An (Unintentional) Week in Cusco

We have been in Peru less than a week and already an ATM has eaten my debit card. But this only happened after a string of unexpected events in a so far wildly unpredictable trip. Even before we left the States, when I learned about the terrifying and foreboding altitude sickness that might strike, we changed our entire first week’s itinerary. Instead of flying straight to Puno, which rests at 12,500 feet, from Lima (sea level) we decided to acclimate slowly—first, the Sacred Valley (9,000 feet) for two nights, then Cusco (11,000 feet) for another two. The changes caused stress and ignited my rare but intense anxiety, but we felt as prepared as possible.

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Our first accommodation: a rooftop in Callao, the airport district next to Lima.

Then we arrived in Cusco. Per the instructions of our Airbnb in the Sacred Valley, we were to take a cab to a street with colectivos, then hail one to Calca. Our taxi driver took us to the empty street and informed us that all roads to Calca were closed. No colectivos, no buses, no taxis. Instead, we were stranded at 11,000 feet with no way down. Within a few minutes, we decided (we had no choice but) to brave it, booked another Airbnb in Cusco, and started the real journey. We had arrived in Lima at 3am the previous night/morning, but the airport district of Callao had little to offer vegetarian tourists. Cusco, on the other hand, caters to tourists flawlessly. Before we even reached the main square, the Plaza de Armas, we fell victim to an easy tourist trap: two women dressed in bright colors offered us two alpacas—one baby and one adult—to take a picture with, then asked us for money after we took it. Other tourists laughed at our excitement but the baby was too cute to ignore. (We know better now.)

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The first of (too) many tourist traps.

Once in the Plaza de Armas, while chatting with an art vendor who would eventually sell us a painting, we learned why the roads were closed. Teachers and professors, among other groups, were staging protests against their unfair pay. All day, demonstrations and marches flooded the street; hordes of police stood by in groups. But from what we saw, it was completely peaceful. Neither the protesters nor the police ever gestured toward violence. Of course, as my mother later reminded me, it is illegal for visitors to participate in Peruvian protests, as they would end up in jail or back in the States, so we merely watched.

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Demonstrations and protests filled the Plaza de Armas.

As it turns out, 11,000 feet is fine, especially for two people hyper-vigilant of any symptoms and dedicated to drinking green water tinted by chlorophyll drops. So, instead of worrying about breathing, we spent the next four days visiting every street and shop vendor we could find and haggling for mostly fair prices; we even bought a new duffel bag and filled it with our loot. We also ate a lot of incredible food. We sampled options ranging from fried potatoes on the street corner to organic, farm-fresh salads and pastas. Taking advantage of our vegetarian status (breaking vegan), we found plenty of ice cream and desserts to indulge in. On Friday, while waiting to print out our train tickets to Puno, an employee offered us complimentary champagne. Though alcohol is on the list of things to avoid while acclimating, we could not resist and later tried the famed Peruvian pisco sour, the local mojito, and, of course, Peruvian beer. All delicious.

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Stray dogs (and cats) everywhere. A lot of them wear clothes.

On Saturday, I vouched for an early start to journey to Saqsaywaman, ruins a 30-45 minute walk above the main square. But Naman is already slow to awaken and he felt unwell after a late-night pesto pasta, so we did not get started until mid-morning. After scaling a steep staircase, we rested at the cathedral of San Cristobál, where an opportune local convinced us to use our limited funds (exactly enough for admission into the ruins) to hire a horseback tour to see multiple sites rather than simply visit Saqsaywaman. We hopped in his car to a village, where a teenage boy helped us onto our horses and began our “tour” down a dirt path. The boy barely spoke, but Naman spent most of the ride convinced that we would be kidnapped, sacrificed, or both. We were not, but when we stopped at some (different, smaller) ruins an hour in, we watched another tourist’s horse lose control and the man fell off. Naman was comforted by the presence of other tourists on horses, but watching the man fall was enough to scare him for the remaining 20 minutes of our ride. Unfortunately for him, our next stop is a horse farm to WWOOF for three weeks. Our riding tour ended on a random dirt path, which we followed to some more sites we could not access without a ticket, and eventually to the Cristo Blanco, a giant white Jesus statue. From there, we found our way back down to the plaza along the edge of Saqsaywaman.

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Proof that Naman rode a horse (and loved it).

The real trouble began when I raised the topic of our Salkantay Trek to Macchu Picchu, which we will complete when we return to Cusco in three weeks. We planned to do the four-day trek alone, using our guidebook and common sense as resources (mostly because the online prices for a guided tour did not dip below $400). But walking the streets of Cusco, every other door is a guide company advertising their treks, and when we inquired about the prices, we found at least three between $160 and $190—the prices were higher for a train back to Cusco on the final day, but opting for a bus saved us a significant amount on the quotes. It took some convincing for Naman, but to me, the extra cost for ensured safety, direction, and meals is worth it. Choosing between the lower and upper options within our price range, the cheapest company did not have any online reviews, the mid-range had mediocre reviews, and the highest had the best and most consistent reviews.

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Did not make it inside Saqsaywaman but still got a pic.

But I’m bad at planning things, so by the time we decided on the company we had ten minutes to spare before we were scheduled to meet a planetarium tour. We needed to pay in cash for the cheapest price, so I sent Naman off with my card while I finalized the details with the company. Twenty minutes passed with no Naman, and when he finally returned he said, “We have a problem. The ATM took your card.” Much frazzlement and stress later, I learned that the two ATMs he tried did not want to provide the withdrawals, and on the third try it did not give the card back. Upon contacting the bank (it was Saturday, of course, so the bank itself was closed), they offered to print me a new card, until I told them my card was from a small credit union in the States. So, for now, I have no money, but luckily Naman brought not one but two cards, so we are set. We also ended up buying the trek tour tickets later that evening (with his card) and missed the planetarium tour.

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Views from 14,000 feet halfway between Cusco and Puno.

Now, we are starting a completely different part of the trip working on a horse farm near Puno and the wonderfully named Lake Titicaca. But first, we took a luxury ten-hour train ride from Cusco to Puno that offered us plenty of indulgence and reminders of our privilege before we embark on drastically simple living. The train was expensive, over-the-top, and thoroughly enjoyable. They gave us plenty of drinks, more lunch than either of us could finish, two instances of live music and dancing, a stop at 14,000 feet, and we also met some excellent people on the trip. It was the most luxurious thing we will do in Peru, but it was fun to pretend to live like that while it lasted.

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Our pretend home for ten hours.

To characterize the first week of the trip: spontaneous, colorful, indulgent, delicious, high, contrasting, and, of course, unpredictable. Much more adventure awaits.

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