Welcome to the Belly Button of the World: Cusco, The Incans, Machu Picchu & Beyond
So after we OD’d on Ceviche and all the other culinary wonders of Lima, we headed off to the Imperial City of Cusco. To the Incans, it’s the epicenter and belly button of the Earth. To the Hargraves, it was Incan ruins… and more Incan ruins… and a couple more... and then some awesome food! So to start, we nailed the B&B. Hostal Wara Wara, run by an Argentinan dude, Miguel, and his Peruvian wife, Viviana, his rambunctious schnauzer pup Tito, and the cutest tornado of a 3-year-old, Luciano. We ended up staying here for a few nights, then headed to Cusco, then came back, then headed to do an Ausangate trek, then headed back, before flying on to Bolivia.
By the end of the first day, Tito was our best friend. By the end of the second, we were best buds with the owners drinking wine and sharing dinner together, by the end of the third, we were Luciano’s Uncle and Aunt. Absolutely great people and we thoroughly enjoyed our time here. Some of the best moments we had in Cusco were sitting in there main room with an incredible view of downtown Cusco, drinking wine and wrestling with Luciano.
Typical breakfast at Wara Wara, the view & some inside shots at our home away from home
As for the ruins, there were lots.
I’m not going to go over all of them because after a while, they’re just like churches in Italy—after you’ve seen the Sistine Chapel, churches 3-234 start to loose a little bit of their luster. So the 'Sistine Chapel’, that would obviously be Machu Picchu. Just like the Sistine Chapel, it’s crawling with tourists. Also just like the Sistine Chapel, worthy of every tourist that sets foot on it. We opted forgo the classic Inca trek and just take buses/trains thru the Sacred Valley, slumber in Aguas Calientes the night propr and then take the bus up first thing in the morning. The reason we opted out of the standard Macchu Picchu trek was that it seemed pretty touristy (I know, we’re those ‘oh it’s too touristy for us’ people). It seemed like you basically just march up a path with 100’s of other tourists looking for that sacred experience where you hike to Macchu Picchu in the footsteps of the ancient Incans. We opted for a little more rugged and isolated trek that we’d read about online called The Ausangate Circuit (more on that later, but note here, that was one of the best decisions of the trip).
So anyway, we took the collectivo bus to Pisa, an hour away and about $1 per person. Joni shared some wintergreen gum with a local who's lap she was basically sitting on. She loved it and was blowing bubbles non stop! On the bus we also met a very affable 50 year old Norwegian named Nina who ended up spending the day with us walking through the ancient ruins of Pisac and wondering through the markets. First on the ruins, we were amazed! We had seen a couple ruins just outside Cusco and at first were admiring the precision with which they stacked these stones, to then being like “More rocks, I’m hungry. Let’s go eat.” But Pisac was different. Perched to the top of the mountainside overlooking the town, with what seemed like 100 terraces. We hadn’t seen Macchu Pichu yet, but even in retrospect, this was incredible. We wondered through the ancient fortress while bountiful rain clouds so to shimmy right around us every time (it was like the opposite of the rain cloud over Eeyore), all the while listening to Nina talk about her psychology seminars and Huayasko trip. “I’ve never even smoked a cigarette,” but you did a hallucinogen administered by some random Shamen in the jungle that makes you puke and trip for like 12 hours? Makes sense. Anyway, she was a very nice lady and we actually enjoyed the conversation. We hiked down from top of the fortress down into the town where we shopped for some alpaca mittens, turned out to be gold for our Ausangate trek, while Nina searched for the biggest flute she could find.
After eating delicious soup for less that $1 each, we parted with Tina and made our way down through the Sacred Valley towards Las Salenas de Maras. Arriving in Uribamaba, we hopped in a taxi and hitched a ride to the salt terraces. Joni really wanted to see it, I was kind of like, eh. Well, I was wrong. This place was awesome. Set aside a mountainside opposite of 18-20K ft peaks on the other side of the valley, nearly 3,000 salt pans, shallow pools are filled by a hypersaline underground spring. The salt pans are believed to be developed pre-Inkan time and today are harvested by local families. Such a weird site but so cool! We walked about the terraces, took the same picture about 50 times, bought some conchas WITH salenas de maras salt, then made our way back to Ollatatambo to catch our bus to Macchu Picchu. After the fastest pizza order and eat you’ve ever seen, we ran to our bus (#normal) and plopped in our seats across from two very friendly Indians name Rama and Shelpa. We spent the next couple hours talking about their arranged marriage and their incredibly extravagant wedding, then parted our separate ways to our hostel, Hostal Supertramp.
So we bought our bus tickets to the top the night before, set our alarm for 4:30am to make sure we were on the first bus to see Macchu Picchu first, got snacks for the next day, went to sleep, woke up at 4:30am, ate breakfast, walked down to the bus stop to see there were already a few peeps in front of us, it’s cool, no problem. Guy looks at my tickets and tells me their not REALLY tickets, BIG PROBLEM. Blood pressure spikes, he points me in the direction of the Cultural Office where I can resolve my problem. I sprint over in a panic. I had the lady my tickets and am frantically trying to understand what the hell is going on. She tells me, in Spanish, “So these ARE tickets, but your transaction didn’t go through.” Does it say it anywhere on the sheet? “No.” Then how in #%$^$% am I supposed to know that?!? Only lesson I learned here: check your bank statement. Even if basically says, “You’re all set Conner. Here’s your tickets. Go enjoy Macchu Picchu on one of the first buses!” False. It can still be BS. Check the bank statement. So I repurchased tickets after running to an ATM that charged me $15 to take money out. Then we found our Huayna Picchu was sold our so we had to buy tickets for Macchu Picchu Mountain, the way higher mountain, much harder hike, with probably 1.5 million steps, aaaand not quite as cool a view as Huayna Picchu. That said, I was still incredibly grateful we were getting to see Macchu Picchu that day. So after this frantic episode, we hopped on probably the 17th bus and made our way up. After we arrived and marveled at all the tourists at the front gate, we made our way through the gates and up the steps. We hiked up and up and then came to an opening and then…saw nothing because the fog was so thick. We laughed because we were so anal about being on the first bus when in reality Macchu Picchu is socked in until around 7:30am (at least when we were there in December). So we hiked up to the Sun Gate and slowly watched fog part and Macchu Picchu show it’s mighty face. Wow. You see pictures on the internet. You know it’s one of the wonders of the world. But still. Wow. The vibrant green grass, incredibly intricate and massive stone fortress, set atop limestone cliffs with azul blue skies above. Wow. One of those sights you just got to see. We spent the entire day wandering through the ruins and the weather was nothing but sun all day. Did I mention how lucky we’d been getting with the weather in the heart of the ‘rainy season’? After about 7 hours of exploring, including an intense hike up Machu Picchu Mountain, we made our way back down to Aguas Calientes, grabbed dinner at a ‘menu del dia’ restaurant, then hopped a train back to Cusco, sitting next to the same Rama and Shelpa as the way there. A few hours later, and after a pit stop at a great little pizza joint called El Moleno, we were back home in our wonderful B&B Wara Wara.
Conner took a selfie with a llama and we hiked to the top of Mt. Machu Picchu after the whole Huayna Picchu mishap. Rough go but the view was well worth the burn!
W H E R E W E A T E
Local culinary stud, Gaston Acurio churns out incredible dishes packed with flavor and very generous portions. The decor was spot-on, service even better, and the food, shaw! better! After four days of trekking this was precisely what we needed.
Chicken with sautéed vegetables, lamb and the chocolate balloon for dessert! (they bring this chocolate balloon over, then drizzle warm chocolate over the top which melts the ballon, pretty rad)
08000 B, Calle Plateros 348
Hip local joint with great food and possibly the best service you’ve ever had. You felt like you wanted to do something nice for the wait staff at the end of the meal. Like a ‘thank you’ card and bottle of wine kind of thing. We ate here a few times because it was that good. We showed up here one night after they closed and they felt so bad that they wouldn’t let us leave without taking a warm drink to go. Ok fine.
Chicken sandwich - do it!
It has avocado, grilled vegetables, grilled chicken, yellow delicious sauce, and a spicy sauce if you’re so inclined. I was. Comes with a side of roasted potatoes.
Chicken skewers - Zesty and delicious with flavorful sauces,
Andean Pumpkin Soup - In a city that’s big on soups, this may have been our favorite.
Menu De La Dia
Any Low Budg. Peruvian Restaurant
What to Order
Pretty simple, it starts with a soup (a good one at that), often filled with vegetables and quinoa, then you get your choice of a secunda which can be beef, chicken, more vegetables and some rice, among other things. This is a great option if you’re on a budget or just want to eat with the rest of the true Peruvians for about $3-4.
On a cold, rainy day in Cusco (which happens often in December), there is nothing better than a cozy little shop that spits out nothing but woodfired pizzas and heaping glasses of wine. We made it just in time before closing, which was pretty obvious when the stout owner of the joint begrudgingly took our order. After taking our first bite of perfect crust and steaming toppings, we didn't so much mind the tude and left a generous tip for keeping the doors open for us.
Top to Bottom: Menu Del Dia, El Molino Pizza, Lamb with Pumpkin Purée at Chi Cha, Roasted Chicken with Vegetables at Chi Cha
M O O D M U S IC