The Cusco airport baggage claim somehow exceeded (read: fell far beneath) my expectations for how it should look. There were no amenities, the walls were a plain white plaster, the floors a grungy tile, and a cursory glance yielded no sight of power outlets. The space was a large room with several large square columns, surrounded by booths for travel agents and hostels, which were covered in lots of signs and pictures and designed in various architectural styles. It was dirty and empty; even Kimberley, South Africa had a clean, relatively modern airport, even if it was tiny. This looked like a hovel, something an Airbus A320 should have no place being parked next to.
Not needing to recover baggage and having to wait a little bit for my traveling compatriots to arrive from Lima, I snagged one of the empty hotel booths and found inside an outlet for my dying phone to charge from. It was a two-pin Type-C Euro standard plug, for which I just happened to have a pair of adapters. Success! It was a surprisingly short wait for everyone to arrive. They assembled to find a cab, and I walked outside to find a beautiful face in the crowd waiting for me, right on time. The now five of us jumped into said cab to make our way downtown.
It was the morning of December 22nd, a Tuesday. It still felt like Sunday to me. “Rush hour” traffic in Cusco was light. The first thing I noticed out of the airport in Peru was to be a running theme on this trip: Peruvian traffic laws. They don’t exist. The cab driver rolled between lanes, accelerating wildly and inconsistently. The cars ahead of us emitted disgusting clouds of exhaust, giving me an instant ache in my already fatigued cranium. The trip across town went down a two-way avenue with a tree-lined median, brick and glass structures on both sides. It was empty-ish — relatively few pedestrians on the street and more space on the city streets than cars. The weather was cloudy and cool. I was disoriented, but it wasn’t long before we arrived at our destination, a cozy hostel nestled in the center of an urban block, El Andariego.
The entrance is a narrow alleyway corridor, leading through a pair of gates and a nicely manicured yard. Our room was a two-story suite with a first floor living and dining area, kitchen, and three bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs. Not bad! I put my claim down on a room, shed some of my disgusting clothes, and washed up slightly. The five of us did a quick assessment of our plans and shortly after that, I happily passed out on the bed. I was out cold. The bed I’d wanted had finally arrived.
I awoke some time later. It was still light out, so the day hadn’t been wasted. I took a shower and isolated the remains of my radioactive clothes in a garbage bag I’d brought for just that purpose. The shower took a few minutes to warm, but it did — we had been worried about the possibility of having to take cold showers throughout the trip, so no more worries here. It felt wonderful. Our sixth arrived in the meantime, and we decided as a now fully assembled group to venture out for food and general scouting. Nothing too strenuous; after all, we were now over 11,000 feet above sea level, even though it didn’t really feel like it to me. Still, altitude sickness is nothing to trifle with and we needed to gently acclimatize for our trek. We set out along the cobbled, narrow streets of Cusco in search of lunch. They were alive: people walking about, cars loudly chugging through the thin roadways, a buzz of activity everywhere. We were only a few blocks from the tourist center of Cusco, the Plaza del Armas, so naturally the sidewalks were filled with both tourists and locals looking to take advantage of said tourists. Everywhere I go, I try not to be a tourist, if you know what I mean — I tried not to look lost, amazed, or otherwise confused.
While not paying attention and being nonchalant, I whacked my knee on a fancy knee-height bollard. The shock caused me to walk with a limp for a few minutes and I bemoaned my stupidity. After all, I needed that leg to trek in just over a day. Having been on the streets for a few minutes, I again began to notice the appalling lack of emissions standards on Peruvian vehicular traffic, this time from outside a vehicle. The pervasive exhaust was sickening and I tried to find cleaner air to breathe away from the roads. And then there’s the honking. Oh, the honking. I personally believe car horns serve no purpose and should be eliminated. Sure, they might be useful in an emergency, but being stuck behind someone at a green light for more than 1 second is not an emergency. And man, in Peru they don’t care; they honk at everything. Over the last few years I’ve tried my hardest to reduce my number of personal berserk buttons; car horns don’t quite press one for me, but that amount of them came close at times. On top of all that, it seems every single car has one of those six-tone alarms. They went off so many times during the walk around town that not only had I committed the pattern to memory, but nobody else even bothered to notice whatever “emergency” had triggered them. So useful.
Our first lunch in Cusco was at an upstairs restaurant overlooking the Plaza del Armas. We were seated at a table nearby to the balcony with those wide open windows, out of which we saw a sudden rainstorm develop. The first thing we received was a Pisco sour, one for each of us. What is that, you might ask? It’s a cocktail of Pisco (Peruvian distilled wine), egg white, sugar/syrup, bitters and lemon juice. In Peru, it seemed what they call lemon juice is actually lime juice and vice versa. It’s a tad confusing.
I was actually no stranger to the Pisco sour, having had one at a party in California that had been made by a Peruvian-American friend. I remember not liking it — too spicy and sour. However, I found the authentic Peruvian drink much better! Still not my favorite cocktail, but not bad either. I drank warily, flashing back to the last time I consumed alcohol at altitude. My lunch was fried chicken with a tomato salsa. It was alright. Maybe a bit too American-inspired, but a safe way to enter myself into the local cuisine. It filled me up well enough.
I really enjoyed the sights of walking around Cusco. The buildings had a European flair, constructed in a way where it was nearly impossible to tell when one building of a block started and another began. Those structures surrounding the Plaza del Armas all featured second-story balconies with large open windows. Churches were in abundance, many of which were tourist targets. We went inside one that was insanely ornate with dark stone and shiny metals, but it also had awkwardly blinking Christmas lights on the altar. Those and numerous dead Jesi. At least five, by my count. Exploring churches is more fun for the formerly-religious, I would say.
Now there’s a curious annex to the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús at the Plaza del Armas; it’s very much attached to the main building, but it’s a mini-market for artisans to peddle their merchandise. It’s weird, a room filled with scarves and sweaters, panflutes and guitars, chess sets and sculptures, paintings and photos, jewelry and stones, all for sale (at rather steep prices, I might add) adjacent to an active place of worship. Again, I’m not religious, but that somehow seems wrong.
But that’s the thing about Cusco, and Peru in general, that rubbed me the wrong way the most — everyone is selling something, and they’ll get in your face to make some money off of you. Artists with folding portfolios of paintings, women dressed in native garb holding llamas and charging for photos, money changers with wildly different rates, and the ubiquitous restaurant hawker, trying to force you into the establishment for which he works. Fortunately (or unfortunately), they all just speak in Spanish; to be honest, I can understand them perfectly in their simple requests, but it’s easier to pretend not to understand. It’s even more fun to reply in German.
As the sky began to darken, both because of rainclouds and the setting sun, we stopped briefly at a Starbucks for tea and coffee (so American), and then a small convenience market, where I acquired German pretzels and Gatorades, a.k.a. life-giving supplies for the trek. We also got some columnar chocolate which definitely wasn’t meant to be eaten. At the hostel we drank homemade looseleaf coca tea from the offerings at the kitchen, played cards, and later tried our best at yoga on the hard, dusty floor. Despite the coca tea (basically each cup is equivalent to 1/3 a dose of cocaine, or something), we eventually made it to bed again. We had a somewhat full schedule ahead the next day, with more city exploring, sightseeing, and trek preparations awaiting.
On the morning of December 23rd, we slowly assembled our group, each popping out of our respective hotel rooms one by one. Two went off to church, the rest of us to breakfast. Over a nice pan (that’s flatbread, not metal) with butter and fruit, somehow we came onto the topic of earworms, leading to playing the following catchy track out loud. It was soon to become one many mental musical mainstays for our adventure.
OhHhHH someTIMes I get a good feEling. Yeah.
It was a sunny-ish day, with puffy clouds floating out the window of the room. In front of them on the hilltop in the distance stood the tall, outstretched-handed figure of Cristo Blanco. We planned to make our way over to that way to see the Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman and possibly skip across the valley to white Jesus if we could. Out on the streets of Cusco it was again chaos. Thousands of locals and tourists, all wandering between restaurants and markets. We skipped over to the Plaza San Francisco, which I enjoyed facetiously calling “home.” The sun was really coming out strong here and I remember feeling the warm burn of summer solar radiation on my neck. Even with my winters in California being far more mild and shorter than those I grew up with, I do miss the sun and heat when it’s gone.
In the corner of the Plaza San Francisco is an arch, bridge-tunnel thing, the Arco Santa Clara. It’s narrow and tall, made of bricks and constructed in a very-distinct Spanish/Latin American style. We used it as a landmark and familiar sight in case we needed to get our bearings. The city is a confusing labyrinth of similar looking buildings and roads, laid out wantonly but somewhat grid-like in parts. Random thought: I’m not sure how many churches a city of 350,000 people needs. It seems that in Cusco the number is roughly one per person. There are no fewer than five (that we found) within a square mile of the hostel; still more were visible in the distance, including the aforementioned looming Cristo Blanco statue (not actually a church, but a clear representative). I’m curious what effects this ubiquitous religion has on the culture of Peru and its people, and how different it would be without such omnipresence. It always strikes me as odd how devout people can be to a religion that more or less conquered their direct ancestors.
The mix of technology and poverty is odd. There are buildings made of plaster and brick with holes in the tiled tin roofs and deteriorating stucco, with tons of wires, telecom, power, maybe even internet, strung across them and the narrow roadways between. Buildings have few windows, some of them not even covered with glass. There are a ton of cars on the road, yet the seemingly vast majority of them are older models, looking like small American and Japanese cars from the early 1990s. Shops around the city are numerous, with colorful, but plain or poorly designed signage that clashes with the rustic appearance of the structures on which they’re hung. On several streets during our walk around, there was road construction — bricks in stacks, dirt in piles, cones littering the street — but nobody working.
Still, it was hard to find fault in my experience around town. When not harrassing you for business, the people around town are very nice. The streets, while I’d hate to drive on them, were lovely to walk around. The many winding stairs that rose on the outskirts of the city are a sight to behold, and better, an exercise to climb.
When we returned to the Plaza del Armas, we found a Christmas market ringing the central square, complete with the sound of children singing in the air along with a poorly amplified guitar. The goods being sold began to blur together to me. Again, hats and scarves, alpaca sweaters and jewelry. They were all very colorful and vibrant, but while there was a great variety in color from one item to the next, the inventory from one booth to the next was very much similar. I began to wonder if these items were really fashioned by these artisans or if they had all been sourced from a similar vendor. When we grew tired of looking at things for sale, we headed inward to center square where we located that choir of children singing in front of the plaza’s central statue. One guy (their director, or something) played acoustic guitar through a cheap amplifier to accompany — I thought little of his playing since he seemed to use only two or three chords in total. There was also someone playing the panflute next to them, which I could only see and not hear. I can’t remember the first few songs they sung, as they were unfamiliar and in Spanish. However, there was one that was another goddamn earworm, made all the more catchy by the fact that it starts with a chorus of “lalalalalala” followed by a “woo!” (or “uy!” as it were). That song also didn’t leave us alone during the entire trip, mostly because we kept singing it to each other. At the end of the first night of the trek, with internet and a stunningly brief search, I ended up finding the song on YouTube. Behold:
Cholito! Have fun forgetting that.
Fun fact: the Cusco city flag is very very similar to the Pride flag, except with an extra cyan band and more muted palette overall. Thanks for being so supportive of marriage equality, Cusco. In fact, the only place I’ve ever personally seen more rainbow flags was the 2015 Pride Celebration in San Francisco, and then only a few more than you can see flying in Cusco on a regular basis. (I am fully aware Peru does not officially support marriage equality, however I cannot resist basking in the irony that is flying a very proud flag in spite of this lack of rights and throwing a little shade on those who refuse to support it.)
Back on the streets of Cusco, we needed cash. My pockets were burning with somewhat less-than-useful American currency, so I thought it wiser to exchange for Peruvian nuevo soles. Official money exchangers offered pretty bad rates; instead we took our cash to some “reputable” folks on the street. It was about a $1 to S./3 rate at the time and I certainly felt like my money was worth more. My full lunch the previous day was easily less than $10 — the most expensive meals I’d had during my time in Peru were maybe around $15.
We walked around for a bit more, grabbing lunch at a different second-story restaurant at the Plaza del Armas, this one with salads and pizza and pastas and chicken. I got a pizza because I had to know what Peruvian pizza was like. It was… meh. Flat and cheesy, but bland. Along with it I had a massive fresh strawberry drink, basically just blended strawberries and ice. It was quite tasty, though I left lunch with a slightly unsettled stomach. Too much pizza.
After lunch, we pressed on, continuing to stroll around town. It had begun raining yet again, so I popped open my umbrella and took shelter. We had decided to embark on our hike to Sacsayhuaman, which we figured was over that way a little bit. We ended up at some familiar stairs, only this time they were extremely slick from the rain. Their polished rocks offered no traction, not to mention that they also sloped downward. I took time and care to climb them, one hand occupied with umbrella, the other with camera. A left turn and the stairs narrowed, but climbed ever upward. At the top was a road, another church, and a little ways up, a donkey. As we walked up toward the gate of Sacsayhuaman, a local (?) let us know about a special deal we could get on admission. Well, we didn’t think there was an admission, and after a few minutes of back-and-forth Spanish conversation, we decided we didn’t want to pay S./130 (!) for some neatly arranged stones. Plus, whenever someone gives us a “deal” we reply with skepticism; as mentioned, there are many people in town who would love to rip off naïve tourists.
With Sacsayhuaman off the table, we instead decided to find our way up to Cristo Blanco, which was now on the other side of a rather large gulch. Luckily, a friendly local more or less gave us directions, and we intuited the rest. Basically, go up, toward the big white statue. These parts were my favorite in the whole city, not because it was necessarily nicer, but because it was quiet, empty-ish, and with the removal of both tourists and tourist-catering locals, I felt it was more authentic. It was also prettier. The houses were surely more ramshackle, many appearing to be just a few rooms with dirt floors and haphazard tin roofs, however they were surrounded by gardens, flowers, hidden staircases, and neat stone paths. There were also chickens and cats and puppies, the latter of which I really wanted to pet, except for that whole risk of exotic disease thing. My enjoyment of this area was exponentially increased by the fact that by now it had long since stopped raining, and as we ascending the dirty path toward Cristo Blanco, the view behind became ever more stellar.
Cristo Blanco is, as mentioned, a large white statue of Jesus, literally “White Christ.” It’s similar to the well-known Christ The Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, but 16 feet shorter, which to be honest seems like not a whole lot. Again, not religious so I didn’t care about a statue of Jesus, however the walk up the hillside was worth it for two reasons: firstly, we more or less got to Sacsayhuaman for free, since we could see the ruins clearly over the ridge, with lush green fields, farmland and trees beyond. It was a welcome change of scenery from the dense urbanity of Cusco. But, secondly, and most importantly, the view of Cusco was absolutely stunning. The clouds were breaking over the valley, casting splotchy shadows over the orange-red roofs. In the distance, mountains. Inside the city, the airport was found a few miles away. Closer to us, a large football stadium. The Plaza de Armas was an easy find, and it was surprisingly much closer than I’d thought it should be given our several hour walk/hike. To the west, hillsides covered with houses, topped with radio masts, and bursting with firecrackers during the day. Latin Americans love their fireworks — just wait.
I would have liked to have stayed up on that ridge for a great deal of time longer, however we had a schedule to keep; the trek company required our in-person deposit, and they were closing in less than two hours. The six of us headed to the west, toward Sacsayhuaman. There was a quicker way back to the city from there, said another helpful local. I took in the sight of the ruins as we slowly descended.
The stone walled terraces were pretty neat, as was the water conduit system and some nearby free llamas. I crept up to shoot some pics before the Inca dressed ladies wandered over to claim royalties from their reflected photons. The road down from Sacsayhuaman was nearly as scenic as the climb, the cityscape visible through the V-shaped lens of the aforementioned gulch, by which we were now completely enveloped. We emerged at the same gate where we were previously offered that great deal on admission, smirking at the same folks who tried to charge us for a site apparently we could get to for free with a little creativity.
On the way down, we ran into a lovely old woman who was selling sweaters and hats and scarves. You know, the usual. However, the Christmas market at the Plaza below had been drawing her customers; a few of us bought some items from her, for which she was visibly extremely grateful. In my adventures, I prefer to observe rather than interact and affect, but this moment was really sweet.
Back in the city, we sought out the hostel from which our trek would launch. It was up a steep, curved one-lane road with stepped sidewalks along which were several other trek companies, all with similar signs and looks. Our destination was a bit different, with professional signage and a doorman. Inside, we were led to a room where we ended up being voluntarily separated from a significant amount of American currency, but also oriented for our upcoming adventure. We got maps, were sized for bike helmets, and were lectured about what to expect with a general run-through of the plan. I was growing excited — nervous, but excited.
We also obtained a dinner recommendation from the folks at the hostel, to which we headed after orientation, stopping briefly along the way to buy an ambitious amount of food for the trek at a local supermarket. I’d already had Gatorade from the night before and a full cache of Clif bars, so I thought it best to keep it minimal, getting only some raisins and black grapes.
Dinner was at another restaurant overlooking Plaza del Armas; this time it was an upscale place, completely empty at the hour of our arrival, but would soon fill up. The menu was lavish, adorned with dishes 95% of which I would avoid because a few ingredients I’m not fond of. I ended up ordering a delicious strawberry vodka drink with basil and ginger (I think), and a couscous dish with fish and pomegranate sauce. It was pretty good. I’m not really one to be amazed by food, regardless of how good it is, so I ate it and was satisfied. Happy, even. Maybe that last part was the alcohol.
Back in the hostel we began our final preparations for the trek. I divided my luggage into two, packing those things which I did not need into my carry-on; the rest into my backpack. It turns out I’d over-prepared and my backpack was overflowing. There wasn’t anything I could do about it: the variety of climates warranted several types of clothing, while the threat of rain warranted several days worth of that in addition. My food and drink were along for the ride, as well as electronic devices in case they could be used. There were fewer things stored in luggage than I wanted, and in retrospect, I could have left more behind, but it’s better to be prepared than to want.
The evening ended with a few bottles of white wine, a Spanish-language dub of Edge of Tomorrow, and a video chat with New Hampshire. It was a beautiful night, one in which I spent maybe a bit too long leaning out my window into the fresh mountain air, the courtyard below lit so brightly by a nearly full moon. Cristo Blanco appeared to hover there, starkly white above the roofs.
I was almost too excited to sleep, but we had an early rise the next morning. The big adventure was finally about to begin.