How do I feel as my year in Peru fast approaches? I feel: Different than I did before my last trip to Peru. Last time, I had no picture in my head of what to expect or where I was … Continue reading
Waking up on a memory foam-topped mattress, swaddled in plush blankets and pillows, following days of trekking up and down mountains, you can only imagine how many times I clicked the snooze button. But, my time had expired in beautiful Aguas Calientes. I had an 8am train to catch to Ollantaytambo. I was definitely going to miss this city tucked away in the shadows of Machu Picchu. I enjoyed the city’s simple and quiet flow of life and the ever-present feeling of being wrapped up in safety and a warm hug by the looming mountains that surround. The city was still at such an early hour and the walk to the train station was unimpeded by the hustle of tourists and paraders that filled them just the day before. It was nice to have my quiet goodbye.
Most of the passengers on my train car were students from the University of Illinois on a post-graduation trip with their honors college. It hit me that my interactions with Americans had been few and far between so far and I found it unexpectedly comforting to hear snippets of conversation about familiar cities, jobs, and college courses floating in the air. Just three years ago, I was them. Oh what a life that has unfolded since then!
When the train pulled into the station in Ollantaytambo, the rough plan for the day had been decided. Retrieve my backpack from my hostel. Find a tourist office to see what nearby hikes were available. Eat some good food. Wander the markets. Board the colectivo van back to Cusco by mid-afternoon.
As it turned out there were some Incan granaries about an hour’s hike from the city center. The walk to the trailhead brought me down a maze of cobble-stoned streets, wide enough for foot traffic only and eerily quiet except for the rare stray dog here and there. There was a woman setting up her chicha “flag” to announce that a fresh batch of beer was ready for passerby.
The hike was short but strenuous on my already beyond sore legs but worth it. The views from the top were incredible, overlooking the clay roofs and ruins across town. I shared the trail with three, maybe four other hikers. The sun was shining and the temperature was hot but manageable. I think I bumped into bliss again.
On the way back down, I ran into a local offering tours of the ruins I had just seen. Although I obviously didn’t need a tour, I did need lunch. He recommended I try alpaca and directed me to the restaurant to do so. It was a good recommendation. My alpaca came drowning in a sweet mustard sauce and lay on a bed of caramelized onions. The meat was lean, tender, and almost sweet even without the mustard. With a little spanglish, I managed to successfully substitute the spinach side for a nice order of french fries – “No espinaca. Papas fritas, instead [thumbs up + head nod].” Then they had to roll me out of the restaurant. So filling!
After wandering the markets for a bit, I decided it was time to head back to Cusco. The colectivo vans line up over by the train station, hoping to fill their vans with the off-loading train passengers. The van I ended up in wasn’t so successful but it meant my giant backpack didn’t have to sit on my lap for the next hour.
This being my second time in a colectivo, I noticed how much more relaxed I was with it all and was able to sit back and just enjoy the breathtaking scenery passing by. The stretch of road that U-turns around Urubamba is hands-down one of the most beautiful sights I have ever laid eyes on. Sitting in this van full of friendly strangers I couldn’t communicate with and the beautiful patch of earth passing by outside my window, I once again felt completely at home and at peace in the world. This is what I want my life to be about – simple pleasures in beautiful places, surrounded by culture and an endless flow of new experiences. The feeling needs to be bottled.
Returning to Cusco felt good. I was glad that I had spent that unexpected day here just a few days before. It cut down on the stress of finding my hostel and way around. I felt like a local or like I’d spent at least more than 6 hours there, strangely enough. It felt like home. My hostel, Hostal El Grial, was much nicer than I had expected and right next door to La Boheme, the hostel where I had been storing my bag last time I was in town. I had a room tucked away on the first floor. They brought coca tea to me as I was settling in and set me up with a map and some recommendations for things to do and where to eat. I was impressed in all of 5 minutes. Glad I had two nights here!
By the time I wandered outside again, it had already grown dark. The streets were full of light and people and I couldn’t have been more excited to be there. Still stuffed from my lunch, I opted for a hot chocolate and pastry for dinner and found this really cute cafe just off the Plaza de Armas. I met a family from Seattle while there. Their daughter had actually lived in Cusco for the past year going to university and was now headed to the jungle for 6 months to live with a tribe and do research. The conversation was interesting and insightful. It was nice getting back to the random conversations with whoever was nearby. Ollantaytambo was nice but so, so vacant. I was ready for the hustle and bustle of a city again. And that is exactly what I received over the next two days.
In a quite impressive two hours, I managed to return from my Colca Canyon tour, say goodbye to my new European friends, get back to my hostel, shower, reorganize my pack, meet someone new, enjoy some chicken nuggets from BK, and share a taxi to the bus station with the Germans from my Colca tour, leaving myself just enough time to be thoroughly lost and confused at the bus terminal.
The Arequipa bus station has two terminals and apparently no English-speakers. Of these two terminals, I of course wandered to the wrong one. For about a half hour, I walked up to person after person asking, “Habla ingles?” to no avail. Even the tourist information desk was no help at all. Finally, someone understood what I needed help with and tried to gesture me in the right direction.
When I made it to the correct terminal and into the waiting area for my bus with only minutes to spare all I could do was laugh at how difficult the last thirty minutes had been. Time to learn Spanish, Amber.
Not a minute had passed when a familiar face walked through the door. Earlier back at my hostel, when I was scrambling to get ready and packed, I very briefly met Naomi, a solo traveler from Australia, who was in the other Colca tour group that had shared the same van with us back to Arequipa. She had mentioned she was also taking an overnight bus to Cusco. Turns out we were on the same one! God, I love how life works sometimes. Unlike my experience, Naomi had quite a smooth arrival to the bus terminal thanks to a Spanish-speaking friend of hers. She, like me, knew zero Spanish but seemed to be very well connected. Someone else in the waiting room knew her too.
We boarded the bus. I had splurged a bit and booked a seat on Cruz del Sur’s VIP level. I’m not sure what the regular seats looked like, but the VIP seats were great. Plush, reclining, with a cozy, fleece blanket and pillow resting on top. There was a built-in television on the seat in front of me and as soon as the wheels started rolling, a hot meal was delivered to my seat. I could get used to this VIP lifestyle 🙂 I “fell asleep” to The Grand Budapest Hotel. I say “fell asleep” because it was more of a minute on, minute off type of sleep. I could have actually been on a roller coaster. I wouldn’t argue it. We sped along at what felt like 100mph through God only knows what terrain at God only knows what heights with God only knows what guard rails. But we made it, well rested or not.
I met up with Naomi again in the bus terminal and we shared a taxi to Cusco. My plan for the day was to sort out where to pick up a colectivo (local van) to Ollantaytambo, a village in the Sacred Valley. That is where my pre-booked hostel was. Naomi had been recommended a hostel in the San Blas neighborhood of Cusco so we told the taxi driver to take us there. Next thing I know, my pack is locked up in storage at Naomi’s hostel, I’m drooling over a plate full of the most delicious maple pancakes, sipping some fresh-squeezed orange juice, and shuffling through the Cusco section of my guidebook with Naomi to sort out a plan for the day ahead in Cusco. Looks like Ollantaytambo will be seeing me much later than anticipated.
When we made our way into the Plaza de Armas of Cusco, we were met by some of the most elaborately costumed characters, donning nightmarish masks and holding spray cans full of white foam that Naomi fell victim to eventually. I have no idea what the celebration was but there were parades all day long. It was like everywhere we went, the parade followed.
We paid a visit to the Choco Museum. As a certified chocoholic, I sort of had no choice. The smell of chocolate lured me inside and the suggestion of some chocolate tasting stripped me of any other alternative destination. Yes Ollantaytambo, you can keep on waiting. Chocolate always wins.
We tasted chocolate. We drank chocolate. We lathered ourselves in chocolate creams and oils. If only this place was okay with me moving in and never leaving, I probably wouldn’t have ever made it out of Cusco, let alone the museum. But we did. We headed back to Naomi’s hostel for a bite to eat at the creperie above it. An egg, ham, and cheese crepe satisfyingly took care of lunch and it was time to hit the road.
Loaded down by my seemingly growing pack (I think it ate the crepe, actually), I waddled down the hilly streets of Cusco to what I thought was the location of the colectivo pick-up. I was told to look for a bunch of white vans and people screaming destinations. None of which did I find and the area seemed pretty sketchy. What did this mean? It meant, the long downhill I had just enjoyed was now going to be a long uphill back to the main plaza to one of the information offices.
Successfully redirected, I jumped aboard a colectivo loaded with locals and, according to the man screaming, “Ollantaytambo, Ollantaytambo, Ollantaytambo (x infinity)”, that’s where I was headed. Of the probably 15 people squeezed like sardines into this van, there was only one very nervous and doubting tourist: me.
I definitely questioned my decision as the van huffed and puffed out of town, barely making it up the steep climbs. We passed through some fairly rough areas of town and it was only because my trusty intuition wasn’t screaming at me to bail that I was able to silence the nerves and just enjoy the ride. And the ride did prove enjoyable. The Sacred Valley…WOWZERS!! I didn’t know light could shine like that or that something this beautiful could actually exist. The most memorable sight was the descent into Urubamba. We had the perfect overlook of the entire valley as we circled down into it from above.
I made it to Ollantaytambo just as dusk was falling over the town. My hostel was playing hide-and-seek with me and the whole town must have been in on the game because no one was willing to tell me where Inka Paradise was hiding. It wasn’t until I happened to randomly ask a couple of tourists passing by if they knew where it was, that I was hand-delivered to it’s doorstep. They happened to be staying there too! I love life.
Inka Paradise was fiiine. I had a private room with bath which was exactly what I needed. I screamed with excitement a little when I saw a fresh, clean towel waiting for me in the bathroom. The towel I was dragging along with me just never seemed to dry and it was picking up quite an interesting smell with each passing day. So yes, fresh towel, clean sheets, privacy, and Machu Picchu in the morning. I was starting to forget what real life was like by this point in the trip.