Sorry it's been so long since you've heard from us. We're now back in civilization after an exhausting but exhilarating trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu!
But we're getting ahead of ourselves... back to Madrid, where we left you at the end of our last posting. We reached the airport in good time, and check-in went smoothly, apart from when an escalator bit of a large chunk out of one of Beckie's crocs – fortunately leaving her toes in tact! There was also a very amusing incident at the security scanner when the carry-on bag belonging to the couple behind us scrolled into view with the outline of a handgun plainly visible! Needless to say, the security officer had a major conniption, jabbing at the screen and yelling in Spanish words to the effect of “What the hell is this?!?” The contents of the bag were immediately disgorged on the counter, and the gun and its packaging unceremoniously ripped to shreds and dumped in the trash, despite the fact that it turned out to be a toy water pistol! Several minutes later, the security officer could still be seen scowling and shaking his head in incredulous disgust.
The long flight to Lima with Iberia was uneventful enough, though decidedly lacking in the entertainment department, and snacks appeared to be a self-service affair, requiring us to browse through the kitchens at both ends of the plane! But there was a very cool tail cam, which gave us a flight-simulator-like display on the overhead screens from above the clouds all the way to the gate. We could even see the puff of smoke from the wheels as we touched down! And we had some spectacular mountain views from the windows on our final approach.
We arrived in Lima around 6 in the evening, and our connecting flight to Cusco didn't leave until 5:30 the next morning, but we decided not to venture into the city, as it has a decidedly unsafe reputation for wandering travelers after dark. We had been rather dreading a night in the terminal building, but surprisingly, it turned out to be quite enjoyable. We have to say that in our experience, if you have to spend the night at an airport, Lima is the place to do it! We were able to check our bags early and make our way immediately to the domestic departure gates, where airport staff directed us to a quiet area downstairs with dimmed lighting that was perfect for spreading out our sleep sacks and settling down for the night. Toilets were conveniently situated nearby and were kept spotless by the cleaning crew, there was free high speed wireless internet access, and the padded seats had no armrests, allowing us all to stretch out very comfortably. More backpackers trickled in throughout the evening, and while the airport staff checked on us periodically, they seemed quite happy to accommodate our impromptu little dormitory.
Feeling surprisingly refreshed, we left Lima for Cusco as planned on a LAN Peru flight early the following morning. Unexpectedly, the seats on the plane were very comfortable, the crew unusually attentive, and the snacks delicious and beautifully presented in a classy box worthy of Richard Branson's PR team. In no time we found ourselves emerging from the plane at Cusco, to our first experience of the extremely chilly early morning air and beautiful mountain vistas that would become very familiar during our stay in Peru. The airport was one of the smaller ones we've passed through, and Beckie Luke found it amusing to be able to watch the bags being driven from our plane and thrown through a large hole in the wall onto a belt that was far too small to accommodate it all, resulting in several major luggage jams. But eventually we had all our packs, and a short taxi ride later we were dropped in the heart of the historic part of the city, from where we hiked up the narrow cobbled pedestrian streets to our hostel.
As luck would have it, we arrived in Cusco just as the three-day Fiesta Virgen del Carmen got underway, so the city was busy with preparations for dramatic costumed parades, and elaborate homemade firecracker displays (which were subsequently launched at all hours, day and night, for the duration of our stay!) Of course this meant hostel rooms were hard to find, so we were glad of our reservation, made long ago before we left home. Unfortunately the intervening months had seen a few very negative reviews about our chosen hostel posted online, involving lost reservations and tangles with police over payment disputes. So it was with some trepidation that we checked in at “Hostal Sweet Daybreak”, but fortunately, aside from the fact that the staff spoke no English, we had no problems. The beds were not the most comfortable we had slept in and there was no complimentary breakfast, but there were plenty of blankets to keep us warm, the showers were nice and hot, we had beautiful views over the city from our balcony, and the place had a cozy, friendly atmosphere. Our room also had its share of entertaining quirks, including a bathroom light switch attached to the wall using copious amounts of packing tape, and positioned to serve a convenient secondary purpose as a door lock!
You probably won't be surprised to hear that Cusco is another Unesco World Heritage Site, but we had not anticipated just how stunningly beautiful it would be. Sprawling across the Huatanay river valley with striking mountain ranges on either side, it is full of history and character. Once the leading city of the Inca empire, it is now the undisputed archaeological capital of the Americas, and the continent's longest continuously inhabited city. Its historic center is a maze of narrow cobbled streets and stone stairways, with Inca remains and architectural masterpieces at every turn, and a lively mix of tourists and locals in traditional dress. Up the hill in the quieter San Blas neighborhood where we were staying, the streets were lined with traditional whitewashed houses with blue shutters, interspersed with small restaurants and artisan shops. And in comparison to cities we visited in Southeast Asia, Cusco is incredibly clean and beautifully presented, and seems to have avoided the crass over-commercialization that afflicts the tourist centers of cities like Kathmandu.
In spite of the friendly locals and crowds of tourists, Peru has turned out to be one of the more difficult places for us to navigate, mainly due to the fact that hardly any locals speak good English. We hadn't anticipated how essential it would be to speak the local lingo in this part of the world. Rachael has dusted off her high school languages, and done an admirable job of communicating using her limited Spanish vocabulary supplemented with a mix of English, French and creative gesturing, but has found this situation incredibly frustrating, and vowed to brush up on her Spanish when we get home! Another problem is that establishment owners in Peru seem to take the same nonchalant attitude towards opening times that we experienced in Madrid. Several times we have arrived at a restaurant to find it completely shuttered up just when we were dying for a good meal.
And to make matters worse, our Lonely Planet guide has started to let us down with worrying regularity for the first time on the trip. Several times we've walked half-way across town to discover that a highly recommended shop or restaurant is now completely non-existent, or to find a proprietor with no knowledge of a special deal we were expecting. And we've met other travelers who've had similar “Lonely Planet moments” all across South America. All very strange after the great success we've had with these guides throughout the rest of the world. And yes, Stephanie, it has occurred to us that perhaps we shouldn't have so rudely rejected the offer of your Rough Guide!
Fortunately, thanks to a tip from a fellow traveler at our hostel, we discovered a fabulous vegetarian restaurant, Govinda Lila, that was completely unmentioned in our guide and is on Carmen Baja just a couple of blocks from where we were staying. Entered by stooping through a tiny blue door in the wall, it was located in the cozy front room of a family home, and for just 5 soles ($2), offered a different fixed three course meal every day, always including a delicious soup made to a local recipe, lots of fresh vegetables, and a hearty main course of beans and rice. Needless to say, this immediately became our new favorite restaurant, which we relied on for our main sustenance each day.
In between eating and sleeping, we had a few errands to run in preparation for our visits to Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. As we wandered across town, we enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere and watching the festivities. We also became acutely aware of the temperature extremes associated with the high altitude here. Dropping to near freezing at night, then soaring into the 20s C during the day, it was a constant struggle to regulate our body temperatures. Every night was spent huddled under layers of blankets, where even fully dressed, Rachael barely managed to stay warm! And the frigid temperatures continued well into the morning, requiring hats, gloves and fleeces as soon as we ventured out of bed. But then of course we'd step out of the shade, and find ourselves stripping off the layers and frantically applying high factor sunscreen to protect ourselves from the burning rays beating down through the virtually non-existent ozone layer. But invariably it would only be an hour or so before some clouds rolled in and we were shivering once again and pulling our fleeces and woolly hats back on!
We decided to postpone major sightseeing until later in our trip, focusing these initial three days simply on acclimating to the altitude. And it turned out to be an essential adjustment period prior to embarking on the Inca Trail. It took all of us a while to get used to breathing the thin air, but as suggested by his experiences in the Himalayas, Jeremy was more affected than the rest of us, suffering headaches and nausea the first couple of nights. Fortunately the readily available coca tea seemed to be quite effective in allaying the symptoms, and after numerous cups of this brew, and two days of rest, he finally got a good night's sleep, and to his great relief felt himself again just in time to hit the trail.
(On an unrelated note, we incorrectly dated our Madrid posting, which meant that only the first four photos were viewable below the text. If you missed the other photos, you can see them now by clicking the Madrid link below.)