Emails from Abroad #15: Holidays in Cusco

Holiday season in Peru, 5 months of South American travel behind me; written from my “home base” of Cusco, December 13, 2013.  

“I’ve been in Peru for nearly 2 months and even more time has passed since my last email.  I’m sure with facebook at least most of you can rest assured knowing I’m alive if not a little sunburnt or hungover (or both).

“As it turns out, there is an outright plethora of things to do and see in this enormous country…who’da thought?  Peru is composed of desert, impressive mountain ranges, and amazonian jungle.  The landscape and climate change as quickly and drastically as the regional food and culture from one place to the next, and it has all proven beautiful and captivating…in every case worthy of the time spent there if not a little more.

“My friends and I ventured into Peru overland from Ecuador, stopping first in a northern beach town called Máncora.  At that point, I had roughly one week to get through the northern part of the country and all the way to Cusco in the Andes where I had a hostel and Inca trail adventure awaiting me.  It was a tall order, but I prioritized my activities and, to save a little time, booked a short flight from Lima to Cusco (a one-hour trip versus 21 hours on a bus).  After a whirlwind 10 days in Ecuador and plenty of beach time and parties, I decided to move on a few days ahead of some of my travel buddies to do a little hiking in La Cordillera Blanca, one of the aforementioned stunning mountain ranges.  Two days in Máncora was more than enough for me.

“Two friends accompanied me to Huaraz, the little town at the base of the mountains that serves as the jumping-off point for all the hiking in the region.  Located at about 3050m elevation (about 10,140 feet) it was a rude awakening after more than a week at sea level.  I’m not usually particularly susceptible to altitude sickness but this time around I definitely felt the effects, most notably punishing headaches that bordered on migraine-level pain.  However, due to our (my) time constraint, we had to make good use of our two full days and so decided to book two back-to-back day trips (my friends selflessly decided to keep pace with me, at least to Lima, and since it was quite rainy at the time nobody was very keen on doing the more demanding 4- or 8-day hikes in such miserable weather).

“Our first excursion was to a glacier named Pastoruri (a Quechua name…Quechua = Inca).  This trip only required about 1 hr 45 minutes of hiking, but since we STARTED this little hike at an elevation of 5000 meters (16,404 feet) and would top out at 5400m (17,716 ft) it was nevertheless a challenge.  I found myself dizzy and lightheaded, even seeing auras on occasion, more than this “strong, independent,” and proud little woman would like to admit.  And this was just our “warm-up” hike to prepare us for the longer day that followed.  In any case, we made it up to the glacier, snapped a load of silly photos and ate our sack lunches while admiring its grandeur and thanking the universe for the lovely sunny day.  The next day another travel buddy joined us for a longer hike that would lead us to one of the most stunning glacial lagoons I’ve ever seen.  This hike lasted about 5 hours round-trip and lead us through a much more varied landscape; green pastures, tall waterfalls and snowy mountain peaks were all around for our eyes to feast on.  Weather didn’t cooperate as well this day, however…upon arrival at our gorgeous turquoise-hued desination, Laguna 69 (numbered in the order they were discovered, so they say) we were greeted with a nasty hail storm.  Once it passed, the sun peeped out for a bit, we took our requisite million photos and started our descent.  A thunderstorm made the return trip interesting if not slightly terrifying, but we made it back to the van reeking of wet dog and self-satisfaction.

“One overnight bus later, we arrived at some insanely early-morning hour to the capital city of Lima.  An afternoon of wandering around the touristic area of Miraflores is all I could muster.  I put myself to bed early in order to wake up for my flight to Cusco the next day.  The flight went smoother than I could have hoped for, and I arrived at my hostel with 3 days to get my bearings and acclimate once again to the altitude of the city (3400 meters) before I started off on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.

“Since I could write a veritable novel about my experience on the Inca trail, I will instead highlight the most important aspects, in list form:

1) The hike was much more challenging than I thought it would be, and if I had to do it over, I would hire the help of an extra porter.  It was a great accomplishment but I’m sure my body would thank me next time for not overestimating its abilities.
2) Weather was easily the most important factor in the “enjoyability” of this hike.  Not much to enjoy about a wall of fog in your face or rain soaking you to the bone for hours on end…some days were amazing, others were miserable.
3) The ruins at Machu Picchu were NOT in fact the best part of the trip for me.  I got much more satisfaction from completing the 4-day hike, building camaraderie with my hiking group and guides, and seeing the lesser-known ruins and stunning views along the trail (only 200 tourists are allowed on this particular trail per day…there is no limit to the number of people allowed at Machu Picchu).
4) If you ever have the opportunity to experience this, I highly recommend it (just avoid the rainy months of November-Feb if possible) and do plenty of research before choosing a tour company.

“Naturally, a much-needed rest period immediately followed the hike.  My friends had zipped around to other places in Southern Peru and made their way to Cusco so we could all spend Halloween together.  Cusco is a wonderfully lively little city with loads of culture and things to do…some may complain that it’s too touristy but there are plenty of ways to avoid that if you try.  For me, it’s no more touristy than, say, Chiang Mai.  Around the main Plaza de Armas, you will be constantly implored to spend your money on artisenal goods, services (massage, Miss?  manicure?) 5-course lunch menus or tours; on the other hand, walk 10 minutes in the opposite direction to encounter local food markets devoid of a single other gringo and replete with delicacies I’m far too weak stomached to ever try, much less look at/smell for long periods of time (think: chicken feet, any organ meat you can imagine, whole goat heads still containing teeth and tongues) or lunch menus costing a whopping 3 soles ($1 US).  I’ve come to know Cusco better than most places on my travels thus far and it was an easy choice when some of my Colombian traveling family suggested I ring in the new year in this Andean city.

“I’m back in Cusco now, getting comfortable and feeling incredibly thankful for the opportunity to lay low for awhile and not feel so rushed to cram every day full of activities.

“Hope your Thanksgiving holidays were wonderful, I’m really missing the holiday cheer of Christmas…Peru just isn’t as enthusiastic (over the top?) with the holiday decorations…gotta hand it to America on that one.”

SUP Mancora PeruStand-up paddling in Mancora, Peru!
IMG_5906Pretending to be energetic at 17,000ft.
IMG_6057 Laguna 69 near Huaraz, Peru.  Amazing hike!
DSC04102What it looks like when you don’t hire an extra porter on the Inca Trail!
IMG_6148Day three on the Inca Trail – the town of Aguas Calientes visible in the distance.
DSC04129We survived the Inca Trail!
DSC04049Cusco’s main plaza on a beautiful day.  A great place to call home for a few months.

About Leah Davis

Hey! I'm Leah. I'm a solo traveler letting my heart lead me around the world, one country at a time. I've taught English in Thailand, climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, gone skydiving in Argentina, and marveled at the ruins at Machu Picchu (twice!). I love maps, strong coffee, good wine and warm climates. For even more travel talk and inspiration, you can follow my adventures on Twitter or Instagram.
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