Tuesday, May 8, 2001. Sunny 70°
At 4:00 AM, wake up calls could be heard throughout the hotel. But at 4:45 AM everyone was ready to go, except for Chris who blew out her hairdryer when she forgot to use the adapter. We were told that we needed at least two hours for check in for our 7:00 AM flight. But at this time in the morning it would only take about 20 minutes to get to the airport, especially when the bus driver ignored every stop sign and red light. Everyone commented that the way back to the airport seems a lot more direct than the ride to the hotel the night before.
When we got to the airport, it was crazy. But, for a $5.00 fee, a facilitator offered to help us with the check in and purchasing the airport exit stamp. Unlike in the United States, where airport taxes are applied to the tickets, in South American countries, you check your bags, get your seat assignments at the ticket counter, and then get in a separate line to buy the stamp. While the airlines might have 12 gate agents, the government has only one line and one agent. We certainly were thankful that Linda's Spanish was still very good. She managed to convince them that we did have 11 bags and not nine as they kept insisting.
Aero ContinenteWe waited about 90 minutes for the flight on Aero Continente. It was then that we discovered that a flight left for Cusco about every half hour starting at 6:00 AM. We were disappointed that the tour company had not put us a later flight, especially given the fact that we had arrived late in Lima. As a result we would be recuperating from the double effects of the flight from the United States and the higher altitude at Cusco of over 11,000 fleet.
We had read in one of the guidebooks that you wanted to be on the port (left) side of the aircraft flying to Cusco. How right they were. The Andes were spectacular with rugged mountains and snow-capped peaks. We seemed to slip just over the tops of them. We could see little villages with no apparent roads into them. And the service was great - small sandwiches, coffee, and newspapers served on a silver platter, and our first taste of Inca Cola as well as "Aqua sin gas"
Guide Marco Antonio Palomino TecreThe descent into Cusco was equally spectacular. The pilot circled around mountains and made a quick descent on the airport runway - about the only level piece of level ground to be seen. At the baggage carousel, we were entertained by our first of many Peruvian bands. Once outside the building, we saw a handsome young man with a classic Inca profile, waving a sign with our names and Adventure Life. He was Marco Antonio Palomino Tecre, our tour guide for the next week who claims to be 65% Inca. Wonder what the rest is and why so precise?
But there was more to Marco than met the eye. As Linda would later write in her journal, As I followed Marco Antonio, I was struck by his wonderful sense of humor. He has a great presence of being far beyond his physical age. He embodies a competent, confident, poise that really impressed me. As we traveled, I experienced a growing appreciation for his knowledge. He is an incredibly intelligent man who has a passion for his country, his history, and his people. He makes everything come alive. With Marco Antonio, you aren't just a tourist. You are witness to some village storyteller of times gone by. He helps you feel and experience his country. Physically, he is the embodiment of an Inca. His face looks like he stepped off the pages of a history book. It is his spirit that makes him special. The longer we travel, the more I appreciate this remarkable man.
Cusco ArchitectureCusco stands at 11,400 feet high elevation and contains about 1 million inhabitants. You could tell you were at a high elevation because everything “exploded” when opened, such a bottles of water, toothpaste, potato chip bags or Linda's blood when she pricked herself to test her blood sugar level. The streets from the airport were wide boulevards with statutes, parks, and fountains everywhere. Once in the old part of the city, the streets narrow and run straight up and down, reminding us of San Francisco's more famous streets.
El Balcon Hotel, Cusco, PeruOur hotel, El Balcon, was built in 1639 and had 16 rooms and was located in the old section of town on a very narrow one lane, one-way road. Again, from the outside, it didn't look like much except for a heavy door and gate. Inside was a beautiful little courtyard: three stories high with whitewash stucco, open bean ceilings, and red tile roofs. The garden had beautiful flowers. The guidebooks said it had a sauna, but we never found it.
El Balcon Dining Room, Cusco, PeruWe first congregated in a small dining room for our first Coca tea with sugar, rationalizing that we were doing for medicinal purposes to counteract the altitude sickness. The stone walls in the dining room had little air holes to allow the cooler air to circulate.
El Balcon Hotel, Cusco, PeruFrom the balcony, we could see the churches of Cusco, the beautiful terraces, graffiti on the mountainside saying "Viva El Peru Glorioso" (Long Live Glorious Peru), and the snow-capped mountain in the background, including Ocongate, Peru's highest mountain in Southern Peru at 20,000 feet. At a festival in mid-June, Marco said they climb up the maintain to take ice from the glacier for an ancient ritual. He said he did it in his bare feet.
View of Cusco, PeruThat afternoon, Marco met us at the hotel and we set off for some shopping and sightseeing. It was the first of many uphill treks. Since we weren't acclimated to the altitude, we were huffing and puffing to keep up . He led us to one of many town squares and a local market where Marco led us and his friend followed to assure our safety. We were astounded by the many variety of potatoes (over 200) and the fruits andvegetables looked wonderful. Local Market in Cusco, Peru We had a different reaction when we saw the meat section. We were not accustomed to seeing unrefrigerated meat and its accompanying smell. This is where the locals go to buy herbs for illnesses. Marco explained that many people still rely upon these cures. We also walked by a stall where they sold special things, like the fetus of llamas for rituals.
Native Costume in Cusco, PeruWe made our way back to the main square where we had lunch at one of the restaurants overlooking the Square. After lunch we walked through narrow streets where we saw people in native costumes, with children and llamas in tow. Marco suggested that we pay these local "models" one sola (worth $.33) for their picture. We gladly did.
Marco also pointed out the stone walls made by the Incas. The Spanish had placed their buildings and churches on top of most of the Inca sites, but the walls were still visible. No two stones are alike and some have as many as twelve sides. They fit perfectly without mortar, all carved without the aid of hammer or chisel. We had many discussions as to how they did it and always reached the same conclusion: “It's a mystery.”
Ancient Inca wall in Cusco, PeruWe were given a large ticket that had all the sites of Cusco and the surrounding area. At each major site for the next two days, we were asked to produce the ticket and a hole was punched. It was at this time, Joe brought his mother a silver bell using his Exxon credit card. Later that night, Marco asked if anyone had lost a piece of plastic with a tiger on it. Joe had got back the receipt, but not the credit card. Somehow it made its way back to Marco. The Inca code of “Do Not Lie, Do Not Steal, And Don't Be Lazy” is still alive in Cusco.
Lana didn't go on the afternoon shopping trip because she was suffering from altitude sickness. At the end of afternoon when she still wasn't feeling any better with a headache, upset stomach, and tingling fingertips, Marco called a doctor who prescribed oxygen. She was advised not to eat meat or fats, but instead eat small amounts of carbohydrates, drink plenty of water, and walk slowly. Ironically, Lana didn't drink very much strong coca tea, but she was the only one taking the high altitude pill, Diamox. Hum.
Roasted Guinea pig mealThat night we went to favorite restaurant of Marco's for cuy, whole roasted guinea pig with red pepper in its mouth. Obviously, it was something you had to acquire a taste for.
We had the place to ourselves when a small band arrived to play traditional Peruvian music. We were surprised that they offered to sell a CD of their music which we all bought. We later observed that every Peruvian band had a CD. It was at that time that we noticed that Glenn had a soft spot for the reed flutes, buying several sizes. But it was Charlie who figured out how to play one.
It might have been built in the 1600s, but it had a 21st century web address at www.el-balcon-hostal-cusco.com
We later found out that Marco had called the tour coordinator in Lima, expressing concern that our group was going to be lazy. What he didn't understand was that we weren't lazy, just “more mature” compared to the 20-something hard-bodies he was used to guiding.