As we flew south through the night I had a pretty limited idea of what to expect from Peru. A holiday in South America had been Jenna’s idea, and she had done practically all of the planning. Further, much of that planning occurred in the later part of 2014 when I was busy finishing my master’s degree. Nonetheless, as our departure date approached my excitement had built. We travelled with a sense of keen anticipation, backpacks stuffed with clothes for all seasons, and forty feet of light rope (which turned out to be of little use).
We arrived in Lima to be met by a warm, humid atmosphere that contrasted sharply with the dry and frozen air we had left behind in Canada. However, the heat was more of a preview as we had to catch another flight to Cusco, a little to the southeast of Lima and several thousand meters higher in altitude. Before catching that flight we had to pass Peruvian immigration where we were admitted by a bespectacled man who flirted shamelessly with Jenna as he checked her passport, and begrudgingly let me through as well.
We landed in Cusco as grumpy zombies, foggy minded from the lack of sleep and the sudden exposure to high altitude. We retired to our hostel and promptly slept through our first day, aside from brief sorties for food. Then, fortified by our 24 hour rest, we set out to explore.
This was my first time at high altitude, so I didn’t know how my body would react. We had consulted a travel nurse prior to the trip, and were suitably dosed with altitude medication. However, we were warned to avoid overexertion as the medication only mollifies the symptoms of altitude sickness and does’t reduce the time needed to acclimatise. With that warning in mind we set out from the hostel on our second day and immediately proceeded to climb a steep set of stairs (pictured above). At the top we were both momentarily exhausted, and had to stop and catch our breaths. With one exception, this incident sums up my experience with altitude sickness. I had no acute symptoms, but rather a vague fatigue and shortness of breath following a burst of exertion – where I’d normally feel fine. I did not find the rarified atmosphere to be perceptibly thinner, to my disappointment.
Once recovered, we continued to explore Cusco on foot. It is a very attractive city, at least in the downtown centre. It is also very touristy. The Plaza de Armas, central square, was filled with benches and we spent some time sitting in the comfortable, sunny weather tourist spotting (not difficult) and trying to guess their origins (varied, German perhaps the most common). The density of tourists also makes the city centre a honey pot for touts, and it is almost impossible to pass through without many offers of Machu Picchu trips and massages.
As well as exploring by ourselves, we joined a free walking tour (donations were encouraged at the end). Our guide was informative and the group turned out not to be too large. We felt this was a good way to see some of the main sights, and we were taken to several places that we had missed the previous day. The free tour is clearly subsidised by several enterprises that we were taken to along the walk and encouraged to spend at, but we expected this and no where was overly pushy, so we didn’t object. The tour concluded at a courtyard restaurant with the offer of a discounted lunch – at a reasonable price for downtown Cusco, so we happily partook.
As the tourist hub of Peru, central Cusco is not the best place for eating on a budget, with many expensive restaurants catering to well heeled visitors. We had limited success finding cheaper options, although later experiences in other cities suggested we should have tried harder. One of the best meals I had in Cusco was served at one of the many food stalls in the market. This did require me to overcome my food safety fears, but my gut survived the meal unsullied. For the record, neither of us had any ill effects from eating from street vendors and cheap restaurants throughout our trip.
Although nice enough, the touristy nature of Cusco is not what we’d come to see, so after a few days we were happy to rise and meet our 5 am pick up to begin our trek to Machu Picchu, which I’ll write about next time.