Cusco, Aguas Calientes, Lima and the First 100 Days – A Week in the Life of my RTW
Lima – Last Wednesday, May Day, unceremoniously marked Day No. 100 of my Around the World Trip. I devoted about five minutes of my typically deliberate breakfast time to scribbling notes about the milestone in my journal, but found myself stuck after variations of only two prevailing themes emerged: the first was the clichéd reaffirmation that time continues to pass at an amazing rate (Really?), and the second the rightly self-critical reaffirmation that I’ve done very little writing on this blog over those one hundred days.
In my review of this trip’s first five weeks, posted on the last day of February, I wrote:
There’s been an itch of guilt –albeit a tiny one— lingering unscratched in the back of my mind for not having done much writing here on Piran Café over the past five weeks. I’ve been busily collecting notes from the outset, sometimes incessantly, for what I hope will evolve into a book-length manuscript. I haven’t, however, figured out how to balance that with writing here since the focus of each is necessarily very different. I’m working on a plan, though, that will be set in motion shortly. ☺
Much of that still holds true, except the last bit, since obviously that plan hasn’t yet been set in motion. I’ve already forgotten what that plan was. I don’t have another, but spurred on by some interesting ‘Week in the Life’ posts I recently read on The Professional Hobo, I decided to piece together one of my own, covering the past week. It’s a bit long. But it was a long week. Enjoy.
Cusco and Aguas Calientes, Peru – Monday, April 29
The alarm sounds at 5:45, exactly one hour before my journey towards Aguas Calientes, the gateway town for Machu Picchu, is to begin. I have a taxi ordered for 6:20 and arrive at Cusco’s Wanchaq train station with ample time to spare. As it’s the tail end of rainy season, the train is still operating on its first quarter schedule which means that the first leg of about ninety minutes, from Cusco to the Panchar station, is by bus. This is done, a women’s voice over the loudspeaker tells us, to avoid any possible delays that inclement weather might cause along this initial stretch. There are few clouds in the sky and the air is warm when we board the bus, making her proclamation a bit surreal.
‘We’ in this case is myself and Arul, a drug peddler (aka pharmaceutical rep) from the UK who these days calls Switzerland home. We met last month when we both stayed at the CasArte Hostel in Sucre and crossed paths again two days ago a few minutes after my bus pulled in from Copacabana, Bolivia. “Hey Bob!” were the two syllables I least expected to hear at the Cusco bus terminal at 5:10 in the morning. Arul had just arrived from La Paz.
The train station at Panchar is immaculate; from a distance it looks like a plywood cutout assembled and painted just a day or two before. The men’s room has a generous stock of soft two-ply toilet paper and fresh cut flowers. The last time I sniffed fresh cut flowers in a restroom was at the four-star Fairmont Hotel in Monaco nearly a year ago.
The remainder of the journey is slow but pleasant, tranquil and picturesque, following the Urubamba River — Willkanuta, or house of the sun, to the Aymara – through the lush mountain valleys whose snow-capped peaks are visible through the glass rooftops of the Perurail cars. We arrive at about 11.
Much of Aguas Calientes, a town of about 5,000, is predictably gaudy. Serving as an introduction: the only way out of the train station and onto the restaurant- and souvenir shop-filled streets is to wander through the massive central tourist market.
After strolling up and down the main drag to check out accommodation options, we settle on a place called Angie’s which sets us back 20 soles each, or about 7.50 USD/ 5.75 EUR, and compels me to hum Rolling Stones songs for much of the rest of the day.
Lunch is fairly regrettable which I’ll only remember for my first Inka Cola, an appalling fluorescent yellow fizzy soft drink that tastes like bubble gum from the seventies. I’ve seen couples empty liter-and-a-half bottles over meals. Since there’s not much else to do in Aguas Calientes besides eat and shop, we spend afternoon coffee time watching people avoid freshly laid dog shit on the main drag.
Dinner? If you’re ever in Aguas Calientes, Indio Feliz is the place to eat. Owned and operated by a French-Peruvian couple, it’s hands-down the most exciting place to spend time in this town. Delicious, start to finish.
Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu and Cusco – Tuesday, April 30
The alarm sounds at 4am, but I don’t tumble out of bed until about 4:15 when Arul’s finished in the shower. We’re out the door and in the main square a few ticks before 4:40 where we run into a group of twenty or so very fast-walking French. We reach the main gate right precisely at 5, it’s opening time, where we’re part of a group of about one hundred who are preparing, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to begin the steep hour-long ascent up a few thousand steps with two goals in mind: to arrive at the entrance to the ruins before the first buses do and to witness the sun rise over one of the world’s seven wonders.
I arrive at 6:15, about twenty minutes behind Arul and just after the first two buses arrive. Our early morning effort means that there are only about 200 people spread about the ruins when the sun finally peeks over the jagged eastern mountain peaks at a few minutes before seven. It’s a scene and moment I’ll long remember not so much for its inherent aesthetic appeal but because I feel guilty for feeling underwhelmed by the scene.
The hiking was far from over. After an informative guided tour, at 9:30 we continue upwards to Machu Picchu Mountain, another very steep hour-and-a-half hike. The 360-degree views from the 3,082-meter summit are sensational and go a long way to temper the underwhelming feeling I was struck with a few hours before.
We take a bus back down to Aguas Calientes and kill nearly three hours over a long lunch at Indo Feliz, the only place in town worth visiting twice. The return train goes only as far as Ollantaytambo where Arul decides to stay; along with three others –a couple from Utah and a solo traveler from Tokyo— I negotiate a taxi ride back to Cusco. We each pay 15 Soles, about 5.75 USD/4.40 EUR, for a ride that includes a roadblock set up by squatters camped on a hillside beneath the Southern Cross. I’m back at my hotel at about 10:30 and out for the night less than half an hour later.
Cusco – Wednesday, May 1
I decide on Tuesday that I should stay in Cusco for another two nights, forcing me to spend part of the morning taking care of a short logistical to-do list. Changing the date on my bus departure was possible, I’m told by the person who sold it to me, but it’ll cost 10 soles plus another six for cab fare for him to get it taken care of in person. I thank him and am told to return in about an hour; the colorful May Day parade, with hundreds of local dancers and labor union activists taking part, kept me pleasantly occupied in the meantime.
I celebrate RTW Day No. 100 with an over-priced pizza and a Cusceno beer for lunch, followed with about six hours of work and another early night.
Cusco – Thursday, May 2
I didn’t sleep well but this time it wasn’t because of the dozens of barking dogs that enjoy congregating just below my hotel window most evenings. This time it was screaming coming from the room across the hall, where two young Polish women were trying to scare off a man who grabbed one of them through the bars of a window. They didn’t sleep well either.
I work most of the morning. I meet Arul for lunch at ‘Let’s Go Bananas’, a terrific and cheap vegetarian restaurant. I work most of the afternoon and into the early evening, mainly backing up photos. Another excellent dinner, this time at Inkazuela, currently No. 3 in TripAdvisor’s Cusco restaurant rankings.
Cusco – Friday, May 3
I have a 6pm bus departure for Lima –ETA is roughly 22 hours later– so I spend most of the day at my hotel working and planning an outline of my next few weeks. I make time to spend a couple of hours the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. I order a cab for five which gets me to the bus terminal about fifteen minutes later. It’s already dark when we pull out a few minutes after six. I spend most of the next three hours reading, and the two after that trying to fall asleep.
En route to Lima – Saturday, May 4
I didn’t sleep well. The road over the mountains to the Pacific coast is windy, bumpy and slow. We reach Nasca at about 8, some two hours after the sunrise I was awake for to watch. About twenty minutes north of the city we approach the area’s vast eponymous plain. I’m disappointed that the driver doesn’t take a high road so we can see the famous lines and drawings that have fascinated me since I was seven years old. (Did anyone else read Chariots of the Gods? Back in the early 1970s?)
I arrive in Lima’s outskirts a bit after two and at our destination at just after three. The traffic is heavy. There is no central bus terminal in the Peruvian capital; the end of the line for buses here is their Lima office and depot. Mine is in the Victoria area, which in mid-afternoon is a dizzying flurry of commerce. It takes a taxi about thirty minutes to reach my hotel in the centro historico.
During a walk to get my bearings, I hear a saxophone in the street for the first time since Buenos Aires – more than three months ago. I decide during the stroll that my experience with Lima won’t reach beyond the four block by nine block area of the city’s historical center district that’s illustrated on the business card-sized map my hotel receptionist gives me. My Walden Pond in one of South America’s largest metropolitan areas.
Lima – Sunday, May 5
I wake up still not entirely recovered from the long bus ride. After breakfast I follow the sound of firecrackers to the central Plaza Mayor where a ceremony is taking place in front of the Government Palace. I can’t make out what exactly is transpiring but it involves lots of soldiers clad in ceremonial uniforms –including an entire orchestral brass section– on horseback. Peruvian national TV is filming the proceedings. The street between a temporary grandstand and the front of the Palace is closed to traffic and pedestrians; the only person allowed there is a street cleaner scooping up the horse droppings.
After a three-course seafood lunch that sets me back just 13 soles (5 USD/ 3.80 EUR), I return to my hotel to do a few hours of work, continue to plan my next move, and send off about a dozen emails.
It’s already dark when I venture back out for a bit at 6:30. There’s a crowd gathering in the Plaza San Martin, congregating around a 20-something piece orchestra. The concert, which features a national folklore dance group, is to begin at 7:00. I watch the entire thing. It’s excellent. I’m nearly moved to tears.
I’m lulled to sleep by World’s Greatest Dad, a 2009 Robin Williams film I’d never heard of. He plays a talented but luckless aspiring writer whose rebellious underachieving son dies accidentally while masturbating in an autoerotic asphyxiation episode gone awry. That’s all I can tell you because the movie ended on Monday.