Cusco, Peru 7/15/2019
I bought the bus ticket I would need to ride from Cuenca to Tumbes, Peru, weeks in advance of my trip. The woman who sold me the ticket sat in a booth where she was protected from her customers by a thick sheet of glass. The small circular grill in the glass, through which we were supposed to be able to speak, may have been closed, or it may have been equipped with a mic and speaker which weren’t working, or the cashier may have been one of those people for whom speaking up is a psychological impossibility; whatever the reason, I simply could not make out what she said to me. When I asked at what time the bus was going to arrive in Tumbes, she said 7:30 in the morning. I’m pretty sure. I would hang around in Tumbes for a few hours, maybe dawdling over breakfast, and then catch a taxi to the airport.
The bus left Cuenca at 21:00. I had thought that I might listen to podcasts on the bus, but the video screens that dropped down from the ceiling showed movies at deafening volume, so they became the soundtrack of my trip into Peru. First, Paddington 2, and then a nightmarish teen fantasy called House Party. It was raining as we approached the border. Through the windows of the bus, I could see groves of banana trees, dogs sitting disconsolately in the shelter of eaves, and an unending series of low, white, concrete buildings, each of them painted with the names of local politicians, and each of them sprouting rebar along their unfinished rooflines.
The young man sitting across the aisle was Dutch – well-traveled, and the possessor of commendable English, like all Dutch people. We swapped travel stories at the border at midnight, while waiting in line at passport control. He once awoke on a porch in Laos to find a big turd on the floor next to his sleeping bag. When he asked his host what had left it there, his host said, “You don’t want to know.” Apparently Laotian snakes grow to enormous size. The rain had stopped by the time we got back on the bus.
Tumbes is only a few minutes south of the Ecuadorian border. As we entered the town – which, at this time of night, appeared to be small, dirty, poor, and ugly – the bus attendant asked where I’d like to be dropped off. “Estación?” I asked. No, Tumbes had no bus station. They could leave me near some taxis.
It was 2:30 in the morning when the bus left me at the side of the road in Tumbes, Peru. The cars lined up across the street may have been taxis, but none of them had any identifying marks, and, although the drivers were eyeing me curiously, none of them seemed to be in the mood to address me, or to make a gesture in my direction, or to adopt a facial expression. I was debating my next move when a tuk-tuk (motorcycle-chariot-taxi) pulled up next to me. It was driven by a fat black guy with a forehead tattoo and a billed cap embroidered with the word HOMIE. Yes, he could take me to the aeropuerto. No problema.
It was a dark, bumpy ride to the airport, where we awoke the guard who controlled access to the airport road. No, we could not go onto the airport grounds. Why would we want to? There was no one there. The building did not open until 8:00 in the morning. No, I could not wait in a restaurant or cafe in Tumbes. There were no cafes or restaurants open at this hour. “Necesito un lugar seguro,” I managed to say. Finally, my driver said he would take me back into town, to a hotel, where I could spend what remained of the night. He would come get me in eight hours, to take me back to the airport for my 1:30 flight.
The cheapest room they had at the hotel was $30, but all the money I had was a $20 bill, so that’s what I paid. The hotel did not accept credit cards. My tuk-tuk driver, whose name was something like “Hero,” made sure I understood that he would be back for me, and then departed with an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Hero arrived at 11:00, just as he’d promised, and drove me through the streets of Tumbes, which had been transformed by the daylight into a small, dirty, poor, ugly town with a splash of color here and there. We stopped at a bank near the main square so that I could get some Peruvian soles.
Hero quoted me an absurd price for the ride, which I paid with real gratitude. He had saved me that morning; the least I could do was allow him to overcharge me. The airport was small, but clean and modern, and it had a little cafe where I got coffee and a sandwich. My flight left in half an hour.
The sun was getting low in the sky as we flew into Cusco. The ridges outside the plane’s windows were sharp and brown and dry. I had arranged with my Airbnb to be met at the airport – and there, just outside baggage claim, was a young person holding a sign that said “Jim Bogar.” The lights of the town had come on as my taxi entered the old part of town.
I’ll quote here from a note I made on my phone:
First words from Cusco
Checked in at Golden House hotel, walked out into the busy, cool street, across the Plaza de Armas, to the Divina Rosa restaurant, where I just ordered the special: alpaca saltado, whatever that is, and local beer, for 26 soles. I wonder what a sol is worth. I’m in a state of real bliss.
This mood has not abandoned me since I arrived in Cusco. On my first morning, I booked the Salkantay trek with a highly rated outfitter here in town, and then set off to explore the Inca ruins that crown the hill NW of the main square. These are the Saqsaywaman ruins – one of a host of Incan names that I am capable of remembering only for 15 seconds at a time. Cusco sits at 11,150’, and the ruins are 1000’ higher still, but living in Cuenca for so long has made me feel invulnerable to the altitude. The ruins were wonderful. I had expected that Cusco would be a good place from which to launch interesting trips, but I hadn’t understood that Cusco itself is an excellent destination.
And then, on my second day in Cusco – yesterday – I took a colectivo van out to the head of the Sacred Valley, to the little town of Pisaq. The Sunday market there is famous, but the real attraction of the site is the string of Incan ruins along a ridgetop above the town. The climb begins at the edge of Pisaq, at the foot of the ancient terraces that the Inca carved into the hillside, and ends 1800 vertical feet later, surrounded by mountains, the remains of a military settlement that was destroyed by Pizarro, and by incredible views of the terraces and of the valley below.
I leave tomorrow for the Salkantay trek – a five-day walk in the Andes that ends at Machu Picchu. I don’t know who I’ll be walking with, or how my fitness level might compare to theirs, or whether I’ll be sharing a tent with anyone – and, honestly, I hardly care. I cannot imagine that the trip will be less than superb.
On my second night in Cusco, I had dinner in a splendid restaurant that I would not normally have indulged myself in, but my mood was so good that I decided to splurge while I had the capacity to enjoy it. The things about Cusco that might bother me if I weren’t so happy all the time – the insistent touts, the swarms of tourists, the Starbucks on the main square – instead fill me with pleasure. No, my dear, no masaje for me tonight, muchas gracias. Is my taxi driver going to cross himself whenever he sweeps around a blind corner like that? I seem to have accidentally ordered a dish of honey to accompany my coffee! This state of exhilaration cannot last – it never does – but while it is alive in my mind, I am alive in the world.