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Published: July 22nd 2009
Despite a strong persuasive attempt by Ines, Aldo, myself and the skillful bartender at the restaurant mixing potent pisco sours, Paul managed to make his flight back to the States... We said our "adios" and once again, I was back on my own, eagerly anticipating the rest of my trip.
After a few more obligatory beverages accompanying the much-needed catch up reunion with Ines and Aldo, I traced the next part of my route, which involved a stop over in Arequipa on my way to the popular Cusco - the lauch pad for Machu Pichu. A few beers later, and after a restful evening spent in Ines' family's incredibly comfortable guest room, I spent the next day touring Lima with the help of my private tour guide (Ines). I never thought I would spend anytime, much less enjoy Lima, as I had other more "exotic" destinations in mind; but seeing this fascinating city with a local, made all the difference in the world!
Next thing I know, I find myself on a full "cama" (bed) bus ride on Cruz del Sur (Peru's finest bus company), headed South to Arequipa overnight, on what should technically be a 14-15 hour bus
ride. However, as luck would have it, I managed to pick the first of many sporadic days of transportation strikes throughout the country, which meant that, halfway through, we encountered a massive protest which forced the bus to stop for a good 5 hours, unable to continue its journey, as planned. Finally, after what appeared to be some diplomatic banter between the driver and the protestors, we manged to compromise by taking a detour which miraculously brought us safe and sound to Arequipa, 10 hours later! It had been about 21 hours since I left the streets of Lima - which felt like eons ago.
Nonetheless, I felt good, having had plenty of chance to sleep and rest, and having made friends with a nice couple from Ireland, sharing snacks, stories and making the trip down much more tolerable. However, as expected, once I got to Arequipa, I inquired about my chances of getting to Cusco, overnight on the next bus, and the response was "muy negativa!" The strikes would go on, which meant there was no way I would get to Cusco (another 7 hours away) that night. In insight, it was probably a good thing, considering how
long I had been on a bus. I could certainly use a night in a real bed to unwind and recharge the batteries before the next trip. Plus, on the bus, I had a chance to read about Arequipa and was excited to check out the town.
As it often happens when you're backpacking on your own, you end up meeting plenty of people, from all corners of the world, doing the same thing, so it was only a matter of time until four of us (including the Irish couple) made our way by taxi to the center of town to find a good hostel for the night. We checked in, gratefully dropped our bag off, and made walked to the center of town to check out the local festivities... I guess we underestimated our lethargy and were overly-ambitious since we all started crashing after a quick meal and a couple of beers. 10 pm bedtime... heaven!
The next day was spent wandering around town, checking out the number of beautiful architectural sites and sorting out the next leg of the trip. Unfortunately (which was somewhat expected), most legit bus companies were continuing to strike so I thought
my best bet would be to get straight to the bus terminal and inquire directly. Most companies were indeed unable to get to Cusco due to the number of "huelgas." So, with my head down, as I was ready to make my way out, en route to the city center for another night, I heard a faint voice grow louder and louder... "Cusco, CUSCO!" Sure enough, I headed in that direction, which turned out to be a tiny kiosk with a small sign, indicating that this bus company was indeed headed East to Cusco despite the strikes. Evidentally, they would take a detour, which meant that what would normally take 6-7 hours, would now take about 12. The bus would leave at 8 pm promptly and would get there at the same time the next morning. Since it was a night bus anyway, I thought, why the hell not - I'll just sleep. In times like these, you don't have many options, so when I found out that the cost would only be 20 soles (about 7 dollars), I knew I was in for an experience... no more 180 degree, full cama luxurious journeys!
And what a journey it
was! Luckily, I managed to get a seat right by the front of the bus, which meant that I was able to stretch my legs out onto the glass, which made the trip slightly more tolerable. It sure was an experience...but, I managed to make it to Cusco afterall, somewhat groggy, but pumped and excited to see Peru's toursitic epicenter and continue the journey... On the way there, I also made friends with Javier, a math teacher from Colombia, who had been traveling by bus from his home country. He would speak to me in English and I would reply in Spanish... I don't know how, but we managed to make ourselves understood and we decided to find a hostel and share a cab to the city center. After scoping out a few options, grabbing some local grub, we agreed on the famous "Loki Hostel," a backpacker favorite, which sits just above the city center (pretty high altitute) and boasts a number of amenities catering for a younger crowd - a fierce happy hour, hammocks, and a number of planned activities, tours and multi-day packages to nearby attractions.
Unfortunately, Javier only had a day in Cusco, which meant that
he would have to go to Machu Pichu the following day early and come back that night in order to make his next bus. After considering my options, I decided that it was time to kick back for a few days and enjoy Cusco. I was getting a great vibe from the place and it felt so nice to finally drop off my bag for a few days after what had been a "go go" high energy couple weeks. He understood and agreed.
So the next day, I woke up, Javier was gone and I headed out to check out the town. And what a beautiful town it is. Filled with small cobblestone streets, all varying in architecture and altitude, Cusco is really an amazing city with lots of energy, most of which stemmed from the number of backpackers inundating the streets bargaining for all kinds of local arts and crafts. In the process, I made friends with a few Americans and we spent the rest of the day, shopping, eating, drinking and sharing stories - a great, relaxing day. After a few hours around town, I came back to the hostel, talked amongst other backpackers and decided that
the best and most economic way to see Machu Pichu was through what is called the "jungle trek" - a 4 days, 3 nights trek, involving biking, hiking, and going through some parts of the classic Inca Trail. I thought, all things considered, it would be the best way to see this natural wonder, and make friends along the way.
I really lucked out! My biggest apprehension, when booking these organized tours, is to end up with a weird crowd, not able to interact with the group and make the most out of the trip - something I had experienced before in Western Australia. The way I see it - you're seeing some beautiful things, so it really makes a huge difference if you are able to share these experiences with a good crew. And I managed to do just that! From the moment we got on the bus, I instantaneously felt that the group was on the same page. I ended up chatting with this guy James, a young Brit from Birmingham who had just graduated from High School and was traveling over the summer before starting University. He and Kyle, another Brit who had just finished "Uni,"
had been traveling for about 9 months and was coming to the end of his travels. The three of us were cracking jokes on the way up, trying to engage the lethargic bus crowd and getting to know our tour guide, "William" who spoke little English, but was full of energy and keen to learn as much colloquial vernacular as possible. Naturally, we taught him all the slang we could think of, varrying from English school style banter to American college expressions...
William, dubbed "El Tiberon" ("The Shark") given his natural proclivity for women, is a legend! His constantly high spirits, energy and enthusiasm made him the perfect tour guide who balanced a high amount of local knowledge with anectodal stories from "Inca times."
In short, the trip was incredilbe. We spent the first day biking down this road, mostly downhill, making our way through the fog, which at times revealed dramatic drops and scenic mountains - a great experience. Naturally, I convinced James and Kyle to ride with me "macho" for a part of the ride. "Macho," for those of you who are not familiar with the expression, invovles wearing a shirt (tee shirt, polo, etc...) but
sans pants, or trousers for my Brit friends. Don't ask me how the term came about, but when friends back home heard that I was headed to "Machu Pichu," it was only natural to expect stern pressure to perform part of the hike macho... "Macho Pichu." All jokes and play on words aside, the first day was great and paved the way for the next three, with a great crew, all eager to discover this beautiful part of the world.
After a restful evening in a local family home in Santa Maria, we all woke up, energized, ready to hike the next part of the trek, which would take us about 8 hours, through parts of the classic Inca Trail. We could not have asked for a better day - clear and slightly breezy, which created a nice relief for the strenous parts of the hike. We finally made it to our next stop, Santa Teresa, after making a much needed stop at the hot springs along the way for a couple beers and a much needed shower! That night, we felt compelled to take "El Tiberon" out to show our respect and appreciation. I think he certainly "appreciated"
our gesture, as we spent the better part of the night, taking down pisco sours, beers, and storming the small town's "Disco." The locals all joined in and next thing we knew, we had created a massive sponatenous dance party... An evening I will never forget.
As one would expect, the next morning, it was a little more difficult to get up, but knowing how close we were getting to Machu Pichu, we somehow managed to dig deep and find some energy to pack our bags and head out for the next part of the trek. Thankfully, the hike proved to be much easier than the day before, mostly straight, and rather uneventful. I used that time to get to know the others from our 15 people group - a really interesting, international, mostly young crew. 6-7 hours later, we made it to Agua Calientes, the home base where we would spend the night to make our early ascent for Machu Pichu the next day. After a quick meal, we headed back to the hostel for a couple hours of sleep (literally) before a 3:30 am wake up call to make it up to the entrance for sunrise, and
before the rest of the crowd.
On a side note, it was July 14th, Bastille day, so naturally, I felt the need to display my patritotic sentiment and wore a red/white/blue headband throughout the hike. Just because you're overseas, in the middle of the jungle, does not mean you should hide your sense of nationalism right - Vive la France!
It felt like I had just closed my eyes before the alarm went off... Despite an obvious collective lethargic mood, we slapped on our head lamps, and made our way up (and I mean UP) the side of the mountain to the base of Machu Pichu, shedding layers of clothes periodically as we climbed higher and higher, getting sweatier and sweatier. With some breathing difficulty (nothing in comparison to Huaraz), we managed to make it up to the top, unscathed by 5 am.
It doesn't matter how many pictures you see or how many times you hear about the beauty of Macu Pichu - the place is STUNNING! Photos don't do it justice and there's an overwhelming level of energy you feel there, like nowhere else in the world. It truly is an undiscribable feeling. We lucked
out and had a perfect day on the top - blue skies, not a single cloud and an incredibly clear view from all angles - a sight I will always remember.
The first 200 people on sight get a chance to climb Wayna Pichu, the dominating peak, where you can get the clearest and best view of the lost city... a strenous hike, which takes about a hour. SO worth it! After taking the perennial "macho" pictures on top, we spent some time just chilling out and taking in the view, the sounds, the energy... Again, an undiscribable experience.
Unfortunately, it was time to head out, as I had an early train back to Cusco to make my overnight bus back to Lima. So, around noon, I hussled down the mountain and made it back to Agua Calientes just on time to pass out on the train and make it back safely to Cusco around 6 pm. After an indispensable shower, followed by a massive meal at the local cantina (being literally the only gringo there), I made my bus, downed a bottle of water and passed out, only to wake up a couple of times as we
made some sharp turns through the mountaneous roadways. However, overally, I felt rejuvenated (after plenty of time to rest and read) by the time our bus pulled in to the local statio in Lima, 23 hours later, to be welcomed by a cheerful smile from a familiar face - Ines, who had so kindly picked me up at the terminal...
One thing's for sure, my spanish may not be getting all that much better, but I'm certainly getting used to the Peruvian bus system, having already having taken 5 overnight rides for an aggregate of about 75 hours! It may not be the most conevenient and fastest way to get from point a to b, but certainly an experience! Si se puede...
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