Peru – Cusco, Salktantay, Machu Pichu

I arrived in Peru late at night, with Marisa supposedly waiting for me in the airport. The flight was more or less on time, but after the 2 hours that it took to get through customs, I was unsure if she would still be there, so I was pretty thrilled after getting through the throng to see a smiling face waiting for me. We caught a cab back to the hostel, and relaxed for the night. That would be the last time we were not moving in Peru.

Lima was supposed to be kindof a shithole, and while I can understand where people were coming from, what with the pollution, traffic, children begging aggressively, crappy beach, and lack of interesting things to look at, the section that we stayed in, Miraflores, was not so bad. Good food, friendly people, and when we first got there, nice and warm. The hostel had a sundeck and bar on the roof, so while we did a little sightseeing, in the two days we were there, not much happened of note. We saw some park with a statue of two people making out the size of a killer whale, a coastline and sunset obscured by smog, and a lot of bad driving. Oh, and some ruins of a pre-Inca culture called the Lima, who had built a pyramid out of mud that had somewhat survived, and was not that exciting except for the native Peruvian dogs that lived there. Which are the ugliest things I have ever seen. A cross between a pot bellied pig and a pit bull, with no hair except for three oddly placed tufts close to their heads. The stuff nightmares are made of, these dogs are so ugly I thought they were shelter dogs and had previously been subjected to cosmetics testing involving acids and blunt sticks. While the Peruvian people I have met are not noticeably more chatty than other people in general, when they get behind the wheel of a car, they seem to feel the irresistible urge to make themselves known and heard. With their horns. Christ, do they love their horns. Lima is a city of about 12 or so million people, and at any given time, half of them are honking. So, I would spend more time there later, but two of my friends from Argentina had been in Cusco and were about to leave, so we decided to get there quick, also to try to acclimate to the altitude, so as to make the hiking up to Machu Picchu easier on the bodies. So, since flights cost the same as the bus (about $55), and were an hour and a half instead of a range of 18-30 depending on “traffic” (are you kidding me? I know it is not close, but come ON, traffic can’t double a journey of that length; a flat tire can, if you don’t change it, and ride the rims the whole way, maybe, or a hijacking, but traffic?), we flew.

Cusco is a dope, old town, apparently the longest continuously inhabited city in the Americas. It was the old Inca capitol, and there remains some nice Inca architecture, consisting of massive stones that somehow seem to fit perfectly together and do not require any sort of mortar or attachment materials. Nothing sticky. Very impressive. The streets are all cobblestone around the Plaza Mayor, and although it has grown considerably since it was the capitol of the Inca empire, apparently the Inca built all their cities in the shapes of animals, and Cusco was originally the shape of a Puma. Hard to see, but I’ll take their word for it. Apart from good food and Inca ruins surrounding the city, Cusco is known among travelers for being a place to really get into some trouble. Extracurriculars are supposedly cheap, and the bars are open late enough that it is not uncommon, if you are up for breakfast at 10am, to see people still going from the night before. Cusco also takes the Peruvian dedication to commerce and doesn’t so much run with it as grabs it by the balls and terrorizes the children with it. There is literally nowhere you are safe from people hell bent on selling you shit. One of the local bars sells tshirts with “no gracias” printed largely on the front, and it really was the most common thing coming out of my mouth. You wouldn’t think you would have to turn down a shoe shine wearing red cloth sneakers, but you do. Frequently. Fake alpaca sweaters, knit caps, the random kitsch of Peruvian gear, and a surprisingly large number of finger puppets. In case your fingers were feeling underdressed, or you wanted to amuse, umm, a dalmation? A brain damaged monkey? Seriously, who likes finger puppets? Just because you can make them does not mean I want to buy them. Nowhere are you safe from the sales pitches, either, not in buses (more on that later), or even in the inner courtyard of your hotel while having breakfast. No, I do not want to buy a blanket illustrating (poorly) the history of the Inca. What would I do with that? Oh, and everyone wants a tip for everything. Including the kid who points out a rock in a church that has 13 sides, and tells you it had 13 sides. No. No propina.

Oh my god, and the massages. As you walk down this alley (below), you are bombarded by moderately attractive Peruvian girls shout-whispering “massage! massage!” at you. I do not get this. Who goes for it, what exactly about Cusco makes someone think a massage by some chick standing on the street is likely to be, well, any good? Do they come with happy endings? Sadly, I never met anyone who found out, and I was not about to myself. But they were very persistent. You had to try not to get a massage. Anyway, loved Cusco, saw my friends for a night, loved the ruins, and spent four days acclimatizing in preparation of our trek to Machu Picchu. Doing so, we went to other ruins about town, in the sacred valley, and anywhere within walking distance. We saw some nice ones, and also were attacked by a Rottweiler. Basically, this dog decided that we shouldn’t have been walking down an alley behind his house (sure, it used to be the Inca road, but now, not so much), and ran out at Marisa and I to attack. He growled, he barked, he started to charge, he followed us down the hill, and when I turned, I saw that Marisa had scurried away, whimpering. Let me emphasize that this dog probably weighed as much as she does, but still, I was not looking forward to trying to beat it off of me alone. I tried to tell her to look him in the eyes, but saw that wasn’t about to happen, and I remembered that someone had told me in Costa Rica that most dogs here are scared of rocks, because people pick them up and throw them at dogs. So, I bent down, and picked up a rock about the size of my hand, and was sure that I would have to actually chuck it at the dog and pick up another right away, but as soon as he saw me do that, he whimpered and trotted off. Not entirely sure that I could beat a Rottweiler in a fight, and glad I didn’t have to try. I also had a random small world moment in Cusco, where I ran into Jim Watson, this kid I knew and played volleyball with at Brown. On the street. In Cusco. Oh, and I called him Eli, which was his friend’s name. Still smooth, as always. We also saw Cinziano (the local soccer club, who take their name from the local high school, who were all about the study of science, which is roughly what it translates to) and Marisa got sunburnt. Twice. Cusco is an amazing city, and I would definitely go back there in a heartbeat.

Marisa and I had not managed to book the Inca trail in time, so we booked an alternative trek over the Salkantay mountain pass. The main difference is that it is supposed to be harder, and you don’t get to see any ruins. I was disappointed about that at first (what do you mean they didn’t build any cities over here? what the hell were they doing?), but quickly warmed to the jaw dropping beauty of the hike, and the space on the trail. Apparently on the Inca trail, you are head to ass with another tourist the entire time (which would bother me more, the smell or the view?), and don’t have prime choice of campsites. Over Salkantay, we only saw other people when we were passing them (which happened 4 times in as many days), and camped wherever we wanted. It was only Marisa and me, our guide, the cook, and the two porters, who carry the tents and food. And by carry, I mean they strap it in a ground tarp to a metal pole or wooden stick, thrown this on their back, and then run up or down hill, whichever way we happen to be going. Steep, steep hills, often times going along mountain streams, up to the ankles, or in mud slightly deeper. These men were of a different breed than the “good” hikers I have been out with before. At 4600 meters, I was not running anywhere. We did make good time, though, and got a standing ovation from the crew when we showed up at camp a couple hours earlier than expected. But I felt significantly less masculine than these diminutive mountain men. We hiked through an alpine pass, camped (day-um! was it cold up there), hiked through a cloud forest, camped, and hiked through a jungle. The amount of changing scenery was impressive, and I think I took as many pictures on that hike as most people do in a year long trip. But, hey, the flowers were pretty. We soaked in some hot springs, ate dope food, three times a day, and walked a lot. We slept in Aguas Calientes the last night, and got up early in the morning to take the 5am bus up to Machu Picchu, and I can say for sure that watching the sun almost rise (I am sure it was rising, but due to weather conditions, the evidence of this was that it got lighter, not that we saw it) over Machu Picchu is something that lives up to the hype. It may not change your life, or help you see god, but it is unforgettable. If only it had been sunny, I would have had some amazing pictures, too, but in person, it is just as impressive in any weather.

After four days of hiking, and a guided tour around the lost city, you would think that would be it, but Wayna Picchu looms high in the distance above Machu Picchu, and seeing as I did not know if I would ever go back, we had to climb it. Marisa may never forgive me for this. It was an hour, straight uphill (stone stairs, about deep enough for you to get your toe on only in many places), and the views from the top are breathtaking, but many places, at the other end of where you are stepping, about 2-3 feet away is a sheer drop for thousands of feet. So, tired, on the top of this mountain on top of another mountain, I suggested that we go down the other side to see some caverns where the Inca had built a temple to the sun (or moon?) that were supposed to be kinda cool, but nothing close to as impressive as what we had already seen. Marisa didn’t want to. But we were never going back, and she didn’t want to tell me not to, so we started down the other side. Unlike the front, where you see people going up and down the whole way, on the back, you see no one. Not a soul. No one else goes down there. So, the trail is less well maintained, and you start to get that alone-in-the-forest feeling, where you are pretty sure that no one else is there, but you start to think that if they were, or perhaps a puma, they could seriously mess you up, and no one would know. Ever. So, that possibility turns into looking around in the bushes, listening for strange sounds (and in the forest there are always strange sounds), and a generally multiplying terror. Oh, and the “steps” down on the back side were much, much shadier than the front. We had to step sideways, and move forward about 2 inches for every foot we dropped down. Until these just stopped, and we had to climb a questionable 30 foot ladder down into a cavern (3 or 4 times) only to come upon more steps. For about an hour. The problem with this, of course, was that we were going to have to come back up to get out of there. And Marisa was done hiking. Done. So, the cavern was pretty cool, though nothing to write home about, and we didn’t get maimed or eaten by wild bands of men or animals, but the general cranky level was at a breaking point. And then we had to climb back up for another hour, up steps, again. I think at the end, I was more worried that Marisa would actually try to kill me than anything else, but that didn’t happen either. She was a pretty good sport about it. So, Machu Picchu was hands down one of the coolest things I have ever seen, and I hope to one day be able to go back with some more time to wait for the sun to shine on my photographs.

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