So I am just finishing up my last day of an 11 day stay in the Cusco area, where I have adapted pretty well to life at 10,000 feet. Here I´ve satisfied my culturaphile side at the many museums covering Pre-Incan, Incan, and Colonial history, art, and culture as well as the history, art, and culture of chocolate! I have also visited many, many ruins. Seriously, I´ve gone on a hike, visited a ruin or museum everyday here and still there are more ruins and more museums and more hikes to do! Here are some of the highlights as well as some of the low lights…
1. My first magical night in Cusco. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was the place, but I can´t tell you how happy I was when I first arrived. I had to take it easy because every time I walked up hill I lost my breath or got light headed, but I still enjoyed every minute of my first night. I walked the Plaza de Armas (there is literally one in every Peruvian city), which was filled with people in traditional dress dancing or playing panpipes and other Andean instruments. That night was the procession celebrating the Lord of the Earthquakes, which I happened upon and the city looked so beautiful all lit up and was so full of energy with all the people in the square. To top if off some teenage boys were setting off fireworks and there were unique stick sculptures around the Cathedral. Since it was my first night here I treated myself to a nice meal of Alpaca steak, tamales, and quinotto (risotto with quinoa) at Marcelo Batata, a cute and upscale Peruvian restaurant with an amazing rooftop terrace overlooking the city.
2. Hiking to the top of Salkantay pass (800 feet taller than Mount Rainer). I had been worried that I would get altitude sickness, but did surprisingly well. I just had a mild headache and felt really slow (like I was carrying a heavy pack even though I only had a light daypack). Even my guide (a cute little guy named Alain who is shorter than me if you can believe it), who has done this trek over 50 times said, ¨Wow, you look great.” The couple I was with from New York was not so lucky. They felt terrible and couldn´t eat and were even puking. I felt so fortunate that I was able to enjoy it. Camping just with our small group of 6 and a few horses at the base of this mountain and being the first people up at the pass in the early morning is something I will never forget. Sacred Salkantay Mountain is just a total specticle when it is clear, a mountain that has claimed the lives of every person who has attempted to climb it.
3. Descenting into the cloud forest. The landscape here is so diverse. Literally hours after I crossed the pass I was down in warm, wet cloud forest that reminded me of Hawaii only much more expansive and impressive. It was totally weird to see birds, tropical flowers, fruit trees, so many butterflies, and just an overwhelming amount of green and think “I´m still at an elevation over 8,000 feet above sea level.” Seriously, I can´t tell you how amazing the butterflies are…one was luminscent and seemed to flash blue when it flapped its wings. The ground here is also covered with a high concentration of mica rock so the trail seems to shimmer in the hot sun. I was very happy for the relief of the cool river and eventually the healing hot springs in Santa Teresa. It was also really interesting to hike through the communities in this area. While they are clearly invested in tourism (every “rest stop” home sells soda, beer, water, and candy), they still seem very self-relent with crops and a collection of farm animals and working pets: pigs, turkeys, chickens, donkeys, cats, and dogs.
4. Hiking Wayna Picchu (young mountain) and overlooking Machu Picchu (old mountain). It is pretty unreal to be at one of the seven wonders of the world. I have seen so many pictures of it that when I was there it was sort of hard to believe I was actually there. My small group of 4 spend almost 8 hours hiking around the ruins and I tell you the time just flew by. Climbing to the top of intimidating Wayna Picchu, both a watch tower and ceremonial place, was very strenuous, but not as bad as I thought. Those Incas really weren´t afraid of heights and the stair steps were so steep you literally were climbing with both hands at times. The view from up top was amazing though, and worth it, because the ruins are located literally smack dab in the middle of so many mountains (both snowcapped and cloud forest peaks). Even though these ruins are “only” 500 or so years old it is truly remarkable what the Incas where able to accomplish with the technology they had at the time. You can see how curious and advanced they were with the way they experimented with geometry, physics, agriculture, astronomy, earthquake proof architecture, communications, and military techniques. Even the llamas having sex on the grassy central square of the ruins (they keep them here to naturally mow the lawn and keep the foliage back) couldn´t disrupt the amazing energy of this place.
5. Traveling alone…is really freeing and seeing other travelers bicker with their wives or friends or boyfriends makes me happy that I only have to get along with myself (a challenge sometimes, but mostly I´m okay with me). I´ve been able to make my own agenda and do what I want to do every day, eat what I want to eat, and go to bed at a lame time (seriously I´ve been in bed by 10pm the last few nights) when I´m exhausted. I am working with my own budget and own needs, wants, and desires. It is great.
It ain´t all breathtaking, life-changing moments at ancient ruins in awe-inspiring natural scenery.
1. ¨Awesome public transportation.” As a fairly well traveled person, I have experienced less than legit modes of getting from one place to the next (some experiences in Thailand and Cambodia come most readily to mind). Well, my first “real Peruvian transportation experience,” aside from an express bus in Lima, was on a collective taxi (really just an old van packed with people) to Pisaq my second day in Cusco. It was awesome. I had to stand slightly hunched for over an hour on a very windy mountain road only to repeat this experience in a slightly more upright position for my ride back with all the people selling their wares at the market (I wish I had a picture of how packed it was and also all the crazy crap loaded on top of the bus). All the other tourists I talked to had a seat on a reasonably reliable bus, but some how I managed to have a “more authentic experience” on the local route (lucky me). I won´t sugar coat it for you, some of the roads here are just plain scary…super steep and exposed with narrow lanes on dirt paths with many blind corners. Even the bus up to Machu Picchu is a pretty nerve-wracking ride around tight switchbacks.
2. My first day back in Cusco after the trek. This day was a real downer. All I had planned to do was lay low, rest, and go visit some museums. Well, the travel gods really weren´t smiling on me. I got turned around looking for my first museum and started walking down this dirt road where my map was showing the museum and suddenly was being chased down by a pack of stray dogs. I made it out with only a few scratches (and so far no rabies…they were really mangy looking), but it scared the shit out of me. Yes, there are a ton of stray dogs here, but most of them are super mellow and content just to nap on the sidewalk and eat garbage. Hours later (after making it through my whole trek with nothing but some bug bites) I managed to twist my ankle exiting the Museo de Inca. Later that day my credit card got declined for the third time and I had a very fun time over the next 3 days trying to get it unlocked. The jerks shut my card down after I booked two flights even though I informed them I would be in Peru and traveling throughout South America. What was worse was none of the numbers they gave me worked at a pay phone, call center, or my hostel. It was frustrating almost to tears.
3. Traveling alone (both a highlight and a lowlight). Man, I have great friends and I miss you guys (can you tell from how much more often I am on Facebook and email than when I´m at home). There have been many times when I´ve thought “oh so and so would have loved this.” Also it would be helpful to have a buddy to help navigate sometimes and say, “Hey, I don´t think that museum is down that way, this dirt road looks really shady.” I spent one day hiking around the ruins just outside of Cusco and for about an hour was just wondering where the hell the freaking Temple of the Moon was since the tourist map I had showed a nice, easy-to-follow path that literally doesn´t exist. In addition, sometimes booking tours and getting around is harder or more expensive alone. I´ve spent the last few days trying to get a group together to go to Parque de Manu, an amazing protected jungle about a days drive from Cusco. Of course I´ve met some awesome people, but most of them are on shorter trips with different timelines or have different budgets. Finally, today I got on a tour that is leaving in an hour to head to the Puerto Maldonado area, which isn´t Manu, but is still rainforest in the Amazon Basin and looks amazing. I´ll be joining 3 Aussies (some of you know my track record with them) who I haven´t met yet. So far, though, I have lucked out and met some cool people. The couple from New York was great and traveling with them for 5 days was a real bonding experience. Chatting about politics, travel, and just mundane stuff about the U.S. almost made me forget that I was in Peru at times.