After a 16 hour bus ride, I arrived in Cusco tired and ready to settle in somewhere. I hailed a taxi and made my way for Pariwana hostel in the historical center of Cusco. After settling in, I was checking my email when Eliza, an attractive woman, approached me about joining the BBQ that night. I readily signed up. Later, I left to go check out the Plaza de Armas and check out my surroundings. When I returned for the BBQ, Eliza serendipitously introduced me to two girls that were taking Spanish lessons. Being one of the things that I wanted to do in South America, I got the information for the Academia Latinoamericana Espanol school. The next morning, I dropped in and immediately signed up for Spanish lessons for the week as well as have a host family assigned to me. Hopefully this is what I need – to maybe lay low for the week and take in the culture a bit.
I spent the week taking private Spanish lessons and checking out the city of Cusco. Cusco has many different plazas, Plaza de Armas being the most popular, and Plaza de Blas, to name a few. Another day, I hiked all the steps to Cristo Blanco, a large Jesus statue overlooking the city of Cusco. I also enjoyed visiting the Church of San Cristobal which has a great overlook of the central part of Cusco. The evenings were spent checking out restaurants. One of my personal favorites is Paddys, advertised as the highest Irish pub in the world. While it may be a total Gringo bar, it’s the only place in South America, besides Cuenca, where I was able to get some decent beer. Old Speckled Hen trounces Cusquena and Pilsner any day of the week. Another noteworthy place is Jack’s Cafe. They served up a mean homemade chicken noodle soup when I needed it most.
Cusco is beautiful city, but it’s also very touristic. Because of that, the cuzquenian people are constantly trying to sell you something. Walking down the street, you’ll be hounded by women for massages, or gift items. The men will hound you about buying paintings or roses. People that work at restaurants stand outside and will shove a menu in your face and try to entice you into their restaurant with the promise of a free Pisco Sour. Some restaurant owners are also involved in 2 or more businesses. At one resturant, the owner approached me while eating my meal and asked if he could talk to me about planning a trip to Machu Picchu and what he could offer in return. You get really good at saying no and many times you’ll make it your personal mission to refuse items from anyone selling. That’s not to say that you don’t ever purchase anything. After a couple days here, I recognized the need for a warm sweatshirt. It is the rainy season and Cusco is typically cold in the evenings this time of year. Stopping by a market one night, I purchased a sweatshirt made from Alpaca fur. Make no mistake – Alpaca fur is “legit”. It keeps the cold out. The forearms of the sweatshirt remind me of the forearms of a wookie, but who’s complaining?
I’ll start by saying that I decided against doing the trek to Machu Picchu. I had heard that you needed to book months in advance and I, unfortunately, did not know when I was going to be arriving in Cusco. That being said, I found that traveling in the off season, you don’t need to book your 4-5 day hike in advance. In fact, most travelers that I’ve encountered here have been booking their treks once they’ve arrived in Cusco. I also discovered that there’s so many options that they can essentially tailor for you once you arrive. There are 4-5 day treks, 2-3 day treks, jungle treks, overnight trips. The reason that you need to book in advance for the on-season is partially because Macchu Picchu only allows 2500 visitors a day into the site. Huayna Picchu only allows 400 visitors a day. So there are definitely benefits to going in the off season.
I went up to Machu Picchu on an overnight trip and stayed in a hostel in Aguas Calientes, the town one typically stays during a trip of this type. While there, make sure you check out the hot springs. It’s a great way to lay around and soak up the atmosphere.
Instead of taking the bus up to Machu Picchu the next day, I opted instead to hike up the mountain with the other overnight pilgrims at 4am the next day. Make no mistake – the hike up is pretty brutal (at least I thought that, before trying Huayna Picchu). It takes about an hour to hour in a half. The hope is to see Machu Picchu as the sun rises above it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case that morning as everything was shrouded in cloud cover and mist. Nonetheless, Macchu Picchu is spectacular once you enter. Bring plenty of water, since water at the Machu Picchu food stand will run you about 8 peruvian soles for a regular bottle (~ 3.50 USD). I originally had a guide scheduled for a portion of my tour, but instead got tired of waiting for him and eventually went in on my own. It would have been nice to better understand some of the buildings as I explored, but I was able to see and explore more on my own. I ran into other adventurous souls like myself and quite enjoyed having the opportunity to meet and talk with them in a more casual atmosphere.
At around 9:30, everyone scheduled for entrance into Huayna Picchu started arriving outside the gate. At 10am, I was let into and started my trek up to Huayna Picchu. The trek up to Huayna Picchu is probably the toughest and most nerve-racking hike I’ve ever taken in my life. With steep drops and no barrier to stop someone from falling, it’s not for the faint of heart. I’m baffled by how the Inca’s were able to haul stone and materials up Huayna Picchu for construction of their city. As I was going up, I saw young kids bounding down the makeshift stone steps with effortless ease. Mind you, these are the same kids that challenge me to a snowboarding race down a black diamond run. To have that kind of fearlessness. Regardless of the nerve-wracking experience, the views are breathtaking.
The last two weeks have been pretty relaxed for the most part. I’m occasionally running into other travelers that I met earlier in my adventures. And while you don’t necessarily form extremely tight bonds with these people, the familiarity helps to make some of the undesirable parts of traveling (loneliness, culture shock, etc) more digestible. It provides an anchor, and I think is helping me to appreciate the people that are more constant in my life.