Flying to Peru
We left Asunción very early in the morning, taking a pre-arranged taxi to the airport. We had asked the guy working in the reception of our hostel (which was a couple of blocks away) to arrange it for us and he did it splendidly, even showing up at our room at 3.15 a.m. to make sure everything went smoothly. The ride cost Gs120'000 (a fixed price) which we thought was ok since we were out pretty early and the ride was specifically ordered. The meter showed Gs80'000 when we got to the airport and the driver had to pay an additional Gs5'000 entrance fee, so our price wasn't really that bad.
Our travel agent at Kilroy had booked our next flights separate from each other, but they were with the same airline (Avianca) so we were hopeful that we might be able to check our luggage for the whole way. It wasn't possible though, but we got our boarding cards for both flights anyway. Those in hand we walked towards security check thinking that all was going pretty well. That changed when we got to the border control where we were directed to different lines. The guy checking Sini's passport took his sweet time, staring blankly at each page in turn, trying to figure out which of our numerous stamps was which. In the end, several minutes later, he just grunted and added to the collection with the exit stamp from Paraguay. My guy was a little more vocal, babbling to me in Spanish. "Cataratas" (waterfalls) seemed to come into it a lot. My feeble skills in Spanish were of little use as he was trying to explain his problem to me with the same exact phrase repeated over and over again. I have no idea what the apparent problem was and why the waterfalls were that important to him. I explained, in Spanish, that we had seen the Iguazu Falls which he was referring to, but only from Brazil and Argentina. We had entered Paraguay in Encarnación, not Ciudad del Este near the waterfalls. Hence the cataratas and getting and exit stamp from Paraguay had no apparent relation to me. The guy on the other side of the glass gave up eventually and let me through. I guess I'll never know what that was all about…
The rest of the trip went normally, we got on the plane to Lima and arrived there on schedule before 9 a.m. local time. After that we had to go pick our luggage and pass immigration to Peru before dropping our bags for the second flight. We weren't in any hurry since our plane to Cusco wasn't leaving until 2.35 p.m.. We spent the time dozing off in the departure hall where there weren't too many places to eat, but luckily we had snacks with us. There was a pretty knowledgeable iPerú office where Sini was able to get some general information and also a couple of maps.
Arrival in Cusco
Our second plane arrived to Cusco at about 4 p.m. and our great three week stretch in Peru could finally begin. We had both been looking forward to visiting the country, the last non-western destination on our journey. I in particular was excited about staying in the Andes and exploring the region surrounding Cusco. The city lies at about 3400 meters from sea level which makes just getting out of the plane an adventure. The air is thinner here and we could both feel the need to breathe just a little deeper. With that in mind we decided to skip taking a bus to the center and walking to our reservation from there. There were no shortage of taxi touts at the airport and we did our usual routine of getting our bags and determinately walking past all of them until one came up with an offer we could approve of. This came in the form of a shout "center ten soles!" right as we were going out of the parking lot. Our guidebook advised against taking offers from unlicensed taxis so we asked the guy to show us his taxi card. He produced something of the like and showed us to his car, parked at the gas station across the street and missing all normal signage of a taxi, but oh well. We agreed on a price of S/15 to our hostel and he drove us there without problems, telling us all about his other services along the way. He could fix us a deal for Machu Pichu for just 220 USD per person, including transport, tickets to the site and one night's accommodation. We told him we'd think about it, which is our way of saying "forget about it".
Our hostel turned out to be nicer than we had expected. Recidencial Panorama proved to be clean with a decent sized double room reserved for us. The shared bathroom was one of the cleanest we've seen in a long time and there was hot water in the shower at all times. Wifi worked only in the bottom floor, but that was ok since it was also the only place where they had heating. The included breakfast consisted of bread, butter, jam, a fried egg, freshly squeezed fruit juice and a choice of hot beverages. We paid S/140 for three nights and were quite happy with what we got for our money. We were also pleasantly surprised to find out that we could use the kitchen that had a proper gas stove and relatively good pots etc.
Believe it or not, this brings us to the curiosities of high altitude. Depending on sources one can supposedly start getting symptoms of altitude sickness already at 2400 meters from sea level. We were a kilometer higher than that, so we had decided to take it slow for a few days. Like I said, breathing took just a little more effort, but surprisingly we weren't really feeling out of breath even when we walked back up from the nearby supermarket called Orion. Still our heartrates got up in a way that was definitely not normal for such a gentle slope. We also noticed that our lips were a tiny bit bluer than they usually are... We both had a tiny headache, but we figured it was on the account of not having had enough water on the flights. The best way to acclimatize is to rest and drink lots of water, but in Peru there are things you can add to that water. With that I mean coca leaves which as the name applies contain a tiny amount of the substances cocaine is made out of. The leaves are legal in Peru and many other Andean countries and not surprisingly they were on the menu at our hostel's breakfast. There were also some teabags with the same stuff inside of them in the kitchen and we decided to give them a go. The tea, called mate de coca, is supposed to be mildly stimulant in the same manner as regular tea and coffee. We didn't notice any changes in our tiredness or cognitive functions. It tasted like herbal tea and it might have eased our headaches a little. We had it again in the morning, made with whole dried leaves floating in boiled water, and again failed to notice any dramatic effects.
Our luggage also felt the higher elevation of our current whereabouts. Usually when a shampoo bottle explodes while traveling it does so in an airplane. When it lands the pressure inside of it returns to normal, but only if it lands low enough. At the height of Cusco our shampoos, liquid soaps and hand disinfectants required much care when opening for the first time. The best example was Sini's roll-on deodorant that popped out the plastic ball at its top. But clearly the most interesting feature of staying in high altitude is the fact that boiling water is actually cooler than it is at sea level. At 3500 meters water boils in less than 90 degrees Centigrade, which we found is quite a substantial difference. We'd brought the remains of a bag of pasta we bought in Asunción with us and made a dinner of it and some sausages. In Asunción the same pasta had taken ten minutes to cook, but in Cusco it took twenty minutes in boiling water to get soft enough to eat and it still wasn't properly cooked. It was a seriously strange phenomenon, one that made us decide to eat out from that on.
Being so close to the equator some parts of Peru are actually covered in rainforest, but here in the mountains the weather is something else entirely. In June the temperature rises to about 20 degrees Centigrade during the day, but can drop down to less than ten during the night. Luckily we had thick wool blankets to keep us warm since there was no heating in the room. In the morning we got up headache free and went to explore the city. We immediately took a liking to the place with nice cobbled streets and old buildings all around. Everything was remarkably clean, which set the city apart from much of what we saw in Nepal and India, but in many ways it resembled the first part of our journey. I can't quite put my finger on what the similarities were, but perhaps it was at least in part in the flow of things. In general people move slowly and sit around watching time and street dogs go by. But when you put them behind the wheel of a car they get a little manic and with something to sell they become somewhat intrusive and obnoxious. I have to give it to the Peruvian touts and trinket sellers that they aren't as annoying as their counterparts in Asia, but I still don't like it when people offer me the possibility to have my shoes shined every five minutes.
We walked around the center a little and found Plaza de Armas alive with traditional dancers getting ready for a performance. This was apparently the time of an annual celebration in Cusco when every day sees a different school or similar perform around the streets. We passed a small parade later in the day, with people carrying heavy looking religious statues and such. We walked around a couple of other nice looking plazas and followed our guidebook's advice to go see the Q'orikancha complex where the conquistadors had decided it best to remove the Inca gold and use the remains of the plundered site as the foundations of a convent. Our guidebook said "if you visit one site in Cusco it should be Q'orikancha", but in truth there wasn't really that much to see in it. There are no Inca artifacts to be seen and most of what they had built is now destroyed, leaving only a few walls to show how good they were at crafting stone. Luckily the entrance fee was only S/5 per student. We were able to get some more use of our ISIC cards at the next place, Museo de Sitio del Q'orikancha, where we purchased the Boleto Turístico for S/70 per person. Luckily I was born late in the year so I'm still 25 since that is the age limit for the discount. We've never seen additional age limits for student card use before.
The Boleto Turístico would allow us to enter quite a few sites around Cusco in the time period of ten days. The museum where we bought it at was a small complex of five underground rooms showcasing some of the Inca treasures the previous place had lacked. We found the fifth room to be especially interesting with a couple of mummies and multiple samples of trepanned and otherwise shaped skulls. Trepanning means cutting a hole in the skull, nowadays used among other things to drain blood from between the brain and the scull following a trauma. What the Incas used it for I didn't quite get, but apparently as many as 68% of the patients survived it. As for the other skulls, they were of the type shown in the fourth Indiana Jones movie with their bones pressed in early childhood to form an elongated or flattened shape. I'd like to know what that did to the baby's mental capabilities later in life, but at least they earned an improved social stature from it.
After these mouthwatering examples of human cruelty we went to have lunch in a typical Peruvian restaurant where we both had a S/9 menu consisting of a starter, a soup, a main course and a desert in the form of a huge cup of chicha morada, a sweet beverage made from purple maize. We saw those on our first visit to the supermarket, they really look like corn cobs dipped in ink. Later in the day we visited Museo Histórico Regional briefly because it was closing in half an hour. The entrance was included in the Boleto Turístico and we liked it better than the first museum with a lot of interesting artefacts presented in a clear and informative manner. Downstairs was dedicated to things dug up from the ground, including mammoth bones and the armor of a massive armadillo in addition to the Inca relics. Upstairs was mostly colonial paintings. I have never before seen a painting with Virgin Mary openly breastfeeding baby Jesus, but in South America those seem to be everywhere. It didn't even stop there, on one painting she had let St. Peter of Somewhere get a taste of the other breast. Another curiosity was a painting of the Last Supper where Jesus was enjoying a Guinea pig, a local delicacy.
Some of those were on sale in San Pedro Market where we stumbled next. Well actually we did stumble into a church with a wedding going on in between, but never mind. They still do the rice throwing here, it's forbidden back home so birds don't explode. San Pedro was a mixture of food stalls selling everything from churros and fruits to cheese and whole pig heads, and handicraft stalls selling pretty much anything one can make out of leather and alpaca wool. We might have to buy something like that eventually, but for now we stuck with the churros.