Peru Part IV – Mountains, Machu Picchu and Matrimonial Mix-ups

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 1, 2011 in Gender, Non-chess |

Well, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, I eventually made it to the famed Machu Pichu.  I even managed to get there before the tourist hordes in

The ruins of Machu Picchu, at dawn.

time for the dawn.  I have to say, of all the things I’ve seen on my travels, I’ve experienced none more beautiful than watching the sun rise over the colossal tree-covered Peruvian mountains and illuminate the Inca ruins in some sort of beautifully silent and vaguely mystical occasion.

And, well, I didn’t vomit.

Together with my slightly concerned travel buddy, I touched down in Cusco still feeling nauseous, a little shocked by the altitude, and with no idea of whether we could get tickets to Machu Picchu.  The best chance Jessie and I had identified involved changing flight, train and bus tickets (to the tune of almost a thousand dollars) and hoping that the tickets didn’t get sold out in the meantime.  It seemed Lady Karma had all the ingredients to record yet another point in our never-ending blitz match.

But, would you believe, things finally started going my way.  The taxi we caught just happened to be the one that Mary, a local tour operator, jumped into to grab a lift back to her Mother’s new hostel.  And it just so happened, as we got talking, that her tour had two cancellations and so she had just acquired two spare tickets (rarer than one of Willy Wonka gold in this manic Peruvian Independence week).  Not only that, but the tour tickets came with a guided trip to the Sacred Valley, local markets and other ruins, bus tickets everywhere, and personal pick-ups from all our various transport interchanges.

All were quickly snapped up by Jessie and I when we stopped by the hostel – which, it turns out, was awesome and dirt cheap.  We changed reservations and booked ourselves in, whereupon, overwhelmed by illness, altitude, sleep deprivation and a little bit of touristic relief, I instantly fell asleep for a good sixteen hours.

Cue a montage of hitch-free vacationing, resplendent with clear blue skies and breathtaking scenery, ancient ruins, colourful markets, friendly locals, hilarious guides and enough decorative Incan chessboards to keep me grinning like a politician at a fundraiser.

It wasn’t all serendipitously easy, mind you.  Our 6am morning bus tickets to Machu Picchu were forgotten by one of our guides when we arrived in Aguas Calientes (the little town closest to the ruins) at one in the morning.  Not only that, but our hostel had mistakenly assumed (as did most of our hospitality services) that Jessie and I were a couple, and put us in a double room, ironically called a “matrimonial room” in Spanish.  Jessie is gay, but considering this continent’s generic homophobia, particularly outside of the major cities, trying to convince locals in broken Spanish that we were a man and a woman travelling as amigos was frustratingly difficult – and, at times, hilarious.

(Ironically, one of the most liberal places I encountered for this sort of issue was the fantastic Hotel Cataratas that Manuel and I stayed at when we visited the majestic Iguazu waterfalls on the border of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.  I mention irony because the hotels in general for this natural attraction are nothing to write home about and the service industry in general is notoriously poor, but this hotel was a little oasis, run by a couple of young guys with a refreshingly modern hospitality style and a savvy business sense.

When Manuel and I arrived, having booked via email as “two friends travelling”, we were given the matrimonial room, complete with one large bed, honeymoon decor and roses.  Our protestations were initially met with “But, it’s muy romantico, no?” by our receptionist, but we managed to convince them that two beds would be rather infinitely preferable.  Still, given the general reception Jessie and I encountered in Cusco, Hotel Cataratas deserve a rare bit of kudos.)

The "happy couple", at Iguazu waterfalls.

Still, it wasn’t much of an inconvenience, as we were up at 3.30am anyway to get in line for bus tickets on the street in the freezing cold (the ticket office doesn’t open until 5.15am).  It was all worth it, though, as we managed to get on the first bus and be at the ruins by opening at 6am, before the dawn.

After a lot of pleasantly crowd-free exploring with the obligatory thousand photos, a beautiful sunrise and a two-hour guided tour, Jessie headed back to sleep.  I, however, had been informed that Mount Machu Picchu (no, not the cute hill in the picture at the outset, but the other mountain of twice the height that towers over the ruins and surrounds) was “only a four hour climb.”

I should explain that I hate bushwalking, mountain climbing or in fact any sort of nature-based outdoors activity that doesn’t involve chasing a ball or some sort of organised competition.  (I have, at times, compromised with outdoors chess.)  This despite genetics suggesting the contrary – my family loves to hike, and my Dad just returned from six weeks of six-hours-a-day hiking in England.

And it turns out this wasn’t the greatest mountain to climb for someone adverse to the concept.  The steps are basically broken rocks, occasionally loose gravel and once or twice held up only by a stick.  The path is narrow and steep, and the high altitude makes breathing even more difficult than it should be.  It’s incredibly beautiful, of course, and a more leisurely pace (two hours each way, my guidebook recommends) and plenty of rest breaks would probably be moderately comfortable.

But my competitive streak took over, and despite my body’s protestations, I powered up in an hour.  Not wanting my efforts to go to waste nor for Jessie and the other volunteers to feel they’d missed out, I decided to take an embarrassingly over-dramatic, Crocodile-Hunter-style video en route to document my ‘torment’.  Alas, dear friends, it is even too embarrassing for me to post.

Instead, here's a shot from atop the peak, staked with the Cusco flag. The Machu Picchu ruins are in the background.


I have to say, until this week I thought the town of Cusco was just a sort of jumping point for tourists heading to Machu Picchu.  But after spending a few days there after visiting the ruins, I wish I could have stayed longer.  The town is just fantastic, and given my occasional cravings in Huaycan for the old backpacker life, it was a bit of an oasis for the tourist on a budget.

The highlight came on the last night, when I visited the Macondo restaurant, just off the main plaza.  If you ever visit Cusco, it’s in my opinion the coolest eatery/bar/music venue around.  Uniquely decorated in a bizarrely postmodern style, the cosy little joint sports a menu to match the decor, including my chosen dish – alpaca steak (much to the disgust of the girls sitting next to me, one of whom was vegetarian).

Not quite my dinner, but he did offer advice on a nice mushroom sauce.

As soon as I walked in, I ran into two guys playing a more than respectable game of chess on one of the tables.  It turns out the younger, Augusto, is one of the owners, and put up a reasonable resistance in a King’s Gambit when we later sparred over drinks.  Following the chess came the live music, a cool style of Latin music I actually enjoyed.  I put it down to the bongos.

Augusto, one of the owners and a more than decent adversary, unfortunately about to lose his queen...


On the right, the waitress is standing at our table. "Front-row seats" doesn't begin to capture our experience, but it made the alpaca taste all the sweeter.

The two girls whom I had previously disgusted with my carnivorous, ecstatic alpaca-munching turned out to be two pleasant Californians who were willing to forgive my culinary transgression, in exchange for Jessie and I joining them for a bottle of Argentinean Malbec after dinner.  Feeling a little homesick, I was very happy to head to The Real McCoy, an English-run cafe that is a bit of a haven for homesick Brits and Aussies in Cusco.  The four of us even kicked on to Mama Africa’s, possibly the cheesiest bar I’ve seen since my Amsterdam days, and a quaint little reggae bar that was having a DubStep night (a style of music that essentially takes a normal pop beat and completely destroys it half-way through the song.  An acquired taste, no doubt, but to my critics I have only one word: “Reggaeton”).

And even better, one of the girls, Stephanie, has a far cooler blog than mine on which she’s photographically detailed the evening, saving me having to put in any more effort.  There’s even a video of the dinner band.  Check it out at , and click the left arrow at the bottom to cycle through her posts from the night.

So, all in all a remarkably successful trip, given all the signs at the outset.  Of all the towns and all the wonders I’ve experienced, this one has to get two llama-hooves up.  Karma, I thumb my nose at you.

My textbook poster-pic from the trip. (No, I didn't eat it.)









And before I sign off, I can’t resist one more chess/cafe shot.  I love this country!

Incas v. Spaniards, naturally.


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