And after Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu and the whole spectacular jungle trek with all its funny, sometimes scary experiences, we finally departed Aguas Calientes aboard the PERURAIL train heading for Ollantaytambo. A high roofed, comfortable and smooth train with complimentary peanuts and mate de coca and tables for every seat, this felt like a luxury ending to an amazing few days. The feelings of exhaustion kicked in as many passengers on board nodded off, only to arrive to chaos in Ollantaytambo for the final bus ride back to Cusco.
Memories and moments that will live with me forever. What a trip.
´Did you pay the extra for fancy gear?’ asked one of the girls in my group as I pulled on a full face helmet. ´Because we get to wear these ones´, she said, pointing to a pile of standard helmets. ´Nope,´ I said, ´I´m with you guys. Nothing fancy for me.´ I took off the comfortable protective headgear and wandered over to where the majority of the group were gathered.
In hindsight, maybe I should have paid the extra for the upgrade.
We had spent two hours in the minibus travelling away from Cusco along gravelly roads and through passes cut out into the mountainside. The further we got from Cusco, the more lush it got, huge mountains covered in a dry, dense greeny-yellow blanket, red earthy rock faces exposed intermittently.
The road had followed along the bottom of the valley and close to the train tracks leading to Machu Picchu, but once we passed by the busy little town of Ollantaytambo we started to climb into and above patches of misty cloud. The road became yet more windy, twisting and turning back on itself, making for a lengthy ascent. The rain became heavier, adding fat splashes to little mountaintop pools. By the time we reached our intended drop off point at 4,350m, Rodrigo, our guide had pretty much decided that we should drive down a little further to see if the rain would ease lower down. No one argued with him. The driver crossed himself a few times before we started to descend at speeds that would be considered fast on a dry day. Maybe the crossing stopped us from slipping off of the road, or maybe we were just lucky.
At the new start point we donned raincoats and got kitted out with helmets and mountain bikes. Everyone also got a reflective safety vest to wear over the top, and it was only as I was flying down the hill, barely able to see for the rain and the spray in my face, that I realised I was without. A second sign? On flatter sections I peddled along, wriggling my toes in the puddles that had formed in my shoes and moving my fingers to stop them freezing up. Some people´s brakes were dodgy, another person´s chain was loose, but my bike was tickety-boo.
A few people bailed and jumped back in the van that was trailing us, but I was soaked through already and decided to stick with it. Taking corners carefully, I rode on through big pools of water and saw how the runoff from the road channelled down thick concrete drains. One wrong move, I thought, and one of us could fall into there and end up in a mess.
A friend was having a few issues with his bike and the support team gave him a hand. I slowed down a little and glanced back to see where he was at… and then everything went slow mo as my front wheel hit the lip and I met the concrete head first.
My head bounced about in the half metre deep channel, my face smashed into something, my nose bent and my limbs collapsed, tangled in my bike. I started to move. I could see, my eyes were okay. Relief. I clambered up and out of the ditch and touched my nose. Surely it was broken? And the rest? I could stand. My arms and back were okay. My jaw and teeth were intact. And although there was blood, I was alive.
Later that day at the hostel in the little, muddy jungle village of Santa Maria I assessed the damage. Cuts and scrapes on my hip, bit of a mashed up elbow, bruises and deep grazes on my leg, a bit of a headache and sore teeth. And a fat, cut and blocked nose. But not broken.
People monitored me for symptoms of concussion and came with plasters and ointments and arnica. I barely knew these guys, yet they wanted to help to make me feel better and to check that I was okay. After a bit of flatness in the week leading up to the trek, it was a little reminder of just how good and kind people can be (maybe too sickly for some of you, but in a moment like this, allow me some saccharine).
It could have been so much worse. It was one of those times where you´re reminded of just how quickly your life could completely change. My first thought when I crashed out was ´thank f*** for the helmet´. Without it, this would have undoubtedly been a whole different travel story.
That night it took a while to unwind but I finally fell asleep to the sound of rain pattering on the roof and the lullaby of crickets chirping and frogs croaking. What a crazy day.
With an estimated 400 plus tour agencies in Cusco, it can really be confusing to figure out who to go with, who to trust, and who will take your money and run. Most of these agencies, however, feed into one of five or so actual tour operators, so often it´s not the tour itself that needs careful combing over, it´s the cost.
Touts scour the streets with their tour books, agencies with double or triple names occupy many of the shops along the likes of Plateros, and signs suggest that there are trips leaving for all treks the following day (they don´t).
Whilst Cusco is a good base for multi-day rafting trips, it is much more famous for The Inca Trail and treks to Machu Picchu. There are also a couple of other popular options (and I´ve not included the activities at Action Valley or chocolate making workshops or Peruvian cooking classes), the main choices being:
- The Inca Trail
Expensive at around $500 for the four-day trek with the need to book months in advance. One girl I met managed to get a shorter waiting period of about six weeks, paid upfront (as you do) only to discover the day before that she had been duped. No Inca Trail for her. She was able to switch over to the Inca Jungle Trek, but was understandably pissed off. The Inca Trail is a tough walk up and down and along narrow ridges at high altitudes (Warmiwañuska or Dead Woman’s Pass is the highest point at over 4,200m). Not an easy option, but undoubtedly a necessary pilgrimage for some.
- The Inca Jungle Trek
Offered by every tout in town, this trek does actually seem to leave on a daily basis with tour groups of around ten to fifteen people. It´s a four-day, three night trek that starts with mountain biking from the highest point of 4,350m and includes options for ziplining and visiting hot springs. Some of the walk takes you through the jungle and onto the actual Inca Trail, finished by a wander along the rail lines and towards Machu Picchu itself. Transport, food, accommodation and entry to Machu Picchu included. For the majority of the trek you carry your own bags, so pack light. Treks should cost around the $180 mark, and not the $300 that one agency tried to charge me. With ziplining and entry to Huayna Picchu, the total cost to me was $220. Worth it. I went through EcoTours based inside Eco Packers Hostel, although from the street they are known as Andean Odyssey. Don´t ask.)
- The Ausungate Trek
So this ´trek´ sounded ideal, being considerably cheaper than the others (S/.240 Note: Peruvian Nuevo Sol, not US dollars this time) and predominantly on horseback. What a way to enjoy the mountainscape and lagoons. But wait! This trek does require some walking each day, and the big sticking point for many is the altitude which is predominantly over 4,000m, the highest pass being 5,200m. Sore bums are not unknown and one guy I met who did the trek said he chose to walk alongside his horse because just being on horseback at a pottering pace was ´a bit boring´.
All in, shop around and consider your fitness level and how you deal with the altitude. I did the Inca Jungle Trek and expected it to be a bit of a soft option (I still stand by that hypothesis) but for some group members the climbs up through the jungle and onto the Inca Trail were really quite challenging.
Also think about when you decide to go: Peru´s rainy season kicks off late October and when I was there in late November, many tours were already not running because of rainfall that had caused problems accessing some of the pathways and passes. I took a gamble (how can you go to Peru and not trek to Machu Picchu?) with the jungle trek which did start off as a bit of a torrential, soggy mess, but that, dear reader, is for another blog post.
One can´t help but have some preconceived ideas about a place, especially somewhere like Cusco which is an absolute hub for backpackers in South America and has so much literature on the city and its surroundings.
Maybe it was the general bleurghy feeling following a fifteen hour overnight bus journey, but as we arrived into Cusco I really felt quite flat. I guess I expected architectural wonder and beauty right from the outskirts, but it just didn´t deliver. It was the same dusty streets and brown buildings with corrugated tin roofs and litter lying around that I´d seen repeatedly since arriving in Peru.
But then Cusco is a city, and all cities have their grubby, dirty sides. Yes, I was probably just feeling a bit travel tired.
To add to my frustrations, the taxi driver couldn´t find the hostel and tried to charge extra as a result. The hostel was expensive, nice, but outside of my budget. The next one seemed much more like it: dorm beds starting at S/.13 (£3.08). But it was a bit of a dive and smelt musty and if I´m honest, I was too quick to dump down my bags and sign up for the night. Lack of sleep drove the decision.
Fed and watered, I quickly found a better place to stay – clean, affordable and friendly – so I checked out of the first place. Even the half price they charged me was worth the switch. I looked forward to a night in a comfy bed with crisp linens. Oh, sweet luxury.
The turning point came a day later with a free walking tour of Cusco. I met my guide, Yonathan, and a bunch of other travellers at Eco Packers hostel. Beaming and full of beans and information, Yonathan was the key to understanding and appreciating the city.
Starting in the main square, Plaza de Armas, I learnt about the Inca sacrificing of virgins, and about the impact of earthquakes on the city (not as much as there could be due to anti-seismic structures).
In Plaza Recogijo, the Inca church foundations still stood strong despite Spanish attempts to rip down what they saw as a place of Pagan worship, only to rebuild it in their own style. ´Inside this church, it´s a more genuine experience,´ explained Yonathan, ´less fancy and touristy.´ All churches in Cusco open their doors to the public for free between 6:00am and 8:00am and Yonathan suggested we take a look inside this one at some point, particularly to look closely at the deity of the virgin Mary and observe that this statue was in fact… a barbie doll. ´And we all know that there is nothing virgin about Barbie,´ he said, before going on to explain typical religious festival parades led by girls in mini skirts followed by marching bands and religious idols carried carefully with pride. ´It´s a strange mix of traditions and ideas,´ he added.
The concept of a plastic doll as an idol is not totally unexpected. Peru seems to encourage and embrace all things kitsch (another good example of kitsch in full swing is in The Fallen Angel, a bar and restaurant glitzed out in gold and floating angels and bathtub tables and strokable furnishings, the ´gayest place in Cusco´, apparently).
Fallen Angel, Cusco
In San Francisco square I learnt about the botanical properties of the plantings, including the muña tree whose leaves provide natural altitude relief when rubbed together and breathed in deeply.
In the San Pedro market I sampled a fresh juice from one of thirty or so fruit stalls, and noticed how huge chunks of San Pedro cacti were on sale (I was also offered ayahuasca). I indulged in an ice coffee shot in Cusco Coffee and tried chocolate tea in the Choco Museo, a cute little set-up offering a wealth of information on the chocolate making process alongside chocolate making workshops (S/.70).
Steps and alleyways in Cusco
Wandering up old streets and steep, difficult steps nearby Plaza San Blas, we arrived at one of the highest parts of Cusco´s centre offering wide views of the city and overlooking a park in the process of being completed. Peru´s history came back for a modern bite. ´It – the park – is funded by the Spanish´, smiled Yonathan, ´they guilty for what they do to us.´
Views down over Cusco
We made our way back down cobbled streets and by pretty, tiled street signs, back down to the hassle and bustle of Plaza de Armas. It had been three interesting and fun hours of discovery and making new travel friends. Now was the time to tip. (Tipping guides seems to be common practise in Ecuador and Peru, how much is up to you. In this case, many people gave between S/.5-S/.15).
Cusco, I like you more already. Let the days roll on and the romance blossom.
You´re on page 120 of a new book. You´re loving it.
So what happens when, in an early morning daze following a sleepless night bus journey, you leave it behind, firmly wedged inside the folding table? You go on a chase around Cusco, that´s what. You´re not damn well giving up on the literature or the S/.30 it cost you only a few days earlier. Let the mini adventure begin…
You arrive back at the bus terminal and can´t get out of the taxi and into the now deserted building quickly enough. Blank expressions. Limited Spanish finally makes a breakthrough. The bus has gone to be serviced. ´You need go…´, says the girl on reception, stalling to pull up GoogleTranslate on her computer, ´…you need go tap.´ She turns the screen. Sure enough, it says tap. Grifo is tap.
So you take the little note on which she has scribbled Grifo Los Sauses and jump into another taxi that costs you a further S/.3 and drops you in the wrong place. Yes, it´s a fuel station (you´ve figured out – remembered – that grifo is fuel station) but it´s clearly the wrong one.
A guy points at the area behind the city airport. ´Grifo Los Sauses es delante del aeropuerto… el otro lado.´ You need to get to the other side of the airport so you set off on foot down a dusty side street. It can´t be too far. And then you hit a dead-end and have to backtrack and get in yet another taxi.
The driver is a bit bemused by your drop-off choice but he gets you there. And there are two CIAL buses. Yes! But which one did you travel in: red or blue? There´s an office with some smartly dressed people who must surely be able to help but they shake their heads; polite but unwilling to get involved. Crazy tourists on a book hunt.
Two guys are cleaning the buses. You manage to talk yourself on to the bus and back to your upstairs seat and there she is, in all her glory, still snug and undisturbed and largely unread. Result.