Editor’s note – Friends I’ve fallen far behind – I left you in Cusco almost a month ago on April 14; this May 10 I write you from London. I must look forward. So that I may turn my attentions to Spain, indulge me here as shortcut and re-Joyce in a stream of conscious theme. Let’s flash back to the night of Thursday, April 13… que twilight zone theme song.
Anoche Sue and I ditched the boys and headed to the Pisco Museum, which mixes high alcoholic culture, latin music and a mean Pisco Sour. We’re surrounded by Peruvians and some fellow Americans saddle up… we share travel tales over sours when an ascot-clad septuagenarian mics up, and instantly he’s a latin Sinatra, crooning classics and luring ladies out on the floor. He’s irresistible… my newest hero and role model.
It’s now mid-Friday and we boys are glad to finish our final Spanish lesson – language is hard work. After homework and trip planning it’s a repetitive day of Cuscoooing about these cobbledstones, seeking sabors and culture. We plan the evening around a native dance show at the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo… a sad provincial rendition of Mexico City’s much grander Ballet Folklorico. Saturday’s better: we’ll be visiting the four ruins closest to Cuzco – Sacsaywamán, Q’enqo, Pukapukara and Tambomachay – hiking down from the later to the former.
I wake early and haul the family a few blocks away to the Collectivo station, where we cram in a van with others and begin our ascent out of Cusco towards Pisac. Hopping out early at Tambomachay we clamber up some ledges and take in views before strolling across the street and down the hill to Pukapukara. These sites are modest but interesting… Tambomachay has “Incan Baths” with stones channelling clear water through fountains and perhaps once supplying Cusco below. Pukapukara – literally the ‘Red Fort’ – overlooks the Puma City, and is small enough that perhaps it was just an inn or a hunting lodge. From here we trail off road and down ravine, tiptoe through marshes then drain with the water down a canyon. Caballeros on their caballos wander the valley below our picnic rock. Picking our steps through another marshy outlet we gain a hill before descending into the zig-zag ruins of Q’enqo, which sports rock puma, condor and llama among its angles. And then along the road we emerge from Eucalyptus shade to baking sun en route to the grandest ruin – Sacsaywamán.
To slake our thirsts and slay our sweat we have a few Inca Colas in the shade of a shack, then wander into the ruin… and quickly we find the childish charms of caves, llamas, rock slides and grassy lawns interspersed among massive cut stones. Frolicking here for a bit, I talk the family out of a taxi ride home and we reckon our way down the trails into town, finishing with shake and burger rewards for our hearty crew.
It’s Sunday 8AM. We’re packed and cleaned and roll our carryons over to the now familiar collectivo station, for a longer ride to Pisac, the first of our Sacred Valley ventures. Arrived in town I stuff Sue and the boys into a mototaxi for our hotel transfer… and since it won’t fit four I hoof off, arriving not long after the wheezing, overloaded monstercycle. Our 2-night hotel is modest but clean and friendly… just right. And it’s Market Day so Sue’s happy as we weave through town to our next adventure… the steep hike up to Pisac’s ruins.
They’re set among andinas on a plateau high above town – we hug the cliffs for 2 hours, enjoying the view and persisting through inevitable Inka trail fatigue. At the uncrowded top the views are terrific, and the water I hauled up tastes great, especially knowing I don’t have to haul it back down. Back in Pisac the Sunday market is in full swing. Local dancers entertain visitors… we find a funky new-age restaurant and fill our empty stomachs. After a siesta the boys and I attempt a local swimming pools and athletic center, but we arrive too late so get our exercise walking home. Dinner pickings are scarce as the town’s rolled up from the market, but we find a quiet simple spot before bed and Monday’s tour…
…Which is a road trip through the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo (Olita). Our Pisac hotelier hired a fine driver, and we side trip to the agricultural excavations at Moray – like inverted DEVO hats, these sunken concentric terraces might have been used to test crops at varying elevations. Moray is served by the sleepy base town of Mara… from her we hike down valley to the picturesque salt ponds of Salinas, then down to the Urubamba where our driver whisks us the rest of the scenic way to Olita. Again our hotel is modest but clean and efficient, and the town is charming. We’re in late so dinner is simple, and after Sue and I scout the train station it’s early to bed for our early rise… the famous train ride to Agua Caliente at Machu Picchu’s base.
It’s 4AM, the family’s waking, and with a box breakfast in hand we stumble into the street and hail a mototaxi for the short straight haul down the road to the station. Aboard our PeruRail coach it’s light and comfortable around the train table; I zip out to grab coffee and soon we rumble west along Urubamba’s watery way towards Aguas Calientes. Max and Ben snooze through the pleasant enough journey, but as the sun struggles to pierce the clouds we see that we’ll have mist in these mountains. Indeed it’s raining in Agua Caliente, so I hold the spot in the soggy bus line while Sue and the boys find shelter and baked goods. Now aboard, the bus switchbacks up the hill to Machu Picchu’s base, and we’re ahead of the crowds then into the ruin. It looks like every picture you’ve seen, green and perched precariously between ridiculously steep granite towers, frequency rock waves dipping to the waters below and cresting in clouds. We lap the ruins in 90 minutes then head to the base of MP Mountain for our climb.
The climb is brutal – slippery and steep, and the clouds obscure the payoff views. Peruvians are little people – why would they build on such steep slopes, using such steep steps? We persist for 2,200’ and in ~1.5 hours we summit above 10,000’, snack, snap and sigh. I bet it’s beautiful down there below these clouds. The descent is tricky but we do catch some shots between cloud breaks… then Sue torques her knee and we have to slow our pace considerably. With an improvised bamboo walking staff she hobbles down and holds on long enough for some fun llama shots with the boys.
There’s another long line for the bus down and it’s my turn to wait (again… it’s often Dad’s turn when the task is unpleasant). We reverse course, twisting and turning down, training back through the speckled sunshine and in to Olita. Back at the train station I shop for tomorrow’s taxi, then we walk back to our hotel for a late siesta.
Wednesday is our last true Latin America travel day… a good one for journaling. Sue and I divide and conquer Ollantaytambo sites, she scouts the ruins while I scout the streets, then we meet up, swap notes and reverse. Dragging the boys out for lunch it’s time to turn back; we hop in a cab and Sue keeps the groggy driver awake with life-saving conversation while the boys and I relax in back.
Our last night in the Andes is spend it in an under-priced, over-comfy Hilton Garden Inn… Sue’s worked them for a buffet breakfast and it’s fantastic. We get some simple sightseeing and shopping in before hopping our uneventful flight to unwilling Lima.
Lima’s a degrading denouement to our latin travels… a final reminder that this continent’s charms are challenged. Overwhelmed by a generation of economic and guerrilla refugees, Spain’s colonial command center has devolved into an 8 million megalopolis befitting Bladerunner. Meager commercial assets are barricaded against the ghosts of Shining Path car bombs; coastal condos struggle to rise above the cinderblock squat sprawl of inhumanity, choked with weary traffic puking diesel soot. Our clean, crisp 7th floor AirBnb apartment overlooks the Pacific and enjoys her breeze… there’s a fresh rooftop pool and our host is gracious. But it’s unsafe outside these walls – we’re prisoners. We have a brief parole when our host takes us to the Miraflores district – a stroll and a last supper before we put Lima memories to death and execute our slow escape through the gridlock to the Lima airport.