Thursday, October 1, 2009

on the ají trail

We arrived in Lima at 3 in the afternoon to uniformly grey skies. I wasn't sure if it was overcast or smoggy, but I strongly suspected the former. Our hostal was run by a kind older woman, named Marisol, who stopped by to make sure our room was OK. We ventured out for our first taste of true Peruvian pollo a la brasa, which we found in a nondescript place next to the gargantuan supermarket, Plaza Vea. When I asked for a the waiter brought us out the special red version from behind the counter. The chicken turned out to be the best pollo a la brasa I've had to date, with the perfectly spiced dry rub and smoke-infused flesh.

After remediating the sleep deprivation from our red eye flight to Lima, and a fresh pot of Bialetti espresso from Marisol, we caught our flight to Cuzco. I had exchanged emails in Spanish with the company we'd arranged for the Machu Picchu part of the trip and to the best of my knowledge we were supposed to be picked up from the airport. We were greeted at the gate and escorted by a man from the guiding service whose cell phone ring tone was amusingly, Bon Jovi's 'Shot Through the Heart'. Our hotel, the stylish Picola Locanda, was high up on the hill on a steep, cobblestone pedestrian walk above Plaza de Armas, so I got in some training for the Cordillera Huayhuash portion of the trip (Jascha let the driver carry his pack as usual because he can't say no).

We had an hour before the service was supposed to give us an overview of the Machu Picchu trip so we took a walk up the hill to Sacsayhuaman, one of the many Inca ruins in the area. We found a pathway that cut under a barbed wire fence (the lower wires conveniently tied up to form a passage way) and bypassed the roadway. The pathway took us up to a series of stone terraces and from the top provided a view of the remaining ruins. We didn't have much time so we headed back to our hotel.

After handing over our trip fees we headed down the hill for a satisfying set lunch at El Fogon and a visit to Qoricancha, the remains of an Incan temple housed inside the Cathedral de Santo Domingo. Sadly, very little of the actual ruins remained (most had been restored post-earthquake), so we spent more time looking at the Catholic paintings, which were littered with a pleasing array of demons, sickness, and death. I noticed that no one, Spanish speaking or otherwise, was paying any attention to the 'no photography' signs.

Next on the list was hitting the local pharmacy for Cipro and acetazolamide. As we passed the Plaza de las Armas we noticed several displays of political art bringing light to Alberto Fujimori, his head of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos, and the numerous victims of the regime's death squads. After finding a phramacy, I made Jascha return the Cipro after he got charged $25 per course (we later found it for $3 in the non-touristy part of town). We wandered around the locals' part of town and found el Mercado de Santa Ana, where we picked up cheese and Jascha's new drink of choice, Negrita brand Chicha Morada. Morada. As dusk started to fall the anticuchos stands started coming out and for ~$0.35 I picked up a skewer laden with scrumptious a.

At 7:45 am the next morning we were picked up for the long trip to Aguas Calientes. I
decided that I didn't want to deal with the train/hotel/entrance fee logistics and the tour provided logistics coordination at less than what I could arrange on my own. The trip was long, ~6 hours of driving (much of it on dirt roads) plus another 30 minutes on the train. We reluctantly set our alarms for 4:15 am to allow time to hike up to the entrance and procure one of the coveted numbers for the trek up Huayna Picchu in lieu of the guided portion of our tour.

We set out just before 5 am and after 50 minutes of trails and stairways we reached the entrance station. The gates opened at 6 and everyone anxiously awaited for the perfect
photo op as the first light hit the ruins. The size of the complex was massive, but what set it apart from somewhere like Angkor Wat was the topology of the site and surrounding land. We crossed the site, admiring the perfect granite boulders that littered the area, and wandered over to the Huayna Picchu checkpoint. After 25 minutes of standing in line it was our turn to enter. We passed at least 20 people on the steep stairways that led up to the peak that overlooks Macchu Picchu and provides excellent views of the snow-capped surrounding peaks. Once we returned to the site we toured more of the ruins and lounged on the grassy terraces, knowing that we'd have to face the long van ride back to Cuzco. I was covered with bug bites, which I suspected were from the flies I had seen that looked a lot like the S American vector for leishmaniasis, but I knew my risk of contracting anything was extremely low.

On the ride back home Jascha was having a hard time staying warm and felt nauseous. Ironically, two days earlier he had scoffed at me for not eating doner kebab, which I had thought wasn't sufficiently cooked. He though that he had some life-threatening exotic disease; I figured he had a somewhat severe case of turista and made him take Cipro. I wasn't sure what that
meant for our trip to Huaraz the next day or for our Cordillera Huayhuash trip, but he agreed to fly back to Lima as planned 'for access to better hospitals'.

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