Cusco to Puno: King for a day - the Belmond treatment

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June 11th 2019
Published: July 30th 2019
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9th & 10th June (rest days)

After our intensive two days in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, now followed two rest days. Rest days? I make it sound like we’re participating in a sports tournament!!

We both woke refreshed after having a relatively undisturbed night’s sleep. I only woke up twice which was a huge improvement on the first couple of nights spent in Cusco.

We had no plans today. A lazy day suited us fine. We went down for breakfast at 09:45. Pat and Peter, the couple who had hired the car, still had the ‘do not disturb’ sign on their door so some people were even having a lazier day than us!!! Over breakfast we met Emma and David. They had been with us for certain excursions but for their Machu Picchu tour, had opted to hike the last section of the Inca Trail. The full trail is a strenuous 4-day hike over 48km of steep mountain passes, over some hostile terrain and uneven paths. I’m sure it is very rewarding to complete but so is a 5000 piece jigsaw!! The final leg is 12km. Emma admitted it was tough going but the guide stopped every fifteen minutes. It took about six hours to complete. They entered Machu Pichu through the Sun Gate so experienced the whole panorama of the site before descending Mount Machu Picchu and continuing with a tour similar to the one we took. It was a fellow blogger, though, Savi, who mentioned she heard that a woman who was with her daughter had decided to hike the full Inca trail but had to be air lifted from the mountain due to altitude sickness and exhaustion. Our thoughts turned to mother and daughter Lynn and Amanda. They had been with us for the first part of the tour and we knew that the 4-day Inca trail was on their itinerary. The strange thing was, we never saw them after the Machu Picchu excursion. We remember speaking to them in Lima but don’t recall any tour too diverse from our own.

For the rest of the morning we sat in the atrium reading and making notes for the blog. After lunch Roisin stayed in the hotel while I went looking for a super market I heard was not so far away. I was on the hunt for water, chocolate and alcohol!! Three streets up. Turn left. Two streets across then turn right I was told. On approaching the left turn, I could hear a brass band. A very slow, almost hypnotic slow jazz like rhythm not too dissimilar to the New Orleans opening sequence in the Bond movie Live and Let Die. As I turned the corner, I found myself walking against a tide of people who were watching and following a religious procession. A band led the procession followed by a priest. A group of young adults struggled to carry, at shoulder height, an image of a saint that looked suspiciously like Charles I. This was closely followed by a group of young children who, like their adult counterparts, struggled to carry the stand the image would rest on once they had arrived at their destination!! I stood and watched for ten minutes, partly out of curiosity, partly for amusement but mainly to catch my breath!!

In to the 10th June. We had planned to partake in a free walking tour starting from the main square but as our energy levels were starting to wane, we decided to give it a miss. We did however, decide to take a walk to the main square anyway. And so, the festival continued!! There were control barriers around the perimeter of the plaza. Hordes of people were several deep in places watching the entertainment pass by. As we approached, children were parading past in ornate and in some cases outlandish costumes, some not much older than toddlers and being led by their parents. We managed to push our way through the crowds, finding a gap in to the road. No one stopped us so we managed to see, close up, the fancy dress, the kids were being forced to wear!!

We met up with Peter and Pat later that evening as Peter had mentioned that they were visiting the Cusco planetarium so Roisin and I invited ourselves along as it sounded interesting!!

How did you get on with the hire car today?’ I asked

Good’, said Peter.

Dreadful’, said Pat. Their differing sentiments were said simultaneously!!

Roisin and I looked at each of them in turn. Peter was the first to speak. ‘The car was fine. It had a steering wheel and everything!!’ he joked. ‘Seriously though, for less than £10 a day, we couldn’t complain. It’s just trying to get out of Cusco took almost an hour. The traffic was manic. The road signs don’t make sense either. I had a few near misses as I ended up on the wrong side of the road a couple of times. The suspension is a bit dodgy. We finally got to the village, three hours after we set off. But it was a beautiful area!!’

I glanced at Roisin. I knew she was thinking the same. We are glad we stayed back in Cusco. We have another tough, but hopefully rewarding few days ahead of us so we had been grateful for these few rest days.

The planetarium was a pleasant evening with a twist. Unlike other planetariums in the UK that I have visited, this family run business taught us about astrology and the Incas. We met the owner in Plaza Kusipata, only a stone’s throw from the main square. The observatory was a fifteen minute drive up in the hills not far from the ‘sexy woman’ (see previous blog!!) The first part of the evening was spent in a small circular room with a ceiling that, after a few technical difficulties, lit up with all the visible stars of the southern hemisphere. The southern cross was the most identifiable constellation due to its location (in the southern hemisphere) and its shape (cross shaped!!). Most of the others required a certain amount of imagination for example the sea goat, the cup and the sextant. Another easy to recognise constellation was the triangle. The day that was named it must have been a case of: ‘Say what you see!!’

The Inca considered the Milky Way (Mayu) to be a life-giving river in the heavens, its earthly counterpart being the Urubamba River that flows through the Sacred Valley. Apart from the usual luminous constellations, the Inca studied what is known as dark cloud constellations. These are contained within the dark blotches of the Milky Way, representing animals familiar to them. The dark patches represent the silhouettes of animals that came to drink from the waters of the celestial river. Two of the most sacred dark cloud constellations are the Mother Llama and the Baby Llama, suckling at her mother’s breast. These were pointed out to us. I squinted my eyes at the ink blots before me but could not make out the shape of a llama, mother or otherwise. I saw a skate board, a silhouette of Bart Simpson and a mobile phone. I somehow can’t imagine King Pachacuti skateboarding through the sun gate shouting Cowabunga then texting his mam on the latest Nokia to tell her he didn’t fall off this time!!

On the second part of the evening we following the owner out in to the garden where he had three large industrial strength telescopes set up pointing at different parts of the sky. We were unable to see the Milky Way as it was early in the evening and the Milky Way was still too low on the horizon. We were shown, through the telescopes, faint constellations and certain stars invisible to the naked eye. During this session, I backed up as I was still looking upwards at the myriad of stars only to hear a yelp as I stumbled back. I had stood on the paw of the family dog. The dog hobbled away and lay still on the ground for several minutes. I hadn’t killed it though as he then started to lick the injured paw. Luckily it was dark so no one actually saw me, just as I didn’t see the dog!! I walked to the far side of the garden to distance myself from the dog. The dog did the same thing, limping to the opposite side of the garden to distance himself from me!!

11th June – Belmond Train

It’s been three days since the sand flies of Machu Picchu feasted upon my legs. Apart from a few red spots, I haven’t really had any problems…until now. Last night, it felt like my legs were on fire. My shins and ankles itched like I’ve never experienced before. These spots had now turned in to blotches. It looked like I had contracted some altitude-based measles. After telling Roisin there were no bitey things in Machu Picchu due to the high elevation, this advice had come back to bite me on the bum (well legs anyway!!)

After seven nights in the Los Portales hotel, it was time to check out. Our extras totalled the equivalent of £67.00. This included three meals (each), beer and four chocolate bars from the mini bar!! This is a prime example of the low cost of living in Peru. Even the taxis are relatively cheap. There are no meters in the cabs which would usually send alarm bells ringing but, providing you take a journey within the city limits, the tariff is the same; a flat rate of circa £4.00.

Today we were heading to Lake Titicaca. There were about twenty of us who partook in this journey although the majority travelled by bus – a nine-hour journey. Whilst everyone has had their guilty pleasure; some spent a few days in the jungle, overnight in the Sacred Valley or Machu Pichu, flights to Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian/Argentinian border or flying over the Nazca Lines, six of us had decided to spend that little extra to arrive to Lake Titicaca in style – on the Andean Explorer from Cuzco to Puno otherwise known as the luxurious and elegant Belmond Train.

It was a short three-minute drive from the hotel to the train station in the centre of Cusco. Our luggage was off loaded and taken away. That’s the last we would see of it until our arrival in Puno (hopefully!!) We were taken directly to the check in desk where, after a short check-in we were ‘good to go’. All we had to know is that we were all assigned to the piano bar for a briefing once boarded. Emma and David from Bromley in Kent and Julie and Nick from Buckinghamshire along with Roisin and I were led through a paved area where we were shown to an eclectic mix of chairs and seats that had been arranged around a small turfed area at the rear of the station house. It felt like a typical English summer’s afternoon. The sun was shining but with a gentle breeze. There were already a dozen or so other guests sitting drinking and eating. It wasn’t long before a series of waiters and waitresses headed over. We were offered a local non-alcoholic drink and a piece of fruit whilst a Peruvian pan pipe band serenaded us with everything from Mozart to George Michael!! The guests continued to arrive; dancers dressed in national costume entered stage right as the Peruvian band turned their talents to the more tradition folk melodies. At 10:40am an official announced: ‘Everyone assigned to the Piano Bar for the briefing, follow me.’ Like in some Ealing comedy, every single passenger stood up and followed the official. Why were we ‘assigned’? why not just told that is where a briefing would be held? I assume something was lost in translation!!

The number of guests travelling today amounted to only thirty-nine. It wasn’t that this was an unpopular tour, it was pretty much a sell out! Part of the attraction of the Belmond train is the space to passenger ratio. With thirty-two crew aboard we expected nothing less than a first-class service, which is what we got! The Belmond Train was made up of sixteen carriages; a couple of dining cars, the galley, the piano bar/lounge and the observation lounge/bar. The rest of the train, eleven carriages, were accommodation compartments for the passengers and staff.

As we entered the piano bar, the thing that immediately caught my eye was, strangely enough, the piano!! I expected some plink-plonk saloon style upright Joanna rotting in a corner and not a Steinway grand piano complete with a tuxedoed piano player belting out Gershwin with a smile as we were welcomed aboard and handed a glass of champagne. We all took a cushioned seat in the piano bar whilst the train manager gave everyone the safety briefing and a verbal orientation around the train and its facilities. After being handed a menu for lunch we were finally allocated to our compartment – cabin 1 in the Totora carriage. All carriages had been named after the flora and fauna found along the route. Totora is a species of reed that grows in the lakes of the Andes.

We found our carriage, with the key in the lock of the compartment. The surprises just kept on coming. Laid out on the bench-like leather upholstered seat were two overnight bags, a welcome gift from Belmond. We were now underway as was Roisin in exploring the goodies and the high end toiletries to be found in the en-suite bathroom. The toilet rolls and the bottled water even came complete with their own embroidered sleeves!!

The bars on board offered a wide selection of beers, wines and spirits, complimentary with or without your meal, for the entire duration of the 250-mile trip. Not a huge distance, in the wider scope of things, but travelling on the Belmond Andean Explorer is not about getting from A to B as soon as possible. It is about savouring the experience and embracing the moment.

After lunch, at 2pm the train stopped at the ancient town of Raqchi. It was time for a short excursion, all part of the service. We were split in to two groups and followed our guide to the temple of Wiracocha. From afar, the ruins of the temple looked like giant letters forming a greeting or the name of the settlement is some long-forgotten tongue. Wiracocha was a deity, the giver of life, according to the Incas. The temple was built in his honour and to appease him after it is said he made fire fall from the skies and burned the hills in a fit of rage and anger. The falling fire, though, was lava erupting from a nearby volcano of Quimsachata. A hand slowly and hesitantly raised. It was mine: ‘This Quimsachata,’ I started. ‘it’s still an active volcano, is it?’

‘Oh, very much so’, came the reply

‘When was the last time it erupted?

‘In 1960’, the guide replied.

I felt like saying to him: Well do you mind speaking a little faster so we can all get back to the train and be on our way!!

The temple is 92 metres long and just over 25 metres high. The foundations were built from carved stone but the rest from adobe brick and mud. The temple was built so people had to walk in a zig zag motion through it. Not to hide those staggerers who may have had too much coco juice or not because the builders spilt coffee over the building blueprints but due to the relationship between Wiracocha and Inca cosmology!

I mentioned in a previous blog that three is a very important and sacred number to the Inca. The chacara, the Inca cross has three steps at each point of the symbol. We were now introduced to a seven step chacara that had been faintly built unto the side of the temple. Call me a sceptic but I’m sure archaeologists see stuff that isn’t there. They move the goal posts to justify their being. Why had nobody mentioned a seven step chacara until now? It was probably some labourer messing around.

‘Hey look what I’ve just made. A seven step chacara. Who’s ever heard of such a thing but when this temple is discovered in about 600 years it will really f**k with their head!!’

On this site there are 156 silos that were used for food storage. Strangely that is only two more than the number of total sonnets Shakespeare wrote. I wonder if I mentioned this to the Peruvian Archaeology Society, they will find a cosmic connection. Perhaps they miscounted and there are only 154 silos. Now wouldn’t THAT be weird??!

We were given twenty minutes to walk around the main square of Raqchi, meeting some of the locals, visiting the colonial church. It was market day today. We have become very adept at giving a polite ‘No, por favor’ as we pass market stalls. ‘It doesn’t matter how high you hold that tablecloth or how hard you shake it in my direction, I didn’t buy one yesterday or the day before that so I ain’t buying one today!!

Back on the train and it was time for more drinks followed by afternoon tea whilst the train continued to meander higher in to the Andes. The sun was just about setting as we pulled up for our second and final stop of the trip, the highest point of the journey, at 4,315m, La Raya. Not too sure why we stopped here as there was no excursion, no town or village, not even at station or platform but there was, surprise, surprise, a few indigenous types milling around…and they had stuff to sell!! As it was getting dark, we were harder to see due to the absence of any lighting. The only lighting available came from the interior of the stationary train. This was as remote as it gets so no idea where these people came from. As the sun set over the Andes, there was a bright yellow/orange glare for a few seconds before darkness and with it a brisk chill descended. In the distance we saw Chimboya glacier. At an elevation of 5,489m (18,004 ft) this peak was only 400m (1,300 ft) lower than Mount Kilimanjaro!!

After twenty minutes of braving the cold we reboarded the train and were immediately served with a warming almond punch with cinnamon topped up with amaretto. Very moorish!! No sooner had we finished one drink then it was time for pre-dinner cocktails!!

8pm sharp and we were shown to our dinner table, sharing with David and Emma. Moments later the waiter appeared with the first of five courses. I felt like Greg Wallace as a plate of MasterChef standard food was placed in front of me. The menu read as follows: Vegetable water with glazed cauliflower. This was followed by the starter: either Sun dried tomatoes with sage and pine nut tortellini or clear broth and oxtails. The Entrée (main course to you and I!!) Beef tenderloin with caramelised pumpkin cream and Andean cereal OR broccoli risotto with walnuts and blue cheese. For dessert (pudding!): Textura de chocolate (translated as chocolate texture!!) or cake with a flower on top!! Before we were served our main course, a waiter entered with a special dietary requirement. ‘Who is the Pescatarian?’ he asked

Not me’, I replied ‘I’m a Virgo and my wife is a Capricorn!!’

We arrived at our destination, Puno at 11pm. However, tonight we slept in our compartment on the train. When I say ‘slept’, I mean ‘remained on the train overnight’!! We were now at an elevation of 3,827m (12,565ft) Breathing had once again become difficult. We had thought that with a gradual ascent to this altitude, we wouldn’t notice the change. We were wrong!! If our shortage of breath wasn’t bad enough, someone’s mobile phone in the next compartment kept pinging every few minutes. At 3:30am it got worse. A Chinese man decided to ring Beijing. The person he rang must have been hard of hearing because he continued to speak in a very loud Dom Jolie voice!! Roisin had had enough. She hammered on the bulk head as she shouted: ‘Will you shut the f**k up!’ Not too sure if our fellow guest understood the colourful language but it certainly did the trick!! Silence. For the next few hours we managed to doze but kept waking up hyperventilating due to the oxygen level only being at 40%! (MISSING)In a few hours’ time we would be meeting the rest of our group who had stayed the night in an oxygen rich hotel. We would then all be visiting our last major attraction of this tour – Lake Titicaca (I can already see the jokes writing themselves!!)

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