(I may add photos to this post later, but wanted to publish something for now.)
We’re baaccckk in Cusco, Peru now, and had our first hot showers to decrustify, yay! after completed the cliched 3 day/4 night trek along the ‘Inca Trail’ to Macchu Picchu. Macchu Picchu is indeed as amazing as its reputation and attraction to millions of tourists it draws justifies (not to mention its starring role in an international beer commercial.) There are no bad angles to photograph there. We made it through with no physical ailments. But I’m really glad it’s behind us now, and we’re headed to Bolivia next.
Domestic vs. Foreigner prices: Peru is one of those countries that has two-tiered pricing for tourist attractions and some transportation between foreign and Peruvian visitors. For Macchu Picchu, it applies to the entry fee, as well as the 30-minute bus to get there from Agua Calientes. The bus ticket prices were written in magic marker, because the price was fixed in US dollars, but if a foreigner wanted to pay in Peruvian soles, it would fluctuate based on the exchange rate. The queuing area for the Macchu Picchu-Agua Calientes was the only place so far in South America that I’ve seen vending machines (so many people here eke out a living as vendors as candy vendors, that vending machines are pointless.) The vending machines sold only imported candy and canned sodas. I didn’t see any Inka Cola in it.
I can see both sides of the coin in charging different prices for foreigners vs tourists (it’s common in Thailand, India, and China where). Foreigners feel its exploitation, after all in the US, everyone gets charged the same price to go to Disneyland or a museum, regardless of one’s nationality. Whereas locals think “you rich foreigners can afford the higher price, but the average local person is poorer and should pay less, based on differences in the costs of living.”
But what really irks me about Peru is the bundling of tourist attractions on one ticket. For instance, to visit most monuments in Cusco, you need a ‘tourist ticket’ that costs about US$30 that includes admission to 16 sites. While it lasts for 10 days, the thing is only about 7 sites are really worth your time, so you wish you could simply pay as your enter each site, at a more reasonable rate. Likewise for Macchu Picchu, if you want to climb up Huayna PIcchu (it’s that tall mountain the back drop of all the photos of Macchu Picchu), you have to buy a ticket for about US$40 that gives you admission both Macchu Picchu and Huayna PIcchu. You can’t just buy a ticket to cimb Huayna Picchu. This is a vexing redundancy for Inca Trail trekkers, because the Inca Trail permit itself already includes admission to Macchu Picchu.
Gearing up in Cusco: The Centro district, as befits its status as a tourist hangout not only has the usual tourist restaurants (and McDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks) and souvenir shops. It has a lot more camping/trekking equipment shops than the normal tourist haunts like say, Fisherman’s Wharf or Times Square, ha ha. Joe and I poked in to oggle. Also because I’m in the market for a new immersion coil (for boiling water) died on me at a most inconvenient time, here in Peru, where most hostels don’t provide drinking water. I hate buying plastic bottled water and adding to the waste. We found one for . . . US$25.It costs about $7-$14 back home, but since they are made in China and often fail after a few uses, I may just live without it. We also oggled, but didn’t buy/rent any at all the trekking clothing (North Face, Columbia), retractable hiking poles; lightweight backpacks, camelbacks, sleeping bags and mats, but made do with we had for our 8-month trip. Our backpacks are about 12 years old, so made of heavier/sturdier material. We have lightweight sleeping bags and mats at home, but didn’t bring them with us, since we wouldn’t need it for anything else but the Inca Trail trek. So we rented the heavier ones from the tour company. Also our clothes were a bit ghetto-looking (hey we’ve been wearing them day in day out for 8 months) compared to those worn by our fellow trekkers who just all flew in last week from North America, freshly stocked up from REI. The most trekking-specific thing we had with us were lightweight but sturdy Patagonia rain jacket shells, and black pullover rain pants (we’d bought then a couple of years in desperation for our Pacific Northwest camping/road trip)
Since I am somewhat of a tightwad, my expenditures for gear were:
1) a wooden broomstick-type pole from a hardware store near the local market for 3 soles ($1). This ended up being the best 3 soles I spent for the trek.
2) 2 rice sacks (woven plastic) to cover our backpacks/belongings in case it rained, for 1 sole each. Also purchased at the local market. It worked out well to stuff our stuff in the rice sack and then stick the rice sack in the backpack. I also used it as a rain apron for my front, since sometimes I would wear my rain jacket OVER my backpack, which mean I was too fat to zip close the front of the rain jacket. I them simply tucket two corners of the plastic rice sack between my backpack straps and my shoulders. It made me feel/look like a butcher, but hey it kept my chest dry. I don’t like buying disposable rain ponchos.
3) Antibacterial gel. I’m usually not a fan of this either, but given the primitive toilet situation we’d been led to expect, we had to resort to this. In the tourist oriented shops, we saw bottles of Target and CVS gel for sale (must have been imported via someone’s checked in baggage.) We simply went to the local pharmacy and bought a local brand.
Coca: People like to make a big deal about coca leaves since it’s illegal in the US (cocaine is derived from it), but it’s what the local Quecha (and their ancestors the Inca) have been chewing for ages to deal with altitude sickness, cold, pain, hunger, tiredness etc.
Also in a less potent form is mate de coca (dried coca leaf tea), which is one of the typical choices you get for tea here (other flavors are chamomile, anise and ‘puro’, which is regular tea. It’s made me a little nostalgic for Earl Grey tea.)
Anyways, a lot of tourist trekkers will learn/try at least once to chew coca leaves, because hiking at high altitudes when you’re not used to it is very hard.
And yes, Joe and I did chew coca leaves regularly on the trek. It helped, but I don’t know if it’s from the placebo effect or really did have a medicinal affect on us. I did feel bit more mentally alert, even is my body was a bit foggy-tired feeling. And I did manage to keep going quite well, although after some stretches of going uphill, I would still be out of breath.
There’s a process to it, perhaps like the betelnut chewing process, although it doesn’t stain your teeth green. You’re supposed add some plant ash (it comes in a lump, which you pulverize or chip off), and roll it inside 5-7 dried coca leaves. The ash helps release the alkaloids in the coca leaf, which increases its potency on you.
You chew the coca leaf roll for 2 minutes without swallowing any of the juices (your saliva will hydrate the dried leaves, and it will taste like Japanese matcha (green tea). When your lips and tongue start to feel slightly numb, which is the sign to spit it out, and rinse your mouth with water. Then you roll another coca leaf roll (again a bit of ash inside 5-7 leaves), and wad it between your gum and cheek. You can bite on it gently to release some flavor, but you don’t really chew it. After an hour, it may lose flavor, and you spit it out.
I have yet to see a real, live coca plant though. I may have to ask about in Bolivia.
Agua Calientes: Everyone who visits Macchu Picchu will go through the town of Agua Calientes. With the way our tour was scheduled, we had 4-5 hours to kill there in the afternoon.
It is full of pizza places (unfortunately, wood-burning ovens, which must surely contribute to deforestation!), hostels, tourist restaurants, and massage places (for all those grimy trekkers coming off the Inca Trail trek to get a good rub-down.) Some of our fellow trekkers went for a massage, which offered the option of taking a shower before hand (makes both the therapists and clients happy!)
Agua Calientes means ‘hot water’ in Spanish, and there is a thermal bath to soak in. But supposedly it’s a bit dirty (all those Inca Trail trekkers have sweated and have not showered for 4 straight days.) Unlike Japan, the baths here only suggest, not mandate that you scrub down with soap three times before entering the pools. Also you have to wear swimsuits to go in. So Joe and I decided not to go, although it would have probably felt good. It made me wish someone would open a Japanese-style sento or onsen in Agua Calientes.
I’m surprised that no one in Agua Calientes has opened a place that offers shower-only rentals, i.e. the way you can pay for hot shower at Curry Village in Yosemite National Park for Half-Dome hikers. I joked with our group that I was tempted for Joe and I to rent a hotel room by the hour, just so we could each have a half-hour hot shower!
The other thing that is missing in Agua Calientes is a juice place/ice cream parlor. (In South America, a lot of juice places will also offer milkshakes, and sometimes even ice cream deserts) Joe wanted a sundae. We had to settle for coffee.
Will cut off here. I may add photos to this post later.