and pretty bored! The bus stops at:
Yanahuara Viewpoint, for views of El Misti
Carmen Alto Viewpoint, for excellent views over the terraced valley towards El Misti & Chachani
Incalpaca, which is an outlet selling Alpaca based clothing; out of the rear of which is a mini zoo and home to various types of Alpaca
From this point on everywhere the bus stops requires additional payment for the activities; this is mentioned on the bus but if you’re only wanting to take the ride for scenery purposes it gets a little boring after leaving Incalpaca. There are a couple of sights mentioned in the buses program leaflet but these are seen only from the bus and only at a fleeting glance; so if you’re on the wrong side of the bus you won’t get much of a view at all.
Further stops on the way back to Plaza de Armas are at:
Fundador Mansion, where payment is accepted at the entrance gate; those not wanting to go in simply sit and wait outside
Molinos Coloniales, in the suburb of Sabandia, which also incurs extra fees and is simply to just ride on a horse, so if you’re not interested it really is a fruitless stop
My synopsis of the trip is that if you want to see El Misti walk to Yanahuara yourself and spend as much time as you like there, if you want to look at Alpaca clothing use the shops in Arequipa; we found a lovely local shop, called Baby Alpaca Boutique, where the man/wife running it couldn’t help us enough, and if you want to visit Carmen Alto Viewpoint get a taxi there and back and again enjoy the views for as long as you want; as for the rest of the trip; personally I wouldn’t bother but of course it’s each to their own and if you get it at 25 Soles then it is worth it.
We were ready for lunch by the time we got back to Arequipa and afterwards we spent the late afternoon doing our bargain hunting. We couldn’t leave Peru without getting something made of Alpaca and the Baby Alpaca Boutique provided us with everything we needed; the owners recognising us from the previous day as we walked in. We left with things for almost all our family members and hadn’t really spent that much either. There are plenty of souvenir shops around, all on the same street, one after the other; I chose the one where nobody followed me around the shop to buy what I needed.
In true going home style our evening was one of reflection really and I couldn’t resist one last Lomo Saltado in Peru and La Italiana provided the best one I’d had yet; and all while the blind guy hammered tunes out from his accordion, thankfully this time though they weren’t quite of that Blackpool nature.
There’s nothing like looking forward to that homeward bound packing on the last night of the trip; at least we managed to get everything we’d accumulated that afternoon into our bags; which were of course hand luggage for our trip home!
Friday 3rd January 2014 (The long way home…..)
Our flight from Arequipa wasn’t until 1700 so once we’d checked out we left our bags at the hotel, which had already pre-booked our taxi to the airport; at their expense after the mix-up when we’d arrived. We spent the whole morning at the Santa Catalina Monastery and what a cracking choice it had been for our last morning in Peru! It was a nice sunny day and there weren’t many people about in the Monastery, this only adding to the experience. It costs 35 Soles per person for entry and every kind of payment card imaginable is accepted as payment.
Upon entry there are guides that will escort you round for a fee; which they say will take an hour. It took us over two hours at our own pace and we ended up having to rush round the last part as time was short by that point. This city within the City of Arequipa is extraordinary in many ways; the colours of the buildings, the layout of the streets, how well preserved everything is and just how peaceful it is when over every outside wall is the bustle that is Arequipa. For me it was one of the highlights of the trip, even up there with Machu Picchu; and around every corner or in every room there was something to fascinate the mind, whether it be the decor, the implements left in situ, the brightness of the place or even the fact that the names of the building’s occupants remained above the entrance doors. Had we had the time we’d probably have spent a lot longer taking in what Santa Catalina had to offer; well worth half a day of anyone’s time and arguably the best sight that Arequipa has to offer.
After a quick bite to eat, our last meal in Peru, our long journey home started with a taxi to Arequipa Airport; from that point it would be a little over 27 hours before we walked through the door at home! At Arequipa Airport I attempted to find out why neither the LAN, Iberia or BA website would allow me to check-in online for our return flights. I’d had to go into the LAN shop in Arequipa the previous day to get boarding cards for the Arequipa – Lima flight but LAN said they couldn’t issue and others; and even then the guy in the shop had to speak to customer services over the phone to get them to e-mail me the PDFs; which then had to be printed back at the hotel! The woman behind the counter had no clue why I wasn’t able to check-in online and was about to tell me she couldn’t print our Lima to Madrid boarding cards until I pressed her a little harder and hey presto, out came two boarding cards for Lima – Madrid; albeit for different seats to those that were pre-allocated.
The flight to Lima was ok but we had to exit the airport to come back into the International departures and be processed through immigration to exit the country. Before doing so I approached the Iberia staff to discuss the boarding card issues we’d been having; they also told me that they had no idea why I hadn’t been able to check-in online and that the reason I couldn’t do so for the last flight from Madrid to London was because it was a British Airways flight; which made no sense at all as BA wouldn’t allow me to check-in as they didn’t have my ticket numbers. Still, by the time we left the Iberia desk we had all the required boarding cards to get home; the only thing was that the flight to Madrid was absolutely shocking!
The plane was operated by Iberia and was an Airbus A340-300 and not an Airbus A340-600 as my booking had confirmed. There were no in-flight entertainment systems in the backs of seats and the on-board service only consisted of a meal about 2 hours after take-off and a small breakfast about an hour before landing; which on a 12 hour flight is far from ideal. There weren’t even any additional drinks services in between! The toilets were disgusting, the floors wet, sinks full and some out of toilet roll and even the at seat functions didn’t operate properly, with my light being a bit hit and miss and when I tried to call the attendant to switch the damn thing off the attendant button didn’t work at all and by the time I had got her attention the light randomly went out by its own accord; something I didn’t use again for the rest of the flight.
My suspicion was that the plane we were provided with was not the one that should have been on the flight and my reasoning behind this is because people’s names were being called out to go tot the check-in desk prior to boarding; all of whom walked away with new boarding passes. I think this might have been due to the fact that the A340-300 has less seats than the A340-600? It would also explain our different seats to those originally allocated as well? Either way all of this fiasco and the fact that the plane back from Madrid to London was actually operated by Iberia and not British Airways, as I’d been told, resulted in me having a bit of a whinge at Iberia when I got home.
Saturday 4th January 2014 (Almost there!)
All we wanted to be, when sat at Madrid airport waiting for our last flight of the trip, was teleported home; and even more so when we again couldn’t get any drinks on board the Iberia flight to London as the staff would only accept Euro’s! I have to say I was quite glad when we touched down in Heathrow and headed out of the airport towards the Underground; not because we were home but because the flying experience we’d just had was beginning to take its toll. The Underground journey to Kings Cross and East Coast train back to Doncaster were better experiences and we walked through the door at 22:35, having set off from the Tierra Viva Arequipa Plaza at 14:00 (19:00 UK time) the previous day; at that point the fact that we’d even been in Peru at all seemed like such a distant memory…