Saturday, February 26, 2011

Pisac and Hard Lessons

I planned a simple day trip to visit the ruins in Pasac, a little town about an hour outside of Cusco. It houses a spectacular set of Incan ruins and also features a popular market on certain days of the week. I wanted to see both, so I visited on a Thursday. Over the course of the day events occurred that shook me to the core. It was definitely a visit I will never forget.

The public bus to Pisac cost only about $2, so I spent the journey with a bus stuffed with locals and a poet reciting spanish literature to those who would listen. The bus dropped us off at the edge of town and I walked up the hill to shop in the market. Along the way, I bought some treats at a little bakery. The change they gave me was short 10 soles, so I was glad I made a habit of counting carefully. I was given incorrect change in Peru more times than I can count. I suspect that some locals think tourists won't notice.

At the market, locals sold everything from hats and trinkets to fruit and freshly cooked french fries. I took the opportunity to shop for a few gifts and souvenirs.

Before long, I began to draw the attention of brightly costumed locals, similar to the girls I photographed in Cusco. The market was crawling with kids and women dressed up for pictures and hoping to collect tips from the girl with the big camera. My first reaction was 'I already have photos of kids dressed up, why do I need more?' Then I became attracted to their different personalities and stories. They had a combination of desperation and hope in their eyes that drew me to tell their stories through these touristy photographs. Working with these beautiful people for the short seconds they gave me hit me in a way that I can't really describe.

I decided it was time to grab a taxi to the ruins. I was running a little low on cash, but I had plenty to get myself up the mountain by taxi, walk down the mountain by a convenient shortcut provided inside the ruins, and get back to I thought.

The taxi took me up a long, winding road to the ruins. Along the way, the driver asked me what ruins I had seen so far. We chatted calmly until he asked me if I had a tourist pass. I had no idea what that was. The only ruins I had paid to see so far were the ruins of Machu Picchu. In all my research, I hadn't seen any mention of the price to get into the Pisac ruins. I am not sure how I missed it, but it cost 70 soles to get in! I didn't have the cash to get in. In fact, I didn't have enough cash to pay the taxi driver to take me down the mountain and then take the bus to Cusco! I tried to convince the gate keepers to let the taxi driver take me to the shortcut path down the mountain, but they insisted I had to pay to get to the shortcut. The taxi left me on top of the mountain with only one pathway down: a long, hot 9 mile hike down a two lane highway with no shoulders. I decided to make the most of the hike and photograph the towns and farm animals on the way down.

Almost every home has a little good luck charm on the roof. The charms are as unique as the people who put them there.

The sun came out from behind the clouds and became almost scorching, making the walk a chore. I rounded a bend and saw a tiny, bent over old woman hobbling slowly up the hill. She was barefoot, walked with a cane, and was carrying at least as much weight as I was, if not more. I gained an immediate appreciation for my comfortable shoes and downhill slope.

As I passed her, she began calling out to me in Kechua, the native language of the rural people. She reached out to me, crying in words I could not understand but whose meaning was very clear. I gave her some coins, but she did not move on after accepting them. She continued to plead with me in Kechua as I explained in Spanish that I was walking because I didn't have money to pay a taxi.

I remembered I had an apple in my backpack, so I gave that to her. She proceeded to show me that she only had one tooth left, so she couldn't eat the apple. I felt so defeated because there was nothing else I could do. After another minute of pleading, I realized she was saying the same phrase over and over. Though it was a little garbled, I realized she was saying "Gracias por la manzana," "Thank you for the apple." I smiled and walked away as she started back up the mountain.

I was about a third of the way down the mountain when I passed a row of deserted old houses. Two dogs ran from their porches and barked at me. Normally the dogs are very docile and friendly, but I soon realized there was a good chance one of these dogs would attack me. They kept close to my heels, growling and barking as they followed me for at least 50 feet. I knew that running was the worst thing I could do, so I kept calm and walked at an even pace. I noticed a pack of four dogs ahead of me, and started getting really scared. At that moment, a taxi drove up and the driver offered to drive me to Cusco. I explained that I didn't have 20 soles to give him for the ride, but he offered to do it for 2! I jumped in, on the verge of tears, and rode the rest of the way down the mountain.

I could have found an ATM and gotten the money to go back up the mountain, but after all that I just wanted to go back to Cusco. Thankfully the ride home was uneventful, and I spent the rest of the night packing and preparing for my journey back to Brazil.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Cusco is the launching pad for almost all tourists going to Machu Picchu. It's a fairly large city in comparison to Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes, and has an enormous amount of sights to see. My first night there I had dinner in a restaurant overlooking the Plaza de Armas, the main plaza in Cusco. In my opinion, the Plaza de Armas is the most luxurious square in the city.

A few blocks from the Plaza de Armas is the Religious Art Museum of Cusco. It is housed in an authentic old building with a beautiful courtyard. The street alongside the museum is the home of the famous twelve sided Incan stone. This stone has the most corners of all known Incan blocks.

Overlooking the city is the white Christ statue. There is a great walking path from the center of Cusco to the Christ, and the point offers a stunning view of the city.

The Plaza de Armas is beautiful, but is packed with vendors who absolutely will not leave you alone. People selling everything from paintings to massages shove products and advertisements into your face and follow you for as long as five minutes, even if you tell them you are not interested. While this gets really obnoxious, sometimes it is just heartbreaking. These two girls approached me in the plaza saying "Photo? Photo? Aren't we pretty?" While I know they are dressed up to earn money, they really were beautiful, so I took a photo and give them a little tip. I also got to pet the baby goat.

Barely a few paces away from the gorgeous Plaza de Armas are areas of extreme poverty. Seeing places like this helps me understand why there are so many people desperately try to make money in the plaza.

On a lighter note, my hostel has a resident cat and baby kitten. While they normally bat each other around and play, I woke up one morning to find them wrapped in a ball on a couch.

Visiting Cusco was definitely a unique experience. Peru never stops surprising me!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I left Machu Picchu and returned to Cusco for a few days. After an uneventful train ride from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, I hired a car and shared the cost with a friend I made on the train. It should have been a simple, uneventful drive, but if I have learned anything in Peru it's that nothing really goes as planned. The driver suggested we take a detour to visit the Moray Ruins. It looked cool, so we decided to go for it.

The ruins were absolutely enormous. I couldn't fit it all into one frame so I mostly shot panoramics. Apparently the ruins were used as a meeting area, so the bowl shape of the ruins was incredible acoustic. A group of young children ran around the center of the ruins and shouted "hola." It sounded like they were right next to me on top of the hill.

It took me a while to climb all the way down the mountain and shoot a 360 degree panoramic from the center of the ruins. Some of the kids playing wouldn't move for the photo, so I decided to include them in the panoramic. I played with the image a lot, experimenting with the polar coordinates filter in photoshop. The images didn't have the impact I was going for, so eventually I distorted the panoramic to focus on the kids and was happy with the result.

The ruins were like a playground for local children. When I was young, I never had a place to play like these ruins. I also would not have been allowed to play on my own there!

After leaving Moray things got interesting. The driver decided to take a shortcut from the ruins to Cusco. Normally, this would have been a great idea, but as we were leaving it started to rain. The dirt road did not hold up well, and the driver sped the car through all kinds of precarious potholes. Eventually, we hit a patch of road that looked completely impassable. Instead of turning around and going back, the driver got out of the car to inspect the mud holes. He returned, confident that we could make it through. We had confidence in his experience, so we didn't protest too much...

The car's wheels spun as the driver struggled to get the car through the first large puddle. I felt an enormous chunk of earth catch on the bottom of the car as it lurched to a stop. After gunning the engine several times, we knew we were stuck.

We got out of the car and unloaded the luggage to make it lighter. No amount of pushing, driving forwards, backwards or sideways helped. With not a human or car in sight, we imagined ourselves having to walk several miles with our luggage to the nearest town. The driver disappeared over the horizon in search of help and we waited. It was cold, the sun was setting and we were getting worried. About fifteen minutes later, the driver showed up with a local farmer, his ten year old son, and their tiny dog. The farmer dug a trench to drain the water from the puddles while the rest of us collected rocks and trash to put under the wheels.

I took a couple of snapshots of the adorable puppy, but it wouldn't look at the camera. The young boy saw me struggling and quickly darted over and held the dog for a picture.

The child was caked in mud and probably cold, but that didn't damper his enthusiasm for helping us out. He sloshed through the mud, pushed the car and carried rocks as if they were perfectly normal and amusing ways to spend his evening. After at least an hour of shoving, adjusting, splashing, and digging, the car finally sped out of the hole and past the next couple of puddles. The road was good from there, so we tipped the farmer and his son and thanked them for helping us. I arrived at my hostel in Cusco wet, cold, muddy and exhausted, but happily satisfied with life.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Machu Picchu

After days of busses, cars and trains I finally was in line for the bus to Machu Picchu. I arrived around 4am in an attempt to be one of the 400 people allowed to climb Wayna Picchu, the mountain that rises up behind Machu PIcchu. The line was already long, and many people were skipping the bus by climbing to Machu Picchu on foot.

The sun began to rise as the bus weaved up the mountainside. I kept an eye out on the weather as I waited in line to get my stamp to climb Wayna Picchu. Even though I got to the bus stop at 4am, I was number 289! Fog drifted about as I was allowed into the ruins a little after 6am. Two groups are allowed up Wayna Picchu: 200 people from 7-8am and 200 from 10-11am. I thought the fog might clear up as the sun rose higher, so I decided to get stamped for the 10am-11am group.

Nothing could have prepared me for the incredible scale of this place. It looks so small in pictures, but once I was actually there I appreciated the enormity of this creation.

I explored the ruins for hours. Instead of only getting wide shots of the buildings, I decided to focus in on the details of Machu PIcchu as well.

I loved that, for the most part, the ruins had been left in a very natural state. High cliffs didn't have railings, steps were often very uneven and centuries of wear left beautiful patterns and colors on the rocks.

Check out the road that weaves back and forth up the mountain. The bus driver went much faster than I felt comfortable with, but I had to remember that he does this drive many times a day.

The animals of Machu Picchu were almost as fun as the ruins themselves. When I spotted this animal, I was sure it was a mutant kangaroo rat rabbit. He is actually a Viscacha, part of the chinchilla family, and he was quite tolerant of photos. He scooted away when I got too close, but not before I got some nice portraits of him.

About 20 minutes before I was scheduled to climb Wayna Picchu, it started pouring. The fog became so dense I could barely see 10 feet in front of me at times. Breathless from the altitude and soaked in rain, I realized that climbing Wayna Picchu wasn't in the cards for me that day. Still, I stuck around for a few more hours hoping that the rain would stop. It never did, but I was provided with a unique opportunity to photograph soaking wet Machu Picchu llamas and foggy ruins.

The weather prevented me from getting a great overview photo of Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu in the morning, so in the afternoon I sloshed up the other side of the ruins to get an overview panoramic from there. You can hardly tell that it's pouring rain!

Even though the weather was crazy, my day visiting Machu Picchu was gorgeous, overwhelming and tons of fun. I went through quite a lot to get there, but it was definitely worth it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes is the closest town to the sacred ruins of Machu Picchu. Buses run daily from Aguas Calientes to the ruins, providing tourists with a perfect access point to Machu Picchu.

I took the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes around noon. Even the least expensive train tickets provide comfortable seats, snacks and incredible views of the Sacred Valley.

Even though the trip took only an hour and a half, there was a drastic change in scenery. The forests turned into moist, lush jungles. The little town surprised me. In spite of the dozens of people trying to drag me into their restaurants to eat when I wasn't hungry, the town had a really fun flavor and was a nice place to relax in preparation for my trip to Machu Picchu the next day. Keep in mind that this is the middle of the jungle though! The power for the whole town went out for about 45 minutes and my hostel conveniently provided a candle. Forget about fast, consistent wifi. You are lucky if you have internet at all!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Sacred Valley

The best way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to pass through the Sacred Valley. The train from Cusco to Ollantaytambo closes during the rainy season, so you have to take a bus instead. From there you take a train to Aguas Calientes (the city closest to Machu Picchu.)

Most tourists make their train connections so quickly that they have no time to see Ollantaytambo. I didn't want to miss what the city had to offer, so I booked a night at an adorable hostel and hired a car that would let me stop along the road to take pictures. Transportation is very inexpensive here, so hiring a car to drive me to The Sacred Valley was a very economical way to photograph the countryside as I traveled.

This is a panoramic of the Sacred Valley captures the city of Urubamba and the sacred river.

It's very moving to watch the locals work the land. A herder allowed me to photograph her with her animals and her children.

It must be nice to have a backdrop like this while doing construction work:

After I arrived in Ollantaytambo and got settled in, I explored the Incan ruins. Ollantaytambo has two sets of ruins:

The Storehouses:

and Temple Hill:

I spent most of my time climbing the mountain up to the storehouses. The trail was rougher, more secluded, provided great views of the city and was free!

After a long hike, I asked some locals for the best pizza place in town. I soon learned that going out for pizza in a small Peruvian town is very different from going to PIzza Hut. The wife of the owner brought out some fresh dough and began to roll it by hand on a concrete slab near my table. I watched as she made the entire pizza from scratch, and then put it in a small wood burning oven to bake! Needless to say, it was one of the yummiest pizzas I've ever had.

Dogs are absolutely everywhere in this country. Almost every house, hotel, store and hole in the wall has adopted a stray animal of some sort, and most of them are incredibly sweet.

After my night in Ollantaytambo, I took the train to Aguas Calientes. More stories are coming soon!