Peru

Peru – Lima, 12 June 2011

Our last day in Lima. A leisurely Sunday. We arrived bright and early, and when we got to Miraflores, it was pretty dead. Sleeping on the bus was not exactly the most restful sleep, so we napped a bit, before conquering the world.

As usual, our stomachs dictate our actions, so when it rumbled, it was time for lunch. We strolled around some of the alleys around Kennedy Park, and ended up settling at a place that offered free drinks (yes, we’re that cheap and that easy to persuade). I tried a Aji de Gallieni, which is supposed to be chicken in spicy walnut sauce. It kinda tasted creamy, and wasn’t that spicy to my palate, but oh well!

Sunday seems to be a good day to check out Kennedy Park. Many artists lined out their wares along Kennedy Park, and they were quite pretty. I was sorely tempted, but at the same time, way too lazy to carry all the art pieces back. So, too bad! Some people were also doing the tango at the park, and I just stood there, and enjoyed the beautiful dancing.

In keeping with the leisurely pace of Sunday, B and I decided to watch yet another movie, since there are cinemas aplenty near Kennedy Square. While waiting for the movie to start, we parted ways. She went shopping, while I sat down at the old-school saloony-feel Cafe Haiti for a cuppa. We then watched Hangover 2. I enjoyed it more than we did.

I was pretty keen on seeing the beach of Lima, so I suggested Lacomar Plaza for our last stop. She ended up appreciating my suggestion! When we first got there, we were like, “where’s the mall?” Turns out it was below us, and it was bustling! I also got to enjoy the great view of the Lima coastline from the cliff that we were on. We continued to enjoy the view during our last sumptuous dinner at Lacomar, where we had a starter of raw fish cured in lime juice, and a paella for our entree. I also had my first Peruvian cerveza, Cusquena, which was quite light at 5% alcohol level. The impressive thing about this particular bottle of Cusquena was – they actually imprinted the image of Machu Picchu on the bottle. Crazy!

We couldn’t leave Peru without getting some churros, so when we walked by Manolo’s on our way home, churros and chocolates looked like such a great idea, we succumbed. It was absolutely delish!

Portrait on Glass in Miraflores

Sunday Tango in Kennedy Park

Cafe con Leche in Cafe Haiti

Lacomar Plaza

Lima Coast

Cusquena

Churros and Chocolate at Manolo’s

Cafe Manolo

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Peru – Huancayo, 11 June 2011

I knew that Huancayo was a market town, but I guess, having grown up in a city at 0 m sea level, and now, living in a similarly low-lying city, I find it hard to imagine living at 3,200 m (yes, altitude illness is still a bitch). But it is! It was bustling! There were so many people just walking around, and I doubt they were tourists!

We tried hunting for a market so B could do some shopping, but it was not Sunday, and only Sunday was market day. So, we ended up going to the mall that we saw when we first got to Huancayo – Plaza Real. Not quite knowing what to do, we ended up watching a movie – X-men: First Class. Initially, we were under the impression that it’d be in English with Spanish subtitles. Well, it was in Spanish, with no subtitles. Thankfully, being an action movie, we apparently didn’t need to know the dialogue to know what’s going on. So that’s that.

Nightfall, after dinner, we ended up having dinner (I had a 2 USD chicken near our hotel), and trotted towards the bus station for our overnight bus back to Lima. The Cruz del Sur sure was fancy. We had huge leather seats, blankets, pillows, hot tea, and meals. I was in no mood for the last item, so I simply passed out.

Lobby of Hotel Turismo

Exterior of Hotel Turismo

Huancayo’s Plaza Armas

Plaza Real

My cheap and ubiquitous 2 USD roast chicken 

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Peru – Lima to Huancayo, 10 June 2011

A new day, a new town, a new epic journey.

I honestly know nothing about Huancayo, but the only reason why I am going there, is to take the epic Ferrocarril Central Andino , a rail journey that winds through the Andean mountains, a must-do journey for any train aficionado. This can be booked online, in the link I provided above, and it won’t break the bank. They only have about two to three trips every month, so be sure to check, if you decide to go on it!

The journey is amazing in several ways. It is a marvel of modern engineering, in terms of the fixed structures, like the bridges that span high mountains, and the tunnels that were cored into these mountains. Also, to make the train climb up to 4,700 km at Galera, it also had to use several techniques like the switchbacks, where it climbs the mountain by going back and forth (you have to experience it to know what I’m writing about). Btw, this railway project began in 1870. To give you an idea of how crazy it is, it takes about 12 hours to travel a horizontal distance of 332 km.

Engineering aside, the train ride had some stunning views. As the train was winding around the Andes the non-walking/hiking way, and as it went pass mountains and lakes, I realized that I was now at the ground level with some of the mountains and lakes that I saw from the plane. Isn’t that totally awesome? Apart from natural scenery, we also passed by the coal-mining town of Oroya, some 3,800 m above sea level, which was quite interesting for me. It just seems like such a nineteenth-century industry, and yet, here it was. The train was originally built for the purpose of transporting such materials to more accessible places. For more information, they give a great brochure of the highlights when you get on it.

Arriving in Huancayo was quite anti-climatic in some ways. I didn’t know what to expect from this market town in the Andes mountains, and I guess, my bad for imagining that it would not be modern. Well, when the train pulled into the station, there it was, a huge, two-storey, modern mall with modern cinemas, kfcs, and what not.

I was convinced that we could get accommodations quite easily, but apparently not. We went to our first option, and the lady didn’t seem to welcome two girls with backpacks on our bags. The second place also told us they were out of rooms. Maybe it’s not a good look to spot? (I swear we shower and looked clean and decent!) Anyway, we ended up at Hotel Turismo Huancayo , one of the older establishments in Huancayo, but still very excellent. The staff were polite, and didn’t seem to mind us like the other establishments. Their rate of USD 60 was ok for us, and included breakfast, so we checked in. The rooms were small, but comfortable, and the hot water shower works well. The interior of the hotel lobby was also really, really charming.

After settling in, we went hunting for dinner. B wanted to have something more Peruvian, and after consulting her guide, we ended up at Olimpico, which started in 1941, is one of the oldest restaurants in Huancayo, serves local delights, and is attached to Hotel Olimpico. We tried a papas a la huancaina, which is their version of potato gratin, topped with quail eggs. I had a trout done in a gratin for my entree. All in all, a very tasty and filling meal, and set us back by about 10 USD each. Do try it, it’s just beside the Plaza des Armas.

Ferrocarril Central Andino

The tail is turning into the head of the train!

Train winding around the Andes

Lake in the Andes

Coal mining town of Oroya

Restaurant Olimpico

Trout

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Peru – Iquitos to Lima, 09 June 2011

We had half a day left in Iquitos, but we just ended up chilling in the compound of La Casa Fitzcarraldo, drinking several jugs of jungle juice, as we went down the list. Camu Camu was B’s favourite, so it ended up being a repeat. To date, I still have no idea what it is. Once again, it is entirely possible to just hang out at La Casa Fitzcarraldo, as the compound is just that awesome. And if you are a fan of four-legged friends, there are a couple of dogs, and one little kitten, who hangs around the compound, too (and no, I am not being paid to write this).

We decided to head for the airport earlier (it’s about 30 mins away), though the staff at La Casa Fitzcarraldo were kinda bemused. Turns out to be a good decision. Once again, the time of our flight was changed without our knowledge, and this time round, it was departing 30 mins early. So when they say call to confirm, it’s a pretty good idea. We just got lucky that we didn’t miss our flight.

The plane journey back was pretty amazing, looking out of the window. The mountain chains beneath looked really spectacular, and sometimes, I saw the peaks of some of the Andean mountains poking out of the fluffy clouds beneath. It was breathtaking.

On a note about domestic travel. We actually did our flights and bus bookings (but not our train bookings) with Go2Peru . Their prices are actually cheaper than the websites of the airlines sometimes, and they make the booking hassle-free. A few emails can settle your transportation problems. Also, if you are determined to check out the websites of airlines themselves, it also gives a good summary of all the options and timings available. Peruvian domestic airlines are actually pretty decent (well, compared to American ones). I don’t know about their safety record, but you can check in your baggage for free, and even on short flights, they do give you a snack and water. So that is nice.

After getting back to Miraflores, it was kinda late. So it was time for dinner. We were determined to have famous Latin American grilled meat for dinner, so we headed to Kennedy Park to survey our options, picked a grill house, and had a grill set for two. It was pretty delicious, and filling! Try it! After our filling dinner, there was a little night market in Kennedy Park, so B went shopping, and got some stuff.

The inviting pool of La Casa Fitzcarraldo

Mountains peeking out of the clouds

Amazing dinner of grilled meats

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Peru – Amazon River, Iquitos, 08 June 2011

We had a huge breakfast with warm bread, eggs, lots of fruits and fruit juices, and then, it is …

Amazon River day trip! We signed up with Dawn on the Amazon, which brought us to Belen market, the floating market and up three rivers, including the Amazon.

Belen market is like a huge wet market, where they sell meats, like fish they just caught, and all sorts of jungle produce, like love portions, and jungle fruits. It has quite a reputation. Our guide and our boat guy actually protected us, and constantly reminded us to keep our bags in front. They seemed to be on the lookout for trouble; apparently, there are many pickpockets.

After our little market tour, we headed to our boat. We walked through areas, which are usually covered by the river, when the rainy season comes. When we got to our boat, I think we were just gonna cruise around in a sampan, which would have been ok with me. But it turns out, we were paying the extra money (compared to some other tours), because the sampan was just a vehicle to bring us to our real boat parked out in the river. Our boat was actually very sturdy, had proper seats with cushions, could comfortably fit six people, and had a canvas shelter, that protected us from the sun.

We cruised down the Itaya River, and along the way, we saw kingfishers, abandoned boats, logs waiting to be sold. It was an interesting journey on the brackish Itaya River. After a while, we turned back, and turned towards the Amazon, which was the main reason for the trip to Iquitos – to see the mighty Amazon River and the rainforest. The water colour definitely changed visibly, and as an added bonus, we also saw pink dolphins. Our tour included another river, and we tried sailing that way, but as our boat kinda broke down, the mission was aborted. Our guide brought us on a motokar back to Iquitos, ending our adventure on the Amazon.

Fried by the heat, we spent the rest of the evening in La Casa Fitzcarraldo, and had our dinner there as well. Walter started up a fire for BBQ, so we had some grilled goodness. (the fish dishes are huge, btw)

Belen Market

Some produce sold in Belen market

Belen floating village

Amazon River

Treehouse in La Casa Fitzcarraldo

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Peru – Iquitos, 07 June 2011

Our trip to the airport was kinda scary. The guy at the hostel was convinced it wouldn’t take too long to get to airport, so we pushed things a little. But we got stuck in a massive traffic hold up, and when we got to the counter, it was like 40 mins before take-off. One nice thing about Peruvian domestic airlines? They change timings without letting you know. Thankfully, we got the good end of this – our flight was delayed without our knowledge, giving us ample time to grab some breakfast.

The flight was pretty amazing – usually flying above stuff, all you get to see is clouds. But as our plane was descending, I got to see the mighty Amazon. Looking down, it does impress upon me, what a diverse landscape Peru is. We started out from the mountainous Andes, and ended up in the forested Amazon.

Iquitos is a town in the middle of the Amazon river, and it was quite a trade town. Before the rubber boom in Malaysia, it used to be a huge rubber boom town. This was reflected in the architecture of the town. There were lots of cool, abandoned buildings in the downtown of Iquitos, with very elaborate designs. It’s almost as if you wandered into a early-twentieth century theme park.

In Iquitos, we stayed in the La Casa Fitzcarraldo, which was where the film about the rubber baron of Iquitos, Fitzcarraldo stayed during filming. It is run by Walter, who lives there, and consists of about three rooms and one bungalow. Rates start at about 60 USD for the small room. I highly recommend staying here. It is about 5 mins by motokar to downtown, but it was an oasis of calm from the bustling and noisy Iquitos. The grounds of La Casa Fitzcarraldo is pretty amazing. They have several pavilions  surrounding the beautiful pool, and even a three-storey treehouse. The rooms are also very comfortable, and come with a huge breakfast.

After settling in, we headed to downtown for a short walk, and also settled our trip to the Amazon with Dawn on the Amazon. After that, we settled in La Noche restaurant on the Promenade for dinner, jungle juice, and sunset on the Amazon. I had grilled fish, which had a texture closer to chicken, and we just sat and enjoyed the sunset before going back to our guesthouse.

Amazon River

Elaborate buildings of Iquitos

Camu Camu juice

Sunset on the Amazon

Grilled fish

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Peru – Lima, 06 June 2011

We got back to Lima in the morning, and with a whole day ahead of us, I was not going to leave Peru without seeing the capital. After checking into Dragonfly Hostel once again, we asked for directions from the hostel staff, and they kindly taught us how to walk to the metro bus for a comfortable bus ride to the historical center of Lima.

The metro bus system is pretty cool. They seem to have ring roads around Lima, which seem to be highways. The metro buses run on these highways, making the journey smooth and quick.

The historical center of Lima was pretty like other former Spanish colonies, in terms of architecture. Like Antigua, Guatemala, there are very many impressive old buildings. In particular, the balconies of Lima were really impressive. And inside these old-looking buildings, are usually very modern shops. For instance, one is a department store.

We went on a tour of the Iglesias San Francisco, which was actually pretty cool. Although we didn’t understand the tour, which was conducted in Spanish, we got to see the library, whereby some of the books they have were larger than us. They also have a catacomb in their basement, which was creepy and cool at the same time. I wouldn’t want to get lost there!

After the main attractions closed at around 6pm, we headed back to the bus station, only to realize that due the office traffic, getting onto the bus might be a little impossible. So, we ended up eating at a chifa, which is a Peruvian-Chinese restaurant. It was pretty cheap at around 4 USD, and our one-dish meals came with a wanton soup, which could have been a meal in itself.

Random note: there are a lot of casinos in Lima!

Old building, new use in historical center of Lima

Elaborate Architecture of some of the buildings

The central square at night

The freebie wanton noodle soup at the Chifa

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Peru – Machu Picchu, 05 June 2011

Today was the big trip to Machu Picchu, the biggest highlight of our Peru trip (of course, there are other awesome things to see). We took the Vistadome from Poroy (about 40 mins from Machu Picchu by car) to Aguas Calientes, which is about half hour from Machu Picchu. One thing that the train really had? Windows. Lots of them. Apart from the usual windows by the sides to allow you views of the passing scenery, they also had windows to the top. Another thing I didn’t expect – breakfast! It was a fancy-looking breakfast, served in what looked like a bento box. That was a nice surprise. The one-way ticket to Machu Picchu costs about 75 USD.

Despite all the warnings about the long lines, and our craziness to try and prep everything in advance, it was surprisingly not as busy as it was made out to be. So if you are going sometime in June, and doing the train way (I heard the hiking part is still booked up), you might not need to go too crazy with the prep, and just take your chances a little. Btw, all that Lonely Planet talk about checks on bags for water and food – never happened. While you might not want to be packing a picnic, some snacks and a small bottle of water probably would slip through the games undetected.

I’m not sure if expectations is a good or bad thing. If you were just walking around the mountains, you’d never guess there’s a whole city in those mountains amidst the clouds. But I guess since we knew what we were looking for, that takes some of the fun out of that. Anyway, it is pretty hidden. As we were walking, we pretty much never had a clue when the next turn will bring us to Machu Picchu. But when it did appear, well, it looks like the postcard pictures!

I think my main impression of Machu Picchu was how small it was. When we first booked the trains, we were afraid that doing this as a day trip might not be that great an idea, and that we might not have enough time for everything. Turns out the train timings were there for a reason, anyway. It was pretty small, and as long as you are not trying to explore every nook and cranny, a day trip was enough. While Petra was massive, and definitely required multi-day trips, the same can’t be said for Machu Picchu.

I don’t have any real guide to write about the Machu Picchu. It is pretty much a city whereby there are ceremonial quarters, living quarters, which are segregated, and some terraces for planting stuff. It is hard to tell which is which without a guide. But, one thing to do – do climb higher up on the terraces, so you can get a bird’s eye view, and a good shot of the city.

After about 4 hours, we were beat, and we made our way back to Aguas Calientes for lunch. I had a cream trout – apparently, I can’t tell the difference between salmon and trout. It was pretty expensive, at about 16 USD. But we were paying for the view at the restaurant (can’t remember the name).

Despite all the writing about there being nothing in Aguas Calientes, I am not about to jump on the bandwagon. It is what it is – a stop for those on the way to Machu Picchu. While things are overpriced, it’s not a seedy or horrible town, and you could do a lot worse when you are hungry and tired. They have plenty of restaurants and cafes that serve up decent food, and when you are want to send that postcard you just wrote, they have a post office for you, too.

Finally, time for us to go back. Instead of the Vistadome, we took the Expedition, which was slightly cheaper at around ~50 USD. It really wasn’t much of a downgrade, and they served us snacks and a drink. Some pleasant things did happen. In our cabin, the lights apparently shorted, and so, it went out a couple of times. While everyone else was scrambling for light, confused by the sudden darkness upon us, I looked up at those large windows, and enjoyed the stars, which I hardly ever get. It was worth it.

Dinner was a cheap roast chicken place, and we had some delightful roast chicken for about 3 USD.

Vistadome to Machu Picchu

Fancy breakfast on Vistadome

Machu Picchu

Area around Machu Picchu

Our cheap chicken dinner

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Peru – Cuzco, 04 June 2011

Day 2 of Cuzco, where we continue to try to acclimatize to the altitude.

Today, we tried to explore the city of Cuzco. My first impression of Cuzco, while standing at the Plaza de Armas, was how much it actually resembled Antigua, Guatemala. I guess it’s because both of them have Spanish influence, hence they have very similar layouts, whereby there is a square with a fountain, which is surrounded by religious buildings like churches? Anyway, yeah, there were a couple of churches around the Plaza de Armas, one of them being the Cathedral of Cuzco.

It was a culture day, so we went to a museum and a church. First, we went to the Museum of Inca Civilization. It was pretty ok, but does not offer too much, if you can’t understand any Spanish. They don’t have much in terms of artefacts, but mostly pictures of artefacts, alongside Spanish explanations. They only had English labels. You probably aren’t missing  much if you give it a miss, especially if you don’t read any Spanish.

Our next stop was the Cathedral of Cuzco. Apart from it being huge, the most interesting thing about the small differences between churches is their religious artwork. One of the more interesting pieces in the Cathedral of Cuzco is a painting of the Last Supper. What is of interest is, the dish in the middle is a cuy (guinea pig), which is a Peruvian cuisine. So, Peruvian artists had their own take of what was partaken at the Last Supper! Tropical fruits found in Peru were also depicted in other paintings, vis-a-vis the originals.

After our little culture tour, we were hungry. Being a very touristy place, pretty much everywhere was insanely expensive. Most of the restaurants in the town center did not seem to serve food for under 10 USD, and a lot of it seemed like backpacker food, e.g. pizzas and hamburgers. Sigh. Anyway, given our lame options, we got even lamer, and ended up eating at McDonalds, since it was the cheapest thing around (I know, I know, our bad). Anyway, on the bright side, McDonalds actually serves Inka Cola, Peru’s favourite cola, and they also have some very special Peruvian sauces to go with regular McD fare, which was actually very tasty.

To walk off our lunch, we started walking around the other squares that seemed to be north of the Plaza de Armas and south of Plaza de Armas, in a straight line. The trek uphill led us to a square with yet another church, and a handicraft market. B spent some time there shopping. Going south, we ended up in another square, which had a larger market, and was more like a proper mercado, selling food, and other stuff.

Tired, and altitude-sick, I decided to stop at Cafe Ayllu , a pretty neat-looking cafe that sells really excellent and decently-priced pastries. I had cocoa leaf tea, and a wonderful pastry, while B went off on more shopping.

I think one of those things I really like about Cuzco are some of those hole-in-the-wall finds. We really did not have much of an idea of what to get for dinner, so we decided to slowly walk back to our guesthouse, while keeping our eyes open for what might strike out fancy. We chanced upon a cute little pizzeria. When we popped our heads in, there was a chef rolling dough on the table, so immediately, we walked into Pizza Recoleta. We ended our nights with some lovely handmade pizzas (~8 usd for a big one) and I tried some Pisco Sour, Peru’s national alcohol to end our night early.

Big day ahead tomorrow!

From Plaza de Armas

Talk about Stereotypes

Mercado

Tasty pastry at Cafe Ayllu

Plaza de Armas at night

Inside Pizza Recoleta

Pisco Sour

Inca Kola

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Peru – Cuzco, 03 June 2011

Hello, and good bye Lima. It was definitely a brief stay. We left Lima in the morning, and arrived in Cuzco in the late morning. First thing we saw? A huge McDonald’s sign, writing, “Welcome to Cuzco!” Peruvian Airlines was pretty decent, and we had food and drinks on the short flight, and could also check in our bags for free (cf. domestic airlines in the US).

The Cuzco Airport was quite a zoo. The moment we walked out, it just screamed tourist trap. We were approached by endless people, with a whole array of services to offer, from hotels, to airport transfers, to tours, along with the endless souvenir shops, just in case you were suffering from shopping withdrawal on the flight. We had a ballpark of how much to pay for our transport, so we just went along, and paid about 25 soles for a trip to our guesthouse in town.

We stayed at the Hospedaje Turistico Recoleta, run by Javier, that was about 15-20 min walk from the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco (i.e. the heart of Cuzco city). It was a nice home-y place with some interesting areas like a little garden, and a dining room (also the breakfast room) that was built to surround the garden. There is reportedly some recreation like pool tables on the second level, but we did not explore, as we stayed on the first floor. We paid 25 USD per night for the room for two of us, but were given a triple room instead (yay to more space!), and the price included an excellent breakfast, and an ensuite bathroom, which had hot water (you need that – it’s really cold given Cuzco’s altitude). Javier and his staff were also excellent for their recommendations for dining options, and also arranged tours and transportation for very fair prices. So don’t be afraid to ask them for help.

After leaving our stuff in our room, we asked for a lunch recommendation, as our tummies were rumbling, telling us that it’s time for lunch. Javier suggested Don Mateo, a restaurant across the street from Hospedaje Turistico Recoleta. It was quite charming, and there was a lot of light going into the restaurant, though it was sufficiently sealed to protect us from the cold. They also serve very hearty stuff, like heavy soups, and steaks. Knowing no Spanish, the two of us just blindly pointed. I think I ended up with a cream of chicken soup, while B had a cream of corn. No, it tastes nothing like the Campell version, so do give it a try. Our greed did end up being our downfall, as we had soups and an entree. Turns out, portions were huge, and the two of us made a valiant but futile struggle to try and chow down everything. In the end, we gave up. But at least we were full. I would say this place is about mid-range, as it came up to about 15 USD.

After our heavy lunch, we took the slow walk to the Plaza de Armas. Having heard all warnings about altitude illness, we weren’t trying to be ambitious, but we certainly wanted to get our tickets to Machu Picchu settled ahead of time, having read about the long lines at the gates of Machu Picchu. You can actually get tickets ahead of time in any travel agency (but not the official Peruvian Tourism one) ahead of time that will allow you to go to the gates of Machu Picchu, present your tickets, and not line up in Aguas Calientes for the ticket (more on that later).

Anyway, the way it works, when you buy it from a travel agency. They will give you the official price, and they might try to sell you a package. Depending on your budget, it could involve a coach ride all the way, or a combination of train and coach. Or whatever. We decided that we didn’t really want to deal with that, and also, we just wanted to be sure we have tickets, so we bought our tickets way ahead of time, online at the Perurail website. They also have a counter in the departure waiting lounge at the Lima Airport, and an office in Plaza de Armas, between McDonald’s and the Cathedral of Cuzco. You can try getting tickets when you are travelling in the off-season. Despite warnings about the train being filled up quickly, I did actually see some free seats both ways. I guess it might be because I was travelling in June? I am not sure if this is the low or high season.

More on buying from travel agencies. Anyway, they will let you know the official rate of what you have to pay, which is around ~50 USD, and you have to pay around 15 USD for the bus. After the official prices, they will give you a “suggestion” of their commission for securing these for you. You can negotiate their tip a little. When you are buying tickets, be sure to bring along your passport, as they will need a copy of that to purchase your ticket for you. Also, if you have an ISIC card, that will give you a substantial discount. All other forms of student ID are not accepted.

After getting our tickets, we decided to trot (real slow) back to our guesthouse. I always knew I had altitude illness, but it’s still a bitch when it hits you. No matter how slow we walked, I was still light-headed. We went back to sleep at like 3 pm, just to rest and get over it. My head pounded, and it felt like it was going to explode. Meh.

Our triple room in Hospedaje Turistico Recoleta

Don Mateo Restaurant

Steak with Garnish

One of the narrow alleys in Cuzco

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