Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End Dec 29, 2008

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Flag of Peru  ,
Saturday, August 16, 2008

Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu and indeed a lot of the rest of Peru and we are planning to spend a few weeks here learning Spanish and making a few treks and, of course, to visit Machu Picchu.
Stepping off the plane it was nice to be greeted by blue skies and bright sunshine. On the negative side, we, or at least I, immediately notice that Cusco is 3500meters above sea level. We are both a bit short of breath but it is small price to pay for the most amazing views from any airport I have ever been through.

We get a cab to our hotel, Torres Dorada, 10 mins. from the centre of town. A great place to stay and it is run by a lady called Peggy whose first words are "we want to be like your family and a home away from home". This is one of those rare occasions when you meet someone who is genuinely true to their word and for Peggy and her staff, nothing is too much trouble. Our room is excellent and the staffs are really eager to please and help wherever they can.

I was lulled into a false sense of security upon arrival in Cusco. A bit of shortness of breath upon arrival but nothing too bad. After returning to the hotel after a bite to eat, I start feeling worse and worse and worse. It felt as though my head is about to explode! Obviously it didn't and I feel a bit better the next day.
We spend the next couple of days trying to sort out a language school and a place to stay for the longer term in Cusco Torres Dorada nice though it is too expensive for a longer term stay.

We visit the South American Explorers Club in San Blas, a old area of Cusco, to get some information on accommodation and language schools in town and whilst there, we have a chat with a Dutch guy who has set up Fairplay, a language school out in San Sebastian (one the suburbs of Cusco) whose teachers are all unmarried mothers (apparently not good news in Peruvian society!) who have been trained up in teaching Spanish. The deal is that we pay a proportion of the cost direct to the school and the bulk of the cost direct to our teachers. Learning Spanish is the key to travelling in South America as English is not widely spoken and spending all this time here it only seems polite!

We decide on a programme of 4 hours a day (2 hours grammar and 2 hours practical). The grammar lessons are in a classroom with our teacher Camucha, who takes us through the basics and tries desperately to extend our vocabulary. All very intense being in a classroom situation again, but enjoyable nevertheless.
For the practical sessions we have our own teachers, for me Eliana and for Carolyn, Marta. Over the next few days our teachers take us all over Cusco - into the hills outside of town, to the markets and even to the zoo in the university. All the time they are talking to us in Spanish, asking questions, forcing us to put into practice what we have learned in the preceding grammar lessons. Again, it is really intense but great fun and they take us to places we would never have found by ourselves. An added bonus is that they take us on the local transport and give us an intensive lesson in how to stay safe on the very crowded buses and collectivos (where theft is a big, big problem) and what fare to pay/negotiate. Transport is cheap here. 1 sole (35 cents) will take you pretty much anywhere in the city and out to some of the surrounding towns.

One night a week the school runs a cooking lesson in how to cook typical Peruvian food. About 30 teachers and students are packed into a small kitchen at The SA Explorers clubhouse in San Blas for a very nice and cheap (5 soles) meal. It provides us with the opportunity to meet some fellow travellers and some locals. The meal was good too!

By this time we had decided to move from our hotel into El Grial, a smaller cheaper hostal in San Blas, a bit of a bohemian area right in the centre with lots of restaurants (and tourists). The place is family run and the people are really nice.

Whilst in the SA Explorers Club one day we meet up with Miquel Jovens who works their part time. Miguel's primary job is to run treks in and around the Sacred Valley and, as we have heard some great reports about his trekking operation, we discuss our options and sort out a trek in the Sacred Valley from Lares to Ollantaytambo.

We were too late in booking permits for the usual Inca Trail to Machu Picchu but are not too bothered as, by all accounts it is very, very busy and we are looking for something a bit more tranquil. Our plan is to stay a night or two in Ollantaytambo and then take a train to Aguas Calientes, the stopping off point for Machu Picchu itself. The next day we buy our train tickets and book our accommodation in Aguas Calientes - all done in Spanish! We were really quite pleased with the results of our week of Spanish lessons!

During our practical Spanish sessions, we go out and about with our teachers Eliana & Marta who take us to the zoo at the University. It was not good to see the massive Condors cooped up in cages with barely enough room to extend their wings or indeed the bears continually swinging swing their heads from side to side, driven mad by their captivity. Why do people do this to animals??

On our last day of lessons, a more enjoyable couple of hours were spent in Molino market where it is possible to by virtually anything. At Miguel's suggestion, we bought some writing supplies and some hair clips to pass out to the children we would meet along the way on our trek. Once our lesson was done we treated the girls to lunch at a Ceviche stall in the market. Raw trout marinated in lime juice, onion and chilli with side dishes of roasted corn and deep fried Calamari. The best fish we had tasted since Tsujuki fish market in Tokyo (which of course will never be bettered!).
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