CUSCO, Jan 8 — All tourists who visit the world-famous Machu Picchu in Peru inevitably find themselves in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire. Located not far from the Urubamba Valley of the snow-capped Andes mountains, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is often a base for explorations of various Inca trails.
To get to Lake Titicaca, another renowned Peruvian destination, however, one has to travel almost 400 kilometres to Puno, the nearest town to the lake. The best way to do this, rather than renting a car and navigating the rough terrain, is to take a bus ride.
The Inka Express Bus leaves Cusco in the morning and arrives in Puno by late afternoon, offering views and experiences of various historic ruins scattered throughout the Inca “outback” along the way. A pretty good proposition for those who are too lazy to drive, such as us.
Thus we bid goodbye to the statue of Pachacuti, the Inca emperor who ruled the Kingdom of Cusco from 1438 till 1471, and with that, farewell to Cusco itself. The journey takes us to ever higher altitudes: from Cusco which is 3,400 metres above sea level (MASL) we arrive at the town of Andahuaylillas at 3,122 MASL.
Here we find the so-called “Sistine Chapel of America” or the Church of San Pedro Apostol de Andahuaylillas. Built by the Jesuits in the 16th century on top of a huaca (sacred place of the Incas), the church was made out of adobe and brick, hardly an imposing structure from the outside.
Once inside, we discover its claim to fame – from a Mudéjar-style painted ceiling to walls covered in Baroque frescoes. Even the altar is impressive, mirror-clad and all covered in gold leaf and silver. No photography is allowed, so we capture this rhapsodic vision in our memories.
Our next stop is the Inca ruins of Raqchi, home to the Temple of Wiracocha. In Inca lore, Wiracocha was the Creator of the Incas and was usually depicted wearing the sun for a crown and grasping thunderbolts; he was also the God of the Sun and Storms.
As befitting a place of worship to such a supreme being, the temple was a magnificent architectural feat for its time: a 92-metre-long, 25.25-metre-wide and 15-to-18-metre-high building. Today only the centre and remnants of the wall remain. Nearby ruins are believed to be homes of Inca sun priests. The atmosphere is altogether desolate yet some of its past grandeur doubtlessly lingers.
By noon we arrive at Sicuani, a busy highland town surrounded by scenic hills. We’re at the midway point between Cusco and Puno — at about 3,552 MASL — and it’s time for a leisurely lunch. We stop at a nondescript family restaurant serving fuss-free local fare.
First we quench our thirst with chicha morada, a sweet Peruvian drink made from boiling purple corn (chicha is Peruvian for corn) and pineapple in water with spices such as cinnamon and cloves. Non-alcoholic and refreshing, chicha morada dates back to even before the Inca empire. Pretty darn tasty for such an ancient beverage!
Appetiser comes in the form of ceviche, made from fresh raw fish cured in lime juice, seasoned with diced onion, cilantro and ají (chilli peppers), and accompanied with fried plantain. To restore our bodies after a morning of travel, we have some aguadito de pollo. This is Peru’s national soup — a hearty and soothing chicken soup made more substantial with papas amarillas (yellow potatoes) or noodles and spiced with ají amarillo (yellow pepper).
Naturally, some meat will never hurt and we enjoy the Peruvian version of barbecued meat or anticuchos. Meaning “cut stewed meat” in the local Quechua tongue, anticuchos are skewers of grilled meat marinated in vinegar and spices. Popular cuts include spare ribs and beef heart (anticuchos de corazón), often alternating with sausages, onion and carrot. Wash it all down with more chicha morada, naturally.
After lunch we continue our journey along this “route of the sun” — the Inca people worshipping the sun (remember Wiracocha from earlier?) above all else. We head to higher grounds via the La Raya Pass, which is 4,335 MASL, the highest we’ll be during this journey. Fortunately most of us have adapted to the altitude in Cusco so no one suffered from soroche (altitude sickness).
By late afternoon we arrive at a small, dusty town called Pukara. There’s a museum here — the Museo Lítico Pukara — that showcases the town’s history as the earliest populated centre north-west of Lake Titicaca from 500 BC till AD 200. We observe some of the monolithic sculptures adorned with geometric and anthropomorphic images.
Today that legacy of Pukara’s colourful past is captured in the form of a thriving pottery-making culture. There are artisans everywhere; we even spot local women in their rainbow-hued garb painting on freshly dried cement. The town people also grow a variety of hardy, high elevation crops and farm native livestock such as alpacas.
This is our last stop on the Inka Express before we arrive at Puno, from which we and the other passengers can access the fabled Lake Titicaca. Yet we have already seen and experienced so much on this magical bus ride that we learn the wisdom of “It’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.”
Bus departs daily from Cusco at 6:50am and arriving at Puno at 5:20pm
One-way fare: US$50 (RM224)
Office: Av 28 de Julio P1-1, Quinto Paradero Urb. Ttio, Cusco, Peru