As with all great plans, they are pretty much changed instantly. We had decided to use the Peru Hop to its fullest and stop at every point we possibly could. However, once we boarded the bus in Peru, we sat downstairs in what would be known as the VIP seats. The thought of disembarking in Puno, in the pouring rain and hunting for a hostel late at night was much less appealing than just staying on the bus and snoozing in our big leather chairs until Cusco. In Puno you can access the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, which includes the floating islands. These are made by the Uros, the indigenous people of the Lake and are constructed using totora reeds that grow naturally in the Lake. You can take a tour to these islands, meet the indigenous people and (for an extra fee) dress up in the traditional clothing. We decided to skip this, having been on the road for almost a month, and with the pricey Machu Picchu looming in Cusco, we decided to be selective. These leads me to something I think is a undiscussed issue while travelling and that is a subconscious pressure felt by some travellers to try and do everything and anything. Of course if the budget were endless, why wouldn’t you? But it is vital to remember everyone’s travel is first and foremost for themselves. It is an individual journey, which should be enjoyed your way. In the year social media AD, even those blessed folk living on the road, who’s Intsa-lives look like a travel brochure by smug.com, can succumb to pressures from other travelers to do/eat/hike/swim/dive/experience everything. I believe the key to a long and happy travel life is to be selective. Research your interests, travel your way. For me to hear other people’s experiences can be as rewarding as experiencing it first hand myself. If you want to check into a hostel and spend a day or two doing nothing but reading your favourite book, do it. If you want to spend three days in the world’s most cultural city drinking beer and making friends, do it. If you want museum hop all day, jump out of plane at sunset and dance naked on the beach till dawn, do it. Travel your way.
Back to it, so we arrive at 5am and as is our new theme, have no hostel booked. Our Hop guide recommends to us a new hostel in Cusco called ‘The Point’. Sounds like an alright establishment and we get a discount thanks to being part of Peru Hop (something we should have got in every hop stop with affiliated hostels, and would have known this had we bothered to read the welcome pack), so all seems fine and dandy. We can’t check in until midday, so after a slight disagreement with the hostel receptionist, who wants use to check in now and pay for the previous night (jog-on mate) we find a nest on a tattered sofa to wait. As the sun wakes, the cracks in our new lodging start creeping into view. The hostel is freezing, there is glow-paint and confetti everywhere, a group of stoners are still having it large in the frosty courtyard and the showers and toilets appear torn between a reinvention of a bottle bank and an ash-tray. All in all we’ve arrived uncharacteristically stone-cold sober at the after-party and feeling like teetotal, middle-aged parents, we conclude we are in the wrong place at the wrong time. We load up our bags and head out to the cobbled old town streets to find an alternative. (As irony would have it, in the months to come we end up working at The Point in Mancora, North Peru, where we would find the complete reverse situation).
Our saviour comes in the form of the Intro Hostel Cusco. Slightly out of town and just down the hill from the Wild Rover Hostel, which is basically the biggest party hostel alongside the formidable Loki (fresher student union vibes), it is a 400-year-old restored colonial building, now a cosy and elegant hostel. For $8 a night we get a 14 person dorm and breakfast, with plush feather down bedding and showers that are trying to blast you into a another soapy dimension. The dream. The staff take pity on us as we explain our early morning mishap and let us help ourselves to the included breakfast a day early. Give tired me a cup of tea and an jam roll and I will pretty much fall in love with you. Throw in Whiskey the cat and it’s clear this go down as one of my favourite hostels of our travels.
We begin to explore the charming mountain city that is Cusco. The colonial force is strong with this one. White buildings with ornate wooden balconies surround large cobbled plazas. We wander through time and find what will become our daily pilgrimage – San Pedro Market and ‘Grandma’s Kitchen’. San Pedro Market is a vibrant buzz of colour; stalls selling juice, fruit, cheese, llama jumpers, meat, tourist tat, fish, candles – everything you could ever bargain for. We sample cheese and honey, skip past whole pigs heads perched on white tiled counters, haggle our way through the aisle of fruit juices, and arrive at the lower end of this sensory feast. Here there are counter after counter of ladies, all in the white pinnies with matching white hats, cooking in a haze of steam in their individual, one-meter square kitchens. White boards, chalkboards and even a few fancy hipster-style boards are dotted around advertising the ‘Menu del Dia’. From just 5 soles (around £1.25) you can get a soup and main dish, freshly prepared and synonyms of any hearty lunch a grandparent would rustle you up, after quipping about how skinny you are. You wander in and most definitely waddle out, hence Ste’s affectionate nickname of ‘Grandma’s Kitchen’. Later we read on some travel site somewhere it isn’t advised to eat here. BS in my opinion, it’s where all the locals go and this negative comment is probably sponsored by an overpriced tourist trap cafe, that wants to gobble down your cash. All the locals eat here, the food is cooked fresh and everyone still appears to be alive and well after eating. Did I mention also that the food is pretty bloody delicious? Would recommend you research traditional Peruvian dishes if you don’t speak Spanish so you know what you are ordering. All have the standard milenasa de pollo (breaded chicken) and lomo saltado (stir-fried beef with vegetables), so unless you have a particular hankering for an overpriced burger, the budget traveller can eat here just fine.
As we leave the market however our lunch almost repeats on us. In the spilling street markets, ladies sit next to buckets of naked cuy. The name cuy comes from the indigenous language and is named as such after the sound the animal makes, ‘cuy cuy’. It’s Guinea Pig. An occasional treat for the working-class Peruano and a staple of the average dinner for the poorer remote mountain villagers, these slimy looking buggers almost cause a change in our wandering direction. Spying sheeps heads, pigs trotters and offal splayed out in the distance we suck it up and walk through, observing with curiosity the local meat trade. Ste is unfazed as always, if not fascinated by the complete use of the animal we have observed. Meat-eater, vegetarian or vegan, I’m sure we would all agree that the western world is desensitised to what we are actually consuming and all omnivores really should be able to look their dinner in it’s slightly gross deceased face. It is actually inspiring to know that here, the carcass and innards have value, not just the prime cuts. This may be a gross anecdote but it’s part of the way of life here, so to not discuss it would be hypocrisy.
We attempt the walking-tour of Cusco, but duck out pretty quickly. There are several companies and I guess we were just unlucky, as ours felt like a scripted money trap. We went with Mr Red T-shirt. Mr Blue T-shirt had a huge crowd and seemed to be loving life so perhaps we should have tried him, but were kind of over it at this point. We sat on a wall to collect our thoughts when a woman approached with a flyer. In Cusco you will be approached pretty much every other second by someone trying to sell you something or trying to strip you off and rub you down ‘Masaje lady?’. Auto-pilot rejects her before my brain hears it’s trigger word and goes into a full action-replay. Chocolate. I run after her and take the flyer she’s offering. 10% off all products at the free (yes F-R-E-E) chocolate museum. Just two blocks away we head there immediately and try free samples of all manner of chocolatey treats. Cacao tea, hot chocolate, chocolate liqueurs made with Pisco (national spirit of Peru, will get back to this), oh and even that dreamy old thing chocolate itself. It should be noted that the chocolate museum became my second daily pilgrimage.
Machu Picchu. Now there is the official Inca Trail. To get on this you have to book at least six months in advance and pay quite a bit of dollar. Don’t quote me on actual costs because we did not want to restrict our schedule by pre-booking dates that far in advance, but I know it is darn pricey. To enter Machu Picchu alone it is $45 US so a hefty sum before you have even thought about getting there. In Cusco there are endless tour companies offering excursions to The Sacred Valley, Rainbow Mountain and treks to Machu Picchu. On the advice of a German guy we skip the The Sacred Valley after he describes it as a tourist-ridden queue-fest. His opinion was that the saturation of people far overruled the beauty of the moment and this was filed instantly into Ste’s no folder. Rainbow Mountain we decided we would do after Machu Picchu (never happened – see next blog post for more information) and so we simply had to decide how we wanted to get to Machu Picchu. There were cheap one night offers – a bus to Hidroelectrica, a night in Aguas Calientes (the town next to the MP) and a bus back the next day. Or there were longer, several night treks. First option was the Salkantay Trek. 4 days/5 nights, this involved trekking in the high Andes, past beautiful glacial lakes before merging at Santa Teresa where itenary became the same as the second option. This was the Inca Jungle. 3 nights/4 days this involved downhill road biking followed by white-water rafting in Santa Maria, an 8-hour day hike (including part of the official Inca Trail) to Santa Teresa, hot springs and ziplines, and finally being dropped in Hidroelectricas to join the long march beside the railway to Aguas Calientes, ready for Machu Picchu the next day. Similar in price we opted for the Inca Jungle tour as we decided it could check off a few tick-boxes of adventurous activities. We had yet to experience any sort of jungle environment so for $220 dollars each we signed up. The tour can be around $60 each cheaper if you catch the bus back. However our Norwegian friends Linn and Stig had informed us this road was a cliff-side rat-run, and due to my lovely knack of vomiting on buses and cliff-edge induced vertigo, we splashed out for the train. This decision wasn’t easily won with Ste, but this extra spend would actually be probably one of the most vital money-saving decisions of our trip so far (again see next blog).
A note. We walked around for ages comparing prices of agencies. Some include all the activities, some don’t – prices really do vary. Absolutely haggle and had we known in advance, the best cheap company is Coca Tours.
We spend our days bouncing around this beautiful city, venturing out of the charismatic but touristic old town and we view a more conventional and functional Cusco. Our series of unfortunate events in Bolivia climaxed in me leaving my somewhat essential glasses in that not-so wonderful hostel in Copacobana. So for a very reasonable £50 I had a sight test and purchased a brand new second pair of eyes. It was during this sight test that I realised a slight flaw in my Spanish – I don’t know the alphabet. I politely informed the optician that she had the choice between English or French. I can’t even speak French but for some unknown reason I known the entire alphabet. She laughs and settles for English.
Around midday on Easter Monday we find ourselves in the central square, the Plaza de Armas of Cusco. There is a lot of commotion going on; bomberos (firemen), policia (police), soldiers, camera crews and marching band members, along with ordinary people, are assembling around the square.
We sit on some steps near the Catedral de Cusco and ponder want on earth is going on. As the crowds build around us, we strike up a conversation with a gentleman sat beside us. He’s from Lima, a retired engineer, who now spends his days focusing on his passion – solar energy. He now travels around helping to install solar panels and bring power to poorer homes and distant communities. This guy is an inspiration! He informs us today is the parade of the Señor de Temblores (The Black Lord of Earthquakes). Most South American countries are Christian, with a majority Catholic population. This is part of the legacy of the Spanish Colonisation – and in some parts the indigenous religions are diluted into legend. Religion takes prime position in the lives of most people and as such there are regular parades, where entire cities come to a standstill. We experience this first hand. Easter is the Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Cusco, a blend of Andean and Catholic traditions, it is one of the most important religious events in Cusco. It all kicks off on the Lunes Santo (Easter Monday) where this Black Christ is paraded around the two main Plazas in Cusco and almost all of the 510,000 strong population turn out to view it and throw the local red ñucchu flowers on the statue. When conquering the lands, the Spanish had difficulty converting the religious beliefs of the indigenous population and so the statue of Black Jesus was introduced to Cusco to seem more familiar and more in line with their own complexions. During the devastating earthquake of 1650, the Black Christ was paraded through the streets to stop the aftershocks, and now Señor de Temblores is the patron Saint of Cusco.
Around 2pm the parade kicks off, we watch it’s slow procession out of the Catedral de Cusco and begin to move its way on various shoulders, past us and around the square. We watch for around 45 minutes before heading off on our usual daily pilgrimages. Later that evening we rendezvous with two of the Irish lads, Cathal and Barry in the Irish bar (but of course), the other side of the Catedral de Cusco. The bar is pretty much empty and we think nothing of it as we enjoy drinks and good company. The few attendees in the bar head to the windows and peer out. The procession (some four and half hours later) is working its way towards the bar and up the few steps back to the Cathedral.
The streets are crammed, soldiers are using rope to contain the jostling mass, and we feel a bit rude for our unintentional perfect view from the small balconies of the Irish bar.
We even throw some flowers! The crowds keep us trapped for a while – yes trapped in an Irish bar by the Black Jesus, now that is my kind of divine intervention!
Craziness over we head back to our hostel where a guide meets with us to discuss the arrangements for our coming tour to Machu Picchu. The hostel (as with most hostels in Cusco) will store our big bags free of charge while we are away. You have to carry everything with you on your hike, so a small lightly-packed day sack is all you need. We are off to explore the world phenomenon of Machu Picchu.