I left Huaraz promptly at and arrived in Lima at 4:30 in the morning. Lima is a city of about 8.5 million but has no central bus terminal. Instead each company has their own hub around the city with several companies sharing a hub. The luggage storage at this particular hub wasn’t open yet and downtown Lima is no place to be walking with a loaded backpack that late at night. I tried to sleep on the waiting benches in the other room along with the other late night arrivals but eventually the bathroom attendant assumed all those people sitting in the room must be bored so he turned on the television. The only thing on that late was an impetuous catholic program and too make matters worse the volume button didn’t work. It was so loud that the speakers were blown out and rattled with every syllable. The other people sleeping started yelling at the kid to turn off the TV but he couldn’t hear them over the blasphemous rhetoric of the firery priest. I went back into the other room to prevent any damage to my eardrums.
At around six I decided I should probably change into something to wear out for the day. I walked in between a couple parked busses, changed my clothes and decided to take a leak to avoid paying the bathroom fee (I hate paying to go to the bathroom, especially when they’re never clean to begin with). When I went back into the terminal the ticket counter was opened so I inquired about a bus ticket to Cuzco. There was only one seat left on all the busses that made the trip and the price was good so I snagged the last ticket. The bus didn’t leave until later that evening so I checked my backpack at the luggage storage and set off to explore Lima for the next day. I began walking towards the city center and the Plaza del Armas and passed through some shady areas. The last prostitute of the night (or first of the day) was not in the least bit enticing but the fruit salad around the corner certainly was. Just a fair warning, they’re really into mayonnaise in South America. It usually comes everything from French-fries to salads in the small family owned restaurants so you have to request against it. In Colombia it was the same deal with cheese. I had to learn this the hard way.
I went to the plaza where everything was still closed. It was Sunday and the churches that lined it weren’t even open yet. I watched the presidential guard raise the Pervian colors at the presidential palace and then fell asleep on a bench in the plaza. I walked around all day exploring downtown Lima and sought out a recommended vegetarian restaurant in the Miraflores district. I returned back to the bus station and caught my bus to Cuzco just as it was leaving.
I had the last ticket and I was expecting the worst seat on the bus so I was pleasantly surprised to be placed on the front row of a double decker bus with the best view. Well it turns out people don’t want those seats for a number of reasons. One there is little leg room and certainly not enough to stretch them out while sleeping. The best seats are the ones right behind the front row because you have the view and the leg room. The bus ride from Lima to Cuzco is incredibly cold at night and like a furnace during the day. If you’re making this trip layer up, wear a hat and gloves and bring a blanket or sleeping bag to keep your legs warm.
Late at night and at sunrise we were passing a high pass over the Andes where I could see frozen pools of ice and herds of alpacas so close together to conserve heat that they looked like a giant ball of yarn. My alpaca sweater, hat and gloves were not enough to keep me from shivering. As we drove down the eastern edge of the Andes it was the complete opposite. I felt like an ant with a magnifying glass being held over me, though it probably wasn’t dramatic as being burned alive at the hands of a small child.
One of the most important things you can do on a bus here is claim your leg space and the arm rest separating you and the person next to you. If you don’t, they certainly will. Spread your knees out to the full width of your seat and don’t move them or your neighbors feet will surely occupy your territory. If you don’t snag the arm rest first be on the constant look out for your opportunity because it’s always fair game. If you allow your neighbor to have it you will have a long ride with their elbow in your ribs. After 22 hours of sitting in a cold, hot, painfully uncomfortable bus we arrived in Cuzco. I don’t care what anyone says, hitchhiking is far easier and far more comfortable than embarking on an epic bus journey.
Arriving in Cuzco is kind of like a slap in the face. It is a large energetic and fervent city situated in what is known as the Sacred Valley. When I first arrived I met some people who recommended purchasing my ticket to Machu Picchu as they’re impossible to but in Aguas Calientes. The biggest mistake I have made was leaving my student ID back home so when purchasing a ticket to Machu Picchu or any other historical site in Peru I have to pay full price. I bought the ticket anyway because who goes to Cuzco without planning on going to Machu Picchu? I began to explore the maze of cobbled alleyways which all seem to lead to the Plaza del Armas or Plaza San Blas.
Cuzco is bustling with American and European families on their two weeks vacation as well as Peruvian weekenders who fly from Lima to visit Machu Picchu. As they walk around with their sunscreen caked faces they tout expensive cameras with large lenses hanging from their necks taking pictures of everything that does or doesn’t move. Like any South American city, there are dozens of gift stores, artisans, bars and restaurants selling the exact same things or offering identical specials relying on chance that you’ll walk into their store or restaurant rather than the one next door. Old women and children moving from tourist to tourist selling alpaca hats, sweaters, golden Machu Picchu bottle openers and countless other items and indigenous women leading around full grown alpacas wearing colorful alpaca clothing and sunglasses or carrying around baby goats with hats charging for photographs. The streets come in two forms, cobble stone or unpaved and they are jam-packed with beeping taxis. There are many streets that were designed for alpaca traffic but are now subject to human traffic jams as tourists stop in the narrow alleyways to take pictures with the people dressed as Inca kings and sometimes something as seemingly uninteresting as a crack in a wall.
By night the downtown area takes on a different personality with the hills around shining brightly in the dark and the colorfully luminous colonial buildings and fountain in the Plaza del Armas. There are literally hundreds of girls offering massages as you walk through the arches. Shady figures offering drugs to younger folks like myself are all too common as well as the usual suspects selling random alpaca made wear. This place is a must see by day and night. Cuzco is by far and wide the most expensive and touristy city in Peru. That being said, this hectic metaphorical slap in the face of a city has a particular charm and grandeur that ranks it at the top of my list of Peruvian cities.
I found a small cheap vegetarian restaurant called El Cuentro which agreed to give me a discount if I ate once a day there. In case you were wondering Mark was a vegetarian and got me into it while I was traveling with him. We went out to eat one night and when our food arrived, for the first time I my life, I was jealous of what a vegetarian was eating. I was under the impression that vegetarians only ate fruit and salads but I was completely wrong. The food is satisfying, filling, and much healthier than a modern meat diet. I won’t deny that a steak or greasy burger tastes great, but at the moment I’m content without, though seafood, eggs, and cheese are still on the table. After eating are hearty meal (minus the heart) I went for a walk. I was rounding a corner when some sketchy dudes passed by. All my clothes except for what I was wearing were being cleaned and I wasn’t wearing underwear so I could feel one of them slyly slip hand into my pocket hoping to find something of value. I didn’t have anything in there but it angered me none the less. Keep in mind that where there are foreigners, there are thieves.
The next day I was going to begin the trip to Machu Picchu. The quickest way there is by train but any Cusqueño (person from Cuzco) will tell you there is a monopoly on the railroad and not to take the train. Apparently the prices are fixed between two companies and I could not afford the ticket. I asked around and found alternate route that would get me there and back for less that $20 USD. I won’t go into all the details but know that it is possible and look out for a post in the near future called “Machu Picchu on a shoestring: How to get there from Cuzco and back for less that $20”.
After a days long journey in a bus and collective taxi I began to follow the monopolized railroad tracks. While walking I met a guy named Sam who was a well paid manager of a well known insurance agency in the U.S. He found his desk job too depressing so he sold everything he had and started traveling down through Mexico, central America and eventually making his way to Peru. He had been going a year strong so he had plenty of travel tales. Three hours later we arrived in Aguas Calientes at dusk. Aguas Calientes is aptly named for the hot baths that were used by the Incas. It is extremely expensive as every traveler must venture through there in order to see Machu Picchu. They gouge you on prices from everything from clean drinking water to public bathrooms. We planned on camping to avoid the inflation of the tourism industry but we still had to take care of a few things in the city. While walking we were offered outrageously high priced rooms or dorimtory beds when we met Juano. He said we could sleep in his living room for S15, which was about 400% less expensive than the cheapest place offered to us. He lived with his family right above the restaurant he owned. He said we could store out bags there as well while we visited the ruins.
I already had my ticket but Sam had every intention of sneaking into Machu Picchu. His reason was that it isn’t even owned by Peru. He told me how it was owned by some foreign based, multinational corporation however while trying to do some research for this post I was unable to find anything on the subject. A google search of “Machu Picchu” and “corporate ownership” only reveals tourism agencies. The thing about Machu Picchu is that it sees about 3,000 visitors each day. There is a bus system that charges about $10 USD for a 15 minute ride to to the entrance and just as much for the return trip. The first busses leave at 5:45 in the morning and an endless line of tourists arrive at the gate in intervals of five minutes for it’s opening at 6:00. The only way to get that perfect postcard picture without anyone in your frame is to walk up there before the busses arrive. Sam and I awoke at 3:30 and it’s a good thing we didn’t camp because it was pouring rain. We left promptly at 4:00 in the storm to begin the ascent up the stairs to best the crowds. There is a drawbridge where they check your tickets before proceeding forward. That’s the last I saw of Sam. He was supposed to swim the river and then crawl up the side of the mountain eventually entering the ruins from the terraces and just blend in with the everyone else. I don’t know if he ever made it because I crossed the bridge and climbed up the seemingly endless stairs that the ancient Incas built with the rest of the early risers who wanted the same photo I did. I arrived at the top but had no time to rest as the first wave of busses was approaching fast. I ran to the entrance to ensure that I was one of the first to enter the ruins with the rest of the people who climbed the stairs as the Incas did. When the gates opened I walked up to the top of the mountain an got the picture I came for. I just wish my camera could do it justice.
While writing this post I was trying whitewash the ruins as I do for all things excessvely touristy, but I can not downplay Machu Picchu. It is a spectacularly enchantig site. Even though the weather was less than desirable and the sunrise was anticlimactic it is impossible to discredit the craftsmanship of the Incas. Scenery partially obscured by the clouds will leave you breathless, though the altitude might have something to do with it. The site was a maze of intricately designed stonework buildings with hundreds of terraces taller than I am which scaled the mountain. The Incas, like the ancient Egyptians, were so talented that not a single bit of mortar was used to hold the buildings together. The stone bricks were so precisely cut that they have survived centuries of earthquakes. It is amazing how little is known about Machu Picchu. It isn’t mentioned in any of te Spanish conquistador records and it wasn’t officially rediscovered until American explorer, Hiram Bingham was led there by a local Quechua boy in 1911. Though according to some sources it was actually looted by a couple of German adventures in the 1860s. There is still an ongoing dispute between Peru and Yale University which posses most of the artifacts.
I was soaked despite wearing full rain gear and It was still fairly early when I returned back to the restaurant to collect my stuff. I figured I could make it back to Cuzco before it got too cold. I made the three hour hike from Aguas Calientes to the hydroelectric station where the taxis were waiting to pick up people fresh off the train. I met a German girl named Natascha and started haggling for taxi prices together. A troupe of French backpackers arrived too so we were able to get a good price for the six of us in a very small cab. The taxi bottomed out on the tough terrain and we had to stop in Santa Teresa to air up the tires. We arrived in Santa Maria 45 minutes later and Natascha and I found a bus back to Cuzco. It was going to be a 5-7 hour trip and they were out of seats so we had to sit in the cab with the bus driver. I had to sit on the engine.
Natascha and I chatted during the ride back about everything from traveling in India to Plants vs. Zombies, which we played on the way. She is the only German I’ve met who had an Australian accent. We arrived back in Cuzco and shared a cab back to the Plaza del Armas. I had been surviving on bread and avocados that I bought the day before so I was pretty hungry. We went to the vegetarian restuarant I had become so fond of and had a cheap meal. Still not really having definite plans, we decided to meet up in the plaza the next morning and take the bus to the small town of Pisca in the scared valley.
We found a cheap ride for the hour long trip to Pisca where we checked out the market which engulfs the entire plaza there. We haggled over souvenirs and tried on strange furry alpaca hats that look like giant furry helmets as the women selling them tried to convince us that great we looked in them. We walked around the small town and found a local trendy restaurant with all sorts of cool artwork for sale from modern Peruvian artistic prodigies who sell their retro art around the world. We headed back to Cuzco at dusk at took a cab to the bus station to check out some prices.
The bus station was a nightmare as there were no lines and there was no order. A man to carry a mattress through the crowd, a woman carrying several screaming chickens upside down by their feet, stray dogs dodging hundreds of feet, people at the several dozen ticket booths calling out their prices and other things that contribute to the chaos that ensues in a busy Peruvian bus terminal. I was looking to go to Arequipa while Natascha was looking for a ticket to Ica. After an hour or so of speaking with each bus company and haggling over prices and seats I had a ticket booked for next morning at 6:30. We shared a taxi back to the plaza where we indulged in some much appreciated Indian cuisine. We walked back to the apartment/bar she was Couchsurfing at which happened to be less than 30 meters from where I was staying. We said our goodbyes and exchanged contact information with the possibility of meeting up in Lima next week.
I caught my bus to Arequipa and enjoyed the scenery. It’s cheaper to take the day bus than the night bus because you’re considered to lose a day of traveling. Fortunately for me I love to watch the scenery change and dread not being able to do so on night busses. I arrived not knowing that this weekend was the 471st anniversary of the official Spanish founding of Arequipa. Fireworks we going off in the streets and a large parade took place where each different district of Peru’s second largest city had their own float. Behind each float people from each district wore the traditional clothing from that area and preformed unique dances to the local music. One float was wafting strange incense into the air and and another was roasting cuy (guinea pig) right on the float. Some groups were dressed up like princes from various Disney movies while others were dressed as peasants with fruit tied to their backs. Some had limes, some had oranges, one guy had a roll of toilet paper.
Today I’m going to give hitchhiking another try in Peru. I’m heading towards the world’s deepest canyon which is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. It’ll take me a couple days to get there so you’ll hear from me when I’m Nazca.