The big one: Arequipa, Cusco, Machu Picchu and the sacred valley

Arequipa was the perfect stop over on my way to Cusco to acclimatize to the ever-increasing altitude and also to have a little relax after the movement of the previous few days. It was a gorgeous, quaint place, with Spanish colonial architecture in abundance, great cafes and restaurants and a chilled out vibe. I spent a couple of days there - I loved the visiting the Santa Catalina Monastery, which was built in 1579 and was still home to around 20 nuns. Once through the fairly unassuming doors from the bustling Arequipa streets, it was a huge space, of quiet and beauty. From there I enjoyed wandering around, admiring the buildings and watching the first games of the World Cup at a local hostel. At the beginning it was strange to walk into a bar by myself – it was a different one to the subdued B&B I was staying in – to watch a game, but I soon settled in and met some great people. Again, being able to overcome that fear of potentially uncomfortable situations enabled good things to happen. 

Cusco

Arequipa was a pleasant place, but just a step in my travels and I was itching to continue so, two days later, I was on an overnight bus to Cusco. Cusco is grand – a little like Arequipa’s older, more sophisticated sister - with cobbled streets throughout, a huge main plaza area which at the time was filled with music and students parading, and beautiful colonial buildings and cathedrals down every street. It was once the seat of the Incan empire from the 13th century to 1532 and when the Spanish came, they made it their South American base and you can see its fading grandeur even now. I enjoyed Cusco for its beauty – although its entire industry was built around the millions of tourists that stop there on the way to Machu Picchu. 

I got in so early and wasn’t able to check in until 1pm, so I dumped my bag at my hostel and went straight to the markets to explore. You can find everything from juices and food to clothes and magic potions at the undercover San Pedro markets – stepping inside, I got that excited agitation: there was so much to see and so many different alleys to take to see them. It was a complete sensory overload, made even more intense by the incense wafting throughout from the “magic” section. I loved it. I had a mission though during this first visit: to buy some clothes to supplement my central American summer clothes collection which was woefully lacking in warmth I bought some fairly typical, touristy “alpaca” jumpers – worn by all the gringos you meet on the South American travellers trail. While the stallholders tell you they’re alpaca and artisan-made, they’re found throughout Peru and Bolivia, mass-produced somewhere in between and largely lacking in any natural fibres. But they were warm and I hadn’t quite clued onto that fact at the time, so I became one of the gringo traveller tribe, grabbed a juice and went back to my hostel.

I found Charlotte there in the courtyard – she’d been unwell so hadn’t gone on her Machu Picchu trek earlier. It was so great to see her and we chatted on the beanbags that lined the hostel’s courtyard, in the sunshine, drinking coca tea and waited until we could make it to the dorms. We were joined by a fellow Australian and fellow redhead, Mark. He’d just finished a study exchange programme in Columbia and was making Peru a quick stop before he headed home. He is such a delight – such a delight. Whether he was pretending to do Beyonce's Single Ladies dance – sans alcohol, mind you, and with startling accuracy – or delivering whip smart, hilarious observations on life, he was the very best company. I adore the little fellow. We ended up being in the same dorm room and after we were finally able to check in, we went out to explore the city – Charlotte needing some recuperation time. We took a taxi to up above the city, to the furtherest ruins, Tambomachay, and then slowly walked back in the afternoon sunshine, stopping at each of the ruins on the way and a little roadside tienda for some pollo a la parilla, and finally stopped at the Christo Blanco – the Christ statue overlooking the city – where we found the most beautiful views across the entire valley of Cusco.

The next day, we planned our trip together to Machu Picchu and then explored the markets even more – more jumpers for me – and then settled into Jacks café in the San Blas area for some homestyle food.

Machu Pichu

When we woke up the next morning, Charlotte still wasn’t feeling 100% so she decided to stay – we said our farewells and Mark and I took off on a local bus to Ollantaytambo in time for our train to Aquas Caliente. I was so excited about, well, everything, but the train ride in the first instance – I love travelling by train, there’s a romance to it  - and this was wonderful, watching the breathtaking landscape go by as we wove our way through the sacred valley.

We got to our hostel – Supertramp, which had appealed to me both because of the band I used to love when I was younger and because of Into the Wild – and made our way to the roof terrace to see what was left of the day’s world cup game. We ended up meeting some lovely folk – both staff and travellers – from all over the world and ended up staying in, drinking cervezas, relaying travel stories and having a midnight BBQ in celebration of the Columbian manager’s birthday. 

Mark – a little worse for wear – and I got up before dawn the next day to make our way up to Machu Picchu. We reached the gate before 6am – no mean feat considering – and then stood in awe of this site I’d been dreaming about going to since I was a child. It was a wonderful, wonderful YES moment and after taking the obligatory pictures, we wandered around the different areas of it before joining a tour to gain a better understanding of its history. Turns out, when Bingham discovered it, he made some assumptions about what different areas were meant to represent – some have been proven correct and others have been proven to be … unproven. There is no exact understanding of what the site was – some say it was a resort –like place for the Incan elite or even a prison. It delights the imagination, this unknowing, though, and for the thousandth time on this trip, I wished for a time machine to go back and view what had happened and how people lived there.

We roamed for many hours and then returned to the hostel, where we hung out with our new friends and excitedly talking about how awe-inspiring our visits to Machu Picchu had been. Soon, though, Mark and I had to make our way to the station for our train. I could hardly believe that this thing that I’d wanted to do was, indeed, done. And it had been magnificent. But the journey had to continue...