Did you ever make a bad decision in life and have the misfortune of distinctly remembering when someone had warned you NOT to do that very thing? Do the words haunt you?
Sometime about three months ago while staying in Quito I stumbled upon a guidebook for Peru. I forget which exact guidebook it was and I don’t recall any other bits of helpful information, but I do clearly recollect the description of the bus trip between Lima and Cusco.
“This isn’t really a trip for the average traveler, but only for the poor backpackers and other very adventurous types”.
Those words are now seared into my brain, and every time I think of them the memory is accompanied by an intense feeling of nausea. But more on that later.
We left Mancora three weeks ago on a giant, well-appointed bus headed straight for Lima. I suffer from rather terrible back problems that are exacerbated by sitting, so we made sure to book the nicest seats that reclined the farthest and had the most leg room. The bus had a bathroom and wide aisles, so I was able to walk around and stretch out my back and keep from lapsing into the agony that those with back problems can relate to very well.
The Pan American highway in northern Peru is straight and relatively smooth, and although the scenery is quite barren and bleak, the 20 hours or so we spent on that particular bus passed without incident.
We pulled into Lima and found our way to the lovely little boutique hotel that we had booked in advance as a sort of prize for surviving what was, up to that point, the longest bus trip we had ever taken. We enjoyed the amenities, found some nearby little parks, and ate some of the most delicious food we had seen in months.
For two days we lived like kings and braced ourselves for the 24 hour bus trip over the mighty Andes into Cusco. We smugly figured that after that last bus trip it would be no problem. After all, we were seasoned travelers!
(If you ever think that it might be a good idea to save a couple hundred dollars by crossing some of the highest and most treacherous mountains in the world on a bus, don’t.)
We left Lima at 2 in the afternoon. The bus station was absolutely packed and everyone there seemed to have a giant backpack and sturdy shoes. We looked around and realized that almost everyone was a foreigner. It was only later that we discovered that Peruvians receive special discounts on travel within their country’s borders, and most wisely do not take the bus to Cusco but fly with cheap “resident Peruvian” plane tickets. We were entering one part of Peru’s massive tourist machine and it was churning out backpackers with abandon onto the famous “gringo trail”. We were off!
The ride started out rather nicely. The road to Nazca was smooth and I enjoyed a rare movie while my son napped comfortably. My husband and I smiled at one another knowingly, proud of our thriftiness.
At 7:30 pm the porter brought us dinner on tidy little trays, complete with either water or Inka Kola or coffee. She was a beautiful young lady, meticulously made up and dressed in a smart, cleanly pressed uniform. How civilized! We dined and looked out at the darkness, and I wondered what that guidebook could have possibly been talking about.
At 9:00 pm we began our ascent into the Andes toward Cusco. There was nothing but black emptiness out the windows, but I knew we had entered the mountains because the bus started churning from side to side, almost violently. It was such an extreme amount of turning to and fro as we climbed up the hairpin curves that the passengers in our first class cabin initially looked around at each other and giggled nervously. Bottles of soda and water were rolling around the floor and people were attempting to readjust themselves in their seats to no avail. Every time I moved and tried a new position to get comfortable, the bus would lurch to the side and I would slide across my roomy, cushiony seat. My son started crying, unable to fall asleep.
At 10 pm, the friendly porter brought around barf bags. She smiled as she passed these out to every passenger as if she were handing around after dinner mints or a nightcap. I declined mine as I had never in my entire life been carsick. My husband took it for me, just in case.
At 11 pm I sat on the steps next to the bathroom breathing in the putrid air, trying desperately to quell the nausea. I had finally abandoned our cabin which now felt unbearably hot. The freezing air of the mountains was rushing in through the door next to the loo, where I was sitting covered in sweat and dry heaving. I clutched the barf bag in one hand and held onto the wall with the other.
Walking around had become nearly impossible and as I had tottered down the aisle towards the bathroom I violently crashed into several of my fellow passengers. No one noticed. One unfortunate man was barfing into his bag while the lady two seats in front of me was moaning loud enough for the passengers upstairs to hear. Not one single person was sleeping, except for my toddler son. Unfortunately, he also kept sliding out from under his seatbelt as we turned and turned and turned, and I literally spent the next 10 hours hiking him back into position, unwilling to remove him from his seatbelt for even a moment.
At 2 am my eight year old daughter turned to me and announced loudly, “I can’t believe I’m still awake, mom!” Everyone else was too, including the friendly porter who kept returning to our little cabin to bring towels and new barf bags. The moaning lady in front of me was still moaning. I asked the porter in my most desperate spanish, “Do we climb the mountains all night?”
“Si” she responded wearily. Her makeup was smearing and her uniform was showing some wrinkle.
I abandoned all hope of sleep.
At 6am the sun rose over the Andes, and I got my first look at the curves we had been driving on all night, and would continue on for several more hours. The misty clouds surrounded us, hugging the mountains and fields. The view was stunning, and if I hadn’t been without sleep for 24 hours and still quite nauseated I might have appreciated it more.
Four hours later we arrived in the beautiful city of Cusco, frazzled, disoriented and struggling to readjust to life in high altitude.
Lesson learned. Cheaper isn’t always smarter.
Cusco is an amazing city. It has Incan ruins, colonial churches, plazas, mountains, red tile roofed houses, cobblestone streets, and tourists. Lots and lots of tourists. It serves as the base town for those proceeding on to Macchu Pichu, which is now the most visited tourist site in all of South America. It also has scores of new age hippies, society drop outs from all over the world, spiritual types that favor natural hallucinogenic substances, and Peruvians who want to sell you stuff.
I initially wanted to hate this city. The restaurants and hotels are ridiculously expensive. You literally can’t walk down any street without someone trying to sell you kitchy llama keychains or fake pan flutes. The streets are packed with camping stores, North Face stores, and travel agents with “deals” on tours and treks. The prices are all inflated and outlandish.
I was even somewhat annoyed by Peruvians dressed in Incan costumes or carrying baby lambs or pulling llamas around and encouraging tourists to fork over money for photos. I get that everyone in this world is just trying to get by, but, it just seemed so…tacky. But to be fair, most of the tourists in town seem to arrive by plane from Lima and then walk into the protective arms of a tour guide, who then shuttles them to their expensive hotel and the next day escorts them onto the train to Macchu Pichu. In other words, this may be the closest many of them ever get to an actual Indigenous Peruvian.
But slowly, Cusco began to win me over.
I am a sucker for wandering around old colonial streets. There was no shortage here, and it was possible to literally get lost in the maze of tiny narrow streets that climb the hills above the city. We tried to find new streets to explore every day.
We also loved meeting fellow travelers from all around the world. It was a nice break for us to speak in English every day at lunch and at our hostel with fellow budget travelers and intrepid wanderers. We enjoyed the stories of the bicycling couple from Ireland who offered us tips on the Argentinian exchange rate, and the North American teacher taking a year off to practice Spanish, and the newlyweds from Singapore touring around Incan sites, and the Australians taking a year off before heading home to work and start a family. I met people from our city back home and a young woman from the town in England that I attended graduate school in. People were generally really outgoing and enthusiastic and excited to trade travel stories and tips. There is a certain magic to meeting someone similar to you in a land far, far away.
We also learned to navigate past the expensive businesses catering to the tourist with lots of money but very little time or incentive to shop around. We found a cheap place to stay with a kitchen and a little shared garden (the South American Explorers Club – which is also a great spot to get info, receive mail, make free international phone calls and store your luggage).
We found that if you moved away from the touristy plazas you could find “menu del dia” (lunch specials) for as little as 4 soles (about $1.33).
We quickly ditched our first laundry place for one that charged 1/4 of the price! We even found a second hand flea market on Saturdays (that wasn’t exactly gringo friendly) where we discovered a few things that we needed badly for an awesomely low price.
We also took advantage of the fact that some of the most amazing parts of Cusco are absolutely FREE!! You don’t need to buy that expensive tourist ticket to the Cathedral if you can simply wait until Sunday mass and get in for nothing. Or how about skipping the double decker tour bus and hiking the hill yourself to catch these killer views.
We even negotiated our way into a museum that was supposed to be only for people who had purchased the moderately expensive tourist ticket that gets you into several sites in and around Cusco. I’m pretty sure the man in the booth pocketed that money for himself, but at least we got in without having to shell out the big bucks.
Cusco can be an overwhelming experience in so many ways, but if you can spare the time and energy it is worth an attempt to peel back the layers that are artificially added for those that are just using it as a quick stopover before heading up the mountain or onto the trail. It’s a historic and important city, and if you are at all interested in the Incan empire, or the modern peoples of the Andes, or South American textiles, or Catholicism, or the first Spanish conquistadors, it has so much to offer.
Just don’t be an idiot – take the plane.