Chapter 10: First impressions of Cusco
Wednesday, April 28 A lively game of bus bingo kept the passengers alert till midnight. The caller spoke rapidly but I crossed my numbers being called out. Despite not winning I happily reflected that my listening skills were improving. During the early hours my anticipation of Cusco prevented much sleep. I would frequently take a peek through the drawn curtains. The moonlit rocky highlands glistened as our bus thundered up through mountain passes and small pueblos (villages).
The bus rolled into Cusco at 5.45am, almost an hour before schedule; such was its speed through the night. Some of us just didn’t know where we were, half expecting the stop to be a breakfast break before the final ascent to Cusco. I was one of those. A few enquiries and yes, we had arrived. The broken-down look of the town’s outskirts and the dilapidated terminal didn’t soothe my sleep deprived mood. Frantic scenes of animated people and shouting taxi drivers inside the building really unnerved me. I needed to get a handle on all this commotion. A genuine looking fellow amongst a crowd of drivers convinced me he was safe. He reassured me as he pointed to his badge.
We left the station in a small, blue Daewoo, the statutory taxi vehicle in Cusco, and travelled through streets of shuttered shops, garbage burning on the pavements and dogs fussing around ragged looking men. It was going to be a good day smiled the driver in response to my tired expression. The rising sun’s warmth on a cold morning gave credence to his generous gesture. We arrived in Meloc where the Hostal Los Ninos was situated. I’d marked it out in my Lonely Planet, a Dutch-run place dedicated to supporting street kids. Its description, of a charming mansion may have been correct. But Los Ninos had changed. It was now an upgraded business and prices were high, at $48 for a night’s stay. I looked to the driver. He questioned why I’d want to stay in Meloc in the first place. It was too far out of the town centre and there were plenty of cheaper and similarly nice places in Cusco. He saved the situation and brought me to the Inkas Wasi Hostel.
A night’s stay in a single room cost 40 soles. I was given a basement room with a pavement level window. It had an old but cold feel. I slept for a couple of hours as the rush hour noise outside drifted out of my range. I awoke and booked a two-night stay and compiled a list of best hostels from the internet. I ventured out onto the cobbled streets and headed down the marvellous Inca-walled line of Loreta onto the Plaza de Armas, the centre of Cusco.
Now, this was more like it. At an elevation of almost 3,400 metres, Cusco’s thinner air and greener look elevated me to a surreal summery scene. I suddenly spotted Mick from Bolton sitting on a bench in the plaza garden. He’d also just arrived, for a week’s stay. The street sellers and artists plied on the pressure and Mick just fended them off with an incredulous laugh. “They never fucking let up, eh Ronnie?” he scoffed. I surveyed the scene around me. A warm, yet fresh and breezy day, lots of sun and cotton wool clouds, on a green, white, and blue surface with a touch of red to grace the colonial architecture.
Mick was off to watch the vital Champions League semi-final between Inter Milan and Barcelona while I went and looked for places to stay up the steep and exhausting Suecia. Acclimatising to the new altitude would take time. A shortness of breath was a warning to pace myself. I took a cheap menu del dias before checking out where Mick was staying.
The highly recommended Pirwa Backpackers seemed a good deal at 22 soles for a dormitory bed. I immediately liked its location up on Carmen Alto. It was next to the artsy San Blas square. Despite the rather exhausting walk up to Pirwa from the centre it took you past the historical highlights of Cusco like the 12-sided stone on Hatunrumiyoc.
A young lady called Selina warmly greeted me at Pirwa’s reception. I took a good look around while Selina phoned her manager to check on room availability. After a moment’s silence, she replied down the mouthpiece and said yes, el bueno. She laughed, looked up, winked at me, and said yes, I was lovely! She almost made me blush, and certainly made me feel at home!
One of the hostel’s affiliated organisations, FairPlay, had a language school, volunteering opportunities and home stay possibilities with local families. My mood lightened with the air. Perhaps I could stay a little while longer here in Cusco. Later that evening I checked my emails and contacted one of my friends in Liverpool, Cameron Ward. He was keen to join up for a fortnight’s holiday. Cusco was the ideal location, with lots to do and lots to see. Meanwhile, my sister Joanna had some sad news from back home. Mam’s golden wedding ring had been lost. I felt so down for Mam. Being so far away and feeling so helpless, I could only email Joanna to suggest a few enquiry lines.
This feeling added to my mood of uncertainty. I remained philosophical. Cusco was a busier town than I’d imagined. I tended to remain on autopilot for the first week or so. Despite not being too engaged to my surroundings and company to start with I would soon find my feet again. The altitude was obviously a big player but I was suddenly toying with the idea of where to settle for a few weeks. I felt compelled to really brush up on my Spanish. This would help me to engage more because the people I kept meeting seemed really pleasant.
Thursday, April 29
After a good sleep and breakfast in the back yard I read for a while. My sister had facilitated a savings transfer of about £3,000 to my bank account. Funding for my travels up to October were now in place. I visited the FairPlay School late morning, making my way down the busy Avenida del Sol. I spotted the Serpost offices along the way. I went inside to wire a request for my bank to send me a replacement sentry card, for the one I’d lost in Mendoza.
At the school I met Fran Yeoman, from Liverpool, a former reporter for The Times. Fran began her newspaper career with work experience at the Crosby Herald. under the guidance of editor Peter Harvey. He was still the editor when I worked there for a short while in 2006. Such a small world! Fran had been with FairPlay for two months. She had only good things to say about the organisation but was now ready to resume her travels. She was helping her friend Rod, from Cardiff, prepare lunch. They invited me to join them once I finished speaking with John, FairPlay’s manager.
John was a Flemish Belgian. He settled in Cusco a few years back and met a local lady called Fanny who later became his wife. They shared a vision of helping single mothers to find a way out of poverty. John seemed flustered, a busy man working out some comparison figures for the school’s Spanish courses. He apologised profusely for appearing a little tense and asked me to bear with him. I found the set-up and characters decent and honest so I agreed on returning to start grammar and practical classes on the following Monday.
I took a pleasant walk back up to the town centre and again surveyed the activity around the main plaza. The colour, the cocoa and smoky smells and especially the noise were so captivating. I tipped a few coins into the hat of a blind mouth organist making a pleasing tune beneath the arches next to the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus. For lunch I settled for the highest Irish pub in the world. Paddy O’Flaherty’s was a mere 13,000 feet above sea level. The bar became packed as the pub screened a live football match. Liverpool were playing Athletico Madrid in the Europa League semi-final. Some English, Australians and Americans settled into the side room with me to watch an intriguing game. I sat at a table, with its heavy iron foot wheel still spinning away, quietly hoping for Liverpool to seal the necessary win. Despite winning, the margin was not enough to secure a final spot. It wasn’t to be, but we all enjoyed the game.
Leaving the pub after a couple of beers, I took a left turn too soon on my way back to the hostel. Darkness soon descended and I became bothered. I returned to the Plaza de Armas where a military parade was just finishing. Children with drawings, paintings, and shoe cleaning implements were straight on to the travellers on the steps of the cathedral. Wary and weary looking tourists were aplenty. I calmly found my way back onto San Agustin and the corner street hostel soon came into view.
Friday, April 30
Car fumes were seeping into my basement room and my head was throbbing. Not an ideal start to the day but I took breakfast with a very pleasant German lady called Anna. She’d spent a week hiking in an Indian reservation in Northern Colombia. Her adventure sounded awesome.
Joel, the hostel supervisor, later ordered me a taxi and I took another box-type Daewoo onto the busy lunchtime streets Cusco. We arrived at the Pirwa Backpacker Familiar on Carmen Alto. After checking in and a brief introduction to the hostel manager Rosa, I returned to the Plaza de Armas and bumped into Mick on the steep cobbled stone hill. Mick had just returned from a two-day trip to Machu Picchu where he had a great time.
I returned to my dormitory where I met Lauren Flores from San Antonio, Texas, and Mauve from South Carolina. We went out for lunch at a little eatery on Carmen Alto. I immediately took to Lauren. She had an optimistic outlook and similar look to the songwriter Carole King. I then took a solitary stroll to the BCP Bank on Avenida El Sol and spent half an hour in an internet café. Increasing stomach rumbles were causing considerable discomfort. I read for a little while. Big drops of rain began falling on a much cooler Cusco. It was an increasingly damp afternoon.
Mid evening I met Mick and we went to wait outside the awesome cathedral. Mick had promised to meet his Machu Picchu tour companion there, a lively lad called Robert from Rotterdam. Robert was eager to find somewhere to celebrate Holland’s Queen’s Day. His confidence was buoyed by the number of Dutch ex-pats in Cusco and we found the orange flags decking the interior of Encuentros Cafe.
We stayed there for a few bottles of Cusquena cerveza and shared some snacks. An Irish woman called Barbara joined our table and the Dutch proprietor Rob introduced himself. He had been in a relationship with a Peruvian woman for 20 years. They moved from Holland to Cusco a year ago to be married and closer to her family. He loved the town and was adjusting well. His cafe bar had an optimistic feel to encourage further returns. It even had a movie night on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Our merry munching and drinking continued way down Suecia onto the plaza and into a disco bar above the Blueberry Lounge. As the bar quickly filled up, we took a corner spot by the window and the decks. I danced along the floor to a mix of South American rhythms and rock classics. After three more bottles I felt quite drunk and knew enough was enough, so I departed at about 2am.
I chuckled as Mick looked entranced by a gorgeous Chilean woman he’d been chatting with. Once outside, I staggered along, again bemused at the crude mix of heritage and commercialism, with a McDonald’s virtually next door to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo.
Saturday, May 1
I woke up late morning. Mick surfaced earlier. He’d befriended the Chilean lady and returned at 4am to the hostel but as soon as they arrived she left minutes later in a taxi, much to Mick’s consternation! The American girls were packing to leave. Mauve was on a two weeks’ vacation while Lauren was on the road till the end of June.
I was moving into the single room at the top corner of the hostel balcony on Sunday. My classes were starting on Monday, and I needed some space for concentration. Cameron emailed following my suggestion about him visiting Peru rather than us meeting up in Bogota, Colombia. He confirmed he’d be flying into Lima at the end of the month, which was great news. I booked the whole of the following week in the Pirwa and got talking to Melanie Canfield from Calgary.
After another cheap lunch I treated myself to a McDonald’s McFlurries ice cream. Locals stared a great deal in Cusco and whenever I could I’d stare back. We would break out into simultaneous smiles and share our beams of friendship! We weren’t so far removed from each other. I felt I knew quite quickly what the town was all about. The surface represented its massive expansion over the past 30 years, but underneath it all, there remained a rich spirit and way of life unchanged for thousands of years.
I visited a small, renovated chapel, next to the cathedral, where the altar featured joint images of Jesus Christ and the sun. I reflected on the scene long and hard and retired back to the hostel. I picked up my guitar and played some groggy-inspired tunes and blues licks. I was in a slow feeling mood, something which often crept over me on a Saturday afternoon. Johan, the amiable hostel receptionist, started chatting with me. He spoke limited English. In a very friendly countenance, he uttered the words of his first language Quechua. He laughed at my old sandals. Rather like Andean footwear, he remarked, in a piss-taking manner. Johan seemed a character, and a possible guide and companion in this interesting region for the days and weeks ahead.
In the evening I took a late meal in a pizzeria next to the popular Gato’s Market. A cold night quickly descended on Cusco. I was tempted to enjoy a late drink, so I popped in to 7 Angelitos for its well recommended mojito. The bar was just around the corner from Pirwa. It was slowing down for the early hours. With no live music on offer, I returned to the hostel to watch a bit of television before going to bed.
Sunday, May 2
Later in the morning I moved to my single room. I wondered whether my continuing stomach pains were the result of brushing my teeth with tap water. I chewed some coca leaves and soon felt better. The locals vouched for the leaves to cope with the altitude. I walked over to Plaza San Blas to admire the weaving skills of Philippa, a lady dressed in traditional clothing and always smiling about the life around her.
I later rang Mam. She was certainly out of sorts, with a heavy cold and croaky sounding voice. The missing wedding ring was obviously upsetting her. I suggested contacting the police or local newspaper. Strangely, I’d dreamt of my late Dad the previous night. What an enormous influence he remained despite passing away almost 21 years ago.
My thoughts turned to Machu Picchu and the tour options. Melanie kindly lent me her Frommers book. I also received some useful advice from Biana, one half of the couple who came into the dormitory early in the morning. Biana and her boyfriend had just returned from a five-day strenuous trek along the Salkantay route to Machu Picchu, an alternative to the Inca Trail. It was highly recommended.
In the evening I bought a purple and red guitar strap from Philippa on Cuesta San Blas. My new single room in the hostel had a tiny Velux window. A stubbornly strong Panini sticker of AC Milan’s Gennaro Gattuso was on the frosted glass window next to the door. I sat and read for a while. I also thought about the offer to return to Encuentros with my guitar one night during the following week.