After getting blown away by the city of Lima, not to be confused with getting shot in Lima which we didn’t, we departed for Cusco the number one tourist destination in all of Peru. I really can’t express our shock at how clean, safe, orderly, beautiful, affordable and fun it had been to play tourist in Lima and were really looking forward to visiting Cusco, the gate to the Land of the Incas, and of course Machu Picchu.
I thought I spoke Spanish very well, being a Latino, but a couple of days before our trip to the Andes we were looking for a pharmacy and after passing by what were obviously pharmacies we entered a “Botica Fasa”. Pharmacies in Peruvian are called a boticas, and there must be a couple of hundred or more in downtown Lima. Seems that before President Fujimori was elected pharmacies were a monopoly but during his presidency Fujimori said that anyone that wanted to invest in a pharmacy could open up one. Many locals took him up on his offer seeing a business opportunity with few pharmacies around and the high prices for medicines. That’s why these days there are so many all over the country and now the price of medicines, as we were growing accustomed to for most goods and services, was reasonable. Visiting a doctor, specially a specialist, is another matter but that story is for the next installment.
Having discovered a well stocked pharmacy we asked for medicine for the “soroche” or high altitude sickness. During our Internet research we found out that while not absolutely necessary it was a good idea to buy the pills so I bought the regular kind and as my friend suffers from high blood preassure we also got the ones compatible with high blood pressure medicine. The girl at the counter told us to begin taking them 24 hours before our trip, pretty much the same recommendation one gets when taking sea sickness pills before going on a deep sea fishing trip, one every 12 hours. She suggested we try the Mate Cusqueno or mate de coca, whose name rightly implies a tea made out of the leaves of the coca plant, if we got a headache, got lethargic or ornery.
In the markets in Lima one can find men and women with big woven straw baskets full of coca leaves selling them by the bag and in the open; no one is going to get arrested for buying a bag full of coca leaves. Imagine if you will buying in a supermarket a box full of tea bags full of processed coca leaves manufactured by a registered company meeting the sanitary standards of Peru’s FDA equivalent. Restaurant menus list the te de coca right below the normal everyday black tea. If you expect to get a buzz and go crazy don’t get too excited. An average person needs to drink a gazillion cups of the stuff to incite a grasshopper to jump inside a bar and and make a pass at the pinned butterfly inside it’s display case.
Just like our hair raising taxi drive from the airport to downtown Lima on our arrival, our taxi drive back from the Hotel Mauri to the airport was quite an event and met our anxiety fueled expectations. We did not crash into anyone or got crashed into but I was starting to become very religious every time we got aboard a taxi or bus in Lima and approached a stop light. In case someone wonders, no, I’m not being funny or exaggerating. Peruvians, in my opinion are the worst drivers in the world!
Once at the international airport we got in line at the Star Peru airline counter and after checking our baggage decided to get a quick snack at the aiport’s McDonalds before boarding. We chose Star Peru as our arline because it was less expensive than LAN and they had a flight in the middle of the morning and bought Etickets from their website. There are several airlines that fly to Cusco and flights leave about every half hour or so. In flight, we got served a little ham and cheese sandwich with a slice of chocolate cake and asked to choose between wine, beer, coffe, orange juice, etc. A suggestion, depending on the time of the year locals suggest flying to Cuzco in the morning as sometimes in the afternoon the weather turns bad and some flights can get delayed or worse, cancelled. Be aware that airport taxes are not cheap, we paid around $ 12 each way Lima-Cusco-Lima. Depending on the time of day there are long lines to buy the tax ticket, to check/scan the tax ticket and at the security checkpoint.
Are you one of those that loves to shop? You know, the kind that goes into the mall at 8:00am and comes out at 10:00pm after going into every store? Then you would enjoy the Jorge Chavez International Airport. It has many stores selling everything from books to beautiful Peruvian handcrafts. I used to have a stake in a good sized jade souvenier shop in Antigua Guatemala and finally understood why customers that had travelled to Peru before going to Guatemala rarely bought anything. If they did the items usually were little inexpensive souvenirs.
Sterling silver sculpture and jewelry, top of the line gold and precious stones brand name Stern jewelry, t-shirts stamped with native designs, wooden sculptures, alpaca or llama sweaters, vicuna gloves or slippers, and the usual watches, lotions, electronics and candies can all be bought at the airport. Peruvian handcrafts and souvenirs are usually worth the asking price and superior to what one can buy in most of Latin America just remember what they say about airport prices. They are well made, colourful, shiny, well packaged, well designed and lasting. I specially enjoyed a store called Ilaria that had a diverse collection of affordable, not cheap, sterling silver jewelry.
Flying from Lima to Cusco is akin to flying over the Rocky Mountains or the Alps. Tall, snow covered mountains as far as the eye can see with patches of vegetation and small lakes sprinkled here and there. The occasional road is seen snaking among the mountains from all appearances going from nowhere to God knows where. Remember those Social Studies projects in High School where one put a green or brown thick fabric over a cone to create a mountain or hill? We flew over several hills and mountains with rounded, not sharp edges, that looked so recently formed that I wondered if someone as a joke had covered them with a gigantic brownish, greenish, purplish fabric and then streched the fabric to make it look smooth. Even the trees looked artificial.
Cusco is about 3.3 Km above sea level and once we landed we did not immediatly feel the change in altitude like we expected. A friend that had been there before suggested we walk slow, not carry our luggage ourselves but pay a porter to do so and as soon as we could, get to our hotel room and nap for an hour or two. Fate and destiny laughed at the idea. After picking up our luggage and on our way out of the airport, passing among pretty girls in tight fitting black clothes all wearing green scarves and offering cell phones for rent, we walked by a small cart-like stall that sold canned oxygen. Thinking that it was a gimmick and remembering the canned air joke in the 1980’s movie Spaceballs we walked past laughing at the idea. On my next trip I just might check it out. Not because we needed any extra oxygen during our stay nor because we saw multitudes of tourists pulling or pushing along hand carts with green cylinders full of oxygen but because of what happened that night.
Walking out of the airport, having previously experienced cab bookers in Lima and looking at the local crop, we smiled at them and picked a cab at random as our hotel did not have a shuttle service. Before getting into our chosen cab maybe a dozen or so tour guides offered us their services. We politely declined and they gave us omnious warnings that we better book one now or we would not find a tour guide available anywhere in town. After having lived in several tourist destination towns around the world and having fallen for almost every scam in the book we knew they were full of it but we still politely said thanks but no thanks. We did pay a couple of dollars to two of them to take our bags to the cab. Latin Americans have a saying, the devil knows better because he is old and not because he is the devil. Wise saying.
The cab drivers in Cusco are even nuttier drivers than those in Lima but enough said about Peruvian drivers. I want to go back to Peru next year and be allowed in! Anyways the trip from the airport to our hotel was about 10 minutes and after our first ever cup of mate de coca in Cuzco were surprised to find out that the Internet reservation we had made and paid for weeks in advance was not in their books. In our month long trip this was the only snafu reservation wise. At first we were upset and a bit worried because this was the only hotel we had found on the Internet that had a room available for a week and we were arriving during their high tourist season. After making frantic phone calls, sending several misspelled emails and not getting replies as the booking company was based in Australia and it was 2 or 3am in kangaroo land, we sat down on a couch in the reception area with our courtesy te de coca and discussed what we were going to do, no longer annoyed but asking ourselves why we had not sent an email asking if our reservation was confirmed.
Some 10 minutes later one of the receptionists at the hotel said she had a solution as she had found another hotel, for the whole week, at the same price. We got into a taxi and rushed over cobblestone surfaced streets to the new hotel. It looked nice and clean, was closer to the Plaza de Armas, included breakfast, had coca tea available 24/7 and a nice view of the mountains from our room window. We took the room for $ 50 a night. We were so thrilled at finding a room so soon that we paid cash. Next time though we will get a room with a chimney or a radiator, maybe both depending on the size of the room, as it gets coooold at night. Finally fate and destiny stopped playing with us and we took a short nap before hitting the town. As in Lima we could not get Fox News at our hotel in Cusco so we got accustomed to having to watch CNN or the BBC to get our news, a habit we dropped as soon as we got home.
One of the first things we did that afternoon after our nap and walking from our hotel to the Plaza de Armas or Main Square was buy postcards as our friends and families get a kick when they receive them. The stores around and near the park all sell postcards for about $ 1 each, the postage stamps run around $ 2, and the stores all have wrapping paper covered cardboard boxes in loud colors with the word “mailbox” handwritten on them. What the heck we said and bought a dozen or so postcards on which we wrote short, cute sentences and after licking and gluing on the stamps put them inside the “mailbox”. About a month or so after we mailed them they began arriving at their destinations, all over the world, and we began receiving emails that said: thank you, I did not know you were in Peru, why didn’t you tell me, were the natives friendly? I was shocked again, every single postcard made it to its intended recipient; as I’ve written many times before: Peru was not what I was expecting. I had imagined some postcards getting thrown in the garbage and recycled, thrown inside a street corner gutter or lost in the mail as happens in many other Third World countries.
That night after dinner and a couple of drinks we went to bed and slept pressed under a thick bed cover, three thick ponchos and a bed sheet; nose and ears cold. Me being me, someone who only takes medicines when a cold is on the verge or turning into a full blown life threatening pneumonia, I stopped taking the soroche pills shortly after landing thinking that they were overrated and a way to make money off tourists. Later that night I was proved wrong and was kind of gasping for air while tossing and turning in the hotel room bed. After getting dressed, walking down to the lobby and asking at the reception desk what should I do, I drank a cup of te de coca as instructed. After drinking a few more cups of the stuff I began feeling better and started taking the pills again, one every 12 hours, as the girl behind the counter at the botica had mandated. Never felt better! That’s one night where I could have used a can of oxygen if only for moral support.
Next morning we found an Internet/phone cafe a couple of doors down from the hotel and both sent emails and called all hotels we would be staying in the next couple of weeks making sure our reservations were confirmed. Ditto for the airlines. How much did we spend you ask? Maybe $ 4 total and 45 minutes. The Internet booking agency, having investigated what went wrong, fully refunded my credit card payment about a month later. Seems the first hotel did not do too much business with that particular agency so they did not know/understand how to process the reservation.
Having gotten the homework taken care of we began walking on some wide some narrow some steep none level Cusco streets. The city is like any big town in Latin America, noisy, just a bit dirty, people hustling and bustling by, a street dog here and there, few if any cats, some persistent child beggars on the streets, some locals dressed in their native garb, etc. But just a bit cleaner than usual, safer than expected, at a higher altitude than usual, tourists of all four corners of the world and ages walking everywhere and with lots and lots of things to do and see. Besides what other town have you heard of that was designed and shaped by its indian (Latin Americans call the natives indians, no relation to Hindus from India) founders to look like a puma?
The Plaza de Armas is huge, much larger than the one in Lima, has luscious green grass, a largeish central fountain gurgling merrily away, was clean, safe with cops patrolling it day and night, flower beds everywhere and full of locals and tourists sitting on one of the many benches from early in the morning to midnight. In the time of the Incas it used to be called the Warrior Square and nowdays is surrounded by stores, bars, pubs, souvenier shops, restaurants, the Cathedral and the Church of the Society of Jesus. I was surprised that the Municipal building was not on the square, per Spanish tradition, but about a block away. The surrounding hills and mountains frame the square and town in a ring of brown peaks. We did not spend as much time at the square as we did in Lima because, as having written before, it gets coooold in Cuzco.
That afternoon after lunch we took a five hour $ 10 per person tour that included a quick city tour and then visited lightning fast nearby ruins Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Puca Pucara, Tambo Machay and Qorikancha. If the 3.3 Km altitude of Cusco got you feeling dizzy this tour takes you up to around 4 Km.
For the next couple of days we wandered around and visited places like the Cathedral, the Temple of the Qoricancha, the Municipal Museum, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Merced Convent, the Santa Catalina Monastery, the Popular Art Museum, the Contemporary Art Museum, etc., and were lucky to have arrived on the week there was a small handcrafters guild exhibition in one of the rooms at the Church of the Society of Jesus. Then we took more half-day and full-day tours to the ruins in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and to others nearer Cusco.
On the full-day $40 – $ 60 per person tours a bus would pass for us around 7:00 or 9:00am and off we went, first stopping at several hotels and bus stops to pick up other tourists. Once we left the cobblestone surfaced streets of Cusco our journey to the ruins was on windy asphalt roads through some quaint and picturesque scenery. The landscape is rugged with hills, mountains and the infrequent and not very large gently sloping plain that meets the road. Pine and eucalyptus trees, bushes, grass, terraces for cultivating vegetables and a few cacti were passed by our bus as well as a stream or two. Sun-dried brick or cinder block houses with roofs made of straw, tin or sun-dried tiles could be found nestled among the hills with large rolls of hay (straw?) nearby. A few unthethered bulls, cows and goats grazed wherever they wanted and locals decked out in colourful clothes moved about their everyday activities. A very peaceful and tranquil looking scenery.
To enter the most important ruins one has to buy a Boleto Turistico for around $ 45 or S/. 130. Be aware that the tellers only accept the local currency, the Nuevo Sol, and will not take dollars or euros. If you are on a guided tour and don’t have enough local currency your guide will probably have change. On the other hand if you travel alone and speak some Spanish maybe a local or fellow tourist will exchange the currency as both euros and dollars are wellcome all over Cusco. The boleto is hand filled with your name, passport number and is valid for 2 days. If you ask very nicely they might extend it for an extra day. With it you can visit 18 or so tourist attractions, once.
When going to the ruins wear comfortable clothes and shoes, bring along a liter of water, a digital or video camera (a cell phone camera will do), some money to buy souveniers and if you like to eat, a snack or some power bars. Be prepared to walk and walk and walk, climb up and down hills, up and down many stairs and sweat, pant, gulp air by the lungfull and exert yourself to the point that your body cannot make up it’s mind, much less yours, whether it wants to lay down, sit down, stand up, pass gas, pee or do number two while sweating like a racehorse that just ran the Derby. By the end of the day if one had climbed all ruins the endorphins had kicked in and you felt tired but in the good sort of way and also felt proud about yourself. For an out of shape man in his early 40’s it was quite an accomplishment. If you are young and in good shape omit the last several sentences; you were the envy of the group and more than one member of the party would have had one or two homicidal thoughts as you ran by and took the stairs two at a time while cheerfully giving words of encouragement.
To my eternal amusement, after walking and climbing the most physically demanding ruins for what seemed hours, at the top there were no beer stands or chifas (Chinese food restaurants) so if your tour guide tempts you with treating you to a cold one or to good food if you reach the top, don’t believe him. But it was a great incentive to keep us going and make it to the top in a reasonable period of time. On a side note I suspect that the Incas, if they were still around today, would probably be some of the most respected fitness trainers in the world having the ability of teaching the most demanding exercise class ever invented without breaking a sweat.
Some of the ruins we saw covered large areas, hectares upon hectares, and it was an intellectual excercise in futility trying to figure out how they managed to shape and transport massive boulders weighting tons from the quarries to the place they now stand. But unlike attractions in Mexico, Guatemala, Thailand, Cambodia or Europe, for the most part, there are few if any buildings left standing so one has to imagine what the ruins looked like in their heyday. As happens more often than not Inca cities have been looted, both for their artifacts as well as for the rocks and boulders used to build them. Add to that the ravages of centuries of time’s passage and today in some places only a few walls are left standing, a reminder of the grandiose city that once stood there.
The culprits of looting the building materials of which Inca cities are made of were initially the Spaniards and then the descendants of both Spanish and Inca cultures that have been taking away the rocks and boulders to construct their own churches, houses, buildings, etc. Some damage was inflicted by the Incas themselves as they tried to bury some of their cities and partially destroy others so the Spaniards would not get their hands on them or to try and slow their army’s advance while the Incas retreated.
The ruins we saw were well taken care of by the Peruvian Government, no more looting. Little wonder as hundreds of thousands of tourists visit them every year. The grass is kept short, the ruins are kept clean of trash and litter, the pathways to and from the ruins are easy to walk on and free of obstacles, some ruins are illuminated at night, signs to guide tourists along are either cemented into the ground (follow the blue arrows) or easily seen attached to sign posts, the bathrooms cost about $ 0.50 to use and are kept clean, beggars and thieves are kept under control, souvenir salespersons are polite and not too pushy, we saw no graffiti painted anywhere, parking lots for tour buses were easy to find and also kept clean.
At the entrance to each ruin or museum there are people with handheld hole punches that will perforate the boleto in the appropriate square for that specific destination. If they make a mistake and perforate the wrong square then you might have a problem getting into the next ruin or museum, as happened to me. But since we were on a guided tour our guide Lucho, owner of Lucho’s Tours, who was known to the hole punch toting guards vouched for me and I was let inside.
One time during part of the Super Monster World Class Masochist Climb To The Top Of The Ruins, Lucho stopped the grateful group and asked if we knew what plant he was pointing at. I could not help myself so between quick, deep breaths I asked out of breath if the plant was either chewable, snortable, or injectable. Lucho looked at me while a snicker here, a breathless laugh there left the group. Unfazed, Lucho said that was the national flower of Peru, the Kantuta, and started climbing again. Maybe a tad faster than before.
Back in Cusco across the Main Square, opposite the Cathedral, tourists and locals are always approached by several pretty girls in their 20’s offering massages. At the beginning we thought they were hookers cruising for Johns but it turns out they were real masseuses that gave a very good massage for $30 – $ 40 per hour. Once we found they were for real, after every day of tour guide Lucho making us lose a pound or two while visiting ruins, we returned to the hotel and showered lest we ofend the ladies. Then walked to the Plaza de Armas, chose our masseuse and got hour long massages before diner. The masseuses work in small rooms behind the souveneir shops and one is always available. As a precaution we left most valuables in the hotel room safe but never had any problems.
I don’t know if it only happened to me but all the food I ate in Cusco tasted like cardboard, wet chewable cardboard. Our first meal was at a chifa that I swore never to visit again but by lunch the next day I was sure most of my taste buds had died or gone on strike. Everything tasted the same and I attribute the oddity to the altitude because as soon as we got back to Lima food tasted great again. I am not demeaning the food in Cuzco because Peruvian food in general to me was very tasty. We ate at inexpensive cafes and also tried expensive restaurants where one needs a reservation. No matter what we tried to me the food tasted bland even if it was beautifuly presented on expensive plates or served on a soon soggy paper plate. Going to Cusco did wonders for my diet!
Alas, we never made it to Machu Picchu. The CGTP (General Confederation of Peruvian Workers) national union strike was held on July 16, the day we were scheduled to take the train to the jewel of the Andes. What we didn’t know was that all PeruRail trains were not going to run for two days because of the strike and the day after the strike the trains were so full of travellers that had already bought tickets and not been able to use them that even if we purchased tickets we could not have gotten on the trains. We considered renting a helicopter but besides the quote we got being outrageously expensive the pilot said we might only be at the ruins an hour or so because the weather was bad and recommended we not go lest we lynch him when we landed back in Cusco.
So we stayed in town and watched the manifestation. No cars or motorcycles could be seen on the streets and union memebers had warned that any business that opened it’s doors was going to get stones thrown at it. We saw that first hand as our hotel had a steel shutter lowered in place but the door was open. When the campesinos (local farmhands) passed by in support of the unions they did not do anything, in fact they looked happy and marched by waving flags and chanting protest songs non stop. When the union members went by things turned nasty as they kicked the steel shutter and also threw rocks at it while shouting, close the door! Close the door! It took the hotel staff seconds to close and bolt the door.
While all this was going on the lobby and restaurant of the hotel were full of tourists having breakfast or walking around wondering whether to stay in all day or go out and brave the obviously angry crowds. After a couple of hours of listening to the radio and watching TV no tourists had been reported hurt or killed so most of us decided to leave the hotel and in two’s, three’s or small groups we went outside and dispersed. Businesses had their doors closed but if you knocked hard and long enough someone would eventually open the door and ask, what do you want? Once they saw that you looked non-threatening and were not carrying rocks in your hands they would let you in and one would find the Internet cafes full, the restaurants conducting business as usual and the souvenier shops selling their wares. All in all an interesting first hand experience in Peruvian politics. Afterwards the experience reminded me of the time many years ago when I was in Costa Rica during a presidential election and dozens of members of two political parties distributing flyers and flags met in the street in front of the appartment I was renting. The police finally showed up half an hour to forty five minutes after the brawl started and separated the fired up sympathisers. The news crews had beaten them by about fifteen minutes.
After a week in Cuzco it was time to return to Lima for a couple of days and then off to Iquitos…..