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Cusco & Machu Picchu 

How many famous Peruvians can you name? Hmmm, the best I could come up with was Paddington Bear which doesn’t say a great deal for Peru. It used to be naming famous Belgians but Peru is far trickier but then again so is Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama etc. Most people have heard of the photographer Mario Testino and he’s from Peru although I would have guessed Italy. 

One stop in Peru albeit a three day stop at the port of Callao near Lima. I’d booked an independent trip to Machu Picchu for about a third of the cost of the ship tour and I guess the only downside would be doing it on my own rather than with other passengers. 

Once off the ship I jumped into a taxi and almost immediately wish I’d sat in the back and closed my eyes. I wasn’t even sure if Pepe was a taxi driver at all as he suggested “if we got stopped at the airport entrance, just say we are friends”. He then tried to charge me forty dollars for a thirty minute trip including ten minutes at one traffic light. So I caused a commotion and threatened to have the journey costed by an independent airline worker (not sure how that would have gone) but he relented and he accepted my much lower offer. I really am getting irritated by people trying to rip me off but luckily I can do shameless behaviour when necessary. Not all the time you understand. 

The airport experience at Jorge Chavez international was painless despite being in a foreign language. Then I found myself on the same plane as many of my shipmates who’d booked the gold tour at $2500 each. 

I ended up sitting next to Alexa who is my casino pal from the WC last year. She’s on board with her lovely daughter Aviva. Alexa is 50 and married Fred (65) about five years ago. Fred is registered blind and has never worked. His father was wealthy through Abbott Pharmaceuticals and Fred and his brother have trust funds which they live off. Fred’s is worth many millions hence the top suite onboard the ship. We were served barely edible crisps and coca tea which apparently helps with altitude sickness (the tea not the crisps). 

Just over an hour later we landed in Cusco which is about 11300ft above sea level and I found a delightful taxi driver called David. It only took fifteen minutes to the hotel and yet again I’ve brought my goggles and booked a hotel with no pool. Another coca tea and I was ready for an adventure. It was only midday and Cusco looked intriguing – founded in 1100 kind of intriguing.

I dropped my bag off in the room and I started to feel a bit muzzy. It may have been the extra floor but the altitude was starting to affect me. I ventured out onto the street and started walking towards the first of a dozen churches dotted around the city. It was either that or museums. After about 50 feet walking up an inclined street I had to stop and catch my breath and this continued for about an hour. Lots of steep cobbled streets and steps and not a cyclist in sight. I was defeated by one set of steps. As I kept ascending I was feeling more and more lightheaded – a bit like how I felt after two beers as a teenager. I stopped and went back down feeling quite astonished at how the descent made me feel better at each step. I’d obviously reached my limit. Then a young girl passed me sprinting up the steps. Show off. 

Whenever I stopped I felt fine but the merest hint of exertion and I was back to walking slowly and deliberately. So I jumped into a taxi and did some low effort touring but eventually I had to start walking again. I couldn’t make him carry me to every church. He’d already done two. After lunch I was persuaded to have a massage by a young Peruvian named Christelle. It didn’t take much persuading as it involved lying still for an hour which had become my new favourite hobby. $20 for an hour and no jiggery pokery on offer which was good. Then it was nap time, bath time and out for dinner somewhere close by. I had a headache but I didn’t actually feel sick. 

In Sicily some months back we went up Mount Etna which is 10,900 feet high but we stayed less than an hour so maybe the altitude didn’t have time to affect us. This experience has given me a much greater respect for the athletes that train at altitude – I can’t even do a brisk walk, and also the importance of acclimatisation. It has also scared the bejesus out of me for any thoughts of climbing Kilimanjaro – 19341 feet – I think my head would explode. 

It also got me researching the altitude of capital cities around the world and South America has three of the top 4 – La Paz, Quito and Bogota but the most eyebrow raising little fact I have for you is that there are two capital cities below sea level. Amsterdam is 12ft below and Baku in Azerbaijan is 92ft below. 

I went out for a solo dinner at Cava Mora in the main Plaza in Cusco and had a pizza and half a bottle of vino. Just as I finished the heavens opened so I walked back “slowly” in the rain. 

Cusco, high in the Andes mountains was the capital of the Inca Empire. The cobbled streets are narrow and the terrain is anything but flat. It is a very touristic place evidenced by the number of people wearing traditional costumes or playing weird instruments or leading llamas around like they’re dogs. My favourite was Maximo who played his oddly shaped guitar for me. What he lacked in anything resembling musical ability he more than made up for with his avuncular smile. I declined his CD though.

Saturday 14th was Machu Picchu day and after getting very little sleep due to the altitude sickness I wasn’t in the mood for a 12 hour day out. If MP had been higher in altitude than Cusco I might not have gone but at just under 8000ft there was a good chance a day out might give me some respite from the headache. It was just over an hour in a taxi to the train station, then an hour waiting for the other 40 or so passengers to turn up and then the Hiram Bingham luxury train. At $380 one way I was expecting luxury. 

The train travelled slowly and turned an hours ride into three and a half. The first hour we had a group in the observation car singing an eclectic repertoire of songs of which their version of Crazy Little Thing Called Love was my favourite. I declined their CD too. Then a steak lunch which was horrible but the wine was helping with the headache. When we arrived at Machu Picchu station we had another 30 minutes in a bus before arriving at the site. The good news was the sickness had gone. 8000ft is obviously ok. We passed the inca trail en route which is 28 miles long and reaches elevations of 14000ft. Many people choose to do this which takes 4 days and three nights. 

I didn’t realise at the time but if you book the Hiram Bingham, the entry to MP is included as is the bus to the site and a guide. There were six of us with our guide Carlos who was ever so enthusiastic about the place. Malaysian Sam who was a student studying in the US, John and Michelle from Toronto, Pete from Australia but living in Miami who was on a three month tour on his motorbike – Miami to LA to Mexico to Central America to Colombia to Ecuador to Peru etc. (KTM 1300cc for anyone who likes bikes) and Chinese Ray who was on business buying up half of Bolivia by the sound of things. China are taking over the world. 

I’d like to say that I was blown away by Machu Picchu but I wasn’t. Images of this Inca citadel are so well known (and in many ways better than anything I took due to swirling clouds) that it seemed almost familiar. The Sanctuary of Truth in Thailand actually got my juices flowing more than Machu Picchu. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great but if I’d spent four days trekking to it I may have felt slightly miffed. Having said that the town of Aguas Calientes (you could get in hot water in that place) where the station is located was fabulous and I wish I’d had more time to spend there. 

Some Machu Picchu facts – built around 1450 at the height of the Incan Empire and abandoned in 1572 when the last Inca stronghold was conquered by the Spanish. The demise of the Incas was in large part down to smallpox which wiped out an estimated 75% of the population. Although known locally, it was an American explorer by the name of Hiram Bingham who brought Machu Picchu to the world’s attention in 1911. 

I left the group early and headed for my train. First I had to get the bus but didn’t have a ticket apparently so bought one for 12 bucks – a bit expensive, and I got the last seat on a bus full of Peruvians going down a precarious mountain road full of switchbacks. It felt like a scene out of Romancing the Stone minus the chickens.

I had thought that getting there with one minute to spare and a little jog to the train would be acceptable but oh no, not with Peru Rail. Got to be there thirty minutes before departure and sit in a holding pen before a chap comes out holding a sign with either A or B denoting the carriages who you follow and are met by three more staff, the first one takes your A4 ticket and tears it in half giving you back both halves, the second takes one half and the third ticks off your name like taking a register. So I missed my designated train and had to buy another ticket for $109 which did not represent value for money. After serving lunch a chap came out wearing traditional Peruvian dress and a mask and started dancing around the carriage. I wondered if this sort of thing happened on all Peru Rail journeys or perhaps it was just inflicted on tourists. Anyway I was in no mood for a Peruvian masked dancer so I nodded off.

David was at Ollanta station to drive me back to the hotel. I’d not considered throwing myself from a moving vehicle before but everyone has their limit when it comes to the pan pipes and mine was easily reached within the two hour ride. Musically I doubt there’s a better aid to assisted suicide than non-stop pan pipes.

Back in Cusco the altitude sickness had gone so the day in MP had done the trick. Either that or I had acclimatised – I will never know and have to live with the medical mystery henceforth. I was flying back the following day so no chance to visit the museums, damn. The trip to Machu Picchu actually turned into a 14 hour day with 3 hours in a taxi, 1 hour on a bus, 2 hours sitting around, 5 hours on a train and 3 hours in Machu Picchu itself. Not quite a four day trek but a long day nonetheless.

On Sunday morning I flew back and after getting off the plane I had a choice to go to Lima or back to the ship. There was also a motor museum I wanted to visit but it was 30km away and I wasn’t keen on more time sitting in a taxi. So it was back to the ship with pre-paid Enrico. 

The actual cruise terminal was off-limits to all but authorised vehicles so no taxis and definitely no foot passengers. We had to be shuttled in and Enrico had no idea where the shuttle bus picked up from and nor did I so we just drove around the port town of Callao until his usefulness reached an all time low. We parted company miles from the ship so I walked up to a stationary police car (much easier to approach than the moving ones) and with the help of google translate managed to confuse the hell out of three Peruvian law enforcement officers. There was a seat in the back so they ushered me inside and started driving. I had assumed my Spanglish had been successful and I was going to to be delivered to the ship in a police car. Another one off the bucket list I thought. But the port of Callao is enormous; the largest in Peru so they just delivered me to a police station where I was taken inside while they looked for an English speaking officer. The google translate app combined with the Marine Traffic app (which pinpoints any ship in the world) enabled me to show him where I wanted to go. He seemed completely oblivious to the existence of a cruise ship in the port of Callao. At most places we stop it’s the highlight of the week but not Peru. 

We went outside and he flagged down another taxi and gave him the instructions of where to go and told me it would cost 10 sol – about 3 dollars. Having been in the port area for about an hour by now and no sign of the big white thing I came in on I would have paid several multiples of that just for a glimpse of the ship through binoculars. We got lost twice and had to ask for directions. The first off a cute motorcycle policewoman (I would have liked riding pillion with her back to the ship) but a hand gesture was all that she offered. We finally found the place and after driving past it four times decided to stop and ask at another parked police car who confirmed that we were in fact in the right place. I spend a pleasant fifteen minutes with the security guards before the ship sent a minibus to pick me up. All part of the adventure apparently. 

Next stop Chile 

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