Inca Trail: Day 1

Inca Trail

matt 120pxAfter just one day on the Inca Trail, my expectations have already been exceeded. The drive from Cusco to the Sacred Valley was absolutely spectacular. The snow-capped cordillera and the steep verdant mountains were beautiful. The steep valleys reminded me of some of the most beautiful places I’ve seen on this trip: Nepal and Indonesia, not to mention Hawaii where we’ll be in a month’s time. We followed the Urubamba for the entire day, which our guide says is a tributary of the Amazon. The walking was pretty easy, with just a few short steep uphill sections. We did however stop frequently for long rests and little bit of commentary. I’d say we only walked about half of the time between when we started and when we finished. I guess some people needed the slow pace and at least everywhere we stopped was invariably scenic. As I did with some of our other hiking posts, I’ll try to be light on writing and heavy on photos, because trekking is a scenic pursuit but not a very interesting one to describe (or perhaps my writings not that good yet). So I hope you enjoy some of these photos.

Scenery during Drive to Ollantaytambo

drive to trailhead

Inca Trail-head

beginning of the hike

Inca Trail

looking back, notice the line of hikers struggling up

Inca Ruins

looking down into the valley at some old Inca ruins

Inca Ruins

Inca ruins near camp, view looking back at where we came from today

Slow Week in Cusco


matt 120pxI haven’t written in a week, but that’s not because nothing’s been happening. True, we haven’t really done anything in Cusco, per se, but we have been busy. Christmas Eve was spent perusing Cusco’s Annual Crafts Fair and then going to Christmas Eve Mass with a Peruvian dentist we met at our hostel. On Christmas, Joylani relapsed and we spent the night at the hospital where Joylani had an IV replenish her fluids all night. We took it easy on the 26th and then picked my little brother Alex up from the airport on the morning of the 27th. The last four days have been just catching up with him, showing him around town, hiking the surrounding area, preparing for our upcoming trek, and trying not to get sick…again. Tomorrow, we embark on a 4-day trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Joylani at Sacsaywaman

hiking up to the ruins at Sacsaywaman

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Plaza de Armas

Christmas Visit

joylani 130pxYesterday, Christmas, I started to feel pretty sick again and eventually threw up. I continued to feel extremely weak and nauseous. Figuring it was a continuation of whatever Matt and I have two nights before (thankfully he was feeling much better than me this time around), we packed a bag with water, snacks, and my toothbrush and headed to the Clinica Pardo. Originally we were just going to go to the public hospital; in our guidebook it sounded fine, but a staff at our hostal told us that we may have to wait a long time for treatment. Perhaps the public hospital would have been just fine, but when we arrived at the private clinic I was glad we had opted for private over public, considering that even here there was no seat on the toilet.

It was late on Christmas afternoon, and the bottom floor was virtually empty. After registering with my passport, I was ushered back to a doctor’s office who did the usual poking and questioning before sending me off for both blood and stool tests. The blood test was easy, but not having eaten too much that day (and some of it already having come out the top end), plus the lack of toilet seat, I just couldn’t make the second sample happen. And what was that popsicle stick they gave me for anyway? After my leg fell asleep, I went back to the lab and told him, “No puedo.” He shrugged and told me to go back and see the doctor. She wasn’t in her office, but had already told me I would need to stay for to receive an IV, however, that there was no space for me at the inn, so I would have to go to the sister clinic. The guy who had been taking me back and forth already, apparently a plain clothes ambulance driver, found me in the hall by the giant nativity scene (one of several). He waved Matt over and took us outside to the back lot. We got in one of the smaller “ambulances,” basically a large windowless van with a stretcher bed, oxygen tank, and one seat in the back (I got the little seat while Matt sat up front), and we drove a few minutes to the other clinic.

The second clinic, Clinica San Jose, was much nicer than the first. From the sliding glass doors at the entry to the polished reception counter, it was very modern and sleek looking. We headed up to the 6th floor where we were shown to our room. The IV would take more than a few hours, and we would have to spend the night.  Our room was really amazing. There was a sitting area, connected to the bedroom by a wide, closeted hallway. The room was huge. It had a hospital bed and a regular bed, with room for a third. The bathroom was also huge and even had a large tub with jets. If I wasn’t hooked up to an IV all night, perhaps we would have filled up the tub, invited a few random tourists over, donned suits and had a Christmas pool-party, all the while enjoying the view from my very large 6th floor window.

But it wasn’t MTV cribs and I was still feeling pretty weak. Having an IV for the first time felt really strange, and my arm got icy cold from all the fluid going in. Matt pulled in one of the chairs from the lounge and sat next to me as I lay in bed. We watched the marathon of year-end news recaps on both CNN and BBC as nurses and doctors periodically came in. When morning came I was feeling much better than the day before, and we anxiously awaited to be released. A team of doctors came in (no, not necessary in my opinion, and yes, it did make me feel like a patient on a tv show) to deliver the prognosis, which was inconclusive. They sent me off with a parting gift of Cipro and a few other goodies. Hopefully this will be the last time I get super sick on this trip, but somehow I doubt it will be. C’est la vie.

La Misa

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A live nativity in a large replica of a clay pot.  The church we visited in in the background.

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The annual crafts fair was today.  Nativity scene accessories proved to be the most popular item.
joylani 130pxIt all started when Matt offered some beer to the dentist. Still skeptical of eating out, I cooked us pasta for dinner, which we ate at our hotel. Another guest, Gerardo (whom I mistakenly called Geraldo…), was also upstairs, enjoying a cup of tea. The bottle of beer was quite large, and feeling friendly, Matt offered some to our fellow guest. We got to talking, mostly in English, but using some Spanish when words were hard to find. Gerardo is a dentist. He is originally from Lima, but now lives in a rural part of Peru. It was to far to go all the way to Lima, so he came to Cusco for the holiday instead.  Many of his patients are miners. Sometimes they pay him in gold. He does a lot of gold teeth for people too. That is the stylish thing to do.


It came about that Gerardo was going to mass later. Other than the inside of a few churches and a sopash festival (which I guess isn’t exactly Catholic, just Portuguese), I have never been to anything Catholic. Part of that is just circumstantial, I’ve never really had an opportunity to go, but then again, I have never sought one out either. Various people have told me masses and other ceremonies are long, ritual, and boring. But I wanted to see for myself—at least see what it is like in Peru, in Cusco. So Matt and I put on our best available clean clothes, which wasn’t much, and we met our new friend downstairs.

We walked down the hill to the main square. The nativity suppliers were packing up their goods, dozens of people were walking around carrying Jesus dolls dressed in white satin and gold (they take them to be blessed at one of the many churches), and there was an overall sense of festivity and expectant excitement in the air. We came to the big wooden church doors, and walked inside, past the partition used to shield the view from curious tourists. In front of me, at the end of the room, was the main alter. It stood about three stories high and was covered in gold. It glowed.

I wish I had a picture of how it looked tonight, but it’s not something that would really work in even the best photo because you wouldn’t be able to see the movement of light across the gold. The three of us found seats halfway back and waited for the misa to begin. There was a lot of ritual, some of it was boring, it wasn’t as long as I thought, but it was also wonderful. From what I could gather from the sermon, which was in Spanish, one of the priest’s main points was that we can celebrate because Jesus was born. This is a message I have heard many times growing up in church, but somehow it took on a more understandable meaning in the very stunning and ornate room in which I sat. The way that cathedral glowed in the soft light was one of the most amazing things to see. I mean, have you ever seen a 3-story wall covered completely in gold relifs? It was special. It was like a wedding. People go all out for weddings. They are special. A wedding is a celebration. A party. A new step. And it’s happy. So thinking about Christmas this way, in a room that glowed gold, offered an old perspective, but new to me.

Traveling does that in general, offers new perspectives that is. But only new to the traveler—you, the one experiencing a very small taste of the way others have been living and experiencing things for a long time.

Atahualpa’s Revenge

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

matt 120pxIt’s a bit ironic that I commented on the good food here in my last post and I was in the bathroom every half-hour last night sitting on the toilet or puking in it. It was the worst food-poisoning I’ve ever had and I’d have to say the sickest I’ve ever been as well. Joylani rotated between the bed and bathroom with me too. Let me add, “Are you done yet?” is not something you want to hear while you are puking. The frustrating thing is that we’ve been eating at really nice restaurants, since food at the lower end places is pretty bad here in Latin America.

So after sleeping only a couple hours last night and expelling I don’t know how many gallons of fluids, we were zombies today. We slept on and off and tried to drink our rehydrating-salted-water. The extend of our exercise was walking to a pharmacy downtown, although the uphill trek back to our hotel was pretty tough given that the last meal I digested was two nights ago. We’ve both felt weak all day, although I’m kind of surprised we’re not worse off considering we’ve only had water and crackers all day. But Joylani pointed out that we haven’t done anything either. Sickness has kind of been a constant companion on this trip (although more frequent in some countries than others), but last night was the worst.

Boring Sunday

Cathedral in Cusco

matt 120pxUnfortunately, our first full day in Cusco fell on a Sunday. I’ve grown to hate Sundays in Latin America. Everything is closed and its tough to do anything: buy things, find restaurants, see attractions, etc. I prefer the Asian way where most places are closed for a day or two, but not everything on the same day. We began our day by going to a bakery, but it was (of course) closed. We did however find a pair of tamale ladies who seemed to be popular. We bought a few spicy and a few sweet tamales, all of which were delicious. Joylani confirmed that they’re at the same spot every morning, so I think we have our breakfast spot for the next ten days.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Plaza de Armas

Much of the day, we just wandered around town exploring. Being Sunday, most things were closed, so we couldn’t really do much else. Many of Cusco’s attractions were closed and not many restaurants were open. We saw a couple bookstores with some English material, but they were all closed too. Stupid Sundays. I’ve kind of been starved for English, since English-language reading material is scarce in Latin America. Aside from the Buenos Aires Herald, there’s been no English newspapers in Chile, Bolivia, or now Peru. I contented myself with reading an old GQ at our hotel. The magazine (like most such magazines) is complete junk, but I was so starved for non-guidebook literature that I read the only two real articles it contained: one about a middle-age guy spending a month at a high-school in Ohio and another about that priest that murdered the nun in 1980 and was just convicted in 2006. Foodwise, we did find a hole-in-the-wall place for lunch, which served up less-than-hot set lunches. Afterwards, I promised myself only to eat set lunches before 1pm, when hopefully they’d still be hot. We had a pretty good dinner though, at a tourist restaurant. Although the food here cannot compare to anything we ate in Asia, I am very, very thankful for the food. It is a million times better than the food in Bolivia.

Alleyway in Cusco

original Inca masonry still provides the foundation for much of Cusco

Perhaps the most interesting thing we saw today was a festival going on Plaza San Blas, which is only a block and a half from our hotel. I think it was a joint Christian-Inca festival, celebrating both the birth of Jesus and the Summer Solstice symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness. There was a nativity scene/play, with kids doing all the acting, plus teenagers dressed as Romans on horses, others dressed like Arabs supposedly depicting the wisemen, and a man dressed as Herod. Later, there was traditional dancing led by an angel. I was kind of confused by it all to be honest. The odd thing was all the drinking. I mean Catholics get a bad rap for being drinkers, but this was ridiculous. I’ve never seen so many people drinking at a religious festival. There were several beer stalls set up and everyone was drinking. Hundreds of people getting drunk at a religious celebration. As the festivities ended, it was funny to watch dozens of drunk men stumble every which way out of the square. Worse though, was all the piss. People were drinking so much with nowhere to go. People pissed against the church walls, against the walls of the square, in the plaza grass, everywhere. We even saw a woman squatting the middle of the street peeing! The whole square smelled like urine and large parts of the plaza were wet with piss puddles and runoff. Totally disgusting, but interesting at the same time. At least the festival gave us something to do and see on an otherwise boring Sunday.

A New Country, Hopefully a Better One

Street in Cusco

matt 120pxAfter just two days in Peru, I can already say I like it better than Bolivia. I could’ve said that after just a few hours here, in fact. It always seems odd to me that things can be so different on either side of an arbitrary political line. Crossing that line from Bolivia to Peru, the differences that stand out the most are peoples’ demeanor and the food. Peruvians seem a lot more friendly than Bolivians. Smiles, hellos, and small-talk rather than blank stares and grim faces. To be balanced though, I must admit that Peruvians seem a bit more opportunistic when it comes to taking advantage of tourists, as we’ve been lied to/ripped off a few times already. Its kind of like India, Nepal, or Cambodia, where people are friendly, but will try to take advantage of you. While that sounds bad, I’ll take it over people who are rude and try to take advantage of me, like in Vietnam. Yet neither is preferable to friendly and honest people, like in Malaysia, China, Korea, or Japan. Back to Peru-Bolivia differences, the food is soooo much better this side of the border. Since arriving, I’ve had: a set lunch with trout, Chinese food, and a set dinner with alpaca steak (easily the best meal I’ve had in weeks). Friendly people, good food, and the scenery is still impressive. Good signs and a promising start to Peru.

Final Thoughts on Bolivia

Cathedral, Copacabana


matt 120pxFinal thoughts on our time in Bolivia? We spent all our time on the antiplano, so we were treated to spectacular mountain scenery our whole time in-country. The highlight was our four-day jeep tour in the southwest of Bolivia, although ordinary bus journeys between any two cities also delivers great views. Bolivian cities and towns seem invariably ramshackle and unpleasant. We definitely will not miss Bolivian food, as it definitely ranks as the worst cuisine (if it can even be called that) we’ve had in the past year and a half of travel. So I guess my overall impressions of the country are the same as those I gathered after our first day in Bolivia: ratty towns and bad food, but great scenery.


Popcorn Stalls


matt 120pxWe’ve gotten a respite from months of bad food. Fresh trout is a Lake Titicaca specialty and nearly every restaurant offers it cooked in about eight different ways. And while there is some local food here, Copacabana’s strategic location on the Gringo Trail means that almost every South American traveler going through both Bolivia and Peru passes through here, which means: tourist food! Usually I don’t like tourist food because it’s sub-par versions of international cuisines, but given the alternative of Bolivian cuisine, I’ll take it. I’ve also been snacking daily on giant bags of sweet popcorn (pictured above), which taste like the cereal “Smacks.”

At Copacabana


along the shore

joylani 130pxWe’d heard good things about the Cupola Hotel in Copacabana. On the day we arrived, I walked up the hill to check on availability and price while Matt enjoyed a cold coke by the lake (as I had done many times before in India and Thailand when he did the checking). The staff person who showed me a room quoted a very good price, so I checked a few times using various sentences just to be sure I understood correctly. I went back down the hill to get Matt and our bags so that we could check in. When we arrived back at the reception desk a new guy was there and he all but laughed at me when I told him I had just been there and the price I had been quoted. I mean he all but laughed at me AND didn’t bother apologizing for the mistaken employee. It was the second day in a row that we had been quoted an incorrect price, agreed to take a room, and had arrived only to find the price was significantly different (the first time was by email).

(As I would later find out, neither Bolivian nor Peruvian hotel staff who make mistakes know how to apologize. I have tried to figure out why, some of my conclusions include: they really just don’t care (I will give an example of this later in this post), they are embarrassed and won’t admit they made an error, and/or they just haven’t learned this skill/manner. Needless to say, I have been sorely underwhelmed with staff in Peru and Bolivia on multiple occasions, and it’s not because I was expecting amazing service to start off with. Just that I expected enough intelligence to know how much rooms cost, and to have the ability to keep a reservation, at the very least for the second day in a row they promised it…)

At the actual price, the small room wasn’t worth the cost, but then laughing boss man told us the price for another room, the “honeymoon suite,” and, being swayed by the grassy lawns and multitude of hammocks, despite my annoyance with the staff, I was tired of lugging the old La Fuma around and decided to stay anyways. We agreed to take the room, for a night. We couldn’t figure out what was honeymoon about the room, but it was a suite with a vaulted dome ceiling and adjoining room with big windows, chairs, a small forest of plants, view of the lake, and even a hammock. Even though it ended up raining a good part of the day, we were still able to enjoy the outdoors, and a hammock, from our own personal enclosed balcony, staying dry the whole time.

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it was hard to say no…

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to this.

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The next morning we switched to another hotel down the hill, but closer to the lake itself. Despite the many stairs, we opted to take a room on the fifth floor for an uninterrupted view. Seeing as the area around the lake smells like sewage, and it rained for a little bit each day, “experiencing” the outdoors from our room was preferable to actually being there. (This may be hard to understand, but it you saw the waterlogged dirty diapers, et al. you would.) I put together a make-shift lounger utilizing the bed, pillows, and a nightstand and had an instant front row seat to enjoy the view. We got a lot of writing done this way, and it has been nice to catch up on the blog…though I think it will take a while before we get them all published since the internet has been about as fast as I can run…Anyways…

We have eaten our breakfast (semi-stale bread, fruit, and tea) at the same table for the last couple days. Since the first day there has been a huge gob of strawberry jelly on the tablecloth. The SAME gob. Every day. Maybe it is hard for others to see? There are usually about 3-4 staff guys hanging around the tv at reception every day. Someone forgot to put pillowcases and towels in our room when it was redone, there is a ton of dust on the floors, unkempt sitting areas, and that jelly on the table every day. What is the point of having four staff at the hotel if they aren’t even going to take care of it? But then again, I have been traveling for so long, I should really stop asking questions like this. It’s just like that and it doesn’t make sense and if I decide to be here it shouldn’t bother me. And for the most part, it doesn’t (it’s not like the jelly stopped me from sitting at the same table when there were a dozen others to pick from). It is just that I would like to know why it is the way it is for once.

There is not a whole lot to do in Copacabana itself, unless you like paddling yourself around in kayaks or paddleboats with names like “Titanic” or “Donald.” But that’s ok with me. I don’t feel like doing much except for soaking up the warm sun through our hotel window or along the lake shore when it’s not sprinkling rain. Other things to do from Copacabana include making a day trip or overnighter to Isla del Sol, or in town there’s an interesting looking church and a poncho museum to see, plus a couple walks. The food is ok here. We’ve had some tasty fried trucha (trout), and one thing that Bolivia produces is a decent panqueque and we had a pizza that was not the greatest, but a nice change from the other Bolivian wonders. But like I said, I don’t feel like doing anything, and so I sit in the stream of sun pouring through our window, look out at the shimmering lake, and write.

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