After 17 hours of travelling and familiarizing ourselves with Tocumen International (Panama city), El Dorado (Bogota) and Jorge Chavez international (Lima) we made our destination at Alejandro Velasco Astete International (Cusco).
We had read and been personally advised that embarking on this journey direct to Cusco, which sits at 3,500 metres, was not our wisest decision. Indeed 17 hours travelling is gruelling enough, attempting to sleep on the freezing floor of Lima airport during your 5 hour layover is also not ideal but when your nose starts bleeding uncontrollably because of altitude this is when you realise you may have made a mistake.
We booked these flights some time ago and were so excited by the price we didn’t consider the rigours that the journey would have on us. Thankfully we survived and Helen’s 30 minute nosebleed aboard flight AV61 from Bogota to Lima eventually stopped but not before a doctor had to be called and our ability to fly was put into question.
A side note for the reader: When climbing to high altitudes it is advised to take it slowly and where possible wait 2 days between every 1000 metres. This is good advice.
first few days in Cusco were slow; there were headaches and a couple more nosebleeds although thankfully not as bad as during the flight. Altitude sickness is not pleasant and headaches and fatigue are common but nose bleeds not so much – Helen always likes to be different.
Our saviour during these first few days came in the form of several litres of water, lots of coca tea, sleep and an extremely helpful employee at our hostel. All of the above are necessary at high altitudes (helpful employee is a bonus) but the coca tea, made from the same leaves as cocaine but without the same effect, is probably the most effective in helping with the symptoms of altitude sickness and the good thing is it’s cheap (sometimes free) and plentiful.
By day three and after several cups of tea we were ready to explore Cusco and finally get to grips with Peru.
Cusco is the gateway to Machu Pichu; everybody comes here via various forms of transport to get to the Inca ruins and for this reason the city is super touristy. It is particularly worse in the central square where you really have to
A Peruvian Indigena
About 45% of Peru's population is made up of indiginous people. You can see many, still traditionally dressed in Cusco often posing for photos.
run the gauntlet between the artists and their paintings, the women and their llamas asking if you would like to have a photo and the incessant tour companies. However once you get out of the centre Cuzco is actually very pretty; set in a valley and surrounded by picturesque mountains there is a mix of Spanish colonialism and pre-Columbian architecture. Some of the buildings are even built upon the foundations of old Inca buildings and temples which are still visible.
There are several free walking tours available to get to know the city better and not being ones to turn down a free lunch we joined one. It turned out to be excellent; our guide, Marco, was very knowledgeable, highly entertaining and totally worth the sizable tip we gave him. Throughout the 2 hour tour he took us to museums, through a number of squares and up to an impressive church with an equally impressive view across the city and all the while telling stories about Cuzco and Peruvian culture.
A few stories stuck in mind. One in particular was told with such conviction that it couldn’t have been anything but true. Marco began by talking about the
uses of coca by Peruvians and how important a part of their culture the plant is, this inevitably led to discussion about its criminal use which prompted a very personal story from our guide. Marco told us how he had taken ayahuasca (a hallucinatory drug) in his late teens to stop him from wetting himself. This had been brought on by the trauma of being a young boy living in the Amazon and regularly having to flee from terrorists and drug cartels. His father, having lost his patience seeing a grown man cower at the sight of armed police, (after moving to the city from the Amazon), decided to take his son to a Shaman. The ayahuasca ceremony worked and Marco now lives without fear. It was a remarkable story and not something I expected to hear about during our tour; it was actually quite saddening to hear such a personal account of how the international drugs trade affects individuals.
Marco gave us plenty of insights into Cuzco, even to the point of how to get into some sights without paying but there was nothing that you can’t get from guidebook so I won’t go into it here other
than to say: if you tell the security guard at the gates of Sacsaywaman (in Cuzco) that you are a Christian and you want to see the Jesus statue you can get in for free. Wink wink.*
*I haven’t actually tried this so not sure if it will work. Probably worth a try though.
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