The highs of Cusco

We happily paid the few extra Peruvian Soles for some additional comfort over the arduous twelve hour bus to Cusco.

The night bus arrived over an hour late and with the curtains already drawn and the lights out we stumbled in the darkness to find our seats. Upon determining our places, two small plastic trays laden with processed snacks were thrust to our faces. We picked at a couple of things and chowed down on the rest. With our bellies content, the mechanical hum of the engine and the warmth of blankets quickly put us to sleep.

Waking the following morning we found ourselves high in the Andes on a winding road that tightly choked the voluptuous curves of the mountains. As we ascended to the heights of Cusco by winding and spiralling through the magnificent landscapes, we began to feel nauseous and light-headed. Initially struck with light symptoms of altitude sickness they steadily worsened as we ascended to 3,400m (11,150ft). By the time we arrived at our destination we could add a shortness of breath, increased waves of dizziness and nausea to our reaction to the elevation. After a short ordeal at the bus station to retrieve our bags we bartered with a taxi driver to take us to our hostel.

For the next couple of hours we were held prisoner to the plumber who was servicing our room. Not wishing a stranger to be left alone with our bags we took the time to get acclimated to Cusco’s dizzying heights. After a series of banging, clanging and mopping the tradesman left, leaving us to get a lay of the land and search for some suppressant to our ails. Walking was tough and every movement was more taxing than the last, a couple of times we propped our weight onto a nearby wall or lamp post to stop us from blacking out and keeling over. Every chemist we passed was filled with pressurised portable oxygen tanks and various medicines to combat the hypoxia. However what we were looking for was the coca leaf, a cheaper and natural alternative to the elevation. Readily available at nearly every corner in Cusco, coca leaves can be chewed, boiled or brewed coming in the form of a soft chewy sweet, as a tea or in its raw leaf form. As we walked the city we grabbed every variety possible to ingest.

The coca leaf is bitter in taste and the texture is like that of a leaf (no surprises there then), within a couple of minutes a tingling and numbness could be felt on the insides of the cheeks, gums and mouth. And within fifteen minutes our symptoms had completely subsided.

Not wishing to run before we could properly walk we took things easy and grabbed a bite to eat at an ‘authentic English pub’. Authenticity is something that has always bothered me when traveling as it is a word that is frivolously used by expats and locals alike to describe a restaurant, eatery or a drinking hole. My memories of home were never sitting somewhere so deeply saturated in British memorabilia that it would make the strongest Anglophile cry.  Rather it was a simple affair with friends seated on plump wooden stools surrounded by outdated decorum exchanging banter over a beer about football, women or more drink with some mild pop music playing in the background. Cusco’s ‘English pub’ was derived from the imagination of Dick van Dyke’s character in Mary Poppins. Already seated we ordered some extortionate items from their food and drinks menu, ate, drank and left.

After that disappointment we headed back to a plumber free room, we had eight days in Cusco which was plenty of time to explore.

Cusco stands near to the Urumbamba valley (Sacred Valley), the very area in which Hiram Bingham found the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu in 1911, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 it’s home to many inspiring works of architecture, a chocolate museum, a multitude of restaurants and various trekking trails to eat away at one’s time whilst savouring in the beauty of the Andes. Our hostel’s location was close to amenities and transport, it was safe and cheap enough that we could use it as a base camp to explore the nearby areas and leave the majority of luggage without fear of theft.

© John Brownlie 2012

* Cruz del Sur runs buses from Nazca to Cusco, prices range from s. /150-180 ($60-70). The journey takes between 9-12 hours. Prices should include meals/snacks and basic bedding.

Us and the traveling circus to Cuenca

We planned to stay four days in Baños, taking in the scenery and enjoying the wealth of activities the Andes town had to offer, but Alicia was hit with a bout of food poisoning. Bed-ridden and unable to move, meant recovery was the top priority. So instead we stayed eight days until we both felt comfortable that a seven hour bus journey to Cuenca would be possible. Economy was our only travel option* which meant overcrowding, a lack of space and sights, smells and sounds that would not normally be attributed with seeing one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world.

However getting on the first bus we were mistaken. Boarding, a sweet floral smell tickled our nostrils, every seat was backed with soft ivy green leather, enough space for ample leg room, TVs every four rows and a half-full bus meant a pleasant journey ahead. And it was, until we arrived at our transfer point, in the middle of nowhere, next to a busy roundabout. A mad dash ensued, grabbing our bags we ran the couple of hundred metres to make our departing connection. It was there our initial expectations were manifested.

Neighbouring our assigned seats was a hysterical child throttling a chair whilst the grandmother sat idly by, encouraging him with defeatist sighs. It was not long after we sat down and stared Satan’s offspring in the eye did the mum arrive to silence the kid by having him suck at her teat. With the boy temporarily subdued, the second wave of minions began to board with parents in tow. Within minutes, the mini-army of children had taken control of the bus and transformed it into a traveling playground. Scrimping on tickets at the cost of safety had the kids strewn across the aisles whilst their parents sat in comfort. As the bus filled, the walkway became an obstacle course.

When the bus began to buckle and burst with people we set off towards Cuenca. The conductor was quick to put on some entertainment which came in the form of a dubbed Richard Gere film. Momentarily, the children that littered the walkway were fixated on the silver-haired actor, but before long turned to their parents and passengers for stimulation. Stimulation for them was a mixture of singing and dancing, using people as a climbing frame, jumping up, down and around in circles, crawling under chairs, crawling over chairs and competitive screaming tournaments. The passengers, like our neighbouring grandmother, were equally submissive to the carnival. And so we sat with music blaring from our earphones watching the chaos unfold with the beauty of the Andes as a backdrop.

We watched as a steam train chugged defiantly up a mountain ridge, farmers sat for lunch whilst their herds grazed, colours changed with the altitude from green to a golden red, valleys far below made people looked like insects. All in the presence of the humbly intimidating Andes.

Several hours later we arrived in Cuenca, we hailed and haggled with a taxi driver who drove us in silence to our hostel.

© John Brownlie 2012

* Baños’ bus station has about ten different companies covering Ecuador. At the time of writing only three offered travel to Cuenca all with one change. Expect to pay around $10 for the seven hour trip (including transfer). All offer basic facilities with no toilet, if you have to go, tell the driver who will pull over for you to do your business. Snacks are available from the street vendors who get on at every town selling everything from crisps to ice-cream. Stay away from the chicken though!