Keywords: Cusco – my favorite Peruvian city, Spanish school, turning points, cute mammals, Machu Picchu

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I really didn’t want to leave Cusco. But I’m supposed to be in Chile around the second week in February, and I still wanted to visit Lake Titicaca and Colca Canyon. Here’s to another exercise in letting go. I think Cusco will live on in my memories as the place where my intenal tenor for traveling hit a turning point. My first five days revolved around Spanish classes – 4 hours of them a day. I was in a class of 3, including a couple from Austria. We had two teachers each day, Luis and Dessy, each for two hours. Their teaching styles were different, but complementary, and I learned so much from them. I’ve gained so much confidence in trying to communicate in Spanish, and it feels fantastic! ”Yo entiendo español mas o menos pero es deficil hablar” is now one of my go-to phrases. I can only do present tense at the moment, but it’s an excellent start.

Highlights of my week in Cusco include learning how to make papas rellenos (potatoes stuffed with meat and veg, then fried), taking a horse tour of the ruins above Cusco, and spending time with the lovely ladies who were living at my Spanish school. I can’t thoroughly express how happy I was to meet such a welcoming group of people.
 
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I also met a Brazilian guy at the school, and he invited me to join a group doing the 4 day jungle trek to Machu Picchu. I knew I wanted to do something like that (the Inca Trail was waaaaay out of my budget), so 200 USD later, I was booked for 3 days of guiding plus entrance to Machu Picchu and Huaynapicchu. It was a great deal, and an incredible trip. On Saturday, day 1, the tour agency crammed 11 of us and our bags into a van designed for just that many plus a driver. The crew were comprised of 2 German girls, an Austrian girl, 3 Brazilians, the French-Brazilian couple, the Chilean couple, and me. We left Cusco on Saturday promptly at 7am, Peruvian time (aka 8:45). We reached the pass around noon, where our driver dropped us and our mountain bikes off. While we didn’t do any actual mountain biking, ripping down twisty turny mountain roads into the jungle was still pretty fun. My competitive personality was happy to be the fastest one of the bunch, especially on the brief uphills (thanks for the cycling training, Seattle). I arrived in the rendezvous town around 2:30 and was happily enjoying a beer as the rest of my group trickled in.
 
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We drove from there to the teeny town of Santa Maria, where we had late lunch and checked into our hospedaje (no-camping trek = showers and beds, pretty swanky). I ended up rooming with the German speakers, as our group sorta partitioned into language or couple subgroups. I must say that my German has gotten a fair bit of practice down here, due to the many Austrians and Germans that I’ve met. My brain is now jumbling Spanish and German together in conversationally useless (but amusing) ways. Santa Maria is REALLY small, so before dinner, I enjoyed a nice nap (hour-ish) in addition to exploring most of the town (20 minutes). Dinner was as lunch had been: soup, meat with rice, juice and tea (pretty typical meal here). Sleeping was difficult due to paper thin walls, two weddings in town, and a rather on-edge pooch. Nonetheless, day two started with breakfast at 6:45am and being on the hiking trail (aka dusty road) at 7:20.
 
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We walked through the former town of Santa Maria, which was destroyed in the 70’s (maybe) by a flood of the Urubamba river. We hiked along the road for a couple hours before finally ducking into a trail through the jungle. We saw coffee and coca plantations, learned that more than 60% of the coca produced in Peru goes toward cocaine production (the farmers get twice the money for selling to cocaine producers), and got painted from seed pods that locals use for clothing dye and face paint (it’s also used in lipstick, I think). The hiking was slow and sweaty (jungles, SO HUMID), but I was stoked to be outside walking uphill. At one of our pit stops, our guide gave us a talk on Peruvian agricultural products (they produce hundreds of varieties of corn, and thousands of varieties of potatoes, damn!), and we got to see an endangered baby pacarana, an ROUS named Alfredo.

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We stopped for lunch in a little village and I got to digest my food while laying in a hammock. Win. On the way out of town, our awesome guide, Vincente, saw a ripe cocoa pod and whacked it off the tree. We got to try fresh cocoa fruit and it was DELICIOUS. Sweet but not overpowering. I had flashbacks to tours of Theo Chocolate Factory in Seattle, and was excited to experience the magical plant in the wild.

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That afternoon, we hopped onto part of an Incan trail, where we got to enjoy lots of valley views and impressively steep ancient stairs. As an aside, not all Incan trails are THE Inca Trail. The latter was just for royalty and high class citizens and is the only one that arrives at the top of Machu Picchu. There were other trails for the lower classes of Incan people, and one of those is what we traversed. We dropped down toward the river and had to traverse a fresh landslide. (Eek) The way the mud sunk underneath my feet did not inspire confidence, but everyone made it through safely. Steep uphill from the river took us around another landslide and onto a road that was occasionally interrupted by rockslides. We whacked some mangos out of a tree and ate them. (Check that off the list, yea!) Then came the cable car – a wee man-powered basket for two suspended a couple hundred feet above the river. I was a little nervous right as we shoved off, but crossing wasn’t nearly as thrilling as I expected, perhaps because our distance above the river seemed so unreal. After 30 minutes of ferrying our group across, we hiked 20 minutes to the hot springs just outside the town of Santa Theresa. After a 7-ish hour day on our feet, the warm pools were GLORIOUS. After an hour of soaking, we reluctantly boarded a taxi van to the town for dinner and sleeping (the latter in the sketchiest hospedaje I’ve seen so far). The Brazilians and I did some dancing at a fairly deserted ”club” in Santa Theresa and then headed to bed at midnight (when said club closed…lame).
 
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On day 3, we were bused to the tour agency’s ”base camp,” where you can do ziplining over the jungle. I didn’t feel like paying $30ish for a 1 minute ride, so I hung out in a hammock for a couple hours, took a snooze, played foosball, and got in 4 steps on a slack line (PR!!). I was thoroughly pleased with my decision.
 
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Oh, and I also got to enjoy a leisurely poo with a view. Delightful. When the zipliners had returned, we hopped a bus to lunch and the last 3 hours of hiking along a railroad track to Aguas Calientes, the town nearest to Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is basically there for tourists to access Machu Picchu, so prices are really high and there’s not much to do, but our hostel had hot showers and comfy beds, so I was happy to be there. We went to bed early, since in order to arrive at the entrance to Machu Picchu on day 4, we had to start hiking around 4:30am.
 
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The semi-alpine start to hike up to Machu Picchu was totally worth it. We entered the site at 6:30am, before the hoards, and got to watch the clouds burn away from the mountain as the sun hit them. Beautiful. Our guide told us far too many things about Incan culture to remember, but I have developed respect for how they approached life and work. They had 3 commandments, of sort, and those were to not lie, not steal, and not be lazy. Their building philosophy was also to work with the land to shape it, but not deface it. That’s why, as we wandered the city, we saw so many huge boulders integrated into buildings instead of removed and replaced with shaped stones. Apparently Machu Picchu was built primarily to watch and record the motion of the skies. Unfortunately, but the time the city was completed (about 100 years), the Spanish had arrived in the lowlands and started causing problems. I guess after that, sky watching was less of a priority than dealing with the lying, thieving, and lazy Spaniards. Our guide left us around 8:30, so a few of us wandered until it was time for me to hike Huaynapicchu at 10am. (That’s the mountain in the iconic ‘I was here’ Machu Picchu photo). The hike was quite hot, but totally worth it. The views from the top were beautiful, both of Machu Picchu itself and of the mountains on the other side of Huaynapicchu. I stayed up there until the mountain closed and I was told ”Señorita, vamos” by the park worker up there. But the hour and a half I spent up on those rocks was amazing. I did some excellent life-universe-everything musing, some journaling, and some picture taking. By the time I hiked down, I had the trail basically to myself, so I got to enjoying dancing down the amazingly steep Incan stairways all on my own time.
 
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I got back to Machu Picchu proper at around 2pm, and most of the tourists seemed to have migrated to different areas, so I had the place pretty much to myself! I felt kinda like a child, running and playing through her own ancient castle. It was delightful, and I could’ve spent many more hours exploring the city and the surrounding terraces.
 
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Not to mention the potential for llama stalking… so frickin cute, those things.
 
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I hiked back down the stairs to Aguas Calientes around 4:30pm, met up with the rest of my group, got some free beer and taught a local 20-something Peruvian how to say ”You have beautiful eyes” (you’re welcome, future lady tourists), and then caught the train with my group back toward Cusco. We arrived in Cusco around 2am, and I was stoked to sleep, but also for the awesome few days we’d just had. So. Good.
 
A few of us from the tour group met up in Cusco the following evening for drinking and dancing. I was happy to dance, but pretty grumpy and ready for bed by 2am. I guess I have to train to stay up that late. By the time I left Cusco for Puno (Lake Titicaca!), it was Thursday evening (Jan 30). I wasn’t happy to leave, but I knew it was time. On to the next place, new people, and new experiences.

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