It’s been my childhood dream since I was 12 and I’m finally here, Peru.
The feeling is surreal.
There’s hustle and bustle as Terry and I clamour outside the airport with our luggage and into the warm thin air. After a 21-hour flight from Charlottetown, Toronto to Lima, and then a short flight to Cusco, I am more than happy to plant my feet firmly on the ancient Inca capital.
“Taxi!” someone yells in our direction.
“No thank you, we’re good,” I reply, hopeful.
“You, need taxi?” A different man this time attempts to guide us to his vehicle.
“No thanks,” we say in unison.
Then three or four more come our way.
I spot our driver from Sam’s Travel perched in the crowd waving a sign and I immediately signal in his direction, before we proceed to leave the chaos behind – if only for a moment.
Whistles as sharp as a soprano direct vehicles that dart from treacherously narrow cobblestone roads. There’s screeching of breaks and hammering of horns, but our driver is undeterred. After all, it’s just another day in Cusco for him.
He points to a landmark called Coricancha. It’s the Inca ruins of a prominent 15th-century temple that once had walls and floors coated in pure gold. I gaze out the window as we pass by and notice three different layers of stone fitted tightly together without mortar. But my concentration is stolen by shallow breaths and the pounding heartbeat gathering in my head.
We’re at an elevation of 11,152 feet (3,399 metres).
“Coca tea, you take,” he states in broken English as his black eyes meet mine through the rear-view mirror.
“All the hotels have it, including the leaves. You chew them.”
The herbal tea that’s made from raw or dried leaves of the coca plant is native to South America. For centuries the locals have been consuming this plant, which is used to relieve the various symptoms of altitude sickness.
Researchers believe that it’s the presence of B vitamins and alkaloids that gives this herbal tea its effect to improve the oxygen uptake and blood flow at high altitudes. But chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea can potentially result in a positive drug test for cocaine.
I tilt my gaze back towards the window and witness a Quechuan woman desperately trying to push her alpaca up onto a narrow ledge and out the way of oncoming traffic.
We pass a beautiful square as the van slows down to a stop. The Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel is in the heart of the Inca city, and where we are staying for two nights before our trek into the Andean Mountains. The hotel is a museum built into a colonial mansion of the XVI century. It houses more than 300 pieces of art, colonial sculptures and carvings that transport guests to a time of greatness.
Oxygen is pumped into our room, and the marbled bathroom floor is heated. I’m glad to finally shower and throw my body on the soft white linen of the bed, before popping a few painkillers and washing them down with coca tea that’s offered freely by the reception area.
After two hours, we’re buzzing to explore. Terry and I browse the beautiful hotel, its courtyard and magnificent pieces of art and furniture that are draped on every floor. Outside we descend a narrow cobbled pavement and emerge into the Main Square.
There are countless souvenir gift shops, cafes, museums, restaurants, and very persistent locals.
“Massage?” a woman asks, while shoving a brochure in our hands.
“No, gracias,” we say, while we hand it back.
“You want a picture, Picasso?” A man swiftly appears from behind her. “It’s free to look,” he adds.
We are willingly drawn into a small café by a similar persistent local. The café overlooks the square. Terry and I order something small, as our stomachs and heads are still churning. We climb on the two stools situated on a small balcony hanging over the “Plaza de Armas.” It’s a busy and vibrant space below, and we soak in the atmosphere.
There are two iconic buildings that shadow the square, Cusco Cathedral and the Company of Jesus Church, which inside is coated in gold. The square is a beautiful area (and rich behind closed doors), although the outskirts of this city are crumbling with poverty.
Elections are currently taking place and there are parades, music with flutes and dance. Posters of the different candidates who wish to be recognized in the elections are plastered across buildings. There’s hope for a better economic future.
At night, we don’t sleep much. Terry spends it mostly with his head peering into the bowl of a toilet, which has a sign stating: ‘Do not put toilet paper in the toilet but in the trash can.’ These signs are plastered everywhere, even in Five Star hotels, because the city’s plumbing can’t handle toilet paper.
The next morning, feeling a little better and drinking more coca tea to help with the altitude sickness, we find a local market and venture in.
It’s unlike any market we’ve seen before. Stalls are jammed together and every square inch of the floor is covered with contents of the surrounding sacks of fruit, vegetables, beans, corn of all sorts of colour and sizes, herbs, spices, potatoes, including a variety of meat and eggs, colourful woven clothing, trinkets and paintings.
There’s no health and safety standards here. I stroll past the carcasses of chicken lying dormant in the warm sun while gathering hungry flies. Yet it’s still an incredible place to browse, and strangely every stall is manned by a woman.
The day passes quickly. In the evening we meet with Sam Travel to go over the itinerary for our trek and a basic understanding of the route we will take. The next few days are going to be difficult, but we’re excited.
We sign a waiver – our life away.
And conclude the day with a Pisco sour, a very strong alcoholic cocktail that represents Peru.
I fail to finish it.
To be continued on next post: