April 20 – 30, 2003
After dusting off my travel notebook from my trip to Peru back in 2003, I finally have the motivation to reorganize my notes and write a travelogue on that trip.
I had a strong urge, ever since high school, to backpack in South America. The whole continent seemed so foreign, so exotic. I began saving up by working part-time after school. Between semesters in the spring of 2003, I headed off to Peru, the quintessential South American country in my mind.
A fifteen-hours flight (including a three-hours layover at Dallas) brought me to Lima, the capital of Peru. I had with me a backpack filled with clothes, a borrowed Point & Shoot film camera, a Let’s Go Peru, a notebook, a novel and a couple hundred US dollars. I was armed with only one certainty about my upcoming eleven days in Peru – my one-way ticket from Lima to Cusco.
The time was 12:10 am, and my flight to Cusco was 6:15 am. The airport appeared more modern than I had anticipated. The arrival terminal was already completely deserted, and the dim and flickering fluorescent lights brought out a slasher movie kind of atmosphere. I walked around, hoping to find a comfortable looking bleacher or sofa to crash for a few hours, but there were only a few hard plastic stadium chairs next to a squeaking escalator.
Giving up on sleeping, I sat down and pulled out a book to read. Just when I started dozing off, a janitor with a vacuum that sounded like a jet engine showed up. Echo of the vacuum’s piercing noise transmitted across the terminal and emphatically ended my brief nap.
Bedridden in Cusco
The standard loop of traveling in Peru is to start in Lima, south to Arequipa, then make the way to Cusco. This way, the traveler can be acclimatized in Arequipa (2,380 metres above sea level) before ascending to Cusco’s altitude of 3,400 metres. I chose the other way around because my flight arrived Lima at midnight and I much preferred staying in the airport than trying to find accommodation so late in the evening. For the get-go, I had no desire to spend any time in Lima, given my limited time in Peru and the capital’s crime-ridden reputation.
Our small propeller plane landed at Cusco’s tiny airport shortly after 8am. A legion of touts awaited all travelers at the arrival gate, ready to offer all kinds of overpriced services. I rushed through the crowd and reached the regular taxi station, settled on a price with a driver, and got into his car.
We passed along many brick and clay houses along the way. The land appeared to be quite arid. While I had read that Cusco had benefited tremendously from the tourist dollars, it was clear many people were being left out.
My driver and I were trying to make some small talks despite my very limited ability to converse in Spanish. He seemed undeterred and continued talking – perhaps to himself. The ride took around twenty minutes, and he slipped me a note with his cell number on it before I got off the car at my destination, Hotel Niños (Address: Meloc 442).
Even though Hotel Niños was a little expensive ($30) compared to the other recommendations on Let’s Go, it is operated by a Dutch nonprofit fountain that helped underprivileged children in Cusco. Between helping out a good cause and my preference for a comfortable room after a long trip from Vancouver I felt good about picking this place.
Traveling in the low/shoulder season meant that early reservation for accommodations and transportation was unnecessary. The hotel is a colonial era stone building, rectangle in shape with a large patio in the middle. My room was located on the second floor that overlooked the patio. After shower, I passed out on the large bed.
First Night in Town
I woke up to a completely dark room. The hands on my watch read 5:30, and I was wondering if I had slept for eight hours, or twenty hours. My head began to ache, and my heart beat rapidly. There it was, the much mentioned altitude sickness almost everyone went through in high altitudes.
Not wanting to worsen my condition on an empty stomach, I climbed out of bed to search for food. At the lobby I could at last tell the time was almost 18:00 and not 6:00. I walked outside of the hotel. There were nobody on the very dimly lit street. I headed towards Plaza de Armas, the central plaza of Cusco.
Two blocks from my hotel was Calle Procuradores, a narrow road that had everything a traveler would need, packed with restaurants, bars, internet cafe and drug dealers. I walked quickly along the road while the touts on both sides were trying to grab my attention by shouting Japanese. Circa 2003, Asian travelers still were being regarded as Japanese to most locals around the world.
I couldn’t recall what I ate at Plaza de Armas, only remembered eating at a Peruvian restaurant. I went on a search for shampoo after dinner, which ended at a pharmacy several blocks away from the main plaza. Although warned by my guidebook not to wander off the main roads, I took a turn at a deserted side road for an evening walk around town. Beyond Plaza de Armas, everywhere in Cusco was awfully quiet at night. There was no pedestrian on the street, and very few cars. I imagined this sleepy hill town must had been like this for centuries after the fall of the Inca Empire, until the tourist hordes showed up and occupied the town centre.