Finally a chance to sleep in a bit, but when you're up, you're up, so it was a 6:30 start to the day. A little breakfast at the dining room and then a sad farewell to Inkaterra. As on last gesture of awesome, the hotel not only kept our luggage while we were at Machu Picchu, but delivered it to the train station an hour before departure.
We readily navigated the cash machine [incidentally, ATMs in Peru will spit out either dollars or Peruvian soles], the Machu Picchu ticket office, and the Machu Picchu bus ticket office, and were soon riding up ridiculous switchbacks again to the site. When we arrived and entered through the gates, there was some silly granola-eating neo-shaman sitting on the terrace monotously shaking her magic maracas to the sun.
Anyway, having done most of the main body of the site yesterday, we climbed into the upper reaches into unexplored territory. Our main adventure was to take the trail out to the Intipunku or Sun Gate, which has stones alligned with the solstice rising of the sun. It's a fairly challenging hike, steadily uphill, and today definitely felt hotter than yesterday, which had some scattered clouds to offer occasional shade. This morning it was clear and blue, with a hot tropic sun. As the day progressed, clouds gathered at the tops of the mountains, a moist wave pressing in from the Amazon, but it didn't really make it over the mountains until after we left, when the clouds slowly settled lower and lower, leaving Aguas Calientes under cooling overcast skies.
But getting back to the Sun Gate, it's about an hour's hike up, and for a time, you can't see Machu Picchu, but then you get some great views from above. But you start to notice that the Sun Gate is awfully far away, and Machu Picchu gets smaller and smaller as you hike up and away from it. The path is part of the Inca Trail -- the four-day hike from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. It is definitely an achievement to reach the Sun Gate and spend some time gazing down on Machu Picchu. The elevation there is a scotch higher than the peak of Wayna Picchu, which is the other common second-day visitor hike, but that trail looks pretty intimidating -- especially since they take down your passport info so they can notify your government if you happen to fall off. Also only 400 hikers per day are allowed on that trail (and it's sometimes closed in the rainy season). Um, maybe next time?
Near the Sun Gate was a sheer cliff face decorated with bright red bromeliads. On the way back down, we encountered a few pretty butterflies and a lot of discouraged hikers that we tried to cheer up as we sauntered downhill past them.
Still at the top of Machu Picchu's main area, we took the trail that leads off in the other direction around the mountain, which goes out to the Inca Bridge. The trail is largely shaded by the mountain, making it a cool damp rain forest, very refreshing at what was then noontime. It's a half-hour hike our & there were many more butterflies about, white and black and an unusual light green; sadly, they all flapped about, refusing to have their pictures taken.
The Inca Bridge is an interesting defensive structure. There's a gap in the masonry road, spanned by a wooden bridge. If enemies approach, just remove the board, and there's really no way to get across the gap. It's too unsafe to actually use as a bridge, but you can get close enough to appreciate it.
Then we wandered down and out and down the bus ride to Aguas Calientes. There we had time to take lunch at Chez Maggy, where we had a great wood-fired 'Napolitano' pizza of green olive and tomato. They fired up the oven and we could watch the maestro make the pizza in front of us. More importantly, we could restore our fluids with a couple large beers. The common Peruvian beer is Cusqueña, which is quite good. After the strenuous day of hiking, it was just the thing.
We picked up a few souvenirs, and then our luggage, near the train station, and then took the train back to Ollantaytambo. The overcast afternoon light was not as fabulous as the morning light in the Sacred Valley, but still enjoyable as the scenery changes back from jungle to grassy hills & cliffs. At one of the rare spots where trains could pass, we were stopped to allow the otherbound train to pass. A scrawny kid and his toddler brother came toward the train to beg for food. They probably live in one of the metal sheds that are dotted along the railline. I haven't dwelt on it much, but Peru has many poor people, though this was one of the rare occasions that involved actual begging. When the other train came, they scampered off the tracks.
We were picked up in Ollantaytambo, and driven the rest of the way back to Cusco. Kind of a long ride through now dark skies. Though it was interesting to see how amazing the stars were. One particular oddity was seeing the Big Dipper. Where you expect it to be 'pointing' to the Pole Star, all it pointed to was the ground. Proof positive we're in the Southern Hemisphere. We were back at the Libertador hotel in Cusco, and in a much better room. We suspect we arrived the first time too close to the big Inti Raymi festival to get a good room, but this time we had a tiny private balcony overlooking the convent building. Much better than the tiny room with elevator noise.
The ride back to Cusco was also enlivened by schedule changes. We'd been warned that there had been a severe and deadly strike in Puno over environmental issues. Although Puno was considered safe, the strikers had shut down the airport in nearby Juliaca, where we were scheduled to fly out of the next day to Lima. So riding around in the back of an SUV through dark hills, I'm talking on a cellphone to the tour operator who's trying to make new arrangements, and asking me for input that I'm not very qualified to give. Very stressful, but fortunately it all really worked out for the best (albeit with some additional expenses).
I should say that our trip had been arranged by Tambo Tours, which had been recommended in the Frommers guide. The whole tour always felt a little like it was being held together with string, spit, and chewing gum. It's not at all like the package tour of Germany and Austria that we did, where we were with the same guide riding the same bus every day with the same people. For Peru, it looks like there are lots of little local tour operators, and they're all handing off their customers to the next operator. It all seems to work, but it's a little bewildering. Someone meets you at the hotel, gives you a handful of tickets and vouchers, with instructions on when and to whom to give them, and these pay your way through the various subcontracted services with Andean Adventures, Kon Tiki, 4 M, Inka Express, and probably a dozen more. Although a little unsettling, it definitely worked out well for us. At the very least, if you were doing it on your own, you'd have to buy all these tickets and services from all these different outfits, so the tour eliminated all of that bother. But when the airport shut down, I can't imagine trying to find a solution to the problem on our own (assuming we even knew about it, since the only reason we did was from our contact with the local agents). So despite the unsettling feeling of everything being held together chewing gum and string, it really did work out well, particularly in overcoming this monkey wrench in the works.
Before ending this day, I'll put in a random word about the dog culture in Peru. Dogs wander the streets throughout most of Peru. Many, if not most, are not strays, but pets; they're just left to fend for themselves for the day. I mean, we saw a shar pei out on the streets. Feral dogs are a problem though, so once a year, we understand, people are told to keep their pets indoors, and poisoned bait is left for the wild dogs to eat.
In the morning, we met with Señor Freddy, who patiently explained the situation in a little better detail than was possible over the phone last night. Instead of flying out of Juliaca, we'll take a bus to Arequipa and then fly from there to Lima. It'll eat some of our time in Lima, but we have plenty planned, so that won't really hurt the trip much, and we'll have a little time to see Arequipa as well.
The bus to Puno is a nice double-decker tourist bus, complete with guide and attendants bringing us coca tea, other drinks, and even a taste of one of the local breads. (Though the Peru Rail staff didn't help out the begging kids, the bus people handed out the leftover bread to a couple kids later in the day.) We drove past Pikillakta and then made our first stop to see the Church at Andahuaylilllas, built by the Jesuits in 1572 and sometimes called the 'Sistine Chapel' of the Americas (though probably only by patriotic Peruvians). The Jesuits again built the church on the foundations of an Incan temple, with some unfortunate results. The temple had had a water fountain and the Spanish attempt to reroute the water partially failed at some point, leading to increased humidity that harmed the artworks inside. However, renovation is nearly complete, and the artwork and frescoes was bright and fresh. No photos were allowed inside, but online photos give you an idea of the colorful interior. Lovely frescoes from the 16th century and some later oil paintings of the Cusqueña School. The altar area was still under renovation and stuffed with makeshift scaffolding, but the two 17th century pipe organs in the choir have been restored to functionality.
Today was providentially the festival of Corpus Christi, and the church was packed with colorful effigies for a parade later. In the square, two of the saint shrine facade things were set up, each with the smoking remnants of a burnt log in front of them. Food vendors were setting up shop and we saw a little over already smoking, with a pan of fish roasting away.
Fairly long drive out to the next stop. Along the way: little villages, corn fields, cows, pigs, donkeys, sheep. A few lakes as we still follow along the Urubamba river, now going up hill rather than down as we had going toward Machu Picchu.
Raqchi is an interesting Incan site. For once, the Inca haven't built things on remote mountain tops or cliff faces. As the guide said, for once the Inca had given some consideration to later tourists. There's a large encircling wall at quite some distance along the ridge of the hills. But the main attraction is the Temple of Viracocha. The construction here is also interesting. There's a stone foundation, but on top of that, adobe bricks make up the main central wall, and the tops of the flanking pillars that would have supported a wood and thatch roof. The Incan town has a number of houses in a well-planned grid, and a plethora of round granaries. The locals in the modern village still use the same fields to grow corn. Next stop... lunch.
Buffet Andino was the typical tourist-bus lunch spot. We had good seats on the top level of the bus, but that translates to a not-so-good position in the buffet line. Some slim pickings, but light lunches are ideal anyway. I particularly liked the cilantro chicken, which would not have been out of place in an India-Indian restaurant.
Another 40 minutes down the road was a quick stop at La Raya pass, the highest point on the route at 14,232 feet, with views of mountains and a small glacier. Although (at the time) I thought I'd been higher than this (without a plane), I may have been wrong. This is more than a 100 feet higher than Pike's Peak, and though I can remember going up a tram to a peak on the Continental Divide, the only thing I see like that is much much lower.
From there, lots of broad flat plains. The altitude is above the treeline, so all there is is the native Andean grass. A number of cattle up here, with a few sheep and alpaca.
We stopped at Pucara, which has a small museum of sculpture from the Pucara culture, a very old culture in the area. Also some ceramics and other things. The statues were mainly zoomorphic: pumas, snakes, frogs, turtles, with some anthroporphic elements and a couple interesting figures called 'devourers', apparently consuming people or holding severed heads. The local church was also very ornamental, with a few sheep cropping the grounds. It was built in 1610.
Finally, the remaining 2 hour drive to Puno. Much the same scenery as before, though I did spot a couple people that I surmise were in the act of making chuños, rubbing and rolling taters under their bare feet in a field, which squeezes the water out of them. Later the cold air helps to naturally freeze dry them.
The scenery ultimately changed when we reached the somewhat nightmarish city of Juliaca, a fast-growing industrial town in the Puno area, and site of the closed airport. Perhaps the best that can be said for Juliaca is that it is unlovely. We may not have seen its good side, but most of what we did see were auto parts stores, mechanics shops, and other businesses supporting the auto industry... literally miles of it. It thrives, and is growing so rapidly that there are half-built buildings everywhere on unpaved streets. Apparently there is also a lot of import/export business between Peru and Bolivia that goes through Juliaca.
After Juliaca, the road comes over one last creast and we got a good view of Lake Titicaca stretching into the distance, and the city of Puno just as lights were beginning to come on. Not quite a beautiful city, but compared to Juliaca, Puno looked like the French Riviera.
In the Puno area, there are many small three wheeled 'mototaxis' and even three-wheeled bicycles used for taxis that are locally known as taxi cholos. I'm a little surprised to find that the first documented use of the word 'cholo' comes from Peru in the early 1600s.
Got into the bus station and transferred to our hotel, the Libertador (part of a chain with the one in Cusco), which is situated on an island (connected by a causeway) facing the town across a shallow stretch of Lake Titicaca. The island was once used as a prison. A small, but nice room, complete with an iPod dock!
Dinner at the hotel was quite nice, even if Dr. Pookie insists on Peruvian wines, which are not yet ready for prime time. Her kingfish from Titicaca made her happy, and my chicken had a great 'BBQ' sauce. There was a pool table in the bar, and we inexpertly played 'til I managed to lose by scratching while trying to sink the 8 ball. I nursed my poor skill with a caipirinha, while Dr. Pookie had a coca sour, a common variant of the pisco sour involving macerated coca leaves.