Wednesday, January 2, 2013

* I Killed A Mountain - Part 2: Altitude Sickness Is No Joke

Peruvians are very nice! The guy at the money exchange office at Lima airport - where I spent the night - told me not to exchange too much money with him because it is cheaper in Cusco and his commission is too high.  The security guy at the checkpoint also yelled "Turkiya!" looking at my passport with a big smile. I have a creeping suspicion that soccer is the reason they know. Just a quick note to my traveling friends, Lima airport does not have free wifi. You need to purchase a Vex card from one of the Britt Stores.  15 Soles for 2 hours. Vex is flakey.

Flight number three from Lima to Cusco was short and uneventful. I slept all the way except for the breakfast service. Hot cheese croissant was wonderful with orange juice. Fell right back asleep to wake up to plane touchdown. 

I stepped out of the small airport building to a wet Cusco morning with all the confidence of having made arrangements for someone from the hostel to pick me up.  As I turned to face the little crowd of people holding up pieces of paper with hand written names, I realized my name was not on any one of those. "Oh shit!" was, of course, the first thought that crossed my slightly jet-lagged mind. I continued standing there for about 15 minutes, contemplating what I should do to get to my hostel when I noticed someone behind the crowd trying to hurriedly write a name on yet another torn piece of paper against a wall. Henry from Hostal El Triunfo was finally there to pick me up from the airport - which BTW was a great idea.  Just be prepared to see a misspelled version of your name.  I am now AYSEN ARGEN - not bad huh.

My first impression of Cusco was that everything looked handmade, even the street signs. Driving from the airport, the sights, buildings, even the people in motion reminded me of remote small towns of Turkey. 

Downtown streets got narrower and narrower and finally Henry parked at the corner of a narrow oneway street, and we walked the final few hundred steps to the hostel.

Hostal El Triunfo is located in the historic downtown right next to Plaza De Armas and the views of the city from the upper floor terrace is breathtaking.

The entrance to the hostel is through an art store - it would have been hard for me to find it alone. 

In the art store, we took a left turn and walked up a flight of stairs to arrive at the cozy reception area where the distinctly sincere smiling face of the receptionist greeted us. Immediately after doing my check in, she told me my room was not ready, and took me to the dining room to offer coca leaves in hot water to help with the elevation sickness.

While sipping my coca tea, I met a Canadian family of 4 - also checking in - who were originally Pakistani. When my room was ready, I took a shower, crawled into one of the beds that looked very attractive after so many hours on the road, and promptly passed out. 

I woke up with no sense of time or place, the way you feel when you are in an enchanted locale. Or maybe when you have two too many cups of coca leaves. I got up, got dressed, and walked outside to get my bearings, and get blood flowing in my legs (and brain).

There was a big bazaar set up at Plaza De Armas surrounded by ominous churches.  I walked into a Peruvian postcard. The colors, the people, the sounds, the smells - did I wake up into a dream?

The guy at the airport exchange office was so right, the rate in Cusco is much better. Just make sure that the dollar bills you have are crisp for they discount the rate if they do not like the looks of your money. Now I had a pocket full of Peruvian soles, with what to do I knew not.

It was colder than I expected but very pleasant. I walked around the bazaar a bit but the altitude sickness started kicking in, and I felt a big headache pressing on the sides of my forehead.  I stumbled to the hostel to remedy the head pain with more coca tea. Mellowness set in for the next couple of hours before I met the Inca Trail lead at 5PM for a briefing. So nice he was coming to the hostel, and had already left an envelope with trail maps for me the previous day. Met with the Inca Trail guide Carlos at the hostel kitchen, and got the details of the hike. Such a nice guy (I've been saying that a lot lately), I gave him a hug that he said he needed so much. :) Looked like I had everything I would need except for insect repellent. He said he will pick me up at 5:45AM the next day, and it will all begin.

After nibbling on Clif bars the whole day, I had a fabulous Peruvian dish two doors down from the hostel at Am ManeraTrigotto is made with quinoa and assorted mushrooms with a white sauce. Much lighter than it sounds. Then for dessert I had Chocolate Pudín.

Sleep came quickly that night, after I wished 'Feliz Navidad' to Norma the reception lady, and retired to my room.

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