Cusco again

We slept most of the way from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo (so an upgrade is unnecessary). Lady sitting opposite me was too uncomfortable and kept kicking me. Peru rail had a trolley service selling food, which came first before they brought out the free food (nuts and drinks).

At Ollantaytambo, we almost didn’t see the guy who was supposed to be holding up a sign for us. Good thing one of the guides saw our marked duffle bags. An uneventful 2h ride back to Cusco with another Inca trail group.

We settled at our beautiful room at Rumi Wasi. But after coming from Aguas Calientes at 2000m, Cusco at 3300m left me gasping for air again. Rumi Wasi is just off the main plaza, but it is a slightly steep climb up. Rooms are lovely but impractically small if you have lots of stuff, so I am thankful we didn’t stay here before the Inca trail when we had to sort a lot of our things. It was cold too, the portable heater takes a long while to heat the room.

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at Rumi Wasi
celebrations at Cicciolina
celebrations at Cicciolina
the t-shirt says it all
the t-shirt says it all

In Cusco, we stayed in Tambo del Arriero – where we had a spacious room and considered it very good value for money. Wi-fi wasn’t working for us for the first few days.    Bathrooms are open, and toilet only have a glass door so might not work for non-couples. Breakfast are ok.

Rumi Wasi – beautiful rooms. You had to climb a steep hill to get there from the main plaza, and might not be great if you’re still suffering from altitude sickness. They light candles and the rooms smelt like I was in a spa. Loved the wooden doors, with a terrace opening into the side street at the back. But you’d quickly find it all impractical –  the wooden door lets in lots of draft and it takes forever to heat the room. Ask for hot water bottles, they put this in our bed the second night, but the lone staff was too busy the first night when I badly needed it. I left the portable heater on all day. Small room, and it looked a mess when we had to unpack and repack stuff. Barking dogs in the back street, plus inconsiderate neighbours who stayed up talking in the hallway kept us up most of the night. Look at the back streets very early in the morning (we were up at 2:30am for an early flight) and there’s small groups of  dodgy-looking people hiding in the shadows.

We loved these resturants: ChiCha at Plaza Regocijo for their breads and vegetable cream, Cicciolina at Calle Triunfo (corner Herrajes) for their imaginative tapas and the best breakfast ever, Limo Cocina Peruana at Plaza de Armas (above McDonalds/KFC).

Most of the people who lived in Cusco lived outside of the historical city centre. But we didn’t venture out except when I had to go to the doctors. We were warned early on that the public market areas just outside of the centre can be quite dangerous after dark. I think the danger is mostly from pickpockets. There are plenty of handicraft and souvenir markets in every corner of the city centre and they can be easy to find if you walk about. We love the market across Plaza San Francisco, though almost every market looks the same. We bought alpaca blankets at Chinchero where we saw them being weaved. Bought a bag at the Inka museum where they also weave on site. There are plenty of knitters and automatic looms in other markets and we preferred to buy those made by hand.

We selected our hotels, because they’re not run by the big international chains in the hope that the money we spend goes back into the local economy. Our inca trail tour agent is known for taking care of their porters, run by a man who worked his way up from being a porter. I heard he is now able to start a school to benefit the farmers and the families of the porters.

We flew with British Airways, American Airlines and Lan Peru. I was so surprised that Lan Peru stands out – modern airplanes (slightly roomier), and great service. I will do my best not to fly with American Airlines ever again – bad seat layouts, entertainment system like it was 10 years ago, horrible customer service that they did not even reply at all to my emails. And will avoid Miami international airport at all costs, we end up spending 2 hours at least at immigration with its long queues and we were only in transit.

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Aguas Calientes

This town is a hub for tourists bound to Machu Picchu. Trains from Ollantaytambo and Cusco ends here and this is where you catch the bus, a 30 minute ride to Machu Picchu.

The streets are lined with hotels and restaurants. But there is nothing much to do here, unless you want to take a dip in the hot springs.

We quickly got lost trying to find our hotel. The google map printout looked wrong. Found our guide in the streets and he led us through a maze of streets to find our hotel at the other end of the town near the rail station. At the hotel, we dropped off our backpacks and cleaned up a bit. Hotels in Aguas Calientes are very expensive and do not necessarily give good value for money. This is a basic hotel, but finding a clean toilet with seats made me really happy that I had to stop myself from taking a photo 🙂

The porters dropped off our duffle bags at a local restaurant where we are to meet our guide to pick up our stuff, get our train tickets and give tips to our guides (not obligatory of course, but the going rate was 100 soles per guide).

We found the rest of our group there and ended up trading our final stories and having lunch. We left early as we are to stay in town for 1 night. Showers and what was supposed to be a nap before dinner extended into the mornings.

We walked by the riverside, explored the markets, walked in the Inkaterra resort grounds (now if you’re staying longer and don’t mind the expense, Inkaterra is the place to stay in Aguas Calientes), and had lunch by the riverside restaurant.

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Inca trail to Machu Picchu for Dummies

dummy. that is what I feel like for seriously underestimating how physically demanding this trek is. and so I keep telling myself ‘better regret something you’ve done rather than regret what you haven’t done’.

truth is I still believe there is no more rewarding way to see Machu Picchu other than by going through the trails. To be one of the first people at the sun gate, to see Machu Picchu for the first time as the sun hits it without other people jostling for the same view is magical and made it truly special.

10 May 2013, Friday

pre-trek briefing was at 7pm at the tour operator’s offices. Duffle bags were distributed for those who hired a porter (1 porter=7kg=US$70).

We have paid for the full amount last Monday (US$599/person) + duffle bag deposits (returnable US$10/person) + sleeping bag rental (US$30/person).

11 May 2013, Saturday

4:30am meetup at the plaza. Can’t believe that provincial Cusco is still buzzing this early with a few drunken teenagers still in a party mood. Boarded the bus to Ollantaytambo. There were 9 people in the group + 14 porters + 1 chef + 2 guides.

Porters cheered us on as we boarded the bus.

Breakfast ($7/person) was at a hut at Ollantaytambo. Only managed to smell the pancakes, never saw a single piece – they disappeared as soon as they hit the table, which was before and after I got there. Last chance to use a ‘proper’ toilet.

breakfast hut at Ollantaytambo
breakfast hut at Ollantaytambo

Another 30 minutes in the bus and we were at Km 82, the starting point of the Inca trail. The porters were loading up their bags with our stuff and lots of food. All bags are weighed in and distributed. Watched the porters with their 25kg loads, their smallish frames and sometimes paunchy bellies and I wonder how they managed.

I silently watched the sunrise and the magnificent views of the mountains right before us.

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KM 82

A few photos, tickets and passports checks + an optional passport stamp and we’re off crossing the bridge on the Red de Caminos Inka.

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The gate at KM 82

We quickly learned what ‘mainly flat’ or ‘Inca flat’ terrain meant – it’s a combination of ups and downs and flat terrain. The ups can be quite steep and the pacing was a lot quicker than I expected. We started at 2720m above sea level, lower than Cusco, but the air here is still quite thin and I was catching my breath all the time, even in the flat areas.

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never mind how hard it is, just look at the view!

This is mountain trekking and it really is difficult, contrary to what the sales guys at the outdoor shop says. Sure there is a path, but it felt the same as if there weren’t any. I felt the Incas laughing at us as we scramble through.

The first day of the trek is supposed to be the easiest. It was really difficult for the first hour and then gradually, the inclines started to ease a bit. It was really sunny and the trails were dusty. I started off with a light jacket and stripped to t-shirts and folded trousers by the next hour. Drank 1.5L of water by lunch time. SPF50 sunscreen and I still got sunburnt (and I realised, my brown skin is not immune to sunburn at this altitude). Lots of things needed to be accessible as you walk, I am not sure if it was because we had some really fit people in our group or if this is the normal pace, but there is hardly any time to stop. We only really stop if there are inca ruins. We stop to take photos, and then try to catch up with the rest. I thought I already walk quite fast, but this is hardly a sightseeing pace. Different groups started at different times, I didn’t see many people as we set off and had the trail pretty much to ourselves.

you have to agree, this is a steep climb
you have to agree, this is a steep climb

It was past 12 when we reached our campsite Wayllabamba, 3000m up for lunch. This is when you start appreciating the role of the porters. They carry 25kg loads each and they get to camp way ahead of us. They offered a basin full of warm water and towels and soap to wash. We’re seated in a tent with a 3-course delicious meal that I’d struggle to make in my own kitchen. As we rested for a bit, they eat, wash dishes and were still packing up as we set off for the afternoon trek.

We reached camp Ayapata past 4pm. Our varying fitness levels were showing and practically were 2 different groups with some 45 mins between us.

Llaqtapata
Llaqtapata

Tents were already setup with our duffle bags inside. Porters were hurrying to meet us with cheers and basins of water for washing.

We had time to rest, change and be ready for ‘happy hour’ at 5:30 – popcorns, water and tea.

Dinner was ready at around 6:30 – another 3-course meal of soup, rice, meat and veggies and a showy flambeed bananas for dessert.

Had seen the toilets and was thankful for my waterproof, closed-toe slippers. It was a squat toilet and it does flush. Some doors have locks – a rusty nail you swing round, others don’t, and some doors have holes. It wasn’t as bad as I had expected, but I was ready to retch if I didn’t hold my breath.

We were ready for bed before 8pm. I was shivering before we went in as it quickly got cold. It was a clear night, we were probably only 3-4 groups in that campsite. We had a foam and we brought our own inflatable mattress, the all-weather sleeping bag we rented was warm but did not really smelt like it was freshly washed, thank goodness for sleeping bag liners we brought. The tent had space for our things (4-person tent shared by 2 people). And if you expect it to be quiet – the croaking frogs were unbelievably loud – that and the cold kept me up almost all night. And I thought I was dead tired.

Today, we were up from 3:30am, walking from 7:30am. Walked some 14km. Reached camp at 4/4:30pm. Highest altitude was at 3300m.

12 May 2013, Sunday

I was dreading the second day. We had breakfast (still quite a feast, only I can’t eat a lot at breakfast this early 5:40am). Half of us were hurried off and we were away at a few minutes past 6am to give us a headstart. It was a cold day, and slightly overcast, but I still started off with a light jacket. Did not had the chance to put on sunscreen and even though the sun only came out for a few hours, it was enough to give me a really bad sunburn.

Llama traffic
Llama traffic

In the morning, we hiked from 3300m to 4200m. It was a steep, unrelenting climb that took us about 5 hours. Al had a bad case of altitude sickness and we slowed down considerably.

steep and steeper
steep and steeper

Dead woman’s pass, the highest peak we had to go through, is probably just living up to it’s name. We had snacks, a bit of rest at the top to soak in the view and had 1 hour’s walk downhill to the campsite for lunch. Al was treated with condor pee to ease his headaches. And if you think going downhill can be a treat, it wasn’t. It was a very steep climb down across very uneven stone steps with sheer cliff at the other side. ‘hugging the mountain’ was almost too literal for me and truth is I hate going down steps more than the steep climbs up. I was breathless and my nerves were frayed.

We left camp at around 2pm to begin another round of 500m hike up where we will spend the night at the second pass.

I can see the clouds closing in. Mountains were all around us and if it rains, it will not go away soon. Halfway through to the second pass, it started raining. These area is as beautiful as it was depressing with all the clouds swirling around. Our second guide was with us. Sometimes I find it annoying that he hung around looking bored, but most times i was thankful that he was at our side in the most dangerous areas, ready to pick us up before we fall into the cliffs should we fall because of exhaustion.

It rained and rained. Al gave his extra poncho to our guide who was clad in a couple of small plastic bags.

We reached the peak and making our way downhill to camp at sun set. A couple of porters met us and I was asking if that meant we were near. Our guide answered with a laugh. So much for wishful thinking, our camp was still a full hour ahead in total darkness. Believe me when I say the Inca trail is no fun when it’s dark. I slipped quite a few times and picked myself up like it didn’t happen. The porters were there to help us carry our backpacks. We refused, truth is, my backpacks will keep me from hitting my head on the rocks should I slip (oh, i slipped quite a few times).

We reached camp Chaquicocha around 6:50pm and went straight into the dining tent after washing. On the second day, it would be really helpful to have snacks with you, as the packed snacks will not be enough.

It was a wonderfully clear but really cold night. I had a glimpse of the milky way after dinned, but just do not have the energy to stay out and watch the stars. Turns out nobody else did care too much for stargazing.

Slept with a fleece and 2 jackets. Wondered if my sleeping bag was the same sleeping bag I had the previous night (it wasn’t), but I didn’t care.

Today we were off walking at 6am. From 3300m to 4200m at dead woman’s pass to 3600m at camp. 16km walk. Total of 30km so far.

13 May 2013, Monday

A chance to sleep in. We left camp past 7am today. It is ‘Inca flat’ for an hour or so, and then all downhill from there, the dreaded ‘3000 steps’ down. There will be a few Inca sites on the way, but there will be no more hiking from lunch. Al was feeling much better, but we need to still take it slow as the days has worn me out and these downhill climbs are what I am worst at.

I think I had the chance to really appreciate the views today as my mind and body have been resigned to just keep going on. There is pretty much no choice of turning back now. And I am just thankful we had not been injured.

We took our time and remained unworried should we be the last ones to reach camp. Today, we just savoured being out here – how wrong or how right we were, and revelled in the beauty of what is around us. It was surreal to be here.

The llama and Intipata

Every time porters came along, my spirits were renewed – who am I to be complaining when I only have this much to carry.

The 'Red Army'
The ‘Red Army’

This camp, Winay Huayna was were most of the other groups are settling down as it was the campsite nearest to the gates of Machu Picchu. Showers are available, but I can hear the girls screaming as they turn the water on – it was mountain cold. So i thought I content myself with my baby wipes for 1 more day.

After lunch, we walked (no more trekking!) to Winay Wayna (Quecha for ‘forever young’), a wonderful Inca site of agricultural terraces.

WinayWayna
WinayWayna

This was our last night, and the last night our porters are going to be with us. We had a wonderful meal and a special cake (imagine baking a cake whilst camping!). Our porters congregated in our dinner tent as we said our farewells. The next morning, they’ll leave our stuff at Aguas Calientes and head on the 5:30am train back to Cusco. We put together 75 soles/person as tips for the porters and chef (recommended tips of 65 soles for each porter and 130 soles for the chef because he was chef and porter). I thought it was well-deserved, I couldn’t imagine trekking for 4 days and having to set up my own tent and cook my own food.

14 May 2013, Tuesday

Last day! But a really early start at 3am. We were off walking at 3:40am after a light breakfast. The porters are packing hurriedly as soon as we cleared our tents.

It was dark and a 10-minute walk to the gates of Machu Picchu. It was a race to which group gets there first. There is a covered area with seats which could only fit around 4 groups. So if we’re late, we would have to wait until 5:30am standing up and quite possible getting drenched if it rains.

We were the 2nd group. Spent 1.5 hour sitting in the dark, some of us feasted on by mosquitoes.

And then the rangers come in at 5:30am and after passport and ticket checks, it was another race to get to the sungate. I was half swearing because it was dark and the route was dangerous. We started really cold and I was wearing 2 warm jackets. Quickly, I was drenched in sweat and as the light comes up, we had to stop to catch our breath and peel off our jackets.

It was crazy, I really don’t care if I did not catch the sunrise at sungate anymore. Then I realised, with some 400 people behind us, there weren’t really a lot who overtook us when we stopped. Everybody else was worn down quite quickly.

And then it was the dreaded ‘gringo killer’ or the monkey steps, named so because it was a very steep 50 steps up where you have to use your hands to climb up. I don’t think the pictures will do justice to how hard climbing these steps are.

And we reached the sungate, with the sunlight not quite reaching Machu Picchu yet. It still seemed quite a distance away, but it was our first glimpse of this holy Inca site.

We spent a bit of time taking photos and then we started walking a bit nearer.

The Machu Picchu site is still quite a trek in itself, oh how the Incas love their steps! And considering that some 15% of Machu Picchu is still hidden in the jungles below, we’re still not seeing how enormous this site is.

Machu Picchu!
Machu Picchu!

2 hours were spent waling up and down Machu Picchu as our guide talked to us about Hiram Bingham and the ways of the Incas. I listened and found it hard to remember.

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At 10am we made our way to Huayna Picchu and started to climb one of the mountains in Machu Picchu. After Al hurting his now very weakened knee and me stubbing my big toe and fearing I sprained it, we chickened out at the last minute and made a turn to climb the smaller mountain. It was still quite a climb up, a series of ‘gringo killers’ as I’d call it and the view, though much higher, is not much different.

up at the small mountain beside Huayna Picchu
up at the small mountain beside Huayna Picchu

We quickly made our way down and jostled our way through the crowds at the gate of Machu Picchu that the magic of the place has pretty much left me.

At the gates of machu picchu, you can store your bags for 3 soles. And stamp your passport yourself after 9am.

Equipment we thought were necessary: trekking poles, sleeping bag liners, rain jacket (i hate wearing a poncho because it blocks my view of the ground), head torch (for toilet trips and when you get to camp after sunset and 4th day start is before sunrise), quick dry shirts and trousers (because cotton shirts will not dry overnight), alcogel and baby wipes, sunscreen and hats, lots of socks, a thin and thick jacket (layering is the key), hiking boots with ankle support (i think without them, i’ll end up with broken ankles on the first day. though most porters are in trainers and even flip flops!), bug repellant, snacks, i use vicks vapor rub to help me breath better in high altitude and to help me not retch when i use toilets.

revenge of the cuy

I think the cuy I ate a couple of days ago has been trying to claw its way out.

Called for a doctor. And went back to their clinics to get tests done. Results were  inconclusive, but most likely I did get food poisoning. A dose of parasite killers and antibiotics for stomach infections and I was good for the inca trail. 355 soles poorer but i didn’t want to risk getting worse whilst on the trail.

The Maras Moray tour

Took a tour with Llama Path. US$20 for transport and guide. 08:50 meeting time to finish around 14:30.
First stop was at Centro Textil Urpi in Chinchero. The place was run by a family, they process and weave alpaca wool and run a demo on how they process. It’s amazing to know they use only natural materials – grated roots for detergent, cactus aphids for the red colour, various leaves and flowers for yellows and greens and blues, lemon to dilute and alum to set the colour.

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Bought a gorgeous alpaca blanket here (in muted gray and white). It was a good salestalk, i didn’t even haggle.

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Off to Moray, a laboratory of sorts used for growing various crops. Each level in the terrace is a different temperature. I don’t think it’s in use, no plants i could see. Parts have eroded so we’re unable to access. Reminded me of the rice terraces in the Philippines.

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The roads around here are not paved, it’s dusty and narrow, with only space for 1 vehicle, and sheer cliffs on the other side.
Maras is a terraced salt bed carved on the cliffs. Still in use by several communities to get salt from the salty volcanic water. And i thought you can only get salt from the ocean. They produce the highly prized pink salts here.

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Entrance fee was 7 soles, not included in the boleto turistico ticket. Guide didn’t even bother giving us our change. Wondered if he thinks it was his tip.

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And lunch/dinner was a mixed peruvian grill consisting of cuy(guinea pig), kidneys, beef heart, steak, trout and potatoes. And a ‘normal’ pork chop just in case we find the grill inedible. The heart was actually not bad, still with a slight jelly texture on the outside, but still tastes a bit like normal meat. The cuy was mostly skin and bones, chewy skin and smoky meat with a little of that off taste you get in lamb.

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Sacsayhuaman, Cusco

Woke up without a headache, and what better way to test if we have acclimatised than by climbing a mountain. The way up to sacsayhuaman was through paved roads or steep stairs. It’s a weird feeling when your legs don’t seem to mind the steep climb, but my lungs just kept asking for more air. I needed to stop every five minutes. We were rewarded with panoramic views of Cusco and the neighbouring mountains every now and then and it was quick to forget how hard the climb up is. Women in their costumes and pet llamas were plentiful, some selling wares, others take tips for having their photos taken.

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It was more than 1 hour to go up. 130 soles for the boleto turistico ticket that gives you access to most of the sites in the region. 50 soles for a guide, should you need one.

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‘El puma’ (the puma), an Indian shaman, was our guide (recommended because he gives a different perspective and is full of information). He guided us through the Inca symbols and wisdoms hidden in the stones around this temple. History believed this site was a fortress with it’s three levels of zigzagged stone walls. The locals know it as a temple. The original name of the site meant satisfaction of the head – meaning it’s a repository of wisdom for their people. The new name meant satisfaction of the falcons because on this site, the spanish conquerors left many incas dead, and the survivors forbidden to bury them, and falcons feasted on the dead bodies.

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‘El puma’ says he was a tour guide not for the money, he wanted to teach people the wisdom hidden on the Inca sites and tell people of the evils the Spanish conquerors have done to his people. Theirs was a proud and rich civilization, not able to read or write, but their history is on their buildings and their sculptures. They were not savages even though there are tribes who eat humans. They know steel, and their treasures are food and knowledge.
This site is only 15% of the original site. Much of the site was destroyed to get building materials for the churches and lavish homes of the conquerors.
Our guide tried to make us feel the cosmic forces by channeling energy on to our palms – unfortunately, these unbelievers failed to feel anything. He gave us Indian medicine to soothe our tummies and relieve us of altitude sickness. I think it contains chicha, alcohol made from corn, and mint. It warms the throat and stomach, but almost made me puke. It was great in inhale and does clear your head, helping you breath better.
He left us to explore the rest of the site after an hour of teaching us the symbols in the stones.

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His teachings made me realise how similar most religions are no matter where in the world they started from. Our search for a god gave us different interpretations but mostly the same conclusions.
He points to the women in their costumes, their ancestors built this temple, and they are not even allowed in the site. He says the money we pay for our entrance fees to the site do not reach these people. That is why I think it’s important too, that as tourists, we get to do our part – choose to stay in hotels owned by the locals, choose tours that are run by people who do not just exploit the people who work for them.
We climbed to the top of the temple and the turtle structure. Almost panicked as i got to the top of the stairs and struggled to get enough air at 3600m.
Crossed over to the other side where the Christ statue is located. Not much stairs here, just a steep trail up. You’ll be rewarded with more panoramic views and local music from a quechan musician on his banduria (give tips or buy his cd)
Lunch/dinner was at 4 on a wayside restaurant back to town. Chicken noodle soup and fluffy alpaca meat. Alpaca meat was a bit like overcooked chicken, with a slight liver taste. It was different. Peru libre for cocktails and chicha juice. A glass of argentinian malbec to wash down the cooties.

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Walked/climbed 8km. Ascended 259m.

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Cusco region, Peru

Day 1.
Plane had to disembark an ill passenger costing us 2 hours of delay. Long queues in immigration and no help from any staff meant we’ll be even more late in Miami. Going on the next flight meant we will be no-show at our hotel in Lima.
Airport staff in Miami were surly. Air staff from BA told us to find ground staff to help with our connections. But AA ground staff were non existent. Express lines in immigration were not moving fast at all. Announcements blared that federal budget cuts caused this chaos. Pathetic.
Expected to spend 8 hours layover in a comfortable hotel in Lima, but we got 7 hours of queuing and bad food and hard chairs in Miami.
Flight to Lima was annoying and amusing -flight was full and everyone had the maximum luggage allowance that it was some sort of miracle the staff found space for it all and managed to leave on time.

Day 2.
The dominoes keep tumbling down. In Lima, we have 1h 45min to get to the next connection – but retrieving luggage + going to customs + actual check in (online check in was not available) meant we missed that connection too. Got lucky that there were still seats on the next flight. We were in Cusco 1 hour later than planned. And dead tired after 26 hours changing flights.
But the Lan Peru flight to Cusco was so much better than that AA to Lima flight.
Hotel staff who picked us up were not really from the hotel but travel agents hoping to sell us tours. Good thing they weren’t hard selling.
Tambo del Arriero hotel is really lovely – a restored mansion, lovely courtyards. Wi-fi (pronounced wee fee) does not seem to work and staff don’t know why.
Altitude sickness. Noticed that I was catching my breath just by going up the stairs to 1st floor.
Slept most of the afternoon and only went out for dinner at the main plaza. Peruvian cuisine is really good.

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Tambo del Arriero hotel
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Coca tea (leaves from the coca plant where coccaine is derived from)
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Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Day 3.
Woke up with a headache. And it didn’t go away for the rest of the day. We were told to take it easy with no big meals at night.
Went to the inka museum, a short walk from the main plaza, but a steep climb up. I feel like an 80 year old catching my breath after every few steps. The inka museum is the very definition of a tourist trap. 10 soles to get in, a few rooms with potteries and ancient tools, they didn’t even bother with translations on the rooms on the 1st floor. Musicians greet you and ask for donations, the weavers were selling bags and scarves. Intricate carvings on gourd and various trinkets were for sale on the 1st floor. It was half craft market, half museum, and i went away not learning anything.

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Weavers at inka museum

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On the wayto way to inka museum