Christmas in Cusco

Cusco in the rain on Christmas Day 2009. Photo Natasha Young

Arequipa to Cusco

And so it was on to Cusco. I had been hoping to get a bus that arrived at a sensible check-in-friendly time, but as it was Christmas, I was lucky to get on a bus at all. I was moaning inwardly at the fact that it arrived in Cusco at the anti-social time of 5am, until I found out later that the Inca Gods really had been smiling on me. Another bus that left Arequipa at around the same time that night had plunged over a cliff, killing 40 people.

To be honest, I’m amazed we got there. As the grumpy driver crunched through the gears on hairpin Andean bends in the driving rain, the bus sounded like a jumbo jet struggling to take off on only 1 of its engines. In fifth gear, it sounded like a wheezy tractor. Some of the windows didn’t quite shut and the speakers for the DVD (I didn’t miss much it was ‘The Little Princess’) only worked on one side.

Cusco. Photo Natasha Young

My companion was an elderly Peruvian lady who was going home for a family Christmas with her grandchildren. When I confessed that I hardly ever managed to sleep on overnight buses, I was delighted when she told me that she never slept a wink either. Finally someone I could chat to!  Eleven hours later when she woke up from a sound sleep, she rather shame-facedly admitted that she’d had a very busy day.

Cusco

I’d heard good things about Cusco. True enough it’s a pretty town but for me it sums up everything that’s bad about mass tourism. My by now quite perky bus companion had told me not to pay more than 3 soles to get to my hostel. At the bus station I was the only tourist face among many Peruvians and every taxi driver for miles around was keen to take me. They were all trying to charge 8 soles or more. When I told them to dream on, they simply shrugged and wandered off. The hostel was terrible (more on that later) and when I went into town I saw a man almost lose his watch to a young female pick-pocket within the first 5 minutes.

What Cusco looks like. Photo Natasha Young

There were tourists everywhere. From rich Americans and Japanese families to doddery guided groups and penny-pinching backpackers. To help part them from their cash, Cusco was full to bursting with tour agencies, camping equipment stores, souvenir shops, luxury gift emporiums, money exchanges, English pubs, international restaurants and mediocre hostels and hotels. Sellers wouldn’t settle for you simply walking by, they’d grab your arm, crying ‘amiga, amiga, mira!!!’ trying to steer you forcibly into their shop. Or they’d see you looking at their selection of hats and immediately point, nodding sagely as they said the word ‘hats’ in a variety of languages. Morose looking girls in traditional dress pulled along even more depressed looking llamas, hustling camera-toting tourists for money to take a picture. If there’s any kind of authentic experience to be had in Cusco, I’m not sure I found it. The nearest I got were some temporary food stalls away from the main square where locals were eating guinea pig, chicken, black corn and other regional dishes. For 4.5 soles (most tourist menus start at 8 or more), a woman scooped chicken and rice out of a bucket and cleared me a space on a shared table. It was delicious and all my fellow Peruvian diners seemed pleased as punch that I thought so. Other than that, I got the impression that real life happens somewhere well outside the city, where prices are cheaper and the people are poor. I wished desperately to be back in Arequipa.

Happy Christmas from Peru. Photo Natasha Young

Salvation was to come the next day in the form of friends. Five of us had agreed to meet for Christmas in Cusco and we spend a very happy December 25th comparing stories, indulging in English food cravings and catching up. I’d never normally venture into an English pub outside of England but if you can’t beat them, you may as well join them. As much as I hate overly touristy places, I can’t pretend I wasn’t excited about going to a cafe that sold English breakfast with real baked beans or a pub with Christmas lunch and all the trimmings.

We were all staying at the Flying Dog hostel, a place with decent reviews on Hostelworld. It wasn’t the worst place I’ve ever stayed but it wasn’t far off. Everything seemed to have been designed for the fun of the rather sleazy male staff. There was always at least one of them sleeping on the sofas in the small common room, using the internet or playing computer games on the TV, while guests wandered around, hoping one day soon to check their email or watch TV. The shower leaked, so did the ceiling, walls were paper-thin and in the end, it felt like we were paying through the nose to stay at someone’s house rather than in a hostel.

Cusco and a sorry-looking llama. Photo Natasha Young

It was the hostel staff that had recommended the launderette two doors up the hill. I dropped my washing off on Christmas Eve morning for a 2 hour service. The 2 hour service turned out to take 36, but as they were opening on Christmas Day, I didn’t like to complain. When I went to fetch it, I opened the bag and pulled out a rather large pair of boxer shorts.

“Urm, these aren’t mine. In fact none of these clothes are mine”. 

Oh. Are you sure?

 “Yes” (holding up a t-shirt that said ‘the man, the legend’ and a large arrow pointing south). 

“Oh.” She grabbed another bag. This one contained what looked to be like most of my clothes, all damp, a yellow thong (not mine) and some mens’ socks.

“Urm, this is all still wet”. And so it went on. Many hours of toing and froing later, I was eventually reunited with my washing, although I’m quite convinced that somewhere in the world, there’s a man I’ve never met who is struggling to recall how he came into possession of a pair of size 12 M&S knickers. Scary to think that these people also arrange tours.

Inca Wall, Cusco. Photo Natasha Young

All in all, it was an unusual Christmas, especially as Boxing Day was  to be spent at Machu Picchu. More on that to come.

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