South America – Summer 2008 – Part One

23 12 2008

In June of 2008, Chris and I set off on a much-anticipated journey.  The plan was to fly from Houston to Lima, Peru, where we would spend the night in the airport, then catch an early morning flight to Cuzco, Peru.  We would spend that day and night in Cuzco, then set out for Machu Picchu on the Vistadome train, spend that day and night and most of the next day in Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, then return to Cuzco for a night.  After that, we would set out for Buenos Aires, Argentina for several days, take a day trip to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay somewhere in there, fly up to Puerto Iguazu, Argentina for a day and night to see Iguazu Falls, then return to Buenos Aires for a few more days.  In a word, the trip was – amazing.  The food was – delicious.  The experience – unforgettable.  I kept a journal as we traveled, and what follows is our trip, in a combination of real-time and reflection.

June 7, 2008 – 2:30 pm

Chris and I are waiting in the International terminal of Houston Intercontinental Airport, gate E9, for our flight to Lima.  We are way too early but that suits me fine.  Chris has just put on his ridiculously huge headphones (which I’m sure I’ll have to carry around) and is reading about Cuzco.

the headphones


June 8, 2008 – 12:08 am

We are camped out on the floor of the Lima airport.  The gateway into national departures was supposed to open at midnight.  Now they are saying 12:30.  Or maybe 1 am.  We discovered that our original flight to Cuzco was cancelled and we are now set to leave a little later.  Luckily, I was mentally prepared for delays and cancellations thanks to tips from friends who have travelled throughout South America, so this does not really phase me (in fact, it makes me feel like I really am on this trip…our first cancellation, woo hoo!).  My biggest concern, however, is that we make it to the train station in Cuzco on Sunday before it closes at noon to secure our tickets to Aguas Calientes.

12:30 am – gateway still not open and floor is getting a little uncomfortable

1:00 am — still not open, floor is most uncomfortable and cold

We were able to sleep (Chris) or rest (me) on the floor until the floor cleaners kicked us out.  At 1:46 am they finally let us in the gate area.  At least now we can sleep on chairs!

The short flight from Lima to Cuzco was beautiful.  It was clear when we crossed the Andes and the view of snowy mountaintops was amazing.  Cuzco is very high — over 11,000 feet.  When we arrive at the Cuzco airport, the driver from our hotel met us and two other travellers from London (who currently live in Venezuela).  I told our driver about needing to get the train tickets, hoping we could stop by on our way to the hotel since I had read the train station was only open for a few hours on Sundays.  Not only was this okay, but he managed to contact a buddy who was able to help us out by switching our return trip from only part of the way back (to Ollantaytambo) to all of the way back to Cuzco (this after the train people had e-mailed me that the train was fully booked), get our tickets into Machu Picchu, plus bus tickets for the ride from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (and I later checked, we paid the right price).  Things are going quite well and everyone we have met has been friendly and helpful. 

Our tickets secured, the driver then took us to our hotel.  Not the hotel we had booked which was mysteriously closed or overbooked due to “sickness” (never got the full story there) but on of their sister hotels — the Mallqui.  The room was cute!  It had a little window that opened into the courtyard.  No heat, but plenty of heavy blankets on the bed.

room at Mallqui

It was small, quaint, and cheap…perfect.  Chris and I dropped off our stuff, freshened up, and headed out.

June 8, 2008 – 9:11 am

We are in Cafe Varayoc in Cuzco awaiting crepes, empanadas, and cappuccinos.


The food here is just so-so, but it is filling, and the place is cozy.  After eating, we walked around the Plaza de Armas.

Plaza de Armas

As we approach the square, we start noticing there are people everywhere, lining up, filling the streets, marching in place…


For all we know, this is normal for a Sunday morning.  We start realizing, however, that something special is going on…people are in uniforms, like school uniforms…there are also groups with banners showing their “year,” so maybe this is a school anniversary celebration of some sort?



Each group marched around the square while a military-style band played.  The band included a group of little girls who worked a great tambourine routine, tossing it up into the air, shaking it down to a slap on the leg, back up and around…never missing a beat.



Each group marched in front of what looked like a group of dignitaries and other special attendees.  We have no idea who these people are but they look important.


After watching the parade for a while, we started walking around.  We walked up many steep hills, narrow roads, and passageways to some incredible views of the town.  This is when we really start feeling the altitude.





Incidentally, there are a lot of dogs in Cuzco, and I felt the need to photograph several of them.





We walked around for an hour or two before stopping on the plaza outside Iglesia San Cristobal (one of the highest points in town).  On the plaza, we alternated between taking in the view and watching a group of guys play soccer.  Their main challenge seemed to be the religious statue situated in the middle of the plaza…they had to incorporate the monument and the people sitting on its steps into their game.

Now we are at The Real McCoy — apparently an ex-pat hangout for Brits judging from most of the accents around us — watching Germany v. Poland in the Euro 2008.  Half-time score is Germany 1-0.  Cuzqueña beer tastes so good right now.

June 9, 2008

Last night in Cuzco we ate dinner at Pacha Papa.  We sat in the chilly but cute courtyard near the huge wood-fire oven.  We had ceviche made with a white fish, lemon, purple onion, chopped red pepper, and sweet potato, served with hominy and fried corn kernels (similar to corn nuts…but bigger).  Delicious.  For dinner we shared the alpaca brochette — very tasty.  I was very excited to discover a new meat!  It’s different from any I’ve had before…maybe reminds me of a cross between potatoes and pork?  The alpaca was served with various kinds and styles of potatoes (mostly fried), a tamal, and a stuffed pepper.  After dinner we walked back to the hotel and went to sleep around 7 pm — we were exhausted from not sleeping in over 36 hours and from walking all over town (did I mention it’s high here?).  Plus, we had to get up really early the next day to catch the train to Machu Picchu.

The four hour train ride from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes (the Vistadome) was great.  It was really cold on the train, but they gave us heavy blankets, and that added to the fun for me.  We also got breakfast and coffee — a nice surprise.  The train left at 6:05 am, zigzagging up and out of Cuzco, passing through tiny towns and beautiful countryside, and arrived at 9:52 am. 

When we arrived in Aguas Calientes, someone from the hotel met us outside the train station and walked with us up (and up and up) to the hotel — the Rupa Wasi.  The hotel was great.  It felt like a treehouse.  Our room was huge…it had a full size bed and two twin beds (perhaps a napping bed and a sleeping bed?  Chris was actually concerned for a bit that we would be sharing the room…but it was all ours).  I mentioned to the hotel staff that we were heading out to Machu Picchu shortly and we’d love a couple of box lunches, and in five minutes they gave us two heavy bags full of food.  So, we set off for the ruins.

The bus ride was SCARY.  It’s a steep one lane road with extremely tight switchbacks and cliffs.  We met a bus coming down head on more than once and the bus driver would slam the breaks and throw the bus into reverse and back up until he could find a slightly wider sport of road that would enable the other bus to pass.  Aye yay yay.  I had a hard time looking out the windows.  Once I caught my first glimpse of the ruins, however, it didn’t matter anymore.  Machu Picchu is even more breathtaking than I expected.

We had to sneak the lunches in and that was a challenge since they were so huge.  Our lunch consisted of a roasted vegetable and cheese sandwich on a hearty bread, the best banana I’ve ever had (seriously, what is it with the bananas down here?), a fruit similar to a tangerine but in a green rind (I must look this up), a little cake or muffin, cereal bar, hard-boiled egg, and pineapple juice.

We walked all over Machu Picchu…








This is the view from where the Inca Trail enters the grounds.  I will hike this some day.


We walked all over…until my legs were wobbly with every step.  Instead of taking the bus back down to Aguas Calientes, we walked back down the windy trail that cuts across the roads (and spotted what may or may not have been a capybara — this is the subject of a heated debate), making it back after about a half hour or so. 

This is the footbridge that crosses the Urubamba River heading back to Aguas Calientes.


And this is us on the bridge, happy to be almost home.


Back at the Rupa Wasi (once we found it…all of the passageways look alike) I sneak in a quick nap before dinner.  I would grow quite accustomed to the pre-dinner nap on this trip…why do we not do this more in the US?

June 10, 2008

Not the day I expected.  But first, I’ll start with the night before.  We had a wonderful dinner at the restaurant there at the Rupa Wasi.  The space was great.  It was small and cozy…open air but with a fire going in the fireplace and fantastic music.  It was very intimate and the staff was great — it felt as if our friends were working there.  We started with a trout ceviche in a soft cornmeal-like cake.  Chris had beef tenderloin and potatoes for his entree and I had alpaca wrapped in bacon with a papaya chimichurri and sweet potato puree.  We enjoyed a great Peruvian read wine with the meal — Tacama, I believe.

Now, sometime in the middle of the night I was hit with “stomach problems.”  It was bad.  Very bad.  I blame the hard-boiled egg I ate the day before (Chris did not eat his when I noted mine tasted funky…why I ate mine after making this observation remains a mystery).  Needless to say, I was in bad shape.  I dragged myself onto the early bus up to Machu Picchu but spent about three hours lying on the ground (literally) outside the gates while Chris went directly in to climb Waynapicchu.

This is Waynapicchu.


I was crushed to miss it, but I would never have made it.  I am still upset about this.  So, I waited outside the gates until about 9 am then slowly dragged myself to the pre-determined meeting spot in the ruins where I proceeded to lie down until Chris found me.  At this point I at least felt confident enough to leave the only area with restrooms (and at 1 sol per visit it was adding up!).

When Chris found me, he told me all about the hike.  He said it was amazing — the best hike he has ever done in his life.  I sadly had to decline his invitation to wander around some more, so while Chris went off I reclined in a shadier spot.  Finally, around 12:30 or so we took the bus back down.  We found a little cafe in Aguas Calientes where we enjoyed a coke (me) and a cappuccino (Chris).  We also spent time chatting with Edgar, the waiter (I taught him some English…he said I spoke very good Spanish).  Then, we checked out and headed for the train back to Cuzco.

The train back to Cuzco…what can I say?  It was the craziest train I’ve ever been on, and I’ve been on lots of trains.  First off, I still felt like crap and my back was now killing me form all of the sitting/lying on the ground.  So — it was a very uncomfortable four hour ride.  But, after a while, Cucu arrived.  Cucu was in a traditional Peruvian costume with a freaky sock-mask and a hat like a platform with ribbons hanging from it.  He was holding a stuffed (fake) baby alpaca and dancing around all over the train car.  After I gave him a few soles, he leaned into Chris and made his baby alpaca give Chris a kiss on the shoulder.  Only later did we realize Cucu was the porter.  It was a little awkward later.

This is Cucu.


Next came the fashion show — loud clubby music played as the two other train-car employees walked up and down modeling all sorts of hand-made alpaca wool sweaters and ponchos.  There was lots of cheering and applause.  Of course, all of the sweaters were available for purchase.

The next night we checked into the Amaru 1 (our originally-booked place) and it was perfect.  Chris got to watch soccer on TV while I took a shower — he was so excited.  We had dinner at Nuna Raymi on the recommendation of the woman at the front desk — and it was great.  I had spaghetti with Andean cheese cubes, tomatoes, and basil (needed something simple for the still not-too-happy tummy).  Chris got alpaca on skewers (he said it was even better than the first night’s alpaca) and papas huanacanas.  We both got pisco sours but I gave mine to Chris.

This is the beautiful Plaza de Armas at night.



The next morning after a good breakfast at the hotel (and after finally figuring out how coffee works here…it’s strong cold coffee and you pour the hot water INTO it…ohh!) we experience another CRAZY cab ride through the narrow Cuzco streets, and now we are in Lima waiting for our flight to Santiago.  In Chile we have a 20 minute layover to make our connection to Buenos Aires.  I’m mentally preparing to run.