If you’re looking for the most magical place to be for the first light of Christmas Day, I can attest that it’s definitely not inside an Avianca plane cabin. (For one thing, there are a noticeable lack of chimneys for Father Christmas to use.) But I gladly took the sacrifice when it meant arriving in Cusco on Christmas morning. The capital of the Incan Empire, Inc. for several hundred years before the Spanish arrived, and now in modern-day Peru, Cusco is nestled between mountains at an altitude of 3400m and the very first thing a hotel will give you at check-in – literally before a room key – is a cup of coca leaf tea to help with any altitude sickness. (Fact: the majority of the Wikipedia article on coca tea is dedicated to comparing this to a line of cocaine.)
So we took our first couple of days in Cusco relatively easy, trying alpaca meat (tough and chewy) and Ají de Gallina (absolutely delicious) and pondering why all of the ‘stray’ dogs looked so well fed. (Turns out they’re not stray at all, they just wander freely.) We also took a city tour which included the Incan sites of Coricancha and Saksaywaman, but mostly we prepared for the main event: our four-day Lares Trek with Lorenzo Expeditions.
Amazingly, we were the only people on the expedition… not including our (amazing) guide, Bruno. Or our personal chef Andrés, who made actual magic happen several times a day. Or the two guys who led the horses carrying all of our stuff. Or the dog which spontaneously came along for one of the day hikes. So, OK, maybe we were pampered. But it was still the most adventurous holiday I’ve had, passing through remote Andean mountain villages at a rising altitude until we reached a summit of 4400m and I checked to see if I could still breathe any oxygen. (No such problems for any other adults, or the children who came running at the promise of sweets, or the llamas merrily skipping from hill to hill. Sigh.)
It was all so beautiful, and all the effort so worthwhile, in a way which I really can’t capture well enough on this blog. The only experience I wouldn’t recommend to others is camping during a lightning storm, which terrified my wussy self deep into a sleeping bag for hours until it finally stopped. (Surely you shouldn’t be able to see the flashes with your eye closed?)
By the time we arrived at the town of Aguas Calientes (by train!) we felt very little pressure about our visit to Machu Picchu the next morning. Everything had already been so breathtaking that ticking off this most-hyped of tourist destinations would just be the icing on the cake, although it’s fair to say that Bruno didn’t share our relaxed attitude and herded us onto the very first bus up the hill at ridiculous am. Also – and this will sound stupid – I don’t think I ever really thought about what Machu Picchu actually was beyond ‘that one photo’ which everyone takes (mine is below, don’t worry). So, expectations nicely lowered, it was even more wonderful to be led around this incredible Incan citadel in the early morning mist.
A huge thank you to Francisco, who heard about this trip in the planning stage and insisted I book tickets to climb Wayna Picchu too. The stairs were sometimes steep, but behind me was a young American girl who was singing patriotic American songs and wondering loudly if she was the youngest person ever to reach the top, which gave me a great incentive to keep going and never ever turn back. (I promised Savanna I would include my somewhat petulant dig at this perfectly innocent child in this post, which only exposes my ungenerous spirit.) Anyway, the view from the top is suitably fantastic. If you go to Machu Picchu you should do this too.
If you’re looking to rev up a party atmosphere on New Year’s Eve, an Avianca plane cabin is again the wrong choice. But arrive in Quito, Ecuador and you will witness a plethora of New Year festivities on the ride back from the airport: men dressed enthusiastically as women, effigies of the old year ready to burn and – somewhat alarmingly – masked children blockading the street with skipping ropes until they are paid off for their ‘dancing’. (The dancing seemed to be mostly nominal – I think it was all about the blockades.) After a quick recce around the historical centre and danced (well, Randi danced) to the rumba music, we
partied hard until the early hours went to bed at 8am.
Most of my advance reading about Quito was of the ‘how to get mugged in the street’ variety, but we had no trouble at all in our (admittedly limited) walks around the small historic district. Quito is really huge in total, however, and the best way to appreciate this is by riding the TelefériQo gondola lift up to the top of the volcano which overlooks the city. You can also hike around in the clouds up here, which was a fine way to spend the first morning of 2017. The next day we learnt more about the history of the city through another walking tour, including a lesson in chocolate making and the weekly changing of the guards in the main square. The President was supposed to come out and wave from the balcony of the Presidential palace at this point, but he failed to make an appearance. Typical Ecuadorian elite.
I could go on and on about my first trip to South America, but I’ll stop before I get too sad about being back. tldr: it was great. You should go. Go right now.
Glynis Greenman, Amanda Schalk, Gillian Self, Catherine Tarsney, David Boss, Randi Lawrence, Phyllis Lawrence liked this post.