The train rocked on it’s rails as it brought us back from Machu Picchu, and pulled into Ollyantaytambo in the dark. We ended our long Machu Picchu day with a quiet walk back to our hostel. Our feet were tired, our heads were stuffed full of the day’s experiences, and it felt so good to just fall into bed and pull the thick wool blankets over ourselves. In the morning, we found our bikes just where we left them, and once packed up, pointed them southeast toward Cusco. The way took us back along the Sacred Valley, but rather than take the same road again, we turned south at Urubamba on a whim and followed it up over a ridge and into Cusco from the “backside.” A local cop told us it was a very bad road, and the main route was much more enjoyable for tourists. That’s all we needed to hear, and we took the “bad road.” Near the top, on perfect pavement, we stopped at one of the roadside stands selling tourist alpaca, and watched as parasailers prepped for takeoff. And, as so often happens on our travels, we met a woman from the US who had moved here 9 years before, and Jalene enjoyed a nice conversation about her time in Peru.
Our descent into Cusco took us down dusty, winding, broken streets into the working heart of town. Likely this is what the cop thought we should avoid, but this is the part of any town that shows you its real character. Cusco is billed as a “Magical City” of history and Inca mystique, but in reality it’s just another town where roads and railroads meet, goods are made and traded, and life is the usual busy, noisy shuffling. Eventually we found our way into the center of the maze, and to our hostel door. The thick dark wooden portals swung open and we were ushered into a central courtyard, parking the bikes and joining road-weary bicyclists and bus-tired backpackers. Like many heart-of-the-city hostels, this one appears as just another rather worn and non-descript door on the street, with a small sign in need of fresh paint. But the doors open up onto an open, sunlit, and colorful central area inside, with tables and chairs, open to the sky, around which the rooms are arranged. I would love to have X-ray vision and be able to walk around in Latin America and see what is behind the plain walls that line the city streets, with their many doors showing us only a number, if that. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of a beautiful garden or comfortable room inside, and realize that behind these walls incredible homes lie hidden away. I wonder if this style of concealment is left over from the days of haciendas, where everything faced inward, and the thick walls protected it from the outside.
We spent 9 days in Cusco, taking care of several chores that had accumulated. Mainly it was a time to relax and unwind. We spent some time researching alpaca textile products, and sent home a few blankets. We learned that baby alpaca is not really from infant llamas, but refers to how fine the alpaca wool fibers are. Extremely fine wool is given the name “baby alpaca” because of its incredible softness and comes with a higher price. Of course, when you ask at a random market stall if the hat you are inspecting is baby alpaca, oh yes, it’s the best. Sometimes a vendor will admit that it is a blend when you remark on the cheap price. Be careful, you get what you pay for. From time to time I would drop into one of the expensive shops and feel genuine alpaca goods just to make sure my hands and eyes remembered what to search for, then I would dive into the market looking for my bargain. Some things are worth the extra cost, though, and so when it came to buying high-quality blankets, we stuck with stores we knew we could trust.
Several bicyclists were staying at our hostel, and I was impressed with one couple in particular that had brought their 5-year old son along for the ride. He had his own little bike, which could be quickly clamped into a bracket on the rear of his Mom’s bike, with the front wheel up off the ground. His bike then became a one-wheeled trailer, and he could either pedal or just coast along letting Mom do all the work. Dad got to carry the bigger load of gear, to even things out. What a great education for the little guy, one that money could never buy in a normal school environment.
We often meet people along our way who find creative ways to travel with their children, and I so admire them for doing it. Some are so young that they may not remember all the details of the trip, but their eyes will be opened to new sights and sounds and tastes. “What’s bred in the bone comes out in the flesh” the old saying goes, and I know from my own life that the fundamental things I learned as a little kid returned to me very strongly much later as an adult. Knowing right from wrong, the value of honesty and hard work, those sorts of things. Many of us lose our way for a time during the wild teens and early twenties, but that rudder returns eventually and we straighten out. I think that travel as a youngster will help embed things like acceptance and tolerance, since that kid will have to endure ups and downs along the way. They will see people who look different, talk funny, and eat strange food and sometimes really good food! I’d love to be able to fast-forward through a couple of decades and meet that kid again.
Hanging out in the Plaza one sunny morning, I found myself approached again and again by the vendors selling cheap art, trinkets, sunglasses, and all sorts of stuff. I thought I’d found a safe corner, but then a girl came up and wanted to sell me, no – wanted me to buy, a keychain made from little dried gourds with faces or llamas drawn on them. “No, gracias, lo siento.” I was polite but firm as she pushed me to buy, and finally she sat down and started to cry a little, saying “Why do the touristas say ‘No, no’, always ‘No.’” She told me she lives with her mother and sister, and I don’t doubt there was little money in that family. I explained once again that I was sorry, but on the moto I simply didn’t have space to buy any souvenirs except for stickers for the bike. She eventually smiled again and wandered off, leaving me to enjoy the sunshine and quiet once more. I turned and walked up to the huge door of the cathedral, where two women sat begging on either side of the entrance. One, at least, was blind, and the other quite crippled. I dropped a coin in each bowl, and just as I did that, a face appeared from within the cathedral door and firmly told me I was not allowed inside. I guess karma counts for nothing in that building.
A bit later, a big parade erupted from around the corner of the plaza, and group after group of brightly costumed indigenous dancers appeared, and kept appearing! Some had incredible masks as well, and others carrying huge “floats” on their shoulders decorated with flowers, paper, and the requisite Virgin of This-or-That, or maybe Jesus himself on the cross, and all were doing their best to impress the crowd as it swelled in the plaza around them. I watched for about 45 minutes as they kept coming around the corner, and it was fun listening to the tourists around me coming up with some pretty creative interpretations of what each parade group was trying to celebrate or display. Nobody thought to actually ask one of them to explain. I approached one of the costumed dancers later, and as it turns out, this was a parade to celebrate the diversity of the various indigenous Peruana cultures in the southern Peru region. The “Inca” flag was everywhere. It looks much like the rainbow flag we northerners take for gay pride, and so I heard more creative tourist-interpretation based around that, as well.
We stayed in Cusco for 9 days, and enjoyed our break there tremendously. I said that Cusco was just another city, but where we were in the central plaza area, the history and markets did make it a bit magical for us, and that’s what we’ll remember. That sudden parade of culture and color will always jump out in my mind when I think of Cusco. With sad goodbyes to friends made there, we packed up the bikes once again, and headed to the southeast for Lago Titicaca again, hoping to see the floating islands in the highest navigable lake in the world. I had memories of films in school about these, and so we headed for the town of Puno on the south shore, for a last treat of Peruana culture before crossing into Bolivia.
A side note – We are now 4,000km south of Cusco. A few nights ago, way, way down in Puerto Natales, Chile we met some friends for dinner that we’d originally met in Cusco, and have now met again three more times along the road. Genevieve and Michele are traveling on bicycles down through South America, and we first got to know them in Cusco at our hostel. We met them again by chance along the lonely road to Uyuni in Bolivia, and had a brief but joyous chat in the wind and spitting rain there. Once again we found them along the Careterra Austral in Chile, struggling up the wet dirt-and-gravel road on their way toward Puerto Rio Tranquilo, and enjoyed another wonderful catch-up talk in the cold wind and threatening rain. It’s amazing how many words can fly back-and-forth when you know that you need to get back on the bikes soon if you are going to make it to the campsite or hostel that day. But this time we got to relax and share pizza at Mesita Grande in downtown Puerto Natales, a fabulous wood-fired pizzeria here and well worth visiting! A bottle of wine and great food had us catching up and swapping tales from the road, and comparing notes on the hardships and benefits of our various forms of travel.
As we sat together and told our tales from the road, it was funny how everyone struggled to remember the name of that town, or just where it was that something happened. I fear these things could be permanently smeared and lost as time and distance merge everything together in one’s memory. I’d better get busy – look for Bolivia next!
Ready to see more photos? Click here :) and then scroll down to see the Cusco photos.