Seeing the world, one country at the time

El Dia de la Musica Criolla:

Arriving in Cusco for the Inca Trail

On this festival celebrating the music of the Peruvian Indians, we found ourselves driving from Arequipa to Cusco, passing through Juliaca and Puno. Arriving in Juliaca the main road we were on was cut off and forced a detour through the city. There were no tourists there, but the place was crawling with Peruvians in market mode. Sitting on the bus I could watch life going by. I notice the hats that women here wear are different than those in other cities. The only taxis were tricycles. In one square, they even pay homage to the bicycle taxi, with a statue featuring the taxi driver with his arm raised in a triumphant salute. The cemeteries are full of niches with flowers. We passed a bus with the destination “central cemetery”. On the corners they are fixing bicycles. Here you can get your batteries recharged, buy car mufflers or shine your shoes, all right on the side of the road. Some roads are blocked with piles of dirt and logs with a little sign saying “we’re working”, yet there is not a worker in sight.

Back on the highway, little shrines by the side of the road memorialize the dead. Here they are made of brick and concrete, either austere with iron crosses or very fancy with lots of gold and lace, ribbons, flowers and bright tinsel. There are slogans and advertising everywhere. Inside the city, they are painted on the houses. On the highway they are on billboards or buildings. Other signs ask us to have a good trip and drive safely. Many are faded and if the message changes, they just cross it out and write something else over it. At one petrol stop, the station has a bunk bed for the workers to nap next to a calendar of naked women. Women and children wash bright clothes in the frigid streams, then hang them to dry on the stone walls.

An anchor and crosses carved into hillside let on that we are arriving in Puno. We enter from the highlands and down below where the city ends, Lake Titicaca begins. The city seems big, because we can see it all at once, in its valley and all along the hillsides. The earth is red and the houses are made of the same clay earth, all red brick. There is a big soccer stadium in the center of town. Ads and billboards encourage us simultaneously to drink Inca Cola and to vote for Alan Garcia. We drop passengers off and pick more up before continuing the last stretch to Cusco. Ever since leaving Arequipa, we have been climbing steadily, allowing our bodies to become accustomed to the dizzying lack of oxygen over several days. However, too much effort is never encouraged on your first day in Cusco. The usual advice is a cup of mate de coca (hot tea made from coca leaves) and a long nap.

We are met and taken to our hotel, thanks to the tour we booked. Booking the tour rather than doing it independently, would turn out to have been the best choice, but not for the tour or the ease and security. No, it would be the best investment for the medical insurance provided therewith. The hotel is comfortable but simple. Having hot water, air conditioning and Internet don’t necessarily mean they have it while you are there. They can break, or in the case of our hotel Internet, the telephone provider’s tower can collapse. Still, it is a haven that we will need, prior to and after our grueling hike into the Andes. We start our stay in Cusco with an easy walk through town to the old quarters and main plaza. It is alight, a golden mirage for weary travelers. In front of the Cathedral a crowd is gathered around laughing couples dancing and large wooden windmill contraptions with firecrackers strapped to their frames. Over the next hour, one by one the wooden sculptures are lit and everyone voices their awe and approval as the fireworks crackle and whiz and light up the sky. We stay, enjoying the Criolla music being played by musicians with horns, trumpets and the typical Peruvian cajon, or box drum. We choose a little restaurant up a side street and for some incredible reason that can only be explained by my starving brain cells, I choose to eat a local delicacy, trout.

Two hours later I begin the ordeal that will keep me up all night and wreak havoc on my body. This is to be expected when traveling. It happens to the hardiest of us. The altitude may have just complicated things further. I end up sick in bed all day. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that we are starting the Inca trail the next day, one of the toughest hikes out there and definitely my hardest ever. I HAD to get better fast. This is where our tour insurance came in handy. It included free home visits by doctor and any medication. A doctor came to see me in our hotel room, then took me in ambulance to the hospital to get tests. It was the bumpiest ride ever over the cobblestone streets and my feverish head and aching body screamed in agony.

In the clinic, there was a huge painting of a nude woman with a very sinister background, near a modern rendition of Jesus, next to a shrine and icon of Christ. No one wore white except the doctors. There was no soap or towels in the bathroom, which, considering what patients are asked to do there, seemed unhygienic. They offered me coca tea in a plastic drinking cup. My legs were so weak, I had to lie down, so they put me in the observation room and let me sleep an hour. When my results were in and the diagnosis made, I ran circles trying to get a copy to take with me. The pharmacy and reception shuttled me back and forth. Finally after several phone calls and a plea to a doctor, my physician came back to make a manual copy for me. The ambulance driver Carlos was also the receptionist along with other tasks he did. He seemed to be the busiest man in the building. I waited, force-feeding myself bright cookies I bought for ten cents and watching “El Chavo del Ocho”, my favorite television show as a kid. When I finally lay down across the plastic chairs in the reception for lack of strength, Carlos found a free moment to shuttle me back. I didn’t see how I could hike the Andes for four days in this condition.

Back at the hotel, I found Lars sitting with our tour guide. Against my will I sat with them while we got briefed regarding the Inca Trail. They convinced me to go and reassured me they would make me a special menu. Miraculously, just hearing about what lay ahead got me excited! I was feeling better so we went to buy supplies, then stopped at a quaint restaurant next door and ordered French fries, a staple in Peru. I could hardly eat and went straight to bed to stave off another fever and recover. I had eight hours to be ready for the big hike ahead.