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Friday 12 Mar 2010
Cusco, Peru

Driving through the Andes to get to lovely Cusco

The 14 hour overnight bus from Nazca to Cusco was surprisingly comfortable, and I managed to get some good sleep on the "almost-fully-reclining" seats on the CIAL bus. We drove up on VERY windy roads through the Andes mountain range and I can only speculate at the various altitudes we must have gone through during the night as my ears periodically popped every 30 mins or so, not to mention the temperature dropped to around -8C so I was very glad to have brought along my 2 fleeces (the guy in the CIAL office said I would be fine with a tshirt as the bus was equipped with a heater, but I don't recall the heater being used at all!)

No more mariachi movies this time though, thank God!

Come morning, we were served our "desayuno" breakfast of ...er... crackers and juice. I opened the curtain and peered out to an exceedingly dramatic landscape of steep mountains and gushing rivers. The Andes has been plagued with heavy rain over the past few months (which is consequently why Machu Picchu has been closed to visitors until April due to the extensive route damage) and we could still see clear evidence of sections of road that had been washed away, making the dual-lane road into a single lane for short distances. Rock outcrops from the surrounding mountains precariously hang over the road, and these too have lately been collapsing onto the road. Even this morning we had a 2 hour delay at one point because a section of road had to be cleared of debris that had fallen down overnight. Thankfully the Peruvians seem to be on top of it and they have large bulldozers are regular intervals on the road ready to deal with the situation. To them, our bus is another cashload of tourist dollars so the last thing they want to do is prevent us spending them in Cusco!

This two hour stop was actually at a beautiful section beside a fast-flowing river, and I got some great shots which I'll try to add up later. Plus it was sunny, and some enterprising locals had set up a food stall serving delicious fish and potatoes!

On arriving into Cusco this morning, some 3,310 metres above sea level, we were greeted with the usual onslaught of touts trying to get you into their hostels, but I'd already decided on the area I wanted to stay: the artistic barrio of San Blas. So I haggled for a 4 sole ride in a taxi, and we ventured northward up to San Blas in a steady uphill drive (the city of Cusco is built on a hillside so you're constantly battling with uphill/downhill as you wander around). When I gave 10 soles to the taxi driver, he gave me back a 2 sole piece and 1 sole, instead of a 5 sole piece and 1 sole. You've got to be careful of this in Peru because the 2 and 5 sole coins look almost identical! Cheeky bastid, but I got the 5 off him in the end! I think the bar in Iquitos tried to pull off this one on me when I was inebriated too... at the end of the night I was 10 sole short of what I should have been, but again I spotted it and managed to get it back no probs!

So Cusco then. I gotta say, I really REALLY like it! It's touristy, sure, but not so much that it's sold itself out to tourism with tacky shops and English signs everywhere (like gringolandia in Quito, Ecuador). With the year-round springtime-freshness and daytime temperatures ranging between 10C-15C, it's got an almost alpine resort feeling to it. Plenty of cheap accommodation on hand too, with great views over the city from the San Blas point, and I eventually got a great place for 30 soles a night (about 8 euro a night!) including breakfast and private bathroom/internet called Hostal Samanapata. While lugging my backpack around the streets and many steps of San Blas, in search of a hostel, I really felt the altitude hitting me and was frequently breathless. On arriving at the hostel I was given a cup of Coca tea (basically a legal, mild form of cocaine) which helped relieve the symptoms somewhat.

The tiny city's history is incredible. This was essentially Ground-Zero for the huge Inca empire around 500 years ago. The empire was broken up into 4 sections, the north-west/east, and south-west/east, centered around the administrative capital of Cusco. The city was so well developed, with brickwork that rivalled anything in Spain at the time, that when the Spanish took over and established their colony here in the C16th, they left many of the original streets and Inca buildings intact, until a large earthquake damaged many of them in the C17th. Many of the Spanish churches were built ON TOP of existing Inca buildings and you can still see the Inca brickwork forming the foundations and lower levels of these buildings. So it's not just a stop-off point for tours to Machu Picchu, the city is a destination in its own right.

The people here have a distinct "hill-tribe" appearance and probably most-resemble the image conjured up when you first think of "Peruvian people" (the women wearing the large bowler hats and draped in multi-coloured ponchos, the men driving herds of llamas uphills laden with huge sacks, etc). Most of the hill-tribe women in town tend to come into Cusco to sell their wares (and some of it is really nice.. luxurious soft alpaca items such as the famous chullos are among my favourites) and whether you want it or not, they will constantly hassle you to look. Thus you spend 90% of your time saying "No gracias" as you walk around (unless you're looking to buy of course.. at which point they all swarm around you!). Paddy Flaherty's Irish pub (which serves some excellent Shepherds/Cottage pie!) even sell tshirts with "No gracias" printed on it to save you the hassle... but, despite this, Cusco is a lovely, small, clean and VERY relaxed little town to stay in.

Talking of Irish, the place seems to be FULL and I met/saw about 6 separate Irish groups in the first 30 minutes of arriving. This is amazing, considering I've hardly met any Irish on the trip so far (which is very odd), except one couple that I first met in Colombia on the Ciudad Perdida trek, then bumped into them at Nazca a few days ago! I guess they're all here waiting for Machu Picchu to re-open soon...

There is so much to see and do here, plus the alpaca-wool souvenirs are so excellent that I'm considering buying a load and posting them home! I was originally only going to stay about 2 days, but I'm seriously considering doing 4...

Cusco gets 5 stars.

2 Comments for this Travel blog entry

mum dad Says:

16 March 2010

hey peter,Cusco sounds like a nice place. I can almost see those women inblack hats. Look forward to some nice Alpaca! Hope you don't have to travel back the way you came? Sounds bit treacherous. Anyway,take care and enjoy! mum,dad

Peter Connick Says:

16 March 2010

Hi Pete,
Love following your blog. Absolutely fantastic. Happy Paddy's Day 2morro. I'll have a pint of the black stuff for you. Raise a local brew anyway. Stay safe. From Peter C.

peterforan Replies:

17 March 2010

Thanks Peter, same to you :)

South America Twenty Ten

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    Cusco

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    Pisac Sunday market