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Trip 4 -- Middle South America

Part 1: Lima to Cuzco and the Inca Trail
4 November 2000

Greetings from Cuzco! I just bussed in from Ollantaytambo and boy, are my legs tired...we'll get to that in a minute.

Picture it: Lima, Thursday the 26th, 5:00 in the morning. All journeys during this vacation seem to get me in to somewhere early in the morning, so why not start out that way? Fortunately, the Hotel Espana was open and staffed at that hour and let me check in and rest until it was possible to do anything useful. The hotel was one of the more bizarre - plants and sculptures haphazardly strung everywhere, and when I climbed the spiral staircase to my room on the third floor, I discovered I was outside. That's a lot of atmosphere for $6 per night!

I spent much of my first morning at the Museo de la Nacion (a very good place to start), which contains lots of cultural relics of pre-Columbian times - virtually nothing thereafter. In the afternoon I sampled the Museo de Oro, which is really three museums in one: arms, gold and silver, and textiles. It's a huge collection - everything is jammed together from floor to ceiling, and very little of it is labeled with words (though every item is meticulously numbered). Also of interest at the museum that particular day was that they were filming a scene from a soap opera or some such thing, so look for that next time you're in Peru.

It didn't take me long to get hooked on ceviches - my first lunch in Peru was a sea-bass ceviche, and the next night I had a langostina ceviche. The first night's dinner was in Miraflores, a somewhat upscale suburb of Lima. There, at the restaurant Las Tejas, I had an OK seafood souffle and was introduced to that wonderful Peruvian drink, the chicha morada - a maize-based grape-juice-like concoction.

On Friday I took in a few churches and more museums, most notably the Museo de la Inquisicion (the Spanish imposed that here, too) and the Convento de los Descalzos. I also browsed a flower market, a food-and-random-household-goods market, and the Polvos Azules market, a huge warehouse of a place where people can legally - or at least clandestinely - sell smuggled or stolen goods.

After a nine-hour bus ride, I arrived in Ayacucho early Saturday morning. In contrast with sprawling Lima, Ayacucho is easy to walk around and is most noted for its churches, all from colonial times - i.e., since the Spanish invaded in the 16th century. There are about three dozen churches in Ayacucho. In between seeing a bunch of churches, I also visited the extensive Wari ruins (the Wari were an aggressive culture that flourished from about 600 to 1000) and the town of Quinua, the site of an important battle in Peru's independence.

At 6:38 Sunday morning, I left Ayacucho for the 23-hour ride to Cuzco, that famous capital city of the Incas (from about the 12th century), upon which the Spanish imposed their own culture after their arrival in 1533. It's a beautiful, if touristy, city - and its hills rival those of San Francisco. There are lots of churches and museums containing religious art with Spanish and Andean influence. I was in Cuzco on Monday, and I returned to Cuzco yesterday. In between I hiked the Inca Trail.

The Inca Trail (Quechua for "relentlessly steep trek undertaken by foolhardy travelers") is a 33-kilometer path, mostly built by the Incas themselves, that leads to Machu Picchu, the abandoned Inca city discovered in 1911. While 33 kilometers may not seem like much (heck, it's about the distance from Hell's Kitchen to New Rochelle, which I walked in six hours a month ago), when you factor in the steepness of the steps, the altitude (ranging from 2600 to 4200 meters), and the fact that you have to carry camping equipment, it becomes tiring indeed. But it is well worth it - it's a beautiful walk, there are Inca ruins along the way, and it's a good way to meet other travelers.

I booked a four-day tour for about $83. There were a dozen tourists, a guide (who went by the name Willie, though he's Peruvian), and porters to carry the tents and cook meals. We carried sleeping bags, mats, and anything else we might need.

Lunches and dinners normally consisted of a hearty soup followed by something with rice, and they were invariably more than I could eat. Breakfast was a collection of bagel-like items and jam. There was tea at every meal, and there was even tea time an hour before dinner. 

The first day wasn't bad - about eight kilometers at relatively low altitude. The second day was a killer - eight kilometers of ascent, culminating in a mountain pass at 4200 meters. We became accustomed to walking ten minutes and then resting for five, and toward the end of the ascent it was the reverse. At one point we could see the pass less than a kilometer away, and it still took almost an hour and a half to get there. And after that it was a steep three kilometers down to that night's campsite.

The third day was longer but less taxing - 13 kilometers in all, more Inca ruins, and two more mountain passes, though neither was as high as the first. We spent the third night at a campsite called Winaywayna (Quechua for "loud, touristy place where 40 tour groups assemble at the only place that serves beer that they've seen for days"). It was rather a rude return to civilization after three days of peace and quiet with the same small group.

On the fourth day, we left early for the two-hour hike to Machu Picchu. It was foggy when we arrived, and so the city was surrounded by clouds and could barely be made out - perhaps augmenting the mysteriousness of the place. We were given a tour of the ruins, and then I took a couple of short, pretty walks near there (despite the wishes of my legs, which wanted to have no more walking for a couple of days). We all took the train halfway back to Cuzco, but then I parted from the tour to see more Inca ruins (with more steep steps) at Ollantaytambo, one of the few places where the Spanish lost a major battle.

Tomorrow I'm off to Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and then I'll have a 40-hour journey on two buses and a train ("can you imagine that?") to rest my feet a bit.

More news to come from BA, Buenos Aires, Big Apple.

Go on to part 2