on…Cusco and cash cows

Posted: 22/03/2011 in Travel
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I arrived in Cusco early, about 5.30 am, after a dream journey on a dream bus company.  This particular company had a small waiting room, good food, a Denzel Washington Movie (he is one of my favourite actors), vacuum packed blankets and a beauty queen of a stewardess…actually the first female ‘trolley dolly’ in all my travels on buses. The romance of backpacking means that you somehow feel obliged to suffer a little, to use your bag as a bench, to eat snacky food whilst squatting over a foreign timetable. The greatest thing in South America is the quality of the higher class bus companies. I reckon most of the higher end firms to be more luxurious than air travel, actually they have an advantage over air travel as the check in procedure is so short and painless. I have only travelled ‘semi-cama’ which roughly speaking denotes a large chair which converts into a half bed. It has become fairly easy to sleep on these type of buses. My favourite memories are usually waking up in a new place and getting the free extra sweet coffee from the front of the bus. I feel no guilt or shame whatsoever in travelling in comfort, especially after some of the flea ridden hostels I have been staying in.

I chose a hostel from a website and balanced cost with a high review percentage. Such reviews are almost useless as people are uncritical after having a great time in a particular place. One can easily overlook all manner of inconvenience and discomfort if provided with good company and cheap, or in many cases, free alcohol. I was intercepted in the middle of a Barrio near to my hostel by a random Security guy from the San Blas Barrio. He was wearing a luminous vest as you would in football practice and he seemed bored so he escorted me to my hostel. Once inside check in was super casual, there was a black guy sporting an Andean hat, he just left me to fill in a form then wandered off. Usually you have to wait till people check out but I just crashed out. The hostel was very hippy-like with san Pedro cactus medicine (it’s not a drug it’s not a drug). I spoke to a guy in New Zealand who drank some Cactus juice, he said he hallucinated and lost control of his legs. The woman who ran the hostel had family photos around the place. She has really STAMPED her identity all over the place, but I believe the place would be improved if her identity were STAMPED out altogether. Hostels and hotels should retain a bit of neutrality to make a higher percentage of people feel at home. I guess if your target market is the unwashed lentil eaters then it may be ok, but most people seem to be your run of the mill backpacker.  I have never been a big  endorser of having loads of personal family photos at a workplace, especially a hostel. Homestays or Pensiones, as they are called here, are fine, but keep your professional life separate please. The other attractive decorations were gold paint and giant dream catchers, they made me queasy. On the plus side the shower was hot and they had cable TV, I also met a chap from Switzerland who claimed to live only on fruit – he looked very healthy.

Cusco or Qosqo, as it should be spelt, is a fantastic place. This city is dream backpacker country and is best appreciated after slumming it round some of the shadier and shabbier places in South America. The whole centre is built on top of Inca foundations and topped with colonial Spanish architecture. You can see on most buildings the frankly unbelievable skill that Inca Masons had in getting any shape or size of stone to fit into other stones with almost no gaps and no need for mortar. This process must have required each stone to be cut on site; I’m guessing that if an earthquake hit there would be no lateral movement because they don’t have continuous lines like European buildings. I recall a young Inca looking boy showing El Che round in the movie ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’. He referred to the earlier masonry as Inca and the later Spanish masonry as coming from the INCApabales. There are several squares and countless churches and museums built in the Spanish Colonial style. Qosqo is unmistakable, with the sharp mountains and steep Andean streets you couldn’t be anywhere else.  The solid buildings are all enclosed by towering green hills on every side, and even the shanty dwellings that hug the hills look picturesque as they are made from the adobe bricks and terracotta tiles that echo the natural colours of the Andean valleys. This contrasts to countless other South American cities where hillside dwellings tend to grow from corrugated metal and second-hand building materials. A key feature of this city, and I suppose several other high altitude places, is the red-cheeked locals. The native population could have been placed there to embarrass young athletic men. After almost superhuman feats of walking almost every day with a fully laden backpack, I am at my leanest and fittest I have been in living memory. Despite my good physical shape, a short walk up a street at over 3,400m altitude is something of a struggle. I never once felt any signs of altitude sickness, a common problem here, but after scaling some meagre steps and stairs I could feel my heart pounding like a jack hammer. Whilst I paused for breath on more than few occasions, I was often over taken by tiny old natives with copper coloured skin, rosy red cheeks and usually a basket or two of potatoes on their heads. The people of these mountains are striking in appearance, never have I seen a people so well suited to their own environment. They must have extraordinary lung capacities. Being a backpacking Mecca there are countless ways for the gringos to part with money: charity men, shoe shine boys, women with little kids wrapped in brightly coloured blankets and of course the tours to Inca sites. Luckily the city is big enough to have a bustling local population, so if you dare to stray from the main streets you can see life unfolding the way it has for centuries, people beating donkeys, kids asleep in a wheelbarrow full of onions, men carrying huge baskets on their heads, stray dogs sniffing in the rubbish and old women hacking pieces of rancid meat with cleavers. I got lost in the accidentally on purpose way and went to a cheap eatery where I had some Alpaca steak. It was rich and dark, much nicer and leaner than beef with a taste not quite as gamey as Venison.

After all this Qosco excitement I went to where every trip seems to lead, Machu Piccu. Machu Piccu captures the imagination like no other place, it’s the lost city of the Inca and a wonder of masonry, astronomy and urban design. I don’t think there is anything like it anywhere else in the World. What you don’t realise before you go is the number of other houses and buildings on other rocks and cliffs. Most photographs don’t convey the full extent of what was a thriving ancient (or at least very old) city. Unfortunately the process of buying a ticket for admission, then the train, then the bus, then the toilet, then the café, then the souvenir……………..To cut a long story short, it’s the biggest rip off I have ever seen with the most complex procedure of actually entering the place. The mystery and reward of foreign travel is hard to appreciate after what can only be described as a confusing gauntlet of red tape, passes and highly complex travel plans. They give some crap story on the back of the bus ticket about money going to the poor villagers, as with most other South American countries, people are poor because the government is greedy. In the context of most of South America it is very easy to lose any cynicism about the intentions of Che Guevara and other revolutionaries. These places have been plundered since the Conquistadors arrived, they were probably plundered way before too. From the millions of dollars I parted with to get to Machu Piccu, most went to the ministry of culture and the rail network, this is why I have spent zero money buying ponchos and trinkets off the villagers. The villagers should be benefitting from the tourist boom. After all, this is a permanent long-term attraction, not a flash in the pan holiday fashion hot-spot. I asked the price of internet up the main street, and the lady replied 4 soles. That’s not a lot of money but in Cusco (a tourist city itself) it costs 1 sole. The feeling of being ripped off in the inflation defying village really leaves a bitter taste. I feel sorry for the poor and needy, but when she told me that price I literally laughed in her face. This kind of confrontation must happen all the time and generally leads to locals hating tourists and vice versa. If there were more village people with more pride than money then maybe prices would be in line with other areas. The sad fact is that if you have come this far then you HAVE TO go to Machu Piccu. I was so resentful from the cost of everything, from the complexity and the uncertainty, that despite using the cheapest method, I failed to appreciate what must be one of the wonders of the world. It took me a lot of wandering and wondering just to realise how lucky I was to see this place, and that I shouldn’t complain and find the negatives. However, I paid in US dollars which I earned picking apples in NZ and as value goes (cost v views and photos etc) this place was a waste of money. The site is without compare as a window into another way of life and civilization, but the time, energy and money is too much. I would recommend to people not to go, in fact I feel so strongly that I would pay someone not to go and put money into the bottomless pockets of the dreary men in the office of culture (aka … money grabbing swine). Due to the cost of this excursion I had to re plan a lot and miss lots of other things I had wanted to see. Unfortunately if you get to Qosco….you HAVE TO DO IT!!

In all honesty it may actually be easier to just get a package tour where you don’t have to deal with any offices or wake up at 5 in the morning to maybe get a ticket. Due to the lack of available tickets on the return leg I had to sit in first class and after an uneasy start I realised that I had limitless coca tea. The journey passed in a trouble-free, altitude sickness free kind of coca flavoured dream.

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