Episode 10: Cusco/Puno, Peru
Beard length (Tom): Tommy Saxondale
Skin colour (both): Winter sunrise
Location: Arica, Chile
Date: 16th April 2010.
Before I begin my usual rant of negativity, let me make it very clear that we have the utmost sympathy with the people living around the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu for the problems they’ve had since January. It was clear from our visit that the repair work has only just begun, and we were lucky to be able to go at all, the ruins having only opened for business 2 weeks prior to our arrival.
That said, Machu Picchu is a licence to print money, pure and simple. Totally worth it, but a huge expense and effort. Before we get to that, let me take you briefly through our bitter-sweet couple of days in Cusco.
Cusco is a lovely place. Very relaxed, lovely squares, great views around the city, excellent museums and sites, friendly people, good bars and restaurants and plenty of gringos (now our yardstick for how much we like a place sadly). Bitter-sweet? Indeed.
I mentioned in my previous update how much you get hassled in Cusco and they didn’t relent. Literally every 5 yards, especially round the main square, we were offered massages, restaurants, paintings, tours, food, jewellery and stuffed animals.
Unfortunately our growing annoyance at having to continually say “No Gracias” came to an unsightly head when I beat a 6-year-old girl to the floor for offering me a friendship bracelet.*
The other major down-side to Cusco was the tourist ticket which you have to buy if you want to see the vast majority of the key ruins, museums and other city sights. It doesn’t include the churches (thankfully).
It costs over 40 quid (which is extortionate by Peruvian standards), although you can buy a partial ticket for about 20 quid, which allows you into four of the Inca sites. The drawback with this is that you have to do them all in one day, and they’re all several kilometres outside the city and not exactly close to each other.
In the end, after berating a shrugging tourist office guy, we managed to persuade the officials at one of the sites to give us a ticket just for that site (which kind of makes a mockery of the whole tourist ticket, but there you go).
The only other minor gripe with Cusco was that the pavements were like ice-rinks, it was astounding that neither of us came a cropper (especially as I now smack my head on at least one thing per day). So, we can’t fill you in on all the wonderful Inca ruins around Cusco, because we’re too tight-fisted.
I can tell you though that we went to Sacsayhuaman, a huge and impressive fortress on a hill overlooking the city, whose walls are built with enormous stones in a zig-zag shape (all the better for attacking an interloper’s flanks by all accounts). From here we had fantastic views of the city and surrounding hills and the slightly smug feeling we always get when climbing up a steep hill without passing out.
The following day we went to a couple of museums, both excellent. The Inka museum (don’t ask me why it’s sometimes spelled with a K and sometimes with a C) was very interesting, but would have been more interesting still had they translated all the labels/descriptions into English, rather than arbitrarily translating about 5% of them!
The museum of pre-Columbian art was even more impressive, with perfectly preserved intricate exhibits of, well, pre-Columbian art. Nothing in this world is above criticism though, and it seems that the pretentious bollocks that is written about exhibits in British museums is prevalent here as well, as you can see below.
We headed off to Machu Picchu that afternoon – a bus through the mountains to Urubamba; a cramped mini-van to Ollantaytambo; a few hours holed up in a cafe; a mini-bus to Piscacucha and finally, a train to Aguas Calientes (the town nestled below the ruins at Machu Picchu). Normally this journey would be one train ride, so it was quite an effort and about 8 hours in total.
Let’s get my griping out-of-the-way first, in no particular order of fury-inducement:
- The hostel owners had arranged to meet us at the station, but didn’t show up, then laughed about it when we asked why they hadn’t
- There was no cash in the only ATM in town
- The mini-bus to the ruins was 9km and took thirty minutes. It cost 80 Peruvian soles, more than our 7 hour/400km journey to Puno would cost the following day
- The touts for restaurants in Aguas Calientes were worse than those in Cusco (we couldn’t believe this, but it was true)
- Our meal of pizza and a couple of beers cost more than Jane’s birthday meal in a decent restaurant of alpaca steak
- We saw a small dog attacked by two smaller dogs
- No cafes/bars in which to kill the 9 hours until your train
Enough negatives, the place was fantastic. For starters, we had splendid weather for our early start, the bus was prompt and didn’t topple over the perilous cliffs beside the dirt road up the mountain.
The ruins were everything we expected, beautifully preserved stonework, neat agricultural terraces and jaw-dropping scenery all around. If that wasn’t enough, we even saw a rabbit sitting half-way up a wall – now that’s something you don’t see every day!
We spent a very pleasant couple of hours strolling around the ruins (and taking copious pictures), with our knees taking a battering due to the many, many steps. We loved it, and the only thing which could have improved it would have been some information boards or leaflets (a guide would have been better still, but we couldn’t even afford to buy extra water thanks to the cash machine situation!).
We retraced our steps to Cusco that evening with some trepidation, since although we’d been assured by Perurail that there would be plenty of buses heading from Ollantaytambo to Cusco that night, we didn’t particularly fancy being stranded in the back of beyond at 11.30pm.
And so it came to pass that there was one bus waiting at Ollantaytambo, which we got on, but our hearts sank when a chap wearing a day-glo tabard got on wielding a list of names. Ours were not on it of course, but for another 20 soles each, we could stay onboard (goodness knows what happened to those who were on the list but not on the bus – we quietly enquired about their welfare but the day-glo fella pocketing our cash didn’t seem too perturbed).
The bus was unneccessarily delayed when a particularly unpleasant young lady whose name wasn’t on the list refused to pay or get off the bus, claiming she should be on the list and had no cash (for fear of making enemies I won’t divulge her nationality but it rhymes with Fottish). This half-hour stand off came to an end when an American woman paid for the obnoxious oik (at one point I promise you she even said “No speako espagnol”). The mangy cow didn’t even say thank you!
Rolling into bed at 2.30am didn’t really set us up for the 6.30am start the following day for our bus to Puno. We were hardly jumping for joy then, when another tabard wearing official at the bus station in Cusco (this time with the scare-mongering slogan “Live or Die: You Decide” on the back), decided our bus was unroadworthy and ordered us all off. This of course prompted heated debates and gesticulation, hasty refunds and a scrum for tickets on the next buses out of town.
We did our bit for the Cusco economy by buying tickets for two different buses, after being told by locals that the first company we’d opted for weren’t to be trusted. Quite what this meant we weren’t sure, but for the sake of a few quid, we opted for the “safer” option.
Thank goodness we did, because when an indigenous woman got on bearing food half-way through the journey, we expected the usual selection of flaccid empañadas and plantain crisps. Our eyes lit up with glee when we discovered that what we’d paid just over an English pound for was a huge hunk of barbequed lamb and some spuds.
The outskirts of Puno didn’t exactly impress us – rubble, (corpses of) stray dogs and half-built buildings. However, our hostel was nice enough, the Chinese meal we had was huge and we booked a day-trip on Lake Titicaca the following day.
We’re supposed to be on holiday, so you can imagine my disgust when for the third successive day we were up before 6.30am. The trip (well, half of it) was excellent. The afternoon unfortunately was a visit to an island, which frankly could have been any town on the mainland, where we were fleeced for an average lunch. The 2.5 hour boat trip each way wasn’t really worth it.
The morning, however, was spent visiting the floating islands of Uros. They’re made of reeds, as is pretty much everything on the island, and we learnt about their construction and traditions, met the people, saw their huts and tried on their clothes (with their permission). We declined to purchase their wares, although I think you’ll agree that I cut the jib in the alpaca shirt.
- “Look, they have leeks” – no, they don’t, they have reeds and they’re about 5 metres long
- Covering her face in disgust when a bowl of live fish (in water) was shown around
- “I need to get out of here, there are too many people, I’m having a panic attack” – in the hut. She left the hut approximately 30 seconds later after taking multiple photos, so perhaps she wasn’t quite as claustrophobic as she thought
It’s always pleasing to be able to character assassinate at least one person in these updates.
We’ve spurned Bolivia with its cocaine habit and omnipresent corruption and headed south to Chile on a sleepless overnight bus last night. We’re uploading photos while awaiting our overnight bus to the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama tonight. Travelling would be much more pleasant with a teleporter!
Cheerio for now.
* This is a joke of course, it was a boy and he was at least 8.