And the real journey begins..

Trip Start Sep 28, 2006
Trip End May 04, 2007

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Friday, November 3, 2006

My flight landed around 7:15 am on Friday, and I was very pleased to see that my bag made it to Cusco safely. As I struggled to get my pack out of its airport duffle (I hate that thing) I felt like a hundred pairs of eyes were watching me. There were SO many hotel and travel agency representatives near baggage claim, and as I made my way towards the door they all shouted "amiga! amiga!" trying to sell their services. I ignored them and instead went to the "official airport taxi" stand. HA. I knew the ride was only supposed to cost 3 soles at most, but I was such a zombie that when we arrived at Hostal Suecia II and my cabbie asked for 15 it didn't even register. I handed over the money, checked into my room, and only once I was in bed ready to sleep the morning away did I realize that I had been completely ripped off. So frustrating. Oh well. At least he was playing tour guide on the way.

Suecia II is a decent, clean, very basic hostel. I am paying 30 soles (a little under ten bucks) for a private room with two twin beds and a private bath (think boat shower), and although it has been just fine I was initially a little disappointed...It is very quiet, which is good as I need rest before my trek, but I am also relying on hostels as a way to meet people and I have rarely seen anyone here! Somewhat strange as the hostal is fully booked. I soon heard of two "party" hostels that seemed to promise a bit more social activity. I would have moved but there wasn't anything really terrible about mine, I wasn't up for heavy boozing anyway and I am the queen of laziness, so Suecia II it was for three nights.

I slept from 9 am - 12 pm, then took forever to shower and get organized before I finally went out in search of food. I wandered through Plaza de Armas (the main plaza in town and completely impossible to not walk through at least five times a day if you are staying nearby, like I am) in search of a restaurant that I had read about in one of my guidebooks. Of course, the restaurant was no longer there, so I settled on a little funky place that uses its profits to help Peruvian street children. I had a nice lunch but it left me hungry so I got some coca ice cream across the street and some other junk food afterwards. My diet has gone from bad to worse in Cusco. At least one meal a day consists of bread rolls, ice cream, candy bars, and other snack foods. I comfort myself with the thought, "I am on vacation!" Yeah, a six month vacation that is.

I headed to the South American Explorers office nearby to get some info on Cusco and the Sacred Valley. I figured Friday I would be tired and thus should read and run errands, while Saturday and Sunday I could do some sightseeing. The people at SAE were really nice, but the clubhouse definitely was a lot smaller and not as impressive as the one in Quito. I also learned that their hours are terrible--they close at 1 pm on Saturdays and are closed Sundays! The storage perk was the main thing that inspired me to join, and so I was pretty annoyed when I found out that I would have to put all my stuff in storage before 1 pm on Saturday when I wasn't leaving for my trek until Monday morning. I suppose I will just leave my valuables with them, and will leave my clothes and other things I need until Monday at my hostel. I must admit though, it was really nice being able to arrive in a new place and to have people to help you out and give you travel advice.

After the office closed at 5, I went to the Peru Treks office to pay the rest of my Inca Trail fee and get all of the necessary info for my upcoming trek. I was able to get another ten bucks off the price with my SAE membership which was nice. It was not so cool, however, to hear once again that it was utterly impossible for me to hire a personal porter, and that my group is HUGE. Fifteen people and two guides! So between that, my shoes not being so great and my raincoat zipper being broken, things aren't looking so hot. Why did I not get a porter?! I suppose when you're booking something like this months and months in advance it's hard to fully realize what you're getting yourself into. I was in great shape, and thought it would be hard but not miserably so and thus should spend my money on other things. It's not such a big deal. There are plenty of others in my group carrying their own packs, and apparently I can hire an unofficial porter on the fly for the second and possibly third days of the trek if necessary. We'll see...

SAE was having a Sapo event (in case you don't know, sapo is a game that involves trying to throw gold coins into a frogs mouth) at a nearby bar that night, and although I was still exhausted from my fun night in Lima I figured I should try to be social. I ended up having a great night. Sumaq Misky was giving out free drinks (large beers, rum or vodka), which blew me away as I had not seen free drinks anywere on my trip until then. I later found out that all the clubs on the Plaza de Armas give out free drink coupons on Friday and Saturday nights. The one catch in this case was that the free drinks ended as soon as someone went to the bathroom. I wasn't drinking, but everyone else managed to hold out for quite some time! The crowd was fairly small--mainly SAE volunteers (almost all English women) and a few other members--but we had a fun time together. It was really nice to be hanging out with other people instead of sitting by myself in my bare, depressing room.

Although I am very social, I sometimes feel a little awkward when I arrive at a party or a bar and do not know anyone. I am not shy and certainly not quiet so it is frustrating when for whatever reason I suddenly have trouble talking to strangers. However, since I am traveling alone I obviously need to get over that, so I walked into Sumaq Misky by myself and immediately introduced myself to one of the other SAE members sitting at the bar, this really hilarious guy named Dave. He graduated from Stanford (undergrad and grad) and in November 2005 he began his solo biking trip (as in road biking) from Palo Alto all the way down to Ushuaia in Argentina. Yeah, really hard core. I can't imagine being on a bike for a year, let alone for two. My butt hurts just thinking about my four hours biking in Banos. He is biking to raise awareness for the environment (something having to do with his studies), and is giving talks along the way. It was awesome to hear about his experiences so far. I especially loved how he has been staying with firemen for most of the time (since it is free and allows him to interact with locals), and camping on people's lawns the rest of the time. When he gets down to Patagonia he is going to fly back to the East Coast and then bike all around the states sharing his experiences in South America. Pretty hard core.

Around 10:30 a bunch of us headed to Ukuku's, a bar next door with live music. A Peruvian woman was supposed to be playing, but instead there was this awful Peruvian rock band...definitely not my scene. Dave and the women we were with kept trying to get me to drink with them and go dancing at another club, but I was fading and finally had to duck out at 11:30. I did want to see something of Cusco the following morning after all...

I woke up early on Saturday morning and couldn't fall back asleep...story of my life. I had a couple hours to kill before I could head over to SAE to drop off my storage, so I went to this cute little Israeli restaurant a block away from my hostel called Victor Victoria. It was awesome, and eating a nice, hearty breakfast there has become my morning Cusco ritual. I had some great coffee (finally!), an endless bowl of oatmeal with bananas and sugar, bread with butter and jam, and an egg for 8 1/2 soles (under 3 bucks). As I was finishing up, I met a fellow Californian, a 54 year-old, recently retired guy name Gary from LA. We chatted a bit and found out that we were both planning on visiting the Inca ruins at Tambo Machay, Puka Pukara, Qenko, and Saqsayhuaman today. Most people take a cab or bus up to Tambo Machay (about 20 minutes away) and then walk back to town in order to hit all the sights. We decided to split a cab, and ended up spending the entire day together, until about 6 pm. I never would have thought that I would pick up a 54 year-old male travel companion, but he is really awesome. He's very laid back and fun, and I enjoyed hearing about his experiences in the Peace Corps in Kenya among other things and having company during the long walk back to Cusco. He has been traveling for the past several months, and is heading back to LA in December to attend his 23 year-old daughter's wedding.

After dropping off my stuff at SAE and buying my tourist ticket (good for ten days for entrance into a number of ruins and sights in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, 35 soles with my ISIC card as opposed to 70!), we hopped in a cab up to Tambo Machay. The ruins were nice, as were those at Puka Pukara (a hunting lodge), and the views were quite impressive but without a guide it was kinda just like looking at a bunch of rocks. Here's a shot of Gary as we wandered through the ruins and another of me in one of the doorways .

We headed down the mountain towards Sacsayhuaman, and on the way met the most adorable Peruvian girl as we asked for directions. We had heard that there was a path, which obviously was far more enjoyable than walking down a curvy road with all the massive tourist buses and cabs honking at us. The sun was SO strong, and I ended up getting a really nasty burn during our walk. We finally arrived at Sacsayhuaman, which was larger and far more impressive than the previous two Inca sites.  Here are a couple shots of me in the natural rock formation up above the main site, where I attempted to slide down to the bottom (didn't go so well).

We were not planning on hiring one of the many guides that kept offering their services as we wandered around (Gary doesn't speak Spanish), but during one of the many downpours that afternoon (clearly the weather was all over the place) we sought shelter under a ledge and ended up getting roped into a tour. Jorge was great--he is a volunteer professor of Quechua in a small school that teaches street children ages 5 to 15, and he makes his living as a guide in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. As we waited 15 minutes for the rain to let up, he talked to us about his school, taught us a little Quechuan as well as some Inca history. He was incredibly nice and informative, so when he offered his services a second time we accepted. He didn't speak much English, but he was able to communicate and I also was able to translate for Gary. It definitely was worth it. Without Jorge, I would not have seen all of the cool animal forms in the rock structures. He definitely gave meaning to the ruins. It was unfortunate that it was raining, but we still had a nice time.

Around 2:30, Gary and I headed back to town. I am still amazed that I did not slip and fall, as the paths were incredibly steep and slick from the rain, and my shoes were not exactly ideal for the occasion. We grabbed some lunch at Inca Fe, a small restaurant near the SAE office. We both got the set menu, which was okay but super greasy. We ran into Becca there, a really cool English woman who I had met in the SAE office in Quito and she joined us for a bit. We ended up running into her three more times later on in the day--Cusco is a really small town! Or at least all the tourists tend to stick to the same areas, not straying too far from Plaza de Armas.

After lunch, we explored San Blas, an area up on a hill with lots of crafts stores and cute restaurants, did a little food shopping and then visited the Santa Ana Market near the train station. It's huge and I LOVE food markets so I had a great time. As much as I would have loved to have seen it in the light with all the colorful goods more visible (as it was getting dark and many people were starting to close up shop), it was nice to go without all of the tourists and I got some great pics of the meat department. Be prepared to be MAJORLY grossed out, especially you vegetarians out there (I was ready to become one afterwards). My stomach was already not feeling so great and when we wandered through the meat stands I seriously thought I was going to be sick from the intense sights and smells. And I thought the meat department in the Quito supermarket was freaky. HA. There were no massive tongues hanging on a wire line there. Or skinned bull's heads lying on the floor. Or random pig snouts and baby animal heads hanging out on the counter. Or whole, skinned piglets hanging up ready to be cooked. So fascinating, SO DISGUSTING. We opted to buy some fruit and nuts...perhaps I'll pick up the bull's head next time, after my trek!

Gary and I parted ways shortly thereafter, and I headed back to my hostel. Peru Treks dropped off the most massive sleeping bag I have ever seen (since I am renting from them) and I proceeded to completely freak out, as I have no clue how I am going to carry it. I suppose I can put it underneath my pack--don't really have a choice, as it takes up the entire main compartment of my pack. I called the Peru Treks office ten minutes before closing and the guy thought I was a complete nut case (well, because I am of course) and 6 soles and ten minutes later (so damn expensive for a local call!) after having been lectured by the guy about how great the sleeping bag is etc I finally hung up and was no better off than before. I am so nervous about this trek, it is driving me crazy. This is supposed to be fun for God's sake. I need to chill out. It will all work out.

Sunday morning I ran into Gary again at Victor Victoria. We enjoyed a very leisurely breakfast together (this time I had "el tropical," a huge bowl of museli with honey, fruit and yogurt, coffee, and this incredible banana juice made with cream, which has become my regular meal here, while Gary always gets "el americano" with eggs and these awesome thick heart-shaped pancakes), and by 9 am were off to the bus station to catch a ride to Pisac, a wonderful town about 45 minutes away with a great market on Sundays and some incredible ruins. The scenery on the bus was fantastic as we descended into Sacred Valley--so green and lush! We hung out in the market for a bit before it became inundated with tourists. Most people do the Sacred Valley bus tour, which essentially is a full day of being herded around a billion towns--I can't imagine doing that, as it took a good 6 hours just to see Pisac! I got a cute alpaca hat (which I later found in Cusco across the street from my hostel for half the price--hand made and unique my ass!) and a small woven orange purse. So I didn't break the bank. But hey, I COULD have purchased a huge tarantula to forever celebrate my first day in the jungle as Gary is demonstrating in this picture . Or not.

Around 11:30 we caught a collectivo (shared taxi) up to the ruins and wandered around for several hours. The site was HUGE and really impressive. Check out this video, which captures a panoramic view of the ruins from the top entrance and came out really well since a flute is playing in the background. It was incredibly hot and we did quite a bit of hiking to see the sights. Here is a nice shot of Sacred Valley. I wish I had been able to go hangliding there! How much fun that would have been, flying above that backdrop! We had a picnic of fruit and various other goodies at the highest point , and then hiked to the other side of the ruins via this lovely set of steps. Good practice for the Inca trail right? I am leaving early tomorrow morning after all! We climbed up to this rocky point , down and around to another set of ruins overlooking Pisac , and then headed back down to town around 2 pm, which proved to be a little difficult as the path was not all that well marked. The fact that we had a clear view of the town below us helped a little bit at least. I am definitely glad we decided to skip the hike up--that was a steep path, and I don't think killing myself the day before the Inca Trail would have been a great idea. We parted ways around 3:30 (Gary was heading onwards to Ollyantamtambo, and I was going back to Cusco), but we may be crossing paths later on.

I went to Govinda for dinner, a cute vegetarian place that I later found out is a Peruvian chain, and ran into Becca there. We had a lovely dinner together, 12 soles for a HUGE five course set menu with tea. I really like Becca--we really clicked, and I hope that I will be able to meet up with her later on after I get back to Cusco or perhaps in Bolivia. Now it is 9:30 pm and I have to get up in 7 hours to begin my Inca Trail trek. I am basically packed and still freaking out about a billion different things that I didn't do or don't have or that don't work etc, but at this point I just have to go to bed because I can't do anything about any of this now. I am praying for at least semi-decent weather and that I have a good time. It's all about attitude though, so I am trying to shut out all of my negative thoughts and focus on the fact that I am about to do something incredibly difficult but also very rewarding and special!
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