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Cusco and Machu Picchu

I arrived in Auckland on 5AM flight from Melbourne, only to find LAN flight to Santiago was delayed by about an hour, which made for a pleasing six hour layover in one of the world's most unexciting airports - not gruesome, but nothing to write home about (yes, I know, so why am I?). In need (!) of some eyeshadow, I whiled away several minutes in the Duty Free stores, both of which were populated by the usual Asian factotums who instantly besiege customers as a matter of course. "Can I help you, Medem?" Yes - go away!

The Qantas lounge is an OK place to zombie out, but the choice of food left something to be desired, i.e. pumpkin and capsicum soup with wholemeal rolls/ mini steak and mushroom pies/spinach and feta quiches/cheese pastries/ baguettes stuffed with stuff/ muffins in several guises/chocolate cakes/pancakes/scones with jam & cream. Tell me what's wrong with this selection for a coeliac passenger? Oh, and on the side, a cheery note to the effect "Qantas recognises the difficulties some passengers encounter because of food allergies and while taking care to provide the widest selection, cannot guarantee..." Oh, forget it - clearly the madman in the kitchen is on a gluten diet! The only edibles in sight available to me were rice crackers (labelled 'gluten-free', along with their special tongs), piled into a glass biscuit barrel. But the lid had been araldited (yes, it's a verb - now) on, so I had to resort to getting my nourishment via tomato juice (sans vodka, because I was drinking bubbly to dull the pain).

By the time we boarded the LAN flight to Santiago, I was in danger of dying of malnutrition. The nut selection didn't touch the sides, and the menu looked pretty fine, but my salivation was stymied by "we have your gluten-free meal". Oh hell. Yes, capsicum salad (with a side of poached salmon, a lettuce leaf, grilled tomato and no dressing). And margarine to go with my rice crackers, plastic cheese and melon jelly with stray strawbs. I almost cried. But help was on the way - Paola then brought me a wonderful steaming hot dish of grilled chicken with spicy tomato sauce, fresh peas and steamed potatoes. And butter. This, along with the excellent Chilean Sauv. Blanc, was obviously my reward for not braining the shuffle-running little trolls in the Duty Free.

After a minor scuffle getting my transfer from the Santiago airport, I checked into my lovely room (views of the snow-capped Andes, pool and tropical gardens) for a welcome shower, then fell head-first into a sterling Pisco Sour by the pool, in preparation for my massage at 6pm, to be followed by a nosh-up at the Japanese restaurant, then some shut-eye. It was a very long Monday!

Up again at sparrow's to get to the airport for my 7:55 flight to Lima, on which I had the good company of a Scots mining exec who lives in South Africa and travels the world doing whatever mining executives do. Business Class seating on international short haul (three hours) is the same as long-haul so I got some more shut-eye before having a conniption on arrival in Lima because of a really tight connection (and having to clear Customs, Immigration, recheck luggage and back through security, plus pay more airport tax (USD61 in Chile/USD$6 in Lima). I dashed to the gate, only to find it closed. But when I got the attention of the kindly lass who was seeing off the plane, she enlightened me to the fact that I'd neglected to wind my watch back two hours - utter stupidity on my part - I knew about the time difference but it slipped my flight-soaked brain, and there wasn't a clock to be seen anywhere in the airport and I was in such a rush, not once did I look at the departure boards!

Coming into Cusco was superb - delightful views from the air of verdant gorges and valleys and Cusco is much larger than I expected. And the Monasterio Hotel is gorgeous, provided one can ignore all the iconic religious paintings which pepper every wall, attesting to the buildings 400years as a Monastery before Orient-Express turned it into a hotel.

First things first, it was time to check out the shops – oh, and have a look at the cultural attractions. The very helpful concierge and my Amex guide (a lovely young chap called Antonio) had advised me that the market (alpaca, vicuna, handiworks) could be a rip-off in terms of quality and that the best quality was at KUNA (and would you believe, they had a shop in the hotel)!

So I toddled down there and checked out the stuff, much of which was worth a second look. I particularly liked a reversible, two-toned casual alpaca jacket but the price was excessive for a nice-to-have, at 1770 Sol. But after familiarisation with the ticketing (Sol is represented by Sl., so I'd read Sl.770 incorrectly) the pricing of everything in the store took on a new and positive translation! Net result - sale to the lady with the credit card slapped on the counter at lightning speed.

By the time I'd finished casing this pretty city (supposedly the finest colonial city in South America and half a day is not enough to scratch the surface), I decided it was time to select dining options. I checked out MAP - the restaurant just across the square from the hotel in the museum - and the menu looked enticing, being Peruvian in style (pink potato soup, various corn and ceviche options). I headed for the bar and downed a Pisco Sour, then decided to eat at the Monasterio's restaurant, which also looked to be fine. The entrée was a crab/avocado/tomato salad stack and very respectable, but I'd lashed out and decided to try guinea pig which was perfectly pleasant, very tender but a tad fatty. The potatoes were heroic. A couple of glasses of Peruvian white blend did for me and it was goodnight nurse.

Up again at sparrow’s, Antonio was in the lobby waiting to escort me (with driver) to the train for the trip to Machu Picchu (henceforth MP). He only works for American Express, and dresses spiffingly in a pseudo-uniform comprising navy reefer jacket, white shirt and beige slacks (not that I noticed, but he's also a handsome young cove). On the way to Poroy station, I learned that Cusco has 400,000 inhabitants and it takes 18-20 hours to drive to Lima, 600 kms away, courtesy of the Andes (dropping from nearly 12,000ft altitude to sea level involves a bend or several).

There are dogs everywhere in Cusco, but they seem to know all the road rules and traffic light sequences. And they all look to be reasonably well cared for, but are allowed to roam at will. There was a market in progress on the way - comprising a few purveyors of lovely fresh vegetables, but then I spotted a woman in traditional garb, with broad-brimmed hat and long black skirt, with a huge striped 'sling' over her shoulders harbouring a king's ransom of just-picked gladioli. It was a vision plucked straight from a Diego Rivera painting. Laughing while she strolled downhill with her friend, she was a walking advertisement for Peru and Cusco.

At Poroy Station, we were greeted by a troupe of costumed kids twirling in giddy folk dancing, and handed a Mimosa while the train factotums checked in the passengers. Today's train had only two passenger carriages, plus the bar, plus observation platform at the rear. There is only one class of accommodation on the Hiram Bingham, and I had a two-seater dining setting to myself, with the table laid for brunch, and a large red rose for decoration. On the other side of the aisle, there was a four-seater table with banquette seating, into which slid four citizens of the USA. We introduced ourselves - Bob and Joan, along with their cousins Sharon (all from Phoenix/Scottsdale) and Debbie (from Pittsburg).

The scenery on the way down the Cusco valley consisted of a fertile, productive valley, with corn, canola, fava beans (broad beans, which

roasted and salted comprise the common bar snack in Peru, and they're delicious), plus cows, pigs, sheep and donkeys. From the observation car, it was amusing to see cows lying right beside the railway line, unperturbed by the ridiculous tourists trundling through their midst. Along the way, the locals waved and cheered, and one cheeky urchin gave me the finger while giggling uncontrollably.

Cusco sits at a tad under 12,000' altitude, MP around 9,000, so the three hour journey was all downhill. The railway follows a thundering little river, and in a couple of places the gorge is steep enough to warrant a couple of railway switchbacks, before the river meets the Urubamba River and becomes a raging torrent. The vegetation changed during the trip from alpine meadow to tropical jungle, and on the way, forests of blue gum and assorted eucalyptus! What idiot decided to bring those here? And of course they're an environmental disaster.

The Americans were very pleasant company, but had an abstemious trip as they'd decided that, due to the advertised effects of alcohol mixed with altitude, they were abstaining for the duration. I headed back to the observation platform to check on the scenery, and the joint was positively rocking, with a Peruvian band playing wild music and much singing, dancing and even more drinking in progress on the part of the passengers. The train had turned into a mobile fiesta.

Lunch was served, and the maitre d' kindly organised a lovely gluten-free meal with asparagus flan (no pastry) and smoked venison, followed by chicken with tomato salsa, rice, green salad, and plenty of white wine. Carlos introduced himself as the guide who would be taking care of those of us staying at Sanctuary Lodge for our check-in and tour of MP.

From the train terminus at Aguas Calientes it's about 1,000' by bus on a dirt road with switchbacks up to MP. We checked in to Sanctuary Lodge - it's an Orient Express property - the only hotel at MP, and not much more than a glorified motel, but at prices that would make a saint blaspheme. However, once you've paid, everything's included, so that dulls the pain somewhat.

Carlos was an excellent guide and the first views of MP, after a climb of about 150 steps, was stunning. No photo could do it justice, with the citadel sitting within an ampitheatre of mountains and with the raging river far below. No wonder the Incas chose it as a place for a sacred city. The river was already sacred to them, with the sole access to MP via the Inca trail, which winds over the ridges from the west, as the river encircles the mountain on the other three sides. The surrounding mountain ranges were swirling in mist, and the views spectacular every which way. This site was chosen because it provided three essentials for a defensible city - stone (all the material for the buildings was quarried on site), water (from mountain springs) and natural fortress protection. It took 30 years to build but was occupied for about 100 years, then abandoned, on the news that the Spanish were on their way south, and the access disguised so the Conquistadors would not know of its existence. Even so, rumours of a golden city abounded and the Spanish spent quite some time looking for what they dubbed El Dorado. It's believed that MP was ED, probably because the buildings were all thatched with golden straw. Also, it's very likely that there was a hoard of gold and silver iconography on site, which the Incas took with them when they abandoned MP, as there's no record of precious loot being found here, which would have been incomprehensible for a sacred city with its superb temples. MP houses the only remaining Temple of the Condor in the region - those in all other cities were destroyed by the Spanish in their zealotry to convert everything in their path to Catholicism.

At the top of the site stands the mighty sundial, hewn from a protrusion of granite. The four points are perfectly calibrated, so that the shadow at the winter solstice strikes perfectly. Sacrifices were offered on June 21st in order that June 22nd would be a longer day, heading into Spring. Their theory worked every year without fail, so it must have been right! (At this stage, one stupid American corrected Carlos - "you mean summer solstice, Carlos!" Sigh.."no, we're in the Southern Hemisphere".)

A ghastly creature (Lutitia) had latched herself on to our group uninvited - born in Hong Kong/Thai father/English mother/married to a Frenchman - who attempted to impose her views on all assembled and dominate 'question time'. Mike and Shelley from Kentucky were asking about climbing the 'Little Mountain' (the conical peak that sits above MP) in the morning, and Carlos advised that they needed to be at the gates to the park at 5am because only 400 people are allowed to climb each day. Lutitia piped up "so how do I get to be here at 5am?" Mike (fed up with her) "by staying at the right hotel!" (She'd opted for the equally expensive but distant Inkaterra hotel in the town below.) No matter what the subject, Lutitia interrupted to make sure we knew just how fabulous and well-travelled she was. She was skinny, wearing designer jeans and twinset of some knotted stuff, which showed her protruding nipples (designed to be in sync with her protruding eyes, no doubt). Sharon was commenting on Heathrow. Lutetia: "Oh, the trick is to go by private plane into London City airport, then there's no problem - that's what we always do".

When we all got back to Sanctuary Lodge, we tore her to bits over several drinks, along the lines of "if she's so rich, how come she can't afford a bra?" which changed the following day to "if she's so rich, how come she can't afford a change of clothes?" when she turned up in the same gear on the return train trip. But more of that later.

By this stage we'd formed a party, and had a most enjoyable dinner. I ordered a ceviche of kingfish for starters, which came with passionfruit vinaigrette and was startlingly good - beautiful slivers of ultra-fresh fish, lots of fresh chilli, and a gorgeous sharp dressing. I skipped the guinea pig and opted for duck or pork or something, but by this stage the party was in full swing with much raucous laughter and politically incorrect banter. I called it a day not a minute too soon, heading off to bed at the same time as the guys renovating the bathroom next door were knocking off for the day (10pm).

Dawn is supposed to be the highlight at MP, so I'd made a mental note to check out the weather (it had rained intermittently during our tour) at around 6-ish. There'd been quite a commotion coming from the bus station during the small hours (around 4am, turned out to be backpacking kids who'd walked up from the railway, with plenty of singing syrup on board), which disturbed my sleep momentarily, but when I opened the blinds at 6am I couldn't see a thing, as a thick fog encased the hotel. Fantastic - close the blinds and go back to bed. I woke at 10:15am, just in time to shower and dress and checkout at 11am, on schedule.

I'd obviously missed breakfast, so headed up to the observation café to see if it was worth paying for a second round of the park. The Phoenix mob were there and the fog was still thick and swirling, so the answer was no. So we headed back to the lodge to buy a t-shirt, then hit the bar. It was nearly midday, after all. I ordered a Bloody Mary, which was wonderful. But everyone else was ahead of me. I said to Priscilla (from Texas, married to another Mike, a former Marine) "this is a fine Bloody Mary" to which she drawled "I know, this is my fifth"! Yikes! Suffice to say, by now the Phoenix mob had abandoned all pretence of an AFD regimen, and it was on for young and old. Lunch finished at 4:15, just in time to catch the bus back to the train, where the party got into full swing, and then some. No turn was left unstoned.

What a relief to get back to the Monasterio and the sanctuary of my private haven!

Another early start - Antonio collected me at 6:45. I'd changed my flight to an earlier one, as I figured the changeover in Lima was a bit tight. Pre-flight, I had just enough time to procure a pretty souvenir of my visit from that expert extractor of funds, H. Stern, in the form of a gold travelling ring based on the trapezoidal windows at MP.

I'd just settled in to my magazine when the Phoenix mob boarded - headed to Santiago via Lima, so we managed to while away the time between flights by casing the shops for more goodies. Both the food and the quality of the local artisanship in Peru had been a revelation, and I could easily have disposed of copious amounts of cash, but didn't, although I did fall for a small carved vicuna with silver collar - at $39, a pretty piece. Thanks, Peru - I'm headed for Ecuador.

January 2010

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