After much delay (it’s been two weeks now since Machu Picchu), I begin a series of posts about the Inca Trail. As always, my travel writings go under the working title of “Stay out of circulation til the dogs get tired”.
Day 1 — Cusco
“Saturday, May 30
After almost 24 hours since I got to Heathrow, I am in Cusco. I feel fuzzy with the altitude, but mostly ok — and though my foot does worry me, I have to now try not to get too worried. It is bright, warm and sunny, and the air is filled with traffic noise and car horns.
Peru is a dusty brown colour, with dark green trees. The earth-toned buildings look like they are part of the landscape, almost as if they just grew here, instead of being made.
[later]The city doesn’t seem to ever slow down. It’s now 6pm, and dark, but the city still rumbles on.
We arrived in Lima in that dazed, half-awake, half-asleep state that comes with long-haul flying. I spend most of my time travelling in this kind of waking-sleep state, due to my ability to fall asleep in almost any moving vehicle. Aeroplanes used to be a kind of exception to this — mostly because you don’t really notice you are moving — but I happily slept almost the whole journey from London to New York, and then New York to Lima.
What had been billed as a long stop-over in New York instead became a rush across the airport — we’d been late taking off from Heathrow, and by the time we got to New York they were holding our plane for us.
Stepping off the plane in Lima, we were met by what appeared to be a doctor and a nurse wearing surgical masks, giving out information on swine flu. Despite the virus starting in Central America, many South American countries are still largely unaffected — Peru for example has only a handful of cases, compared to those in the United Kingdom. I imagine swine flu would be a lot more dangerous in a third world country like Peru, so their precautions weren’t overzealous — but it was a disturbing sight to be met with.
Unfortunately, out of the 50 or so of us travelling together for Macmillan, only about 10 bags made the journey from New York. Because of how delayed we had been, there hadn’t been time to load many bags — and a lot of people had only the clothes they were standing in. On the other hand, I always pack under the assumption that my bag is likely to be lost somewhere and include a change of clothes in my hand luggage.
The less said about Lima, the better. We didn’t see anything of the city, but from all the accounts I’ve heard that’s for the best. After filling out forms about our lost bags, we hopped on a short flight to Cusco, where I promptly went back to sleep and woke up only as we were landing.
Cusco — the cultural capital of Peru, and the former capital of the Inca empire — was vibrant, full of colours and people and noise and life. We were staying in the Savoy hotel, which our guides had gone to some pains to point out was not to the same standard as the Savoy in London. Part of the hotel was closed due to building work, and apparently it was something of a lottery if the showers worked. My shower worked — sort of — but the room was clean and the beds were large and comfortable. That was good enough for me.
After dropping our bags and a meal at the hotel, our hardy band of adventurers set out into the city. Along the roads were markets where local people sold their wares to tourists — ponchos, blankets, carvings. Each stall holder would call out “Hola, amigo” and try to entice you over. I deliberated for a long time before buying a poncho myself, but I figured it would come in useful at nights on the Inca trail. Half the fun in buying anything was bartering with the seller for a good price. Everything was a good price to begin with, the Peruvian Sol was about three to the Dollar, and with almost two Dollars to the Pound, nothing was too expensive. Just the same, I’d ask how much it was, mentally convert it, and then try and get them to knock about another ten off the price.
In Cusco it seemed there was always some kind of a parade going on, without explanation and without anyone paying too much attention. Maybe it was a special weekend.
In the evening, the Discover Adventure guides took us to a local restaurant for a chance to sample some Peruvian cuisine. Even though the restaurant was run by a Scotsman called Dougie. I turned away the chance to eat guinea pig when it was presented to us, since the creature still had paws. Had it been served as just sliced meat, I might have been willing to perhaps consider giving it a try — but when it still looked like someone’s pet, I wasn’t keen. In fact, I don’t think I tried anything Peruvian that night since the buffet also included a couple of chinese style dishes. I just wasn’t in that kind of place where I wanted to be eating something unknown, when we’d be spending the next few nights camping, without proper toilets or showers. What did catch my interest was when I discovered the owner of the bar also ran an adventure sports company, and he offered me the chance to go mountain biking on the last day in Cusco.
I turned down the chance to go drinking after the meal — although I wasn’t feeling too bad for the altitude, it was a fairly early start the next day to go on an “acclimatisation walk” in the foothills, and I wanted a clear head for it.