Diary, 2 July 2016
Ana-Sofia has advised us that Cusco and the area we are trekking is not considered the ‘Andes’ (or Las Sierras) but rather the ‘Cloud Mountains’, an area or region that borders the Amazon jungle, but which features its own type of forest. That sounds good to me and besides, is suitably poetic. I look forward to seeing it as we bore through a sunny sky and I gaze out over mountains and gullies that share the same brown hues as those in Afghanistan. There is no vegetation around Lima and I was reminded that this is one of those rare coastal deserts, Lima being the largest desert city after Cairo. We are all on LA2023 this morning but slightly subdued over yesterday: time differences, jet lag and constantly being on the move all taking their smallest weight of flesh and spirit. Diamox is slowing some of us as well.The day started with the first chirps and beeps of phones accepting messages from home about 0445 though the orange street light flooding our room, and foreign shadowy, not so quiet persons moving in and out of our room had me awake much earlier than that. Breakfast (“two breads + 1 egg” read the sign in the kitchen) was on at 0500 and most made it into the kitchen in good time, and applying good combat survival skills (always eat when food is put in front of you). We got away on schedule from the Condor at 0545, through empty streets in Miraflores (though the paper deliveries were being made to the street vendors) but which became increasingly hectic and busy the closer we got to the airport. And which of course were seriously cluttered once we got into the terminal itself where, despite the early hour, crowds spilled out the doors. Domestic and international flights are all serviced from the same building which was not helpful at all. By the time I arrived at the terminal building, tagging along behind everyone (old habits are going to be hard to shake), the team had attached itself to a queue that seemed disconcertedly long. But Lewis did a quick recce and uncovered a shorter and more relevant queue which we quickly joined – it was the queue for domestic flights. Our adopted line was for international departures. We are checked through to Cusco quite quickly and I force myself to push through security and find a coffee then the gate without checking where everyone else is. ‘I can get used to this’ I assure myself, but as we climb onto the bus that will take us across the tarmac to our plane I sneak a headcount. We are all here.
I feel the plane bunt and sag a little as we flatten out at altitude and the throttle is eased a fraction. At this point rivers snake through some of the valleys below and forests cover the hills. But we lose the green again to alpine views almost immediately – jagged white peaks that wash out to layers of blue ridges that step away to the horizon in slivers of subtle tones of azure. It’s a remarkable sight and every passenger near a window has their camera out. Our run into Cusco was a dramatic nap of the earth, tight left hand turn through one hundred and eighty degrees as we rapidly sunk towards the floor of the valley and lined up for short finals. Cusco sits in a basin on a high plateau and the airport is tucked into a tight valley which made for a wonderful section of flying which I enjoyed immensely, even as I marvelled at how far the wing was tipped towards the earth. Not as tight as nap of the earth flying in a Caribou in the Blue Mountains but I very close second I mused, as we dropped below the ridge line.
By the time we get out of the aircraft we can see our baggage on the trolleys below the aircraft and we recover them shortly thereafter. But there is no local Peruvian waiting at the barriers outside in the carpark with my name on it. No matter, I am given time for a bathroom stop. I check again but no name. But it’s a sunny day and the warmth of the sun encourages me to not rush. We wait outside in the sun in case our connection turns up unprompted but in the end I call Tullio. He assures me his man is there. I wait another ten minutes and call again. No man is here. Tullio is perturbed. I wander into the terminal just in time to be told there is a guy at the back of a now thinned crowd, holding a sign with my name on it. I check him out – it’s obvious he is either just waking up from a nap or he is high on drugs. I give him the benefit of the doubt and figure he was here all along as Tullio attested, but had fallen asleep in his bus while he waited in the heat.
Cusco is immediately intriguing. It has a Latin American air from the outset whereas Lima might have just been another big city anywhere on the planet for all we saw of it. Tiled rooves, obscure monuments, Spanish language, strange birds and plants, and as we got closer into the centre of town, more and more stone work in the buildings. As we turn towards the hostel the town square is pointed out to us, and we catch the briefest glimpse but it’s enough to elicit a collective ‘ah’ from us all. We wind through other squares and along streets that catch our eye, in part because they advertise things we realise we need already. Like camera batteries. Cash exchanges. Banks. Hiking shops.
We are early to the hostel, which boasts the welcoming name of Mama Simona. It is tucked up a lane too narrow for the bus so we are dropped off on the corner of a one way street and block the heavy flow of traffic while we collect our packs and lug them up to the hostel, past any number of dogs that stand and watch us pass. Our early arrival throws our hosts but they get themselves sorted out and allocate rooms, a couple of which are still being cleaned. We are scattered through the building in smaller rooms than in Lima, with each room containing two bunks, some with a bathroom, some without. Many of the rooms face into an atrium which forms the common area, complete with lounges and bean bags and an urn of hot water from which we are encouraged to make ourselves coca tea. It allegedly has medicinal qualities which aid in addressing acute mountain sickness. I am sure it does but the stuff tastes like what I imagine lawn clippings might taste like. Still, I indulge a few cups to see what the effect might be.
We have a few days in Cusco as part of our acclimatisation plan. We have gone directly from sea level to 11,000’ and that is not the best way to acclimatise at all. But a long stop here followed by a low altitude start to the trek is an acceptable way to go. It is only mid morning by the time the rooms are allocated so the group heads off to check out the main plaza which we glimpsed on the way in. The group fragments very quickly as different things catch our eye and spark interests. The remnant, of which we are part, arrive in the square but decide that first things first, we need a feed. It’s been a long time since “2 breads+1 egg”. Lunch is trout (possibly the best fish I have ever had) while Kavitha tried llama. But after lunch our group breaks up some more and Kavitha and I find ourselves on our own, though definitely in a very large crowd of milling tourists of all sorts of shapes and accents. We wander through the church ‘Compania de Jesus’. The main appeal of the place lies in the fact that we can climb up into the bell towers for a vantage point over the plaza. These churches speak volumes about the pillaging of these communities who were compelled to fund any number of vast, expensive buildings. And volumes about the irrelevancy of their spiritual claims. They echo an emptiness and darkness which speaks no life at all. Built in the name of Jesus I can only imagine what he would say about such a mausoleum of a place. And there not one of them but at least six that we can see, probably more, all within a block or two of the main plaza.
We leave the cold gloom of the Compania de Jesus cathedral and follow the light up cobbled streets, past the San Francisco cathedral, through a striking stone gateway to the local markets where we do what we always do in these sorts of places – soak in the sight, colour and sound of everyday folk going about their business. We doubly appreciate the place for the comparatively small number of tourists that have found it. The braver visitors sit at bars across the market and take their lunch of soups and stews. Good for them.
We then swing south and make our way up through town onto the hill where the San Blas cathedral sits among a bunch of Peruvian reggae types, all dredded up and being as cool as they can be. By now the temple (mine, not the buildings) was throbbing so, realising we needed to hydrate, stopped at a very pleasant pizza joint and ordered lime juice drink and chocolate nougat. Revived, after a fashion, we push on through narrow lanes on cobbled streets, moving slightly upward and away from the touristy part of town, the transition being marked by rubbish on the street and unkempt houses. Our narrow lane gives us up onto a paved road near one of the entrances to the Inca ruins which overlook this city. It is appropriately marked by a loose llama that is grazing up and down the street and ignoring everyone. Given the price they wanted us to pay to see the ruins, together with the lateness of the afternoon hour, we demurred, electing to look at the site the next day. Instead we continued to follow the road around the hill. It’s a gradual incline through tall eucalypts and we are not too sure where we are going apart from ‘up’ and we count that a good acclimatisation idea. To our surprise we find ourselves at another gate to the Inca site, but this time with a tantalising glimpse of large stone ruins. It’s enough to convince us that we really do need to come back here tomorrow.
That evening we found ourselves back together as a group, dining at a Peruvian café where the portions were outlandishly huge and overwhelming, but where the locals were keen to recommend this or that dish to us. I ate some brown gruel the name and contents of which I have no idea. But it was slightly sweet and warm and the locals seemed to appreciate my appetite for it. But if we come here again we will order a single dish of food for the pair of us, rather than waste so much that was prepared for us.
The altitude was giving me a serious headache so I was in bed by 2230. At 0300 the following morning the headache had eased but I was woken by a pending sense of nauseous doom. The power to the building had vanished but the place was lit by candles as I padded around the cold corridors to find a communal bathroom. I figured my room-mates would hardly appreciate hearing what was to come if I had used our en-suite with its very porous door. Come it did, and with it an improved sense of wellbeing. So much so that I did not surface until midday. Sleep, after all, is the best antidote to acute mountain sickness. Or so I assure myself.
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