As we were wrapping up an epic 8 days at sea aboard a luxury yacht in the Enchanted Isles of the Galapagos, many of the students were checking that proverbial box on their Bucket List. A few of these students would be making the journey with us to yet another bucket lister, “The Lost City of the Incas”, Machu Picchu. Checking of two major buck list items within a two-week period is really incredible.
On Saturday five of us made our way from Quito Ecuador to Cusco Peru. We arrived in the late afternoon to Cusco, at our very special hotel, The Monasterio. Located in the heart of the charming old town of Cusco, the Monasterio is a former monastery and national monument, dating back to 1592. It’s an old world charm with modern day luxury, and outstanding service.
We met up with the rest of our students at 6:00pm and started our orientation. Stephen and I got acquainted with our students before heading off to dinner. Stephen finished up the trip details and important information over dinner. Just before dinner however, we all partook in a welcome toast with the official drink of Peru, the Pisco Sour, a drink made from pisco liquor, citrus juice, egg white and angostura bitters. This would be the first of many Pisco Sours, during our stay in Peru.
The next morning we gave the students some free time to explore the beautiful and culturally rich town. By now most are getting used to the higher altitude of eleven plus thousand feet. Exploring the town is a must. After an elaborate and delicious breakfast at the Monestario, many walked around the charming town square. Women and children stroll the streets in traditional and vibrant Peruvian attire, which make for some beautiful lifestyle images. There are many Peruvians selling items made from Alpaca, including hats, gloves, scarves, and of course lovely sweaters. The prices are very reasonable so buying souvenirs is easy and affordable. After a beautiful morning of town exploration we stocked up on some snacks for our afternoon train ride.
Our friendly and hospitable tour guide Marco, oversaw our trip up to the town of Ollantaytambo, which is where we would board our train to Machu Picchu. Well the train doesn’t take us to Machu Picchu, but rather the town at the base of Machu Picchu, Aquas Caliente. The drive to Ollantaytambo was through the gorgeous countryside. We were on the lookout for some good spots to pull over and do a little shooting. As we reached the height of the mountain pass, as scene up ahead caught our eye, so we asked our driver to find a safe place to pull over. We noticed a nice pullout directly ahead. Not only was this a safe pullout, but also it turned out to be more than amazing. Not only was the view stunning, but a couple of locals had some tables set up, to sell their local trinkets and attire. One of the women had 2 adorable children dressed in authentic Peruvian attire. We had some great fun photographing the children. Several of us made some purchases from the local women. Then it was on the road once more to Ollantaytambo and our train to Aquas Caliente.
The one and a half hour train ride is comfortable and beautiful, with picturesque scenes abound. Once we neared the end of the line, Peru Rail had a special treat. One of the workers donned a costume with mask, to perform the Diablada or Dance of the devils. Thanks to Stephen’s pointer finger the diablo character grabbed me to partake in the Diablada dance. Once we got going, it was actually fun.
Upon arriving in Aquas Caliente we met up with a representative from our hotel, The Sumac. They have a small hand cart and load all the luggage and carry it all the way down the street to The Hotel Sumac. At the Sumac, we were greeted with fresh juice and a cold hand towel. After we got checked into the hotel the students had a little time to explore the town, before dinner. The town is built on a hillside, so exploring on foot is definitely a good workout. Like Cusco, there are many Peruvians selling the traditional garb.
We all met up for dinner at 6:30 in the hotel dinning room. Stephen passed out the bus passes and entry tickets to Machu Picchu for the next morning. The hotel arranged for the bus to pick us up right in front of the hotel, which was very convenient. After a yummy breakfast we went out front to catch the bus at 7am. The area seemed to be pretty foggy. The fog was so thick that the heavy mist from it was like rain. We hung out for about 20 minutes under an overhang, before making our way into the ruins. The fog was still blanketing the area; but that intense equatorial sun started to work it’s powers and slowly burn off the fog. The climb up to the upper vantage point is a little arduous, but so well worth it. Getting an early start was key, in order for us to be in position for that magical light. Before we made our accent, we took a side trail to give the students their first glimpse at this Seventh Wonder of the World. We all stood in awe of this historical and magical dwelling. Then one of the students here’s a strange noise coming from the rock wall. Placing an ear close to the rocks it becomes apart that the noise was in fact some baby birds. Living in the tiniest of cracks among the ruins there is life. A truly special and fascinating way to start our day.
The accent begins and many stairs later we arrive at the magnificent vantage point, at just the right time. It was almost as if on queue, the fog clouds part just enough for us to witness the glorious and magical ruins below. The sun shown like a spotlight on the Inca dwellings and the fog drifted in and out, creating a moody and stunning scene. Stephen and I assisted with settings and the use of circular polarizers, to further enhance the cloud and sky definition.
We encouraged the students to move around and capture several different vantage points. Before beginning our slow descent we took advantage for the amazing conditions and grabbed a couple of fun group shots. The descent to the ruins was slow because there are fantastic vantage points literally the entire way. The fog continued to burn, but just enough hung around to impart the perfect amount of unique moodiness. We paused frequently to capture the scene from varying angels, and also some fun candid shots with backdrop of a lifetime.
With the bulk of our decent behind us, we would now be entering into the structures we had earlier been photographing from high above. Built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire. Some believe it be e sacred religious site. The theory stands mainly because if where Machu Picchu is located. Built on and around mountains that hold high religious importance. The stonework is mind blowing. One wonders how the Incas were able to construct the dwellings with such precision, and from boulders which weigh more than a truck. As we made our way through the ruins, the conversation often started with, “how did they build this?” “How could they carve the rock with such precision?”
The sun was really starting to shine as it was well after noon. Memory cards were filling and the sun was starting to take its toll, so we started our journey to the entrance. Continually we paused to photograph the architecture, as well as more fun candid shots inside the ruins. Near the exit we stumbled upon the resident Alpacas. We spent a little time and grabbed a few shots, but planned to start the next morning in that area, as to capture some fun Alpaca images with the soft morning light. Upon exiting we partook in the fun of stamping our passports with the official Machu Picchu stamp. To date, I think it’s my favorite stamp in the many pages of my passport. Waiting for our bus back down the hill to Aquas Caliente, we all reminisced about that morning magical light, and moody fog. Even more reminiscing over our day, over a delightful dinner, with our course a Pisco Sour, especially since it’s complimentary with your meal.
The next morning we hopped back on the bus, in front of our hotel. The bus is ones best option to access Machu Picchu. The only option being a hike, which cuts off most of the switchbacks that the busses take. This means there are a lot of stairs, and I mean a lot. The hike can take from 1 and a half to 2 hours. We opt for the bus, which can be thrilling at times, as we make our way up the countless switchbacks.
This second morning was not as foggy, so we made our way into the base of the ruins. Almost immediately the Alpacas appeared. There were even a few that felt frisky this sunny morning, which provided us a nice National Geographic moment, to start the day. Some of the Alpacas just grazed away on grass, while others were interested in the orange I had in my bag. Everyone got some nice shots of the Alpacas with a beautiful background. Of course the morning would have not been complete without a few Alpaca selfies. After the fun and unique selfies, we explored more of the rare and amazing Incan structures. Stephen and I pointed out several different compositions, combining a shallow depth of field, to create interest and depth among the stonework. We all got a great workout, climbing in and around the hillside ruins. The exploration was educational, stunning, and photographically rich. The morning really seemed to fly by, and it was time to catch our last bus ride back to the Sumac Hotel, in preparation for our train ride back to Cusco.
This time our porter had an entirely up hill trek with all of the luggage, to the train station. This time our train ride would be all the way back to Cusco. As we traveled down the tracks to Cusco the ride seemed to methodically rock, which put many of us to sleep. Others took in the beautiful scenery and enjoyed the click clack that makes train journeys so uniquely entertaining. Speaking of entertaining, our mystical costumed devil, made another appearance, dancing through the isles. I had a window seat this time, so was able to skirt being pulled out to dance the Diablada.
Shortly after sunset we arrived at the Cusco train station, where our tour guide extrordinare, Marco, waited to transport us back to the Monasterio hotel. Some had very early flights, so we said our fond farewells with hugs and thanks.
Several of us were up for one last Pisco Sour. Stephen knew just the place, the Museo de Pisco. Just a block from our hotel the Museo de Pisco is a fabulous find. A fine establishment with a wonderful atmosphere and the most delicious Pisco Sour yet. Stephen suggested we try the spicy variety. Good thing we all like to indulge in the picante from time to time. This spicy version was definitely the best yet! The fuego lingers on your palate, with just enough heat to tingle your senses, begging you to have another sip. The food we ordered was simply incredible. None of us though we were hungry, but after a taste of the tapas disappeared fast. An encore of our favorite dish, and one more spicy pisco sour, perfectly capped off an incredible Peruvian journey.
We want to give a big thank you to everyone who joined us on the 2014 Machu Picchu Workshop. What a fun group of people! Thank you, thank you and we hope to see you again some day on another photo adventure.
Until next time,
Ellie, Stephen and the entire Aperture Academy team!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.