Pura Vida Travels - A Guide To Travel In Latin America

I arrived in Lima late on Thursday around 11:30 PM. One of the benefits of flying so much is that I get to fly first class now on most flights when I fly on Delta. This is a godsend when it comes to flying to Lima since itís a 6 and half hour flight from Atlanta. The process to exit the airport was fairly slow due to the sheer volume of people at the airport. It seemed like 10 flights all arrived simultaneously and it really slowed things down. While I was waiting for my bags a pretty young girl approached me and asked if I needed a cell phone while I was in Lima. I have a Cingular phone that my company pays for and it works just about anywhere in the world but since I donít like to make personal calls on it I decided to check out her offer. It turns out itís a pretty good deal. Itís 10 bucks to rent the phone for up to a month, the per minute charges are fairly cheap, and you just drop it off at the airport on your way out and settle your bill. Thereís no fooling around with calling cards, SIM cards, etc. so I rented a phone. After picking up my bags I headed for the airport exit and dodged the ripoff taxi guys. If you use the taxis at the stand at the airport they want $32 to take you to Miraflores. Granted, itís a long ride (about a half hour) but $32 is insane. I found a taxi driver outside and he wanted 50 soles ($15) and I bargained him down to 30 soles. I hate dickering with people but I wanted to practice my Spanish and it made me proud to know that I could actually do something useful with it.

On the way to Miraflores I had the taxi driver stop at the store so I could buy some water and I also had to direct him to my hotel since he didnít know where it was. I have to admit that itís pretty cool to be 3754 miles from home, speaking another language, and still be able to get things done. I got into the hotel late and by the time I checked in and got to the room it was almost 1 AM. While this is primetime in Lima and I really felt like going out I decided to just stay in and get some sleep because I had a 10 AM flight to Cusco the next morning.

I arrived at the airport at 8:15 for my 10:10 flight on LAN. This is plenty of time for a domestic flight in Peru. Once I checked my bags I headed upstairs to go to the gate area. If you are flying domestic in Peru make sure you arenít hungry before you go to the gate. The process at the Lima airport is that you check your bags, go upstairs and pay your tax (thereís a $6.05 tax that you have to pay in cash), go through the metal detectors, and then you go to the gate area. On the international side of the Lima airport there are tons of shops and restaurants in the gate area. On the domestic side there is 1 store and 1 place with food and their menu consisted of ham sandwiches and that was it. Since a ham sandwich for breakfast didnít sound all that appealing I decided to just skip breakfast and hope for something on the plane.

Boarding a domestic flight in Lima is quite an adventure. About 100 people congregate in a mass of humanity in front of the gate and you have to fight your way through when they call your section. I booked a window seat for the flight because I hoped to get some pictures on the way. Unfortunately, it was very cloudy so I didnít get a lot of shots. I was surprised to see that many of the mountains had snow on the peaks. I really wasnít expecting that in the middle of the summer but these are the Andes after all.

Flying into Cusco is a neat experience. It sounds odd to say this considering that the city of Cusco is at 11,000 feet of elevation but the city is in a valley. The plane weaves itís way through the mountains on the way in and gives you a great view of the area. The airport is tiny to say the least. (Iíve seen bigger McDonaldís) At baggage claim they have a band playing traditional Peruvian music and the whole process to get out of the airport takes about 5 minutes.

I have to admit that I had been hemming and hawing about going to Cusco and Machu Picchu for the last several months and my decision to go was made at the last minute so I was pretty much ďwinging itĒ at this point. I booked a flight, reserved train tickets to Machu Picchu, and booked a hotel but that was about it. I exited the airport and found a cab driver. The fares are pretty much set from what I can tell and itís 15 soles for 5 minute cab ride. My cab driver, Pedro, spoke excellent English and we chatted for a bit before leaving. I told him I needed to go to the train station to pay for my tickets so he took me there first.

I booked the train tickets online but PeruRail doesnít accept credit cards. The only way you can pay them is by bank transfer or in cash at the train station. To make things even harder on you the office doesnít open until 7 AM and they close at 4 PM. This is important to know because the train leaves for Machu Picchu at 6 AM. Do you see where Iím going here? You canít just show up on the day you are leaving and get your tickets. You have to be there at least a day in advance. To make things even more confusing there are 2 train stations and you have to buy your tickets at one and then take the train from the other. As if this wasnít confusing enough when you go to the train station there is a computerized check-in kiosk that you have to go to first to get a number. Once you get your number you watch a computer monitor and when your number comes up it tells you what line you need to go get in to get your tickets. The whole process turned out to be much more complicated than I ever would have imagined and I was glad that Pedro was there with me to help me out.

Once I paid the $105 for the roundtrip to Machu Picchu we were on our way to the hotel. Pedro, not missing the opportunity, decided to hawk his travel agent skills to me along the way. I was now a lot more interested considering how convoluted the process was just to buy the train tickets. Once you get to the town of Aguas Calientes you have to take a bus to Machu Picchu ($12), pay an entrance fee ($40), and then youíre finally there. Pedro offered to take care of all of that for me plus pick me up in the morning, and in the evening when the train came back, and provide an English speaking guide for the tour of MP for $80. That sounded like a good deal to me so I signed on with Pedro and hoped I would see him again in the morning.

Now that I didnít have to worry about setting all of that stuff up it left me the rest of the day free to do whatever I wanted to. The first thing was to check in at my hotel, the Del Prado Inn, that I had booked over the internet. One of the things I donít like about Cusco is that it is really setup to rape gringos. Many of the hotels are in the $300-$500/night range and I will NEVER spend that much money for a hotel. The Del Prado Inn is $49/night, has wireless internet, is literally 50 feet from the Plaza De Armas, and is just a darn nice hotel. The lady at the front desk said, ďYou must be DavidĒ when I arrived and gave me a cup of coca tea. The tea is a local remedy and it helps people deal with altitude sickness. The altitude didnít really bother me but I understand a lot of people canít handle it. Anyway, the tea is very good and I recommend it even if youíre feeling fine like I was.

The rooms at the hotel are small but theyíre nicely decorated and cozy. The rooms have refrigerators, a safe, wireless internet access, and a small sitting area. (Where Iím typing this fromÖ) The only downside is they are a bit noisy when people are around but other than that itís perfect.

After settling in I decided to do a walking tour of Cusco and see the sights. There is plenty to see in Cusco and Iíll never be able to cover it all in the short amount of time that I have here. Cusco was founded by the Spanish in 1650 after they drove the Incas out so it definitely has a Spanish feel to it. The buildings are incredible and it feels like you have gone back in time when you walk around the cobblestone streets. The streets are extremely narrow and 1 car can barely make it through some of them. This makes for some interesting walking since none of the streets as far as I can tell are one way streets. Itís fairly common to have a car coming at you backwards here so eyes in the back of your head are essential at times. Itís also essential to be in good shape if you plan to do a lot of walking here. First, you have to deal with the altitude and second many parts of the town are quite hilly. I walked about 8 miles my first day and was thoroughly worn out by 6 PM.

After walking for a few hours and not having had much to eat I decided to find someplace to eat. I wanted to find a local place so I started cruising some of the side streets. The place I ended up with was called Pachamama. To be honest, the reason I picked it is the girl on the street promoting the place was really cute. I figured even if the food stunk I could look at her for an hour and things would still work out. As luck would have it the food was great so I won on both counts. I started out with an appetizer of alpaca carpacio. I figured Iíve never eaten alpaca so why not go all the way and eat it raw? The carpacio was outstanding and I found out that alpaca is pretty good. It pretty much just tastes like a good cut of beef. For the main course I went with my favorite Peruvian dish, lomo saltado. Lomo saltado is beef, rice, onions, and what I call spicy tomatoes. I need to find out what the exact name is but they look like tomatoes but theyíre spicy like jalapenos. I really like them whatever they are.

After dinner I cruised around and saw more of the sights. I wandered into the less touristy area and I immediately liked it a whole lot more. This is very much what I would call the ďrealĒ Peru. The prices in the stores in this area were about 1/10th what they were in the more touristy areas and the people looked like they fell off a postcard. As I was walking about I stumbled onto this giant market. Thereís a similar one in Lima (Surquillo) but this one was just unreal as far as what they were selling. I saw bulls heads, bags of coca leaves, dried animals, etc. Every row I went through had something more bizarre in it. It was an amazing experience.

I should mention that the reason that I was debating going to Cusco in the first place was because of the weather. February and March make up the rainy season here and that makes it a dangerous time to come here. The heavy rains in the mountains often cause landslides that cutoff the train route to Machu Picchu. When I came out of the market Cusco lived up to itís reputation and it was pouring rain. Being a well prepared human being I had the foresight to pack an umbrella. Unfortunately, since human beings are flawed it was sitting in my suitcase at my hotel where it didnít do me a whole lot of good.

At this point whatever people where peddling before it started raining was tossed aside and they now all became umbrella salesmen. This is the one VERY annoying thing about Cusco. Every 2 seconds someone is trying to shine your shoes, sell you something you donít want, or just trying to beg money off you however they can. Oh, and if youíre a guy walking alone, there are about 50 ladies scattered around town that want to tell you about how great a certain massage parlor is. On a positive note, there are cops everywhere here and itís completely safe so youíre only worry is constantly being annoyed rather than fearing for your life. Thatís probably an acceptable tradeoffÖ

At 5:30 AM my phone rang and woke me from a sound sleep. The voice on the other end of the line said, ďalguien esperando para ti.Ē (Someone is waiting for you) As I shook the cobwebs out of my head I realized that my alarm hadnít gone off and my train was leaving in 30 minutes. I quickly cleaned myself up, threw on some clothes, grabbed my bag and headed for the lobby. At 5:40 AM I met Pedro in the lobby and we were on our way to the train station. Thankfully, I had packed all my gear and laid out my clothes the night before so I was able to be ready to go in 10 minutes. Iíve learned through experience that Iím generally a zombie in the morning so I do as much as I can the night before so no thinking is required of me before 8 AM.

While Iím on the subject of planning ahead there are a bunch of things you should take with you to Machu Picchu. A backpack is the best way to go since you will be doing a lot of hiking during the day. Hereís what I took and this was perfect for the day:

      -	Umbrella
      -	Alpaca sweater
      -	Waterproof windbreaker
      -	4 bottles of water
      -	Cookies
      -	Camera
      -	Passport
      -	Tickets

This was about the ideal amount of gear since it didnít weigh that much and it covered all the weather conditions for the day.

Pedro gave me all my tickets and put me on the train at 5:50 AM. At 5:57 the train left the station so I was thanking my lucky stars for Pedro at that point because if it hadnít been for him I would have missed the trip. PeruRail is EXTREMELY punctual from my experience in that we left every stop exactly on time or early. Donít show up late or you wonít be going.

The trip out of Cusco is pretty wild and it takes almost an hour just to get out of town. The reason is that the train has to climb the mountain by going through a set of 5 or 6 switchbacks. The train makes several stops on the way with the first being at the Poroy station. You can leave about 45 minutes later if you get on at this stop. After leaving Poroy the train starts itís descent to Machu Picchu 110 KM (50 miles) away. The entire trip takes about 3 hours and 45 minutes and passes through some of the most breathtaking scenery Iíve ever seen in my life.

Shortly before reaching Ollantayambo (pronounced Oh-lee-anne-tom-bo) the train reaches the Urubamba River (The locals call it Bamba) and then follows it for the rest of the trip. Since March is the end of the rainy season in the Andes the river was raging. These were some of the most ferocious rapids Iíve ever seen. To the left and to the right are mountains that reach staggering heights. The train passes by Willka Wekey (19, 356 ft.), Pumawanka (17, 486 ft.), Saguasiray (18,930 ft.), and Salkantay (20,550 ft.). The scenery along the train tracks is a lot like the American Southwest in that there are huge cactus plants and something that looks like giant aloe plants. There are also coca bushes everywhere along the way.

The final stop on the train is the town of Aguas Calientes. This town exists for one reason and that is to separate gringos from their money as quickly and efficiently as possible. When you exit the train station you have to walk through a market where you are bombarded with offers to buy things you donít need or want but at great prices. Itís a bit over the top but the most aggressive ďmarketersĒ are right at the entrance and after that itís a pretty cool little town.

After fending off the street hustlers I made my way to the line of waiting busses for the ride to Machu Picchu. The bus costs $12 for the roundtrip and Pedro was right that it was a good idea to have your ticket before you got there. There were about 100 people waiting in line for tickets so I got to skip that and get right on a bus. The bus trip takes another half hour and isnít for the faint of heart. The Mercedes Benz busses traverse a set of about 30 (not sure how many there really are) switchbacks and wind their way from the river valley up to the Sanctuary Lodge at Machu Picchu where the entrance to the park is.

My guide was supposed to meet me at 10:45 at the entrance and I arrived at about 10:30. I made good use of my time by checking out the bathroom. It costs a Ĺ sole to use the toilet but it was money well spent because there are no ďfacilitiesĒ once you enter the park. Itís a good idea to take water with you because there isnít anything to drink inside the park either.

Precisely at 10:45 my guide showed up. His name was Faviola (not sure how to spell it) and he spoke English very well so that made things easy. I have to note that I hadnít planned on taking a guided tour because, well, I HATE them. I like to go at my own pace and see what I want to see and on a guided tour you donít have that option. I have to admit that when visiting Machu Picchu a guided tour is the way to go. The reason I say this is there are absolutely no signs that explain what anything is and I would have been totally lost without a guide. Our guide turned out to be pretty cool in that he kept the group moving and he really knew the history. Iím usually the annoying guy in the group that has the questions that stumps the expert but Faviola seemed to know everything about the place.

I canít put into words how absolutely awe-inspiring Machu Picchu is. The enormity of the task and the ingenuity behind the design are mind-boggling. The site was inhabited from roughly 1420 to 1650 and was never found by the Spanish for reasons that become patently obvious once you get there. First, itís ridiculously hard to get to even in modern vehicles and second itís only visible from above. You are literally 100 yards away from Machu Picchu and you canít see it.

The terraces that were built to maximize space for farming are engineering marvels. Each terrace was filled in layers. First they put in large stones, then gravel, then a layer of sand, and finally soil. The sand was hauled up from the river thousands of feet below and the soils were brought in from all over Peru. Some of the soil was brought in from hundreds of miles away. The reason for this was they farmed different crops in each terrace and they used the soils best suited for the crops. As a further testament to their genius the terraces have a drainage system built into them so the water from one terrace doesnít drain into another. The reason for this is they knew that if water from one soil drained into another it would change the pH level and affect the crops.

Another engineering marvel was there water delivery system. In the middle of Machu Picchu they found a large spring and they built a series of pools (14 in total) and fountains so that as the water cascaded down the mountain it was collected. These pools were used for bathing as well as drinking so an obvious problem would be if someone is taking a bath in the pool at the top the poor Inca at the bottom would be drinking someone elseís bath water. To overcome this after the water drained from a pool it went into an underground chamber that was filled with sand and charcoal. This filtered out all of the impurities so each pool was as clean as the next.

The list of things that the Incas thought of 600 years ago that amazed me was endless. Machu Picchu bills itself as one of the ďnewĒ seven wonders of the world and it surely has my vote. It was definitely one of the most amazing places I have ever been to in my life.

The tour finished at 1:30 and it was a heckuva workout. You do a tremendous amount of hiking and climbing on the tour so make sure you wear comfortable shoes. I saw one lady wearing heals and my only thought was some people need to buy a clue. I canít imagine she had a very enjoyable time climbing down rock stairways with a 3000 foot drop and no guardrail next to her. I saw a lot of people that looked like they were ready to die on various parts of the tour so getting in shape before you go there isnít a bad idea either.

I hopped onto a bus and we started our journey back to Aguas Calientes. As the bus was heading down the mountain we passed a group of kids in typical Peruvian dress standing along the road shouting at the bus. It turns out theyíre part of the entertainment. As the bus heads through the maze of switchbacks one of the kids runs down the mountain and beats the bus to each turn in the switchback. He does this the entire length of the mountain and stands at each turn shouting at the bus. You have to see the mountain the kid runs down to appreciate it in total. At the bottom the kid hops on the bus and comes around for his propina. (tip) Itís probably the most entertainment Iíve ever gotten for 50 cents.

Once the bus got back to town I had about an hour to kill so I wandered around of the beaten path. I found a nice little restaurant and had a pizza for lunch. It was pricey by Peru standards ($8) but it was good and fast. After that I did some shopping and I picked up a Peruvian chess set for myself for 20 soles. ($7) I donít even play chess but I love these chess sets. The 2 sets of pieces are the Incas and the Spanish. The boards and the pieces are hand-painted and they are absolutely beautiful.

At 3 PM I headed to the train station to catch the 3:30 train back to Cusco. Thereís a later train but because I had purchased my tickets so late it was sold out. Precisely at 3:30 the train pulled out of the station for the nearly 4-hour ride back to Cusco. It had been rainy in the morning so I didnít take many pictures on the way. I made up for it one the way back, however, and I took a ton of photos.

On the way back to Cusco the staff on the train puts on a show with some Peruvian customs followed by a fashion show. The fashion show is a gimmick to sell more Alpaca goodies to wives with trapped husbands. Thereís nowhere for a guy to hide and I saw a lot of suckers, err, I mean passengers shell out ridiculous amounts of money for stuff they could have bought at 1/10th the price on the back streets of Cusco.

The train arrived back at the station exactly on time and Pedro was waiting for me as promised. On the way back to the hotel he tried his best to pitch me on another tour the following day but one organized event a year is enough for me. I told him I had his number and would call if I wanted to do something but I knew I wasnít going to. The parts of Cusco I wanted to see wouldnít be on any tour.

I got up bright and early at 7 AM on Sunday to get the most out of my remaining time in Cusco. It turns out that Sunday morning is a good time to tour Cusco because most tourists have left or havenít arrived yet and the only people that are out are the locals. I headed to the back streets and as I figured the further I got from the Plaza De Armas the cheaper things started getting. I just wandered from store to store and place to place checking out whatever was there. A lot of the really cool stuff in Cusco is pretty well hidden. Behind just about every building is a courtyard with a labyrinth of stalls with people hawking their wares. I stumbled into one place and there were just piles of what at first looked like to be junk but turned out to be an antique store. They had piles and piles of Inca pottery, instruments, stone carvings, etc. that were still caked from mud where they dug them up. I bought a bunch of the coolest things Iíve ever seen in my life and Iím pretty sure theyíre a couple of hundred years old. Itís possible the stuff is fake but I doubt the old guy running the place would go through that much trouble to make stuff ďlookĒ authentic. Whether itís fake or not doesnít really matter since the stuff I bought is cool looking, I like it, and it cost next to nothing. Thatís the important thing.

In another little shop I found a lady with the most beautiful sweaters Iíve ever seen. I bought 4 and she sold them to me for $40. One of these sweaters at home would be $150-$200 easy. Anyway, I bought a PILE of stuff during the day. So much, in fact, that my backpack was crammed full of stuff. I had to go back to the hotel and empty it once and ended up filling it up again.

1 PM rolled around and it was time to go to the airport. I could have used a Sherpa to help me carry all the crap I had with me. The trip home is going to be fun because I know Iíll buy more crap in Lima. Anyway, I got to the airport and checked in with LAN. I really like this airline by the way. Itís a first class outfit. After checking in you have to pay another tax at another window. I believe itís a goofy amount like $4.83 which is nice because you get a pocket full of metal coins right before going through a metal detector.

The End

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