THE FLIGHT FROM CUSCO TO LIMA DEPARTS AT 11:30AM AND YET I AM STILL WAITING IN THE HALL AT 11:45. Delays are common during travel. If according to Latin America time, this is not considered late yet. The Cusco airport is a small one, the good thing is that it is very easy to navigate. The bad thing is that I ran out of things to do after 5 minutes. Having a window seat on the flight is amazing. There were views of the mountains and then the desert and then (for a brief moment) the sea.
I was almost out of cash and hence I’ve decided to go to the mobile phone counter in the airport to settle my fees with my credit card, so that I have time to get cash if the card does not work. The bill ran up to S/405! Which is because they charge a minimum of USD15 per day for each day that I use the internet (which is every single day I was here in Peru!). I was confused because I thought it was a pay per day. I then found out that the minimum charge was printed tiny at the rules and regulation page. I felt tricked, but again, it was partially my fault too. Luckily I was able to pay with my credit card.
HAVING MINIMUM CASH IN YOUR POCKET CAN BE AN EASE OF MIND. At least there’s nothing much to lose if I get pick-pocketed. But in Peru, having a credit card (which only works half of the time), means that I am half broke too. I had to plan my accommodation and meals at places that would accept a credit card. I give higher preference to those who would accept the American Express and the Visa card (the only two that I have at hand).
I have so many experience here in Peru where the cards would simply not work. This is very random. At times it will work at a very small mini market but failed to work at a fast food franchise in a mall. When going shopping for last minute souvenirs today, I paid special attention to find a shop that advertises that they would accept cards. After all the choosing and bargaining, alas, my cards failed yet again. I can choose to walk away. But, it would be the pregnant owner, or the old lady employee, or the little girl working for her school fees, that would make me dish out my remaining cash. I now blame of soft heart for making me broke.
I figured everything out, kept the minimum cash required for my taxi fare back to the airport, and I was left with only USD3. From now onwards, I always pay with credit card at the restaurants before sitting down for my meals. I don’t even have enough cash to send my postcards, and so I went looking for a post office that would accept credit cards (obviously there were none). I was living the cash-less life so professionally, my book would be a bestseller – “Sobreviviente sin effectivos en Peru” (Surviving without cash in Peru).
I am so happy I am counting the days until I can go back to the normal civilised way of living. Of course I now have the skills to survive, but it is so much better just to be able to just chill.
Nice vegan entree
WHILE ON MY WAY BACK TO OLLANTAYTAMBO, WE WERE ALL BOMBARDED BY A BIG GROUP OF 10 YEAR-OLDS AT THE TRAIN STATION. At first, it was simply chaos when the teachers had to assemble and organise these students, probably from USA (due to their English), but once settled, the kids are actually quite disciplined.
I was seated beside a fellow mother and chaperone during my ride. She explained to me this interesting experimental school that her two children are attending. The Middleton International School in Atlanta, Georgia is only 3 years old. From what I know, the headmistress is a visionary who set up a school for teaching gifted students. These students are taught with unconventional methods, allowing them to showcase their talents. For example, this lady’s son is dyslexic but very intelligent. He struggles with writing, but in his school, he can present his ideas through graphs, pictures etc. As long as the teacher knows that he understands the lesson, he gets good grades.
Every year, they have a outing where the students have a chance to learn. They had to organise the trip, budget the flights and accommodation, work together to find out the culture and social issues of that particular country, before actually leaving for the trip. Listening to all these, I kind of wished that I had the chance to be educated like that. However, this is truly hard work, even for adults. Look how i struggled with my travel plans and budget!
ONCE IN OLLANTAYTAMBO, I GOT ON A COLLECTIVO TO URUBAMBA FOR S/6. And then a local bus for S/3. The prices of the local transport in Peru is still a mystery to me. At times, it can get unbelievably cheap. For example, an hour ride from Urubamba to Ollantaytambo is S/1.50. When it was the other way round, it became S/6. Still cheap for a foreigner’s standard, but I wonder what is the difference.
Pisac is well known for two things. An artisanal market for all types of handicrafts, and a archaeological ruin that is said to be the largest fortress complex built by the Incans. I was there on a Saturday. There were still quite some vendors but it must be pale in comparison to the full blown markets on Sunday. I had already planned to visit Pisac from Cusco before going on to Ollantaytambo, but a tourist information staff told me they were closed for 2 days. This time, the sites are still closed due to “an accident”. (I could not find out what kind of accident from my poor Spanish).
Anyways, disappointed and hungry, I did find a great place and had a great meal. The lady owner was really nice and accommodating. My salad has one of the freshest vegetables that I’ve tried in Peru. The sandwich was so big I can only finish half of it.
BACK TO CUSCO, I went back to a market that my Mexican friends, Alejandro and Claudia recommended. This shop’s owner and her daughter were very honest about the things they sell. I wanted to buy me and my family matching alpaca sweaters, and this is the best place to be.
After splurging, I went walking on the streets of Cusco. It is nice to see such a beautiful city light up at night. Cusco may not be my favourite city in Peru (Arequipa still is), it is definitely the most diverse. It has the charms of a small city and the convenience factor of a large one. It is frequented by so many local and foreign tourists, yet retaining an ode to its tradition. If there is one thing I’ve learned from my travels, exposure to diversity helps open up our hearts. (We have high hopes for you, lucky Middleton kids…)
One last night in Cusco
HOW DO SOMEONE TRY TO DESCRIBE MACHU PICCHU? After entering the site, I had only a few minutes to look at the ruins before it was all covered with the morning mist. It was impressive in its size, mystical in its history, and breathtaking with its backdrop of Huayna Picchu mountain and Urubamba river. No wonder it is ranked so high in many people’s to-see list. The experience is truly one of a kind.
There are 2 ways to get from the Machu Picchu town to the archeological site. I can either take the 20 minute bus ride up the hill, or walk up a beautiful trail for 1.5 hour. I initially planned to walk, but it rained so hard the day before, the tracks are muddy and wet. Buses leave quite often, especially during the peak hours.
The site is quite big. One can easily spend half a day walking through the walls and various rooms. After taking a few pictures, I went on to climb the Machu Picchu mountain.
YESTERDAY WHEN I WAS TAKING THE VISTADOME TRAIN, a fellow traveler from Hong Kong, Wong, sat beside me. It was such a coincidence that we realised that we are staying in the same hotel (there must be many hotels in town), and I met him during the breakfast buffet today. While ascending the steep steps up to Machu Picchu, I met him again, and we quickly became hiking buddies.
Wong is a civil engineer in his mid-fifties. From what he shared, I can see that he is well-traveled and has a very positive outlook in life. The 2 hour uphill climb was not easy. Due to the clouds and mist, there was nothing to see. It was nice to have someone to chat with during that arduous trek. Once at the peak, we took turns watching and waiting for the mist to disappear.
We began to guess which direction the ruins are. Someone checked their map on their guidebook, another person searched Google Map. I even asked Siri “Can we see the Machu Picchu ruins from the mountain?”. After an hour and a half of waiting, the dense mist started to fade slowly, eventually revealing the postcard-perfect view of Machu Picchu. All the hard work, money and sacrifices seemed worthwhile. In the moment, everything grew quiet. It was just me and Machu Picchu.
I LATER WENT ON A BUFFET LUNCH AT THE PRICEY SANCTUARY LODGE OUTSIDE THE RUINS. I thought that it was way too overpriced, but the food selections were quite tasty, so that made it okay. (Or it was just the post-Machu Picchu mountain euphoria influencing me?). Wong said goodbye to catch his train back to Cusco while I waited until most visitors were gone. Around 4pm, there were only a handful of people in the site. It was so calm, so beautiful, I almost could not get myself to leave.
Later that night, it started pouring heavily again. We were very lucky there was only a short scatter of rain today. The highlight of Peru, alas, came to a satisfactory end. While drinking my celebratory pisco sour in the hotel, I recall the perfect view of Machu Picchu in my mind. It is going to be something that I would cherish my whole life.
The luxurious Vistadome Train
Aren’t they cute?
GREGORIA AND HER FAMILY ARE VERY WARM AND WELCOMING. I signed up for a homestay in search for a chance to interact with locals. I found friends that I am determined to keep forever.
I sit at the dining table each meal and watch either Gregoria or old abuela prepare food for me. The food is simple yet satisfying. Lots of carbs, but they always remember to give me more vegetables. 3 times a day, I speak with them about my day. They would ask about me, and I would try to reply in Spanish. Like their owners, the two family dogs, Pipo and Mimi are so affectionate. Pipo would sit on my lap while Mimi danced around my legs. Gregorio has a fascination with my electronics. The husband Mario, who works as a construction manager, seemed interested with knowing more about my work. Gregoria on the other hand, is multi-talented. Other than being a homestay mom, she weaves and sell her crafts through the Awamaki organisation, tends to her maize farm, and is also the hairstylist of the community.
Last night, during supper, I gave them little gifts. Everyone had to try to use the chopsticks. Abuela tried her earrings. It was so fun we talked until way past bedtime. This morning when I was leaving, I felt so sad realizing that I may never see them again. You would think that after so many goodbyes, things would get easier. And yet, every friend is so unique that new ones can never replace old ones, and vice versa.
I ALMOST GOT THAT DOWN FEELING BEHIND ME ON BOARD OF VISTADOME. Most people that do not spend 4 days hiking the Inca Trail, take trains leaving either from Ollantaytambo or Cusco to the town before Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes. Several different options are available for train classes. The backpacker Expedition class, the luxurious Hiram Bingham, or like me, the middle-class Vistadome.
The train is spacious with huge glass windows for passengers to take in the views. Andean music play in the background while drinks and snacks are served. I find the sceneries very calming, moving from the low highlands into the cloud forest. There are several ruins along the way. If one is very lucky, you can even spot Peru’s national bird, cock-of-the-rock.
Aguas Calientes, or also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, is just a town whose main job is to cater to tourists. There were more signs in English than in Spanish. The visitors are so focused on either going or coming from Machu Picchu, and the others focused on earning the visitors’ money. It does a good job of making everything convenient. Food and accommodation are widely available, although a tad bit on the expensive side.
It rained so bad throughout the afternoon and late into the night. It was downright pouring, somewhat mimicking the sad tears that I try to keep inside. All things aside, the moment I anticipated since the beginning of the trip is near. Time for me to get some sleep and welcome a brand new day tomorrow.
My lovely Peruvian family
SOLITARY TRAVEL CAN BE A CHALLENGE, SOMETIMES. Animals move in groups so that they can look out for each other. However, solo travel can often be more interesting because there are more spontaneity; more friendships because there are more opportunities (and motivation) to interact with others. I have always relied on solo traveling, mostly because I am such a weirdo no one wants to tag along, and also because of the length of travel.
Having seen the amazing Ollantaytambo ruins yesterday, I am up for an off the beaten track challenge to see the Pinkuylluna ruins. I’ve searched online for its trail information. Although only 2-3 results are relevant, I got enough information to find the start of the trail. This route is comparably more difficult than the ones in Ollantaytambo archeological park, but hey, they are free. After just a few minutes of steep descents, I was rewarded with beautiful views of the city below, and also by its huge walls.
I did not see a single human soul during my ascent. It was me and Mother Nature, how cool is that? There were several forks along the way, I just chose them randomly, wanting to explore more. Going on further, I realized that the trails became scanty. At some point, it was just a vague path that looks more like it was accidentally trampled upon. Nonetheless, I proceeded climbing up, not forgetting to take scary photos for Uncle Tan (look below). After an hour of hiking, I arrived at a dead end high up on one of the peaks. There were no paths in front of me. The way back seemed excruciatingly dangerous.
I am not an expert mountaineer and I have no equipment with me. By now, I know I am stranded. To go down, it is a 90 degree-ish vertical slope across spiky aloe vera like plants. I could wait for someone to help but… f*ck… I just remembered that I have not seen a single human soul. I did tell my home stay mum that I will go hiking, but she may not initiate a search party until late in the evening. Scenes of “Into The Wild” and “Everest” started playing in my mind. I knew I had to find a way down without dropping to death.
Slowly but fearfully, I secured my foot on the rocks as anchor. Moving them a few inches at a time, I found a way to squeeze during the spiky forestation. It seemed like hours when every step had to be well-thought out. I had a few miscalculations but fortunately none were stupid enough (that is why I am still alive). Just a few seconds after I set foot back on well-maintained trail, a couple walked past by me, greeting me “Hola!”, no kidding! I was so wet with sweat, my pants filled with mud and thorns, that I could not respond.
The rest of the ruins were amazing. It was certainly not worth my life, but I would recommend any one coming to Ollantaytambo to visit Pinkuylluna. Of course, please follow the trails and bring a friend.
HAVING NOT LEARNED MY LESSON, I set off alone again to explore the Urubamba River. I did not know how difficult it is to get to the river. I walked north, south, south-west… I followed the sounds of flowing water and discovered a big stream of sewage… Alas, I found Panda. Panda is a stray dog that looks like a panda (that is why I gave her this name). She approached me wagging her tail and I could not resist and gave her a good pat. After that initial encounter, Panda started following me.
I went through farms, Incan walkways, main roads. She followed me all the way. She would lead me by a few steps ahead, but would occasionally turn and look to make sure I am close. Panda and I were buddies. I shared some of my banana chips and she became my guardian angel. We must have walked at least an hour before arriving at the river.
There was nothing special about the river but Panda’s companionship made the trip interesting. When it was time to say goodbye, I gave her a good pat and she went off as if she knew what I was thinking. It was so sweet, and yet so mysterious.
I may have led myself into unfamiliar territories, got lost and/or stranded, but found myself a new canine friend. I wonder if I would see Panda again, yet either way, it was a fun afternoon with her as a my new found travel buddy.