From Alpaca with love!

During the next episode of our trip we endured enormous hordes of tourists at a breathtaking altitude, became frustrated, met lovely people, met lovely animals and finally had some good bread again.

When the uncomfortable bus ride finally came to an end we found ourselves in Cusco at about 3000m above sea level. We quickly took a taxi to the Hostel Nina found in the Lonely Planet: Bed and Bakery, Pan…tastico! A hostel in combination with a bakery? Breakfast included? Now, this was more than we could resist, even if the price was a bit higher due to the holidays. We were welcomed by Victor, who is also the baker, and installed ourselves in our room. While the bakery itself is located at the hostel, the shop where they sell their goods is around the corner, so that’s where we went next to taste an empanada. It was immediately clear we would love it there as the empanadas were delicious (not as good as yours Miguel, but they came close!).

We quickly realized that moving from sea level to about 3000m in several hours was hard on our bodies (even though in our minds these hours seemed to last forever). Simply climbing a couple of stairs or walking around in the city proved to be a challenge for our lungs. Luckily we knew this would happen and therefore had calculated some quiet days to acclimatize to the altitude. We spent these days mostly walking around in the city and shopping food at the local market so we could cook our own dinner in the well equipped kitchen of the hostel. We visited the Inca museum which was pretty nice and went looking for some Alpaca clothes.

I ended up with a cheap (and probably fake) sweater, and Nina got herself a colorful poncho and some matching gloves. But it didn’t end there, we were also on the lookout for some Peruvian hats. Nina read about a place where they support the local traditional handcrafts which are disappearing due to the cheap machine production of clothes. She wanted to take a look at their shop before deciding what to buy. This was a “mistake”, when we saw the hats we loved them but they were pretty expensive. So expensive I would not even consider buying a hat for that amount of money in Belgium. We went back to the other cheap touristy shops but none of their hats cold convince us anymore, with the expensive hats in our heads. In the end we did buy the expensive hats one of the following days and tried to soften the pain thinking it was a Christmas gift to ourselves and that at least the money was going to a good cause.

In Cusco we also met our first Lama’s and Alpaca’s. It was clear from the beginning we both loved the Alpaca’s with their funny faces. They remind me of our rabbits at home as their upper lip is also split. Anyway, we love these woolly animals.

Alright, after some days of easy going we felt it was time to get into action again. We ordered a tour to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is overloaded with tourists, and even though we mostly try to avoid to be herded like sheep we still decided to go there. As touristy as it may be, we felt we could not skip on Machu Picchu.

There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu, one more expensive than the other. The cheapest way is probably to arrange everything yourself, going to Hydroelectrica by minibus, walk from there to Aguas Calientes (the little town below Machu Picchu) along the railroad, and book accomodation there to visit Machu Picchu the next day. However, we were a bit lazy and found a tour operator who offered exactly all that for a good price. Boy, did we regret that!

The plan was we would travel to Aguas Calientes on the 30th of December so we could visit Machu Picchu on the 31st and later that evening could celebrate New Year’s eve in Aguas Calientes.

Just some explanation upfront; in the next section I’m gonna be complaining a lot about the agency which we went with. It was at times frustrating, but I just want to point out we also enjoyed ourselves along the way! The bad parts just make a nice story to tell. So, despite all the negativity and frustration, we also had a good time!

Okay, here we go! Our minibus would pick us up near the hostel early morning on the 30th. We were a bit early even though we already understood the South American way of being on time. We waited, and waited, and waited. Many minibuses stopped, shouted some names and took other tourists with them. When a minibus with the sign of our tour operator stopped we went to ask them if he could take us. The driver checked his paper and told us to wait for a next one.

When we were there for about an hour and the stream of minibuses slowly came to an end, we really started to worry. Finally a guy of the office where we booked our tour passed by. He saw us and asked if we weren’t picked up. We explained nobody wanted to take us. He made some calls, took us in a taxi to another spot with more minibuses. After some talking with the guys there he got back to us and asked if we weren’t late at our pickup spot. Apparently the bus that was supposed to take us had passed there and had clearly asked for my name: “Bruno”. I explained him we were even a bit early, that we did hear a driver calling for Bruno, but, that my name was not Bruno, but Jan! Now they got all confused again, we showed our receipt from the tour operator and finally were put in a bus. It seems our names were not on their list at all. We had to fill in papers with all our information and drove off to another place, still in Cusco. There we had to wait and fill in the same papers once again. This was followed with more confusion and more waiting, at some point we had to get off the bus and change to another one, but once we were all out and the driver started to get our luggage from the roof they made us get into the same bus again. Anyway, a couple of hours after we were supposed to leave we were finally on our way.

Okay, a bit of a hassle, but we weren’t really annoyed (yet). The most important was that we were on our way finally. Of course everything was postponed during that day, we had late lunch and arrived late in Hydroelectrica. The 11km hike along the railroad was pretty nice though.

Once we got in Aguas Calientes we did find our guide at the spot we were supposed to meet. He pointed us (vaguely) the way to our hostel and told us to be back at the main square at 8pm with our passports so we could get our entrance tickets for Machu Picchu before we would have dinner. When we finally found our hostel, we were put in a new room which was apparently never used before. The problem with it was that the plumbing was not entirely correctly connected. Some strange things happened when we tried to shower, and we definitely did not have warm water. After some more hassle with the guys from the hotel we got another room. In the meanwhile it was getting quite late so we had to hurry with our shower to be on time to get our tickets.

Anyway, we got to the place where we had to get our tickets in time. Now some new problems came up. Firstly, we had to pay extra because the prices for the entrance of Machu Picchu had increased for 2017. Okay, this was weird, we were going to Machu Picchu on the 31st of December 2016, and we paid already for the entrance tickets for Machu Picchu. Secondly, after the discussion that followed with both the tour guides and the officials of the Ministerio the Cultura they refused to sell any more tickets that day to anyone. You have to imagine we were not alone in this situation and many tourists, often other South Americans, were pretty unhappy with the whole situation.

So what happened exactly? As far as I understand there is only a limited amount of tickets sold every day. These tickets are “officially” tickets for the following day. So, if we look at it that way it makes sense the prices had increased already. The limited amount of tickets sold on the 30th of December was already gone (these are actually tickets supposed to be for the 31st of December). So, the next tickets sold were tickets of the 31st of December which are actually tickets for the 1st of January (even though they will also let you enter Machu Picchu with these tickets on the 31st of December). Are you confused yet?

Anyway, that seems to be the way the official tickets are sold. Nothing to do about that. But then we wondered: “Why didn’t we go and get our tickets as soon as we arrived in Aguas Calientes?”. If we would have done that everything would have been fine. Didn’t we pay a local tour operator so we would not have to worry about all this instead of doing it ourselves? So far our trip was not very well organized, in fact we felt that we, as tourists, could have done a better job ourselves! And now we even had to pay more because they screwed up? The more we thought about it, the more annoyed we got. We were not alone with this feelings and some others thought about going to the tourist police. In the end I called the office where we bought our tickets and explained the situation, they told us again they were sorry but that we had to pay more. I got a bit angry and pointed out we had a contract with them which stated we paid for our entrance to Machu Picchu and threatened to go to the police if they did not fix it. That did the trick, they agreed to pay the extra amount and after a talk with the local guides they gave us the full amount of money so we could buy our tickets ourselves the next morning.

Now, we were told only 250 tickets would be sold the next morning. So, if we wanted to get to Machu Picchu the next day, we would have to be early at the office where they sell the tickets. Our guide recommended us to be there at 4:30am while the office opened at 5:45am.

All these discussions and our dinner took several hours and by the time we finally got back to the hostel it was about 11pm. At 4am we woke up and went to the ticket office. We weren’t the first, but we were “happy” to be there as the line grew a lot longer in the following hours. At about 6:15am we finally got our tickets and could leave for Machu Picchu. We still had an hour of climbing ahead of us, but our guided tour of Machu Picchu would start at 6:30am. No way we would ever be on time! We are most of the time not very big fan’s of guided tours, but at this point we were annoyed about everything that went wrong. In the end, even though they paid the full amount for the tickets, we had to get up earlier than planned, to arrive later at Machu Picchu than planned, which meant we missed our guided tour. Anyway, enough of complaining now!

Machu Picchu itself was amazing! Despite a lot of rain, clouds and many, many other tourists. By now, you probably know that we like the combination of mountains and clouds. So in that sense we liked the bad weather. The rain was sometimes a bit annoying though, and when we hiked to the “Sun Gate” we could not see anything due to the clouds. All that being said, we enjoyed our day at this amazing place a lot! It is so beautiful and wonderful to realize how this was built such a long time ago.

Most tourists leave to Cusco again on the same day they visit Machu Picchu, so they have to leave relatively early. We had another night in Aguas Calientes and planned to stay at Machu Picchu until closing time, when almost all tourists would have gone. However, by 3pm we were soaked and tired, so we skipped on that plan and started our hike down to Aguas Calientes again.

In the evening we went out to celebrate New Year. We found a nice restaurant and had a good meal with a fancy cocktail and some champagne offered by the restaurant (not like champagne in Europe, but very sweet and a bit yuckie!). At 10pm the restaurant closed and we went back to the hostel to rest a bit. Because of our short previous night and hard day we were very tired. We fell asleep, only to wake up from the fireworks at midnight. With a sleepy head we wished each other a happy new year and fell asleep again. We weren’t bothered by this as we enjoyed our evening anyway! 🙂

Back in Cusco we took another day of rest. The tour operator payed us back some money because we missed our guided tour. Since we already had another day tour booked with them to the “Rainbow Mountains” we were a bit worried, but they assured us this tour would be better organized. This proved to be correct. We cannot complain at all about the organization during that trip.

The Rainbow Mountains are only discovered by the big crowds very recently (about 2 years ago, when a picture went viral). They got their name due to the fact their slopes are striped with three colors. These colors are created by the ores of which the mountains exists: iron, copper and sulfur. We didn’t expect there to be as many tourists as there were, but still had a good time, partly by watching other clumsy tourists sliding and falling on the slippery slopes. 🙂

Traveling to these mountains includes another ride in a minibus, followed by a climb of several kilometers up to an altitude of more then 5000m. Climbing at this altitude was pretty tough, but except being very slow we didn’t have many problems with it.

It is very clear the mountains are only discovered recently by the tourists. All the accommodation and roads are very primitive and not prepared for the enormous amounts of tourists. The local farmers found out they can make “easy” money by offering horse rides up to the mountain, so there are plenty of them running up and down the mountain with their (probably newly acquired) horses. The paths are not marked, which is in case of these amounts of tourists not a very good thing.

The weather was cloudy again and once we were up there we only got some short views on the whole of the mountains. A bit later a thunderstorm raged above us and brought some snow. Some of the people that came with us in the minibus ordered a tour that went back following another and much more quiet route. We asked the guide if we could come too, he agreed. We followed him in the snow to another pass. Unfortunately, once we got there, the weather proved to be too bad to take that route, so we had to go back. It was a nice little hike though.

When we were back at the rainbow mountain almost all tourists had left. Very few were still arriving, only to find the colorful mountains to be covered in white snow.

The way going down was more or less amusing. It may be a bit mean of us, but watching many “unprepared city tourist” sliding down a snowy slope is a bit funny. Some people ordered a horse ride but could not get on or off the horse. We saw Asian girls falling off rocks (without any injuries) while trying to get on a horse. Another girl had to get off her horse for a steep part. The girl struggled very badly to get off the horse and Nina helped her down. She took her by the arm on the steep part of the trail so she would not fall. Apparently she was from Los Angeles, and the only hike she had ever done was to the Hollywood sign.

The views of the mountains in the snow were incredible though. Another very busy and touristy place we somehow enjoyed a lot!

We stayed some more days in Cusco as we liked the city a lot. During our stay in Pantastico we also met with Antoine, a young French man with which we had some very nice talks during the evenings. We also met with our Belgian friends Raf and Jelle again and had a fun evening with Nina singing in a bar. 🙂

All in all it was another very nice episode of our trip.