on top of the world

2002.09.18, san francisco

it's taken me a while to get to writing this journal entry, but I wasn't worried because I knew I'd taken such good notes along my trip... only I couldn't find them! I was worried that I had never taken them off of my visor--which now (as usual) has dead batteries--but I eventually found them in an old offline backup, in a file format which I no longer use.

having found my notes, I was able to remember the pushy but pleasant woman who convinced me that she had only my interest at heart as she walked me out of the lima airport, across the (huge) parking lot, out across the busy motorway, put me in a taxi, and rattled something off to the driver. and in fact she set me up well: I ended up at a nice, clean, inexpensive hotel in miraflores, a connected-but-distinct town south of lima. I suppose she gets a kickback from the hotel, but at such prices I can't complain.

I had only one day in lima, and I made the most of it. miraflores is on a cliff overlooking a stony beach (I hiked down looking for sand before I realized this). the weather was warm and a little muggy. as with my trip to costa rica, I had done little planning and had no guidebook. I suspected that the museums would be downtown, so I just got in a cab and asked him to take me to the museo archeologico. he looked at me kind of funny, but started driving and eventually let me off at something that looked like a museum, but was definitely not downtown. I think that it was actually some sort of museum warehouse. there were a few exhibits, but most of the stuff was set in row upon row of glass cases stretching up to the ceiling.

I had to wait for a while to find a taxi in this neighborhood-y part of town, and when a taxi did show up he also offered a ride to a young asian woman who had come out of the museum. in the taxi I discovered that she is japanese, and speaks much much better spanish than I did (i.e., some) I told yoko (in japanese) that I just wanted to go see the museums near downtown, and we ended up going to the 'real' archeological museum together. this place was much more what I expected, with lots of skulls and jewelry and huge slabs of carved rock and colonial-era armour.

I had heard from several people that chinese food in peru is popular and good, and so I wandered from downtown into chinatown. it is a bit more raucous than anything we have in the US, with a lot of street vendors out selling buns and such. when I got back, the woman at my hotel said it was a somewhat dangerous place for me to have been at night, but I had felt safe the entire time. the food was great: chifa, they call it. a little like chinese food in san francisco.

my plane to cusco was scheduled to leave very early in the morning, so rather than pay for another night at the hotel I decided to wait until the bars closed and go straight to the airport. big mistake. the seats at the airport were horrible, and my flight ended up being delayed by six-and-a-half hours, into the afternoon. during the brutal wait, I started talking to a couple of guys on the same flight, satoshi and toshiaki. I stopped feeling sorry for myself when I realized that they had just flown from tokyo, and their bags had somehow been re-routed to atlanta, georgia. I advised them of my friends' (you know who you are) secret to long-term airport hygiene: wash your pits and use the sample bottle of cologne at the duty free shop.

the three of us ended up sharing a hotel in cusco for a couple of nights. cusco had been the incan capital, and then became a major spanish colonial city. the churches were built right on top of the incan temples. the altitude really got to me, and I was tired just walking around the square, like running a block just after coming down from a whippet. I bought train tickets to aguas calientes, near machu picchu, and decided to settle in for a day to adapt.

the food in peru was excellent, particularly in cusco. I tried alpaca (tough) and guinea pig (good), but these are mostly tourist specialties. the 'tipical' lunch was pan-fried pork or beef with a different type of potato for each meal I ate, and corn with enormous kernels. I also ate chifa several more times, but in the altitude I was rarely able finish a meal.

the weather in cusco was rainy and cold. if I had the trip to do again I think that a warm body to sleep next to would be at the top of my list of things to bring. thinking that I would make do with a beer or two, I tried to get out and see the night life of cusco. I had a pretty good time, but tourist bars and clubs are the same the world around: expensive with bad music. and then there was the next morning's high-altitude hangover. not much happened that day, just email, postcards, reading.

the train ride to aguas calientes ranks among my worst travel experiences ever. I had to get up before dawn to get to the station on time; I had still not adapted to the altitude; the train was a very rough ride through mountains, with a lot of switchbacks. I felt seriously ill for most of the five hour ride, and was assaulted by loud pan-pipe music that the porters were trying to sell. I hated that hippy-new-age woman who sat crosslegged with her eyes closed, listening to the music with a rapt look on her face. I wanted to get out of the train and just lie on the still ground.

near the end of the ride, a young expat american guy got on the train (which parallels the old incan trail) and gave me some motion-sickness medicine, and combined with the drop in altitude I was actually able to get a half hour of sleep. I followed him to a nice cheap hotel (meals included) and got a power-nap. I was still tired, but felt I should make the most of my time and decided to catch one of the late buses up to machu picchu, a few miles away.

machu picchu is perhaps the most impressive ruin I have ever seen. I have seen larger structures, or things built over much larger areas, but machu picchu is stunning because it is large and yet dwarfed by the its natural surrounding. the city was built in the 'saddle' between a high ridge and another peak, with extremely steep hills and cliffs falling away on either side. far below, a river runs around the base of the mountain in a large horseshoe shape. it gives the impression of extreme defensibility, and it is no wonder that this place resisted the spanish invasion for many decades longer than the capital cusco.

I spend a few hours walking around the ruins, and sitting and relaxing. it is very clean, one benefit to the relatively high admission price. the terraces which once held crops are now grassy platforms on which llamas graze. it is possible to get up high and look down on the central square, but the distances were in many cases too great for my little camera. a zoom camera and a larger tripod would have been very useful.


my train back to cusco left early in the afternoon the following day, but I decided to get up early and visit machu picchu again. there is a small 'suburb' called wayna picchu which is at the top of the second peak I mentioned, the horn of the saddle, and I decided to get up there to take a look. it was a very steep 45-minute climb, mostly stairs and switchbacks, but worth it for the view. from that perspective, you can see the stylized condor shape of machu picchu: apparently all the incan cities were shaped like different animals when viewed from the air. to give a sense of scale, I have marked the pictures below with tiny orange dots where I sat while I took the opposing image.

while I was sitting at the top, catching my breath and battling the flies which collect to steal moisture from sweating humans, my phone alarm rang warning me that my bus left in 30 minutes! I 'ran' down the hill, making a pretty good time of 20 minutes with no broken bones. I made it to the bus stop just in time to see it pull away. I despaired. I had calculated that I needed to take this bus to get back to town and make my train back to cusco, which in turn was the only way to catch a series of connecting flights which would take me back home.

thank goodness for tour groups. some german tourists saw my predicament and pulled me onto their just-departing private tour bus. we were chased all the way down the mountain by young boys dressed in traditional incan clothes, who used the steep staircase to cut off the bus as it made its way down the switchbacks. compared to my descent from wayna picchu, they made record time and were not even out of breath. it also earned them a pocket full of tips from the tour bus. I made my train just before it pulled out, and from there it was a smooth (but long) trip home to sf.