After a swanky overnight bus ride from Arequipa that involved personal movie screens and BINGO, Antoine and I arrived in Cusco, Peru the morning of April 14th. After dropping our bags at the hostel, we set out to explore the beautiful colonial city and arrange our Machu Picchu tour.
It was a rainy day, but the town was in full swing for its annual (since 1650) Lord of the Earthquakes and Semana Santa celebrations. The roads were blocked all afternoon and into the evening wih religious processions and throngs of onlookers. We had to wait for the roads to clear (via a delicious hot drink of coca tea mixed with Pisco) to arrive at our evening massage appointments an hour late. I had received rave reviews about one particular massage place from a guy I met in La Paz, so I had to check it out. Sadly, it was the worst massage I’ve ever had in my life. That evening we chilled at our hostel with pizza and microbrews, preparing for our Machu Picchu adventure.
The next morning, with nothing but our small daypacks, Antoine and I hopped on a van that would take us over five bumpy hours through winding mountain roads and past Incan ruins until we finally arrived at our first destination: a hydroelectric station. Before I go any further, allow me to explain to you the ordeal that is getting to Machu Picchu cheaply.
This involved the purchase of an organized “tour” that included the ride to and from the hydroelectric station, a night in a hostel in Aguas Calientes (the small town at the base of the mountain on which MP sits), the entrance ticket to Machu Picchu, and a slightly incompetent tour guide for a total cost of $100 each.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we arrived at the station, so I decided to shell out the $20 for a train from there to Aguas Calientes; Antoine chose the free route by walking. That evening I met Antoine and an English couple from our tour in the hostel, and together we went out for Pisco sours and guacamole before dinner. Unfortunately, I immediately started to feel ill right after we left the bar (I blame the egg whites in the Pisco sours), and by the time the first course of our dinner at the hostel was served, I was feverish with zero appetite. I had to bid goodnight to everyone and climbed into my bed, where I spent a delirious night shaking with cold sweats under scathing hot sheets.
The next morning I felt terrible and weak, but I willed myself out of bed around 4am, dragging my war torn and not-yet-recovered body out of the hostel and to the buses that ascended the steep mountain to the ruins. Unfortunately, there was a massive line to buy tickets and another massive line to board the buses. Fortunately, I was standing behind a few Argentine girls in the ticket line who had a friend saving them a spot in the bus line, and they let me pretend that I was their friend in order to jump the queue.
Around 6am I arrived at the top of the mountain, where I met Antoine and the others who had chosen to hike up instead. (They were all popping Immodiums, so clearly I wasn’t the only one to be affected by Montezuma’s revenge.) Our guide arrived soon thereafter, and we started the tour of the famous Inca ruins.
It took me about three minutes to realize that there was no way I could–or wanted to–keep up with the group’s fast pace, so Antoine and I broke off from the group and did our own thing at a much more relaxed tempo. We climbed a long rock staircase to a stunning viewpoint over the entire site, taking the requisite bird’s-eye photos before slowly descending back down to the ruins.
**Stuck-Up, Ungrateful, Bitter Old Lady Traveler Alert!!** Macchi Picchu is something I had been looking forward to visiting for years, and it was an incredible, mystical place; however, I’m not sure it exactly lives up to all its hype. I felt like the location and the atmosphere was indeed incredible, built atop steep lush green mountains, encircled by wispy clouds, and ensconced in fog. Llamas munching on patches of emerald grass. But the ruins themselves were just average, and the fact that they were built in the 15th century minimized the awe factor for me. When compared to other great man-made wonders I’ve seen in my lifetime–Angkor Wat, the Pyramids of Giza, even the Great Wall of China–I’d have to say that Machu Picchu pales in comparison. Call me Debbie Downer, or maybe it was a combination of Inca ruin burnout and the after-effects of my Pisco poisoning, but I just wasn’t that impressed. (This is also a sign that I’ve been taking in too many sights on this trip. Time to take a break, methinks.)
After we had had enough of Machu Picchu, Antoine and I took a bus back down to
Aguas Calientes and our hostel to meet up with our guide. The day before, when I was buying my train ticket at the hydroelectric station, I asked our guide if I should go ahead and buy our return tickets for the following day. He informed me that he would take care of that later in the afternoon. However, when we asked about it at dinner (right when the cocktail of death was kicking in), the guide swore he had never said what he said, and that unfortunately all train tickets for the next day were sold out. @&$?!. Even though he refused to admit his mistake, the guide went with us to the train station at noon to try to get me on the 12:30pm train.
Despite our begging, pleading, bribing, the conductors refused to let me on the train. Most annoying was the fact that the train had about 6 compartments: one swanky compartment for tourists (which was full) and five basic compartments for locals (which were empty). They refused to let me ride in the local compartment. Even my request to sit on the floor or in a bathroom was denied. Clearly my cripple card was not accepted in Aguas Calientes.
As we watched the train pull out of the station from the sunny platform, I strapped on my backpack and started walking. At that point we had two hours to walk to the hydroelectric station before our waiting van would depart for Cusco. I knew we wouldn’t make it in time, but I just wanted to get the hell out of bloody Aguas Calientes and take our chances on the other side.
Antoine and I ended up getting in a fight as we were trekking along the train tracks (as you do when you’re frustrated, angry, tired, hot, and suffering from Pisco sour poisoning), and he stalked off ahead of me, leaving me behind in my self-pity (but not before I called him a bad word that rhymes with Rick). I eventually caught up to him at a tiny train depot, where he was chatting with two French backpackers who were hanging out by the tracks.
He had told them about our train dilemma, and they immediately offered us their two tickets for the day’s last train, which would be coming through at any minute. Antoine and I couldn’t believe our luck, and even though we tried to protest, we happily accepted the tickets (I love the French!). Therefore, we made it to the hydroelectric station just in time to catch our van, and five hours after that, we arrived back in Cusco. We went out for a nice celebratory dinner. We were friends again.
The next morning we checked out of the hostel and spent the day wandering around the clean streets of Cusco. It began to rain, so we ducked into a huge market for a fresh juice and lunch. Confession: I ate a small piece of fish. The Belgian Barbarian forced his ceviche on me. First bite of meat that has crossed my lips in eight years, and I have to admit it was delicious; nevertheless, after that single lapse I am back on the vegetarian wagon.
For our last night in Cusco (and traveling together), Antoine and I climbed a long flight of stairs through the San Blas neighborhood to a mirador overlooking the city to catch the sunset. We then met up with my old pals Jove and Clare (Remember them? From Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Chile?) for a final dinner and drinks. We made it to our overnight bus just in the nick of time, a bus that would take us back across the border to La Paz, Bolivia, where Antoine was to fly back to Belgium and where I was to continue my journey.
Next stop: La Paz (Part 2) and Coroico, Bolivia.