Adios Cusco, te quiero

17 04 2010

It felt like I’d been in Cusco forever and Loki hostel was almost like a home to me so I was sad to go but it was time to strike out on my own once more. Unfortunately my 20-hour bus journey to Ica left at 2pm and I missed saying goodbye to a lot of the many friends I’d made over the past week or so. Hopefully I’ll see some again soon as I head up North to Ecuador and Columbia.

I bumped into a Dutch guy, Ruud, just outside the hostel. We’d spoken a bit in the bar on previous evenings and it turned out that he was on the same bus to Ica so we agreed to meet up later to catch a taxi together.

Apart from that, not much to talk about. Another long, reasonably comfortable, uneventful bus journey with that most luxurious of Peruvian bus companies – Cruz del Sur. A few films seen on the bus – The Boys Are Back, Yesman – with the usual almost-inaudible English dialogue and Spanish subtitles and often skipping DVDs. An edible if uninspiring chicken with rice meal. And being told off for taking my zapatos off in the bus. Oh well, tomorrow’s post will be more interesting I promise!

Digging my own hole

16 04 2010

On our way into town 2-nights before, in the middle of a heavy night’s drinking, Henry had added my name to the list of volunteers for Friday. He kind of asked me before he did it but it’s still not exactly the most conventional way of showing my altruistic tendencies. And sitting in the bar at 9am that morning, feeling if not hung over then definitely frail from my cross-dressing antics of the previous evening, I did briefly wonder if it was a good idea.

Henry, Tom, the hapless flood victim Freddy and myself digging a hole

There were 9 of us volunteering that day: Pauline (the Irish coordinator), Dom (English barman), Brin (I’m guessing Welsh), Sally (English), Tom, Daniel, Nikki, Henry (all Aussies) and myself. We were heading to the village of Taray (near Písac) that had been utterly devastated by the flooding earlier this year.

After a combination of taxis and collectivo we arrived at the village but the person that Pauline normally liaised with to determine which work was most urgent wasn’t around. So we wandered through the village pickaxes and shovels in hand. It didn’t take us long before we came across Freddy sprinting across the road to discard a large wheelbarrow of dirt.

“Do you need some help?” Pauline asked him. Four of us (Tom, Daniel, Henry and myself) were enlisted and headed into his backyard to survey the damage. The whole of the back of his house was a big pile of mud – either swept up from the river or due to the mud bricks dissolving under the sheer weight of the torrent.

We quickly set to work, shovelling, breaking the dirt with pickaxes, retrieving the occasional mud brick that was still in one piece, and carrying heavily laden barrows through the house to the big pile in the middle of the square. Every so often we’d come across the some fragment of Freddy’s life amongst the detritus: kid’s toys; broken CD’s; rotting clothing; mud-stained books – the majority of which was beyond salvaging.

The rest of the group were digging through some dirt looking for an old woman’s dearest possessions: cooking pans; cutlery; a gigantic urn used for making chicha (home-brew maize beer). The dirt they were digging through was soft, wet and, from the stench, full of excrement so I think our backbreaking work digging through hard-packed dirt was definitely the better side of the deal. Although after they’d retrieved whatever paltry possessions they could find, they got to demolish the precarious house which sounded like a lot of fun.

I tried wheeling a few barrows of dirt to the pile out front but both times I did it I managed to capsize the barrow before I reached the goal so I left most of the wheeling work to the others (the heaviest we all left for Freddy who despite his small stature was very strong) and concentrated my efforts on shattering stubborn blocks of dirt with the pick. By the end of the afternoon we’d cleared a huge swathe of the dirt from Freddy’s yard and we must have saved him at least a week’s worth of demoralising work himself. It felt really good to have helped someone so directly and him and his family were very sincere with their thanks.

After possibly the most-terrifying taxi ride in South America (overtaking on blind bends and accelerating headlong towards oncoming traffic on one lane stretches of highway) back to the hostel I had a much-needed shower and then, of course, headed to the bar. It took a while for a group of people to amass (disco naps, differing shower schedules) but eventually Nikki, Henry, Tom, Daniel, JP (a Dutch guy from our dorm) started to play a drinking cards game called “Fuck You”.

It was a lot of fun and you could really gang up on different people to make them drink as much as possible (a tactic that could also backfire on yourself). I think eventually it was too much for poor Nikki and a bit after midnight she had to call it a night. Henry too didn’t make it out of the hostel but the rest of us headed into town for another fantastic night on the town. It was around 6am before we eventually headed back home for the night.

Tom and Daniel partying in Mythology in their matching shirts

I Am A Lady Don’t You Know

15 04 2010

It was another super lazy morning in the Loki bar updating my blog, uploading pictures and chatting to various people online and in the flesh. In theory I was supposed to be investigating whether I could go rafting that afternoon but by the time I was done it was too late to book anything. I did at least book my bus ticket to Ica for Saturday so I finally felt that I was finally moving on (even if it is the wrong direction).

I chatted to Emma and was pleased to see that she looked much better after her stay in the hospital. Whilst FB chatting to Sarah – stuck at Lima airport for hours; not due to Icelandic volcanic ash clouds but because her flight from Cusco left late – she told that she was going to spend her free meal voucher on a Maccy D’s and instantly I knew that was what I wanted too.

So I headed into town to get my second McDonald’s in Cusco. As always the anticipation was better than the experience. After my lunch I just wandered around and almost instantly ran into Erin, Allie and Emma. I walked with them for a bit and then decided that I’d head back towards the hostel: en route I bumped into Jess too. She hadn’t eaten yet so I joined her whilst she ate and had a drink in the Cross Keys pub. It’s not everyday you drink a pint of Old Speckled Hen in South America.

Afterwards we headed back to The Point where I stopped off for a quick drink with Jess before finally making my way back to Loki. There I, of course, went to the bar and had a few drinks with Nikki and Henry. They were heading out to a tapas place later on called Cicciolina and invited me to join them.

The restaurant looked quite posh (like many in Cusco) and definitely not your typical backpacker venue but the prices were still quite reasonable – although when we discovered that the 8 soles (2.5US$) tapas generally only had two portions it became a bit more expensive. Still the presentation was beautiful and the food tasted fantastic. We all loved it.

We didn’t finish dinner until well gone ten and had to rush back to Loki just to make it in time for the end of happy hour. I wasn’t so worried about happy hour myself since it was Ladies Night and Nikki had agreed to lend me her dress which meant that I should get some free drinks.

Me in my LBD

Suitably attired in a white lacy bra (stuffed with two pairs of hiking socks) and a little black dress (mostly worn off-the-shoulder for that wanton hussy look) I headed on down to the bar. Apart from the bar staff there were only two other guys that had made an effort but I soon fell into my new role and was dancing up a storm with my new feminine moves (my dancing was probably just as bad as normal). Also because I’d turned up quite late and was most likely the last bloke to dress up they gave me the majority of a bottle of champagne to drink.

I had a fantastic evening and I think I enjoyed myself a bit too much. At one point I got up on the bar on my own and started dancing away to Barry White with lots of rubbing of my reasonably endowed socks and lifting up my hem. The atmosphere was really awesome in the bar that night but since Nikki, Henry and I were volunteering early the next day we went to bed once the bar was shut. It’s a shame since Byron and Fraser (my Kiwi friends from back in Potosí) were also heading out but I was already quite drunk and I couldn’t imagine doing hard manual labour with so few hours sleep and a hangover. Besides which, I had nowhere to put my wallet…

Sacred Valley and the attack of the cougars

14 04 2010

I actually wasn’t that impressed with the Sacred Valley tour. It was a long, long bus journey to Písac – not helped by the fact that the normal road out of Cusco is closed due to a lack of a bridge (damned mudslides ruin everything). It also felt like the most touristy thing I’ve done so far – I guess being on a large bus with lots of Americans would. The Inca ruins there were quite interesting – it was originally inhabited by the middle classes and there were lots of terraces where they grew the crops.

Inca terraces at Písac

It was already 1 o’clock by the time we finished up there and it was nearly an hour back to Urubamba where we were due to have our buffet lunch – I was starving. The lunch was really good with lots of local specialities – alpaca stew, stuffed chillies, strange vegetables, quinua soup – and a pretty good desert selection too. I pigged out so that I wouldn’t have to eat again that day.

After lunch we headed to Ollantaytambo – very near to where I’d caught the train to Machu Picchu. This was also quite an impressive site. The Incas had used to diplomacy to merge with the local population rather than annihilate them so there was a mix of architectures too and the sun temple was rectangular instead of the usual hemisphere shape (apparently).


Whilst there some latino women from our bus (I’d guess they were Peruvian but they could be from any of the nearby countries) asked me to take their photo for them. Job done, I handed the camera back and then one of them asked if she could have a photo with me. I thought the request was a bit bizarre but I obliged. A bit further on down the ruins one of her friends also asked if she could also have a photo with me. Apparently I’m in high demand from Peruvian cougars – I might have to start charging!

One of the American women on our tour had overheard the latest exchange and was laughing about it. She suggested that next time I should tell them that they could have a photo of them straddling me.

The next stop was to a local town where they showed us how they weave and dye the local wools – real tourist stuff. My cougar friends took absolutely ages buying up most of the store afterwards; we were all waiting impatiently on the bus for them before we could set back off to Cusco.

We finally got back around 8pm – after a long and not so rewarding day – so I headed to the bar for a few drinks with Nikki and Henry. My American team buddies were conspicuous by their absence – apparently they actually have nights off. I also met a few new people amongst whom were Patrick (Irish), Noortje (Dutch), Sara (Tasmanian). Ellen, Anne and Bart also turned up at Loki that evening having just got back from their Machu Picchu trek. When the bar shut we went down to Zazu’s (lots of dancing on top of the bar) and then to Mythology and whatever the name of the bar next to that is called (Inca something) before I finally called it a night and headed on home.

Lost with sexy woman

13 04 2010

I spent ages getting my blog up-to-date: my Machu Picchu post in particular seemed to take forever and that was still two days in the past. Whilst I was writing that I bumped into Emma – she sounded awful and actually has to spend a night in Cusco hospital – her tonsils are all inflamed and it’s apparently too late for antibiotics. I felt really sorry for her.

I also bumped into Erin and she was booking the Sacred Valley trip for the next day. I’d already decided that was what I was going to do anyway but it was nice to know that someone else I knew would be on the trip too.

Since I hadn’t really done anything touristy in Cusco yet I decided to take the small trek out of town to Sacsayhuamán (pronounced “sexy woman”). The first time I heard someone talk about it I assumed that it was some kind of Inca statue depicting a sexy woman and I’ve even made the faux pas of asking people if they’ve seen the sexy lady yet. It’s actually a walled fortress – unfortunately many of the stones were harvested by the Spaniards after they’d massacred the Incas there – but I imagine it must have looked very impressive originally.

I bought myself a tourist ticket – I needed it for the tour the next day anyway so that I could get into all the sights – and then headed off up the steep hill towards the ruins. My thighs were still absolutely killing from Machu Picchu and every step up (or down come to that) killed my legs. Maybe I should have taken one of the ubiquitous massages on offer in Cusco after all. (30 soles – around 10 US – for a happy ending apparently).

I got to the ruins, snapped a few shots and then headed over towards Q’enqo – more Inca ruins a couple of kilometres further on. Unfortunately I got completely lost (doubtless hindered by the faulty directions I got from another backpacker) and wandered around God only knows where. It was still a nice walk, although hard with the altitude and my aching thighs, and I was happy enough wandering through the hills of Cusco looking at ruins (that for all I know were 20th century rather than Incan) whilst listening to Elbow and The Enemy on my iPod.

Sacsayhuamán with the cristo blanco in the background

Eventually I gave trying to find Q’enqo and decided to head back into town. The route back was a bit dicey (I didn’t see another gringo for ages) but me, my iPod and I managed to get back to the main plaza unscathed.

Back at the hostel I bumped into Allie and Erin – they were en route to the hospital to visit Emma – and arranged to meet them for dinner later. I then had a quick drink in the bar chatting to some Aussies from my dorm – Nikki and Henry – whilst I waited for Jess to come up from The Point. We then headed down towards the main plaza to meet the others in a local steakhouse, Parilla Andina, where I decided to bite the bullet and try some cuy (guinea pig).

Me and my guinea pig

It smelt absolutely divine but the skin was pretty thick and unpalatable and there was barely any meat on it to speak of. Definitely not the best value 50 soles I ever spent and not an experience I’ll repeat. I was meant to be back at the Loki to join the Americans for the pub quiz but we’d started dinner quite late so I only just managed to get back for the last round to a resounding cry of “Barry, where the fuck have you been?”

After the quiz and the extended happy hour, I rejoined the Nikki and Henry and chatted to them for a while. The bar was absolutely bumping, everyone was dancing on the tables and the Americans did an hilarious dance to I’m Too Sexy but because I had quite an early start in the morning I headed off to bed around midnight.

The Breaking of the Fellowship

12 04 2010

One of the perils of travelling is that you spend a lot of time meeting great new people, only to have to say goodbye to them again when your paths diverge. I’ve been travelling with the girls since at least Arequipa (Jess since Copacabana) and I knew that our time was shortly coming to an end. Still, it was a shock when Ceire announced that she was leaving on the bus that very evening to head to Copacabana. Since she was heading South and my path (where ever it may lead) is Northbound, I know we’ll never meet again.

Views from the train on the way back - which I haven't described because nothing really happened

Still if it was a shock for me, I dread to think what a shock it will be for Declan when he wakes up tomorrow to discover that Ceire is gone a day ahead of schedule. To be fair, she did try to say goodbye to him but he wasn’t in the dorm when she left.

Any day now I’ll be leaving Cusco and heading down to Huacachina and the Nazca lines whilst the others will still be in Cusco or in Jess’s case flying to Columbia so it feels like the end of the Fellowship of the Ring when they all head off on different paths. (Hence the title obviously)

I did bump into my old travelling buddies from Sucre though  – Byron and Fraser – which was cool but they were also off early in the morning on their trek. It was great to catch up and it seems that Fraser at least had had some success with the ladies since I’d last left them.

Additionally, Allie, Erin and Emma, all cried off our planned dinner meeting that evening – they’d been volunteering all day and still felt ill. But at least Fee managed to make it to dinner and I also met up with Julia there before she headed off on her Inca Trail. She was talking about heading up North when she got back, towards Trujillo and various other places a bit off the backpacker route (slightly close to the cocaine barons’ dominions – but safe enough) which sounded like a cool way to get to Columbia so I’m going to look that up in the LP and maybe I’ll travel North with her for a bit. I think it would be fun and otherwise I’ll just do the boring thing and head along the coast to Mancora and into Ecuador or something.

After Ceire left for her night bus, Julia left for her trek and Jess and I said goodbye to Fee (probably the last time we’ll see her too). I walked Jess back to The Point and then headed up to Loki. There was no one I knew in the bar by name! Whilst I was ordering my beer they started the Name That Tune quiz and I said to the Americans next to me “Stereo MC’s – Connected” on the first bar when it came on (That wasn’t strictly necessary because they played the whole song each time). Before I knew it I was enlisted in Josh and Bo’s team – although apart from Basement Jaxx’s Romeo and Run DMC’s (It’s) Tricky I didn’t really contribute much more. And we all thought that Run DMC’s track was called Tricky so we didn’t even get the point. We didn’t win, although our score of 19 out of 30 was at least close to the winning 21.

Josh had owned a hostel in San Diego which the bar tender at Loki had worked at so he was going to take us out later. This also meant that I got a free tequila when the boys did too which was nice. We wandered down the street heading towards the main plaza and then suddenly decided to go to a real local joint. It was full of Peruvian men just playing cards and they were absolutely barrato (actually to be fair Josh and Bo were also well-oiled) and it was most amusing trying to speak Spanish with them. Although one guy (Pedro) told me he didn’t like English and no matter how many times I answered the question “How long am I in Cusco for?” he kept repeating it and then saying that I spoke nada castellano. Although I was answering him in Spanish and telling him that I spoke a little bit.

Having expected a night out in the clubs and getting a bit bored by the real experience as the Americans kept saying I headed off home around 3am and crashed in the dorm.

Clubbing in Cusco

9 04 2010

I at least felt like I got a bit of sleep that night, I was still woken up by the German couple their annoying whispering at 10am and got up soon after they left the dorm. I updated my blog and then headed down to The Point to find the others. They’d already gone out for some food and Bernie, one of their room mates, didn’t know where they’d gone so I headed over to Paddy’s and grabbed myself a full Irish there.

Afterwards I headed back to The Point again but the girls still weren’t around so I went back to Loki where I found Erin, Allie and Emma sunbathing. We decided to play Shithead again and Sam (who I knew from Potosí) joined us along with two Liverpudlian guys that Allie and Emma knew from earlier. At 4 I’d arranged to meet Rory in the centre. I’d last seen Rory way back in Córdoba – which considering I’d been to Europe and back in between was quite bizarre. We caught up with some of the things we’d been up to since then but he was off to Lima earlier than he expected so we didn’t have time for a drink.

I headed back towards the hostel and bumped into the girls leaving to go and pick up their custom-made dresses so I walked with them to the store. Waiting whilst 3 women try on dresses isn’t exactly the most exciting way to spend your time – unless you’re in the changing room I guess – but eventually I asked the store owner if I could borrow some of her electricity and played around on my laptop for a bit.

After the interminable wait before they finally got their new dresses we headed off to Jack’s – a nice little café just down from the main square. I had a chicken satay but I thought it was a bit bland. After dinner we headed back to the Loki and after having shied away from alcohol all day I finally started with a vengeance. Before I knew it, it was happy hour and I was soon well oiled. Erin and Allie went to bed early – they were on antibiotics because of their stomach upsets/parasites – but I stayed drinking with Emma, the scousers (one of their names is Tony – can’t remember the other guy’s name) and some English girls that they knew who I were staying at The Point (Lizzie and Laura(?))

The girls posing the Bullfrog from Bullfrogs bar after dinner

They were heading out for the night and although I still felt quite tired I decided to join them. Whilst waiting to go out I upset this huge Aussie by calling him a bogan (Tony had been calling him that all night – although crucially not to his face – so I thought it was okay). I think he was ready to hit me so I uttered a quick apology and quickly walked off. I also chatted to a Canadian girl called Ellie who I also nearly upset by asking her “Whereabouts in America are you from?”. I think my apology “I’m so, so sorry…” appeased that situation though.

We headed off to Mama Africa where we all got a free cuba libre and I spent most of the time chatting to Ellie. After a while we decided to cut off to some other clubs. I think we may have visited a couple of clubs – although I’m not quite sure. We definitely went to Mythology where there were loads of people dancing on the bar before deciding to call it a night at around 4am and head on home.

Dorm nightmares

8 04 2010

I had possibly the worst night’s sleep ever in a dorm. At 2am when I rolled in from The Point there were 3 Germans/French – not quite sure which, they seemed to switch between the two languages without any real transition – who had just arrived. They took absolutely ages putting their stuff away and spent the whole time whispering away with annoying susurrant voices. At around 6am some of the other guys got up to head off to Machu Picchu and at about 9am the Germans were up again back with their annoying whispers and standing around pontificating.

Once they’d all gone I was relieved to see that the dorm was close to empty: finally I’d get some sleep. But no! – the hostel decided that now would be a good time to make up all the recently vacated beds so I then had to endure the sounds of the maid with her loud shoes clomping across the floor whilst she moved from bunk to bunk. Finally I gave up and got up – still feeling like I hadn’t slept for days (which I hadn’t really).

I bumped into Erin, Emma and Allie at Loki. They’d given up trying to get to Ica too and had arrived that morning. Even though the roads were now open it sounded like it might only be for 48 hours and then the strikers were going to close them back up again. Apparently they’d been so bored waiting for their room to be ready that they’d even read some of my blog!

I headed down to The Point Hostel to discuss what we were going to do about visiting Machu Picchu with the others. I wasn’t hungover (I should have been) but I wasn’t really able to think properly and my responses to all the possible plans and ideas were muted and monosyllabic at best. It was here that Ceire told me about her dorm horror-story – there were no less than 4 couples in beds in her dorm and, between the sounds of one bunk ricochetting off the walls like someone playing ping-pong, and the operatic vocal performance of an English girl at 5am letting everyone know that she was enjoying herself immensely I think she also didn’t get much sleep. (Although considering that she was also one of the four couples – maybe that was also why :))

Eventually after much discussion we decided that we were going to get the train both ways to Machu Picchu (a mission in itself since the train doesn’t go all the way at the moment and there is an emergency timetable until the start of May) and stay 2 nights in Aguas Calientes. Decision made, we headed off to the train station. At the reception of The Point we picked up another guy who wanted to join us – Alex from Essex – so with Jess, Ceire, Declan and myself we were now five.

Even though we knew it wasn’t the nearby train station we still got out of the taxi when he dropped us off at the completely closed train station and then had to get another taxi to the PeruRail office at the other side of town. Once there we had an infernal wait to see someone and then she turned out to be supremely incompetent and kept booking our tickets for the wrong dates. Finally, after more than an hour we left the station, the proud bearers of some tickets to Machu Picchu.

Next stop was the national office of culture to buy the entrance tickets for Machu Picchu. Once again the taxi driver dropped us at the wrong place but fortunately it was on a parallel street just a block away so we headed there and got our entrance tickets for Sunday. We now just needed a hostel reservation and a I then headed back to the hostel for a much-needed shower.

I waited around for a bit in the hope that I’d see Celine before she headed off to Mendoza but I think I missed her leaving by about 1 minute. Allie and Erin were still sick so they weren’t doing much that evening so I headed down to The Point to meet up with the others again. I had a sudden hankering for a McDonald’s en route (Bolivia doesn’t have them and I don’t even know the last time I ate one) so I popped in there first.

I played a couple of games of pool with Brian (my aim was all over the place!) and tried a few strange cocktails at happy hour – Coca Sour, Pineapple Caipirinha – but I found myself falling asleep again so after finishing my last drink I headed back to Loki in the hope that I could catch up on some much-needed rest.

Cusco nights

7 04 2010

I got to Cusco at 6:30am and got a taxi from the bus station. Unfortunately I think the taxi driver may have seen more profit in taking me to Loki than he did in taking Paul and Becky (the Aussies I first met in Rurrenabaque) to their hostel as part of their bus station pick-up. In fact he unloaded all their stuff out of the cab and me and him set off into town. I felt a bit guilty but it wasn’t me that did it!

Loki were unable to confirm my reservation so I was on the waiting list and would have to wait till 1pm. Having spent ages trying to get my Mac to connect to the WiFi I finally updated my blog for the previous day and then wandered into town. Cusco is quite a pretty town – some of the walls are Incan, it’s got some great Spanish colonial architecture and is surrounded by hills – but the constant in-your-face touts (offering jewellery, paintings, massages, shoe shines, newspapers etc.) begin you grind you down after a while.

Cathedral in Plaza de Armas, Cusco

I did actually get my hiking boots cleaned, which he offered to do at the bargain price of 1 sol. However, he later explained that price was just for the brushing but because he’d put special stuff on the suede-type material it should now be 15 soles. I gave him 10 (if I’d had more small change it would have been less) and a ticking off for false advertising.

After wandering around for a bit I went to Paddy’s Irish bar and had a beer. It was still early so it was very quiet but people (not from Manchester obviously – Israel, Sweden, Timbuktu no doubt) were already reserving places for that afternoon’s game between Bayern Munich and Man U.

I headed back to the hostel where I bumped into Nathan and Celine who I hadn’t seen since mid-March back in La Paz. I sat and chatted to them for a bit whilst I arranged on Facebook to meet Emma in Norton Rat’s Tavern in town to “watch the footie”. I think for both of us it was more just an excuse to drink. She was there with some friends from her volunteer project. Ceire, Jess and Declan turned up later and we had a few drinks before heading back to their hostel for a few more.

We were playing Shithead at the bar but Jess refused to believe that I was telling her the right rules. Eventually after getting an independent person from the bar to help adjudicate she finally agreed that they were the right rules. We arranged to go to Paddy’s for dinner – it’s quite pricey for Peru but the shepherd’s pie was awesome. I also ordered two gin and tonics in happy hour – since they were both for me she poured them into a pint glass which looked very classy.

The heavens opened whilst we were eating dinner and it didn’t look like it was ever going to stop but finally we were able to escape and get some taxis to the hostel I was staying in, Loki (it was easily walkable but taxis are dirt cheap) where we met up with Celine and Nathan. It was Celine’s last night in South America so she was really in a mood to party.

Loki also had a happy hour on and I ended up with 2 gigantic double cuba libres. Not looking forward to my bill! Eventually Celine and co headed off into town – although the place they told me to go to was closed anyway – but I went back to the point with some of the others. Eventually I actually passed out on the sofa which, once I’d roused myself again, I took as my cue to leave.