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.


The surf town of Huanchaco

Huanchaco, a coastal town in northern Peru, is just a thirty minute taxi ride from Trujillo’s bus station. Arriving at our hostel well after 9pm (blame the buses again), we were graced with a group huddled around a 32” plasma TV mesmerised by a bad copy of the new Spiderman. Patiently we waited at the reception until eventually one of the audience tore themselves away from the flat screen. It took the staff member a few moments of studying us and our baggage before concluding that we wanted a room. The en-suite room we reserved was the best they had; twelve-foot high double glass doors which opened onto the communal courtyard, hanging from the ceiling were retro-looking egg-shaped chairs, walls were hollowed out for shelving space and a soft inviting queen-sized bed sat in the centre of the room. Initially perfect, we found that privacy was a concern as two thin strips of material were attempting to cover the length and breadth of the large transparent doors. Pondering comfort over privacy we went out to find some food, leaving the world to peer into our room.

10:30 on a Monday night and everything was closed. Walking up and down the main strip we finally found a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint selling pre-made pizzas warmed in a tiny metallic toaster oven. We ordered take-away and it was there at the shack we decided to change rooms. We returned to our hostel with food and our decision, the same obtuse employee was procrastinating when we arrived and when informed of the change could not comprehend why a lack of personal space would be a problem for a private room. Eventually after some reiteration of our worries we were handed another set of keys and with that we moved our bags into our smaller home for the next few days, ate some greasy under-cooked pizza and went to bed.

Over the following days we grew to enjoy the complete negligence and incompetence of the hostel’s employees, with an open door policy we were constantly guessing who was working, who was staying and who was homeless. By the end of our time the only certainty was the cat who like most of the other suspects spent the majority of the day sleeping.

Between Huanchaco and Trujillo lies the ancient pre-Colombian city of Chan Chan, built in the mid-8th century AD it lasted six centuries before being conquered by the Incan empire in 1470. Looters and sea erosion have battered the world’s largest adobe settlement for centuries, but restoration work is now underway and in 1986 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking from the main road to the ancient city takes a moment for your eyes to differentiate between the reddish-brown walls and the surroundings. When you make the separation you begin to see the scale of Chan Chan, moving closer and standing next to the smooth towering walls is equally breathtaking. Foolishly we arrived when the sun was at its hottest and after an hour of trudging around the city we were badly in need of some air conditioning.

A Chan Chan restorer takes a break from work


We spent the next day cooling off with a surfing lesson. We took to the water and after several attempts rode a couple of waves. On my third success I lost my balance and fell into the water, tailbone first, a large pointy rock was there to break both my fall and batter my back. Agonisingly I hobbled and crawled my way back to the beach and enviously watched Alicia catch wave after wave before our time ran out.

These large birds hogged the limelight

As with most coastal towns and cities, beach side resorts, surfing schools, seafood restaurants and sensational sunsets are plentiful, Huanchacois no different. We spent time in the coffee shops, bars and restaurants that lined the coast. We fell in love with a seafood dish called ceviche (freshly caught soft fleshy white-fish that is skinned, gutted and boned then served raw in lemon juice with a selection of side dishes to feast on). We watched as families, lovers and loners cast their lures into the Pacific Ocean on the rickety old pier in the centre of town, huge birds posed for photographs before fighting fisherman on their reed boats for fish.

A popular spot to catch a few fish or to sit back and watch surfers catching a wave

And we watched the sun disappear under the horizon every night in a blaze of bright reds, oranges and yellows.

A surfer catches the last waves of the day as the sun sets over the horizon.

We were sad when the day came to leave. We’d bought ‘VIP’ bus tickets to take us into Lima where we would change buses for Nazca. Spending a little more money on the overnight bus meant we were given a meal and comfortable reclining seats. Upgrading also meant that thankfully for the first time in Latin America we’d be arriving on time.

© John Brownlie 2012

You can see more of Huanchaco and Chan Chan on our Facebook page.

  • Getting to Huanchaco from Trujillo bus station is around s./20 ($8) by taxi, although with a bit of haggling we were able to get it down to s./17.
  • Huanchaco’s tourist office is located at the entrance of the pier.
  • Getting to Chan Chan from Huanchaco is straight forward, mini-buses run there every 10-15 minutes costing S. /4 ($1.5). Stand on the main road and flag one down, just ask for Chan Chan.
  • The entrance fee for Chan Chan is around S. /10 ($4). Tour guides are available at the entrance for S. /25 ($10).
  • Buses from Trujillo to Lima are frequent, we chose the overnight LINEA bus leaving at 10:30pm. A semi-cama (the VIP option with 165-degree reclining seats with plenty of space) costs around S. /60 ($24) with snacks and meal included. It takes around eight hours.