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30 Dec 2013 – 23 Jan 2014. Cusco and Ollantaytambo, Peru
From Don: 30 December 2013. The luxury train from Puno to Cusco exceeds my expectations: Pullman class coaches, comfortable armchair seating facing forward, and a table, with a smooth white cloth and a vase of flowers, just for the two of us: luxury. Even the bathrooms are luxurious. We order lunch from an elegant menu and watch the world go by. I can see the main road running more or less parallel with the train tracks: there’s no doubt in my mind where I’d rather be. Ali remarked that our attitude towards money has changed so much since we began our nomadic odyssey, and it’s absolutely true: there has been a tectonic shift in my attitude and in hers. I pay for hotels, planes and trains now without concern or worry about the future, even though I have no idea what the future may hold.

Ten hours on a bus can be an eternity. We’ll see what ten hours on a train feels like. Ali is writing her next blog post. I’ll continue with writing Morning Pages for a while, interspersed with staring out of the train windows. I keep thinking about going to the bar car to get a cup of tea, but then I can’t be bothered. The terrain so far has been quite flat, but I know that we’ll be climbing up to a high point in the Andes partway through the trip.


Finally we ordered cups of té negro con leche from one of the many staff patrolling the train. The car we’re in was still quite cool so we asked for and received blankets to keep our legs warm. Everything we could need or want for our journey is so easily to hand.

Passing through Juliaca there are market stalls jammed right up to the edge of the rail line: it reminded me of a market we saw in Southeast Asia where the stalls have to be removed every time a train comes through. Here though the stalls don’t have to be removed, and there are only six or seven trains a week passing through the market. Looking out from our privileged positions on the train to the hardscrabble lives of those living by the edge of the tracks made me realize why the peasants revolt from time to time. We have been given the lives we have by the Grace of God: not because we are better than, or smarter than, or more deserving than the folks living by the tracks in Juliaca. So I keep giving thanks for all that we are receiving.


The train began climbing after we left Juliaca, and I could see ahead and to the left of us the foothills of the Andes. Eventually we arrived at the highest point on our journey at 4300 metres.



Lunch was served at around noon, and afternoon tea at 4:30. Fine-dining service and good food. Pisco sours were handed out in the morning and again in the afternoon, and a champagne and peach juice cocktail was served just before the afternoon tea. Some of our neighbours from Brazil also had a bottle of wine in the morning after their Pisco sours and wine with their lunch. I wouldn’t have been standing, but they seemed fine with it.

From Alison: Well ten hours on a train, on that train, turned out to be pretty sweet. The last carriage was a bar car and the back of it was open to give unobstructed views. There were also some performances of traditional music and dancing to keep us entertained.

Along the way we saw many sheep and llama farms with their mud brick buildings


and further along lush crops covering the land.


From the back of the train. I guess he saw me.


New Year’s Eve in Cusco was a complete bust. During the day, in a down home café, we met a couple of guys from Lima. They’d come to Cusco for NYE, saying it is the best place in Peru to celebrate, and that there would be a huge party in the main square. We each had a bowl of truly fabulous soup for lunch and they encouraged us to try the local drink – non-alcoholic fermented quinoa juice. Yeah. That was a big mistake. It actually tasted quite good if you don’t mind the fermented taste. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling sick. My entire body was rebelling. Still, we managed to see the main square, Plaza des Armas, and some of the ancient streets before heading urgently back to our hotel room.

Don’s photo of Plaza des Armas.


The ancient narrow streets of Cusco.



Everyone talks about Cusco being an Inca city but the area was inhabited by the Killke for several hundred years before the Incas arrived in about 1200. The Incas built on Killke structures, and the Spanish, in turn, from 1535, built on the massive stone walls constructed by the Incas. They destroyed the temples and palaces of the Incas but retained the indestructible stone foundations and built churches and mansions on them.

Inca stonework is extraordinary in that it was constructed in such a way that they neither used nor needed mortar, and yet the walls stand, even in the face of earthquakes (one in 1950 destroyed one third of the city’s buildings), and the stones are so tightly fitted together that it is impossible to get even a knife blade between them. No one knows how they did it, or where the stones came from.

Cusco was the capital, and heart of the Inca Empire, and in turn became the Spanish centre for colonization and the spread of Christianity in the Andes. Dig a little and you will find that Cusco goes back in time through layers and layers of civilization. It reminds me of the 12th century Basilica di San Clemente in Rome. Digging beneath it a 4th century basilica was discovered, and beneath that a 1st century home and Mithraic Temple. Cusco is like that. We felt a palpable sense of history as we walked the streets marvelling at the sophistication of the Inca foundations.

Twice we were lucky enough to be out and about when there was dancing in the streets. The first photo is similar to many parades we’ve seen in Andean South America that combine indigenous dancing with a solemn Catholic procession. Behind the dancers is a group of people in dark clothing carrying a religious effigy, in this case a deeply distressed Christ figure. Presumably they were headed to one of the town’s many cathedrals.


I know nothing about this dance group, or why they were dancing. They suddenly appeared in Plaza des Armas. There were about ten of them all dressed alike, and another man dressed as a woman with a very long nose. They danced for about half an hour. And then, after mingling with the crowd for a while, it was over and they were gone.


Exploring the local market,




and wandering the streets.






On one of the hills surrounding Cusco are the ruins of Sacsayhuaman (or sexy woman – an approximate pronunciation), an ancient fortress of the Killke people. The fortress also contained temples indicating it was used for religious as well as military purposes. It was later added to and used by the Inca.

So of course we hiked up the endless stairs to have a look at it, meeting various people and dogs along the way. There were many buenos dias’s said, and some brief Spanglish conversations. It was stairs all the way up. All the way up past the homes of the ordinary people of Cusco. No cars make it up here. Either walk up from the town below, or take a taxi to the main road at the top and walk down.

A view of Cusco from the top of the hill


The Sacsayhuaman site is huge. We spent an hour or two wandering around, impressed by the enormous time, effort and dedication needed to create it. But frankly I was more interested in the llamas that were grazing there. Or are they alpacas? If I see the two side by side I can tell the difference. Alpacas have shorter legs, shorter snouts, and more wool around their faces. But this lot was all so wooly I couldn’t be sure. I think the first photo is probably an alpaca, the second probably llamas.





Near the town of Maras, about fifty kilometres from Cusco, is the Inca archeological site of Moray. It consists of enormous circular terraces, one within the other, down, and down, and down. It is 98 feet deep, and there is a temperature difference of about 15 degrees centigrade between the top and the bottom. There is a sophisticated irrigation system. Speculation is that it was created as a site for agricultural experiments, and to breed plants suitable for the harsh Andean climate, gradually acclimatizing them as they moved them up the terraces.


And close by are the salt evaporation ponds of Maras. This is a quite extraordinary place. Higher up above what can be seen in these photos there is a natural spring gushing out of the side of the mountain from an underground stream. It contains a very high volume of salt. When I asked our guide where the salt comes from he said from inside the mountain, and that they’d have to tear down the mountain to find out. Anyway, salt evaporation ponds, carefully sculpted and cascading down the side of the mountain, have been maintained communally here since pre-Incan times. There is also an intricate system for controlling the water, and for closing off the flow of water to each pond to allow it to evaporate leaving the salt crystals to be harvested. I am constantly astounded by human ingenuity.



Andean child 


and rural life.



Next post: A trip to the village of Chinchero for their Sunday market, exploring some more Inca ruins located above the town, and, unexpectedly, a special local sacred ceremony. One very rich day.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.