First stop: Cusco and Machu Picchu

We arrived this morning to our second destination – Lake Titikaka, named either by an American second grader or the Quechua people who live in this area. We have a couple hours on a boat to one of the islands where we will be sleeping tonight, so I figured I would take the time to tell you about last week in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. 
We arrived to Cusco and to our hostel Thursday afternoon with painless travels. We spent Thursday getting acquainted with the town, checking out the local market to start our avocado love fest, and finally grabbing dinner at Chabad, which runs three restaurants in Cusco for the literally hundreds of post-army Israelis who make camp in the city. 

Friday we took a Peruvian cooking class where we learned to make chocolate truffles and stuffed avocados. Before the class started, the chef took us all to the market to buy the ingredients we needed. He showed us quite a variety of animal parts, some of which are considered lucky. One of the girls in the class tried to take a picture of some of the vegetables and got yelled at by a woman, “no photo!”. I had read in a blog that Peruvians believe that the camera steals their souls, and when I looked back at the offended woman, she was hitting all of her vegetables with a leek or something of the sort, I suppose undoing the harm of having a camera pointed at them. 

After the class, we signed up for our 5 day trek to Machu Picchu, called Salkantay, bought snacks at the market, and got ready for Shabbat. 
Friday night was cute, but because Chabad is really catered for the aforementioned Israelis, I found it a bit challenging. After dinner, the rabbi holds a session for the Israelis to “ask the questions you’ve always wanted to ask a religious person.” I had some tea, which seems to be the most common drink here, and bounced. 
Shabbat morning I took myself on a long meandering walk through the town, got some great views, and enjoyed some alone time. Shabbat afternoon we hiked up to Christo Blanco (a large white Jesus statue) with a couple of New Yorkers whom we had met at lunch. In all of the towns we’ve visited here, there is a large white cross at the top of the highest hill, but Cusco took it to another level with this statue. After getting chased by some dogs (the dogs in Peru are like the cats in Israel, but inflict far more terror) we headed back down to the hostel where we played a little pool and then made havdalah. The Chabad couple are meshichists so we tried to do our own kiddish and havdalah whenever possible, though it was a bit challenging since this was the first dry Chabad I’ve ever visited.

Saturday night we had a briefing for our trek and then stayed in to pack and get ready. Evenings in the hostel were very cute, with a nice fire pit and a friendly vibe. We also met some other people in our hostel who were doing the trek with us. We all went to bed early in anticipation of our 4am pickup the following morning. 
Sunday we got on our bus and headed on a few hours drive into the mountains, where we stopped in some village and were offered a “continental breakfast”… This place is all tourist, all the time. I of course had an avocado. Then we started our first day of trekking – it was maybe 3 hours uphill, in the altitude, and it was HARD, and very hard to breathe. About 5 minutes in I though we might have made a mistake, and there is really no way off the trail once you are on your way, but I figured I’d play it by ear. That continued to be the theme for the next 4 days. 

We hiked with day packs and had porters with horses carrying our tents, sleeping bags, and extra clothes, as well as all of the kitchen needs, including food and utensils. 
We got to our campsite after 3 hours of uphill, where our tents had been set up under a large roof. We had lunch (this was the first of many meals where Miriam and I would stare longingly at the food, because our guide never quite figured out how to prepare anything we could eat). We then had an optional hike up to a glacier lake, which we had been told was not to be missed. I can’t say I agree – another hour up and then down was torture, and we got there too late to appreciate the lake in the sun, but at least it gave me a feeling of accomplishment and a sense that, having done 16km, I might be able to handle the next day’s 23km, which everyone had said was the hardest day of the trek. 

Indeed. We woke up at 5am and were handed coca tea in our tents to help with the elevation. We basically walked up very steep mountains for about 4 hours straight, maybe more, with only a couple breaks (and these were short breaks because Miriam and I were usually at the back). The feeling of not getting enough oxygen is a bit scary, and I constantly felt like I was going to vomit or pass out; my solution was just to stay away from the edge of the cliff. We finally made it up to the pass, which was gorgeous, and where we took pride in the fact that we hadn’t given up and taken horses like some other hikers. We then started the long, long trek down where scenery changed from barren mountains to green jungle, and where we learned that the only beings who are bothered by 90% DEET are humans. The end of the hike was mostly down and flat but it felt like it would never end, and I’ve never been so happy to see a campsite in my life. Once again that night we were all asleep by 8pm, exhausted from the day. 

The third day was a really nice easy few hours walk through the jungle, where we saw banana trees, coffee beans, and ate iced grenadine (that’s not really the name, but it’s similar and it’s what I remember). We saw a guy pulleying himself across a cable to bring goods across the river. We came to our campsite and then headed over to some hot springs for some well deserved relaxation. 

That night was an eventful one. First, I lost my cool at having an umpteenth meal in a row where they hadn’t bothered to set aside a single fruit or vegetable for us and so there was nothing to eat. Our whole group ganged up on our guide, and things got a little rough. But the night ended with a huge party where I tried to make amends with the guide and apologize to/thank the group with a $15 bottle of vodka. Tack on tequila shots for 1 sol (~25 cents) and some Macarena and the night turned into a festive dance party.

The next morning we headed to a zip line course, which was awesome. Somehow the 6 of us from our hostel had been preregistered to a different zip line course, so off we went together in a van. We had a ton of fun – it was 5 zip lines and a wooden bridge, and hopefully we got some cute pictures out of it (still waiting to see). The we got back in the van with literally no information about where we were going next. We got dropped off at some train tracks near the back entrance to Machu Picchu and just started walking, popping into every restaurant to see if perhaps the rest of our group was sitting eating lunch somewhere (our guide was pretty talented at shaving money off his tip).

Eventually we found them, quickly ate a bite, and then started the 3 hour walk down the train tracks toward Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. At this point the 6 of us, plus a couple others, decided we were schoolchildren no longer interested in our guide, and we lagged behind and took breaks to sit by the river. We also attempted one river entrance but we quickly aborted that plan as we got attacked by flies. One of the guys found some ginger and we picked it and took it to put in our veggies the next night. All in all it was an enjoyable walk with pleasant company but we were completely exhausted and could barely walk by the time we arrived to the town. 

We got to our hostel where we had a 3 bed private room with one of the girls we became close with… And we had showers! We took some well needed scrubs, put on some cleanish clothes, and all went to dinner together, where we exchanged Facebook names and email addresses. 

The next morning we woke up at 3:30 to get in line for the walk up to Machu Picchu. The gates opened at 5 and we started up the stairs. We had been told by some people that this was the hardest part of the hike… Those people are out of their minds. Yes, it’s an hour up some stairs and it’s 5am and you’re sweating your brains out, but then you’re done and you’re at Machu Picchu and your 5 day trek is complete and it’s awesome. 

Our guide gave us a short tour of the site and then we all meandered for a while, and just sat chilling at the top of the mountain with some alpacas. Miriam and I had paid a little extra to hike up one of the mountains around Machu Picchu which supposedly offers a great view, but we both quickly agreed to consider that one a sunk cost. Finally people from our group had to start heading down to catch their transportation back, so we all said our goodbyes and started back down the stairs. 

Miriam and I and the other girl we became friends with chilled around the town for a while – it’s a very cute little tourist town with a pretty plaza and lots of shops. We played some Jenga (which some of the restaurants put out on the tables) and cards with some people from a group that had done Salkantay in parallel with us, usually at the same campsites. 

Finally Miriam and I got on our very nice train to Ollantaytambo. From there, people take buses to Cusco, and when we got off the train at 9pm there must have been 20 drivers there calling the names of the people from their tours. Miriam and I walked past because we had decided to spend the night in the town. We checked into our hostel and went to go find some guys we had met in Chabad on Shabbat who had also done the trek that week, and who we knew were also spending the night. They came to our hostel and the 5 of us sat on the lovely terrace and made dinner together (it was missing some key ingredients like oil, spices, and awakeness, but we managed). 

Friday morning we had a leisurely breakfast on the terrace (we have had a lot of eggs for breakfast, and that morning was no exception, and I must say I can’t complain). We headed over to climb some ruins in the town, but the entrance fee was outrageous, so we decided we had a perfectly fine view from the bottom and wandered around the town and the market. We fell in love with this town – it was quiet and cute with narrow alleyways and a pretty plaza and small stores. 

We eventually got in a cab back to Cusco, where we made our plans for the next week, including crossing the Bolivian border, which is both challenging and expensive. We also learned that Israelis have to bribe their way across the border. Miriam ended up running around trying to get a visa on her US passport while I ran around getting passport photos and photocopies and printed bank statements, etc etc. I picked up the laundry we had dropped off when we got back – the only clean clothing to our names – and got back to the hostel just a few minutes before candle lighting. Not exactly what I had in mind for my first shower back at the hostel. 

The second Shabbat was a little nicer than the first, partially because we already knew some people, and partially because there were more Anglos, including some lovely couples from Queens who ended up giving us their leftover food and Ziplocs. Friday night we got back to the hostel to find a bunch of our trekking group hanging out there, which was really fun. Shabbat afternoon we briefly joined a free walking tour, discovering some new neighborhoods, and realizing that we hadn’t spent that much time in Cusco itself and when we did, we found ourselves going between Chabad and our hostel, which is not a pretty area. It was nice to see that there were other lovelier more interesting areas in the city. 

Saturday night we rushed through dinner at a vegan restaurant and ran back to the hostel to get to the bus to Puno. 

We had complained to the booking agency about the food situation on Salkantay, so he offered us very cheap bus tickets for a very nice bus to Puno. Our expectations were far exceeded, with huge seats that turned into almost-beds, usb outlets, blankets, and a tea service. I slept soundly throughout the ride and next thing I knew we were in Puno. 


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