Cusco at last…

We arrived in Cusco at 4:30 a.m. and warily approached the taxi drivers hanging out just outside the station. Colin pulled his knife from our checked luggage and tucked it into his pocket. We bought the knife specifically for the trip, though both of us doubted we’d actually be able to use it if a dangerous situation presented itself. A couple weeks before the trip Colin went to the army surplus store in SLO and told the person behind the counter that he wanted to buy something that looked scary. We’d read so many stories about taxi drivers taking tourists to locations where their friends waited to rob them. And while we recognized that those stories represented a very small percentage of interactions between tourists and taxi drivers, it was one of those frustrating situations we felt we couldn’t control. We couldn’t ask our hostel to call us a taxi because we weren’t at our hostel. We had no phone. And we were in a foreign city at 4:30 a.m. So, if we were ever at another person’s mercy, it was then.

Our taxi driver turned out to be a really nice guy, who explained to us that the street where our hostel—Yawarmaki—was located could not be driven down. It was more like an alleyway, really, so he drove down a very narrow street that probably should not have allowed vehicles either, and dropped us off at the entrance to the narrow road. We walked along the cobblestoned street to the very end but couldn’t find any sign announcing the presence of a hostel called Yawarmaki. Despite the fact that we were lost in an alleyway in the dark, I actually felt reasonably safe and had decided I would just sit down and sleep against one of the walls, when a man appeared from one of the buildings. We asked him if he knew where Yawarmaki was, and he pointed to one of the entrances a few yards away. Fortunately, the owner of the hostel happened to appear as well, and she let us in with a great deal of clucking and fuss over us. Her name was Rachel, pronounced Rocquel, and her hostel had no sign outside, or any other indication that it was a tourist habitation.

We had a reservation for that night, but our check-in wasn’t until 1 p.m. Rachel allowed us to pile our luggage in one corner of the common room and gestured to indicate that we were to occupy the small couches in front of the television. I got the couch with the Spiderman blankets while Colin had Winnie the Pooh. At one point, Rachel piled another blanket on me, setting the tone for our stay in Cusco, during which she fussed and mothered us in a way that was really quite heart-warming. We slept until about 7:30 a.m., despite the fact that other tourists were eating breakfast several feet away, and probably got a pretty good look at us sleeping, which I’m pretty sure was not pretty. Rachel materialized and seemed really concerned about my cold so she put together a cup of oregano tea with honey, and insisted that I drink it all before we would be allowed to leave the couch. She spoke rapid Spanish, so I’m sure there was a great deal I did not catch, but I gathered that there was another drink of pisco, lemon, and salt, that she wanted me to drink that night before I went to bed. I agreed, mostly because I was pretty sure I would not leave the Spiderman couch until I did.

We left to find the United Mice office in order to pay the remainder of our bill for the Machu Picchu _MG_7657trek we would be taking in two days. We were told that our guide’s name was Walter, and both walked away from our briefing feeling fairly confident about the hike. We walked around Cusco for awhile. I ate a dish of avocado piled high with potatoes, mayonnaise, and some other vegetables, which was incredibly delicious. The city truly was fantastic—very European, set against deeply green mountains, which was a color we’d missed during the long sojourn from Lima to Puno.

The road to our hostel was quite silly. The sidewalk is so narrow that only one person can walk at a time, and there’s no space to pass someone coming from the opposite direction so you have to move into the road. Which is almost impossible because the road is also quite narrow and there’s a near-constant flow of traffic. In fact, if a larger truck tries to drive through, the people on the sidewalk have to lean back to avoid being hit by a mirror.

It rained that night, and Colin and I wore our cheap, plastic ponchos, which all but eliminate visibility. Which is pretty much perfect in a city where traffic moves at a rapid pace, and pedestrians mostly just have to hope they’re faster. We walked to Casa del Sabor and purchased one empanada each, coffee, hot chocolate, a passionfruit crème dessert, and a lime tart. Total cost: $14. As we ate, fireworks went off over the plaza. We were both in a great mood. We’d dropped our laundry off at a service near the hostel—six kilograms of laundry, totaling 27 soles (about $10). They promised to deliver the laundry to our hostel by the following day at 7 p.m., and I just knew that getting our laundry would feel just like unwrapping presents at Christmas. Colin had been wearing dirty underwear and even with my compromised nose, I knew that I smelled. By attempts at hand washing my clothes somehow resulted in the clothing smelling worse than it had before.

I was not the only sickie in the hostel. Rachel had mentioned that someone was vomiting, and I felt particularly sympathetic. It’s no fun being sick in a foreign country. I’d recovered from the food poisoning, but my lips were chapped and my nose sore from my cold, I kept finding little bits of toilet paper in my pockets. Still, I’d rather be sniffling in a foreign country than vomiting, and I’ve had ample comparison. That night, when we were already in bed, Rachel knocked determinedly on the door. “Ashley! Ashley!” I went out to find her brandishing a mug of hot liquid with a pungent smell. The pisco she’d mentioned earlier. She insisted, once again, that I was to drink it all, but I felt sufficiently drunk after a single sip to understand that there was no way I was knocking back the entire mug. Colin tried to help me out, but took a drink and pulled back with an expression of such distaste that I knew he wasn’t going to be able to chug it either. We rolled a towel onto the floor, took an empty CocaCola bottle out of the trash, and began pouring the pisco nightmare into the bottle. The following morning, we smuggled it out of the room and poured the evidence down the sink.

At the end of this entry I wrote: “Six more days in this country. Thank god it’s not more because we are so loaded down with regalos I can barely move.”

We went to the Cusco Planetarium the following night, mosty at my behest because I needed to do research for my third book, which will be set in the Amazon, and about which I am terribly excited. I know I looked like a huge nerd, as the only person in the audience taking notes, but, well, I didn’t really care. It was utterly fascinating, and I’m sure to write more about it later, especially after I finish Book Two and move on to the third.

At this point I’m going to skip over my Machu Picchu notes and write a blog post about that for tomorrow. Instead, I’ll skip ahead to our return to Cusco from Machu Picchu.

It was pouring when our bus dropped us off at the Plaza del Armas, and Colin was starting to get sick, making him particularly grumpy. He particularly wanted a hot shower, so we tried to race back to the hostel as quickly as possible. We knew that there was hot water at certain hours of the morning—not too early, but not too late—and we also knew that there was a cutoff point in the early evening after which there would not be a single drop of hot water. And he really wanted that hot shower. We returned to the hostel only to find that there would be no hot showers that night. Colin was not happy. After a brief period of pining for the hot shower that was not to be, he decided he was hungry so we went across the alley for some food. Which was actually pretty good. The quality of the food in Cusco consistently impressed me. Colin was eating a little meat because it smelled so good and I was utterly in love with the diversity and quality of the desserts the city offered.

We went to sleep early and woke up a little before 8 a.m. There were hot showers—praise Dios—and we went downstairs for the delicious breakfast Rachel put together every morning: tea, freshly-made juice smoothie, and delicious bread with butter and jam. She always offered more, but we were thrilled with the regular spread. It was our last full day in Cusco; the following day we had an early afternoon flight to Lima. Our trip was definitely winding down, and we had a lot we still wanted to do in Cusco, which I still found completely enchanting.

We caught a taxi to Christo Blanco, the giant, very white statue of Jesus overlooking Cusco. We snuck in _MG_8235 _MG_8239a few photos with Jesus, who we carry in Colin’s backpack hoping for a few humorous shots with him. The back down the hill to the Plaza del Armas to visit the chocolate museum. Colin bought a bottle of flavored Pisco as a present and we visited the attached café under the pretense of wanting hot chocolate. What we wound up ordering puts most of the hot chocolates I’d had to shame. I ordered a Mayan hot chocolate, which arrived as a jar of chocolate, a jar of steamed milk, a plate of honey, and a plate of chili powder, all of which I mixed to suit my own tastes. It was freaking incredible. Colin ordered a boozy European hot chocolate which he liked, but was too strong for me. And we ordered a brownie. Between it all, we were quite satisfied and quite full and we returned to the hostel for a quick breather and to watch some dramatic crashes on television.

That afternoon, we visited San Pedro market to gawk at donkey heads. This market literally has _MG_8264 _MG_7680 _MG_7673everything. All the typical tourist stuff: llama hats and llama jackets and, well, llama everything. But it also had aisles and aisles of booths where women mixed all sorts of fruits to produce the best juice in the world. And there were stalls of freshly-prepared food, which reminded me so much of the medina in Marrakech. And there were long rows of pig snouts and donkey heads, and even a bucket of live frogs writhing around as if they understood just how dreary their fate would be if they did not escape. I wan ted to kick over the bucket, or ask how much it would cost, but where would I have set them free in the middle of a giant city? We bought choclo con queso—a very large, pale, ear of corn, with a slab of what looked like mozzarella cheese, for 3 soles ($1 or so). We retired to the steps of a church outside and began to eat_MG_8267 _MG_8271 _MG_8261 the corn, swapping bites.

From there, we wandered to Paddy’s which advertises itself as the highest 100% Irish-owned bar in the world. I’m not sure how authentic this claim was, given that the menu advertised Irish carbombs, and most Irish people I’ve met aren’t all that amused by the name of that particular drink. Colin had a couple beers, which he described as shitty, and we headed to a Japanese restaurant (Kintaro) we’d spotted off to the corner in a narrow market. The entrance was quite literally a hole in the wall, which we entered, followed by a set of stairs, which turned into a contemporary, spacious restaurant. Colin’s eyes lit up when he saw it. We both love Japanese food, but he went to Japan last year, and has always had a bit of a love affair with the culture. I described the space in my notes as an elegant cavern, but I’m not satisfied at this summation of the restaurant’s aesthetic. Colin ordered trout on a pile of Japanese rice and I ordered a curry udon, both of which turned out to be some of the best Japanese food I’d ever tasted. I marveled at the wonder of eating remarkably flavorful Japanese food in Cusco, which sort of felt like the end of the world, despite being a relatively large and culturally rich city. A lot of places in Peru felt that way. Stark. Intense. As though your own comfortable world was so far away that you really might as well be inhabiting another world altogether.

We practically skipped back to the hostel, where we somehow managed to pack all of our souvenirs and presents into my giant blue suitcase, Colin’s large backpack, a little black duffel bag, his small red backpack, my small green backpack, and a plastic bag we’d been given at a shop in Cusco.

The following morning, we had one final, delicious Yawarmaki breakfast, paid for our nights in Cusco, and took a taxi to the airport. Which was weirdly overwarm. We sat and sweated and waited for the plane, which took off about an hour late, then we practically touched down the second we had achieved full altitude. What would have been a long and dangerous bus ride amounted to a mere hour or so on the plane.

The taxi ride to the hostel was 55 soles, and we arrived in Miraflores ready for our final two nights in Peru. It was a strange sense of Déjà vu, after rarely spending more than a single night in the same place, to return to the same hostel we’d visited more than two weeks before, riding from the same airport. I was a lot more relaxed, and didn’t panic about the mad way the Peruvians drive, instead accepting that they knew what they were doing and we would arrive at the hostel without incident. Even when we almost slammed headfirst into a construction truck. They’d gotten us this far. Through the dunes on the crazy ATV that kept breaking down. Through Iquitos on the crazy mototaxi that kept breaking down. Over Nazca on a plane that thankfully never threatened to break down. A day and a half in Lima was small potatoes. The hard part was over, and that meant that the wildly fun part was as well. Arriving in overcast Lima was like setting one foot back in reality, and while I really was ready to return home, it felt like we’d left Peru behind us.

(PHOTOS BY COLIN RIGLEY)

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