|Rob Ennals > Travel > Around Peru in Seven Days|
Day 1 - Take Coke Like the Pope
by Rob Ennals
It was all Che Guevara's fault. I'd always fancied being a great revolutionary leader, and seeing as I was now 28 and had yet to overthrow any governments, I realized that it was time to give myself a kick up the arse. This led me to draw up a grand plan, to follow in Che's footsteps by riding a motorcycle across South America, see the world, and maybe liberate a few countries along the way.
After short confrontation with reality, and tiny US holidays, this morphed into a one week holiday in Peru, meeting up with Simon Freytag, who was in the process of doing a year-long tour of the world. But this was to be no normal one week holiday, our avowed intention being to see every famous site in Peru in one week.
By the time I arrived at Cuzco airport I'd been awake for 27 hours. Despite great efforts to sleep on the plane, I'd failed. Somehow sleeping in uncomfortable places was a skill that I'd never managed to pick up. This, combined with the fact that Cusco is at an altitude of 11,600ft (3,500m), meant that I was feeling rather tired.
Simon was undeterred and assured me that I'd feel fine in a few minutes. He whisked me by taxi to a local cafe, where we ordered an enormous tea-pot jam packed full of small green leaves, soaked in steaming hot water. This was coca-tea, the Peruvian magic potion. After two large cups of this liquid, I found myself feeling much more awake and ready to do exciting things. I'd always wondered what it was that Getafix fed to Asterix, and now I thought I probably knew.
The active ingredient in coca tea is cocaine, but only a very small amount. The average cup of coca tea is reported to contain only around 5mg of cocaine, compared to 50-100mg for a typical line of cocaine powder. It is also released into the body much more gradually, resulting in a feeling of awakeness, rather than any kind of high. It's a drug so tame that it was even used by Pope John-Paul II during visits to South America.
Now that I had woken up, it was time to go to Ollantaytambo, the Inca village where Simon was staying. We grabbed one of Cusco's many boy-racer taxis and took a quick ride to the bus station. Unlike Taxis in most parts of the world, which try to appear safe and respectable, Taxis in Cusco go out of their way to seem likely to kill you. Most taxis were kitted out like rally cars, complete with racing seats, fancy lighting, and flame logos painted on the sides.
Like many third-world countries, Peruvian roads are quite an exciting place to be. Officially, cars drive on the right hand side of the road, but in practice this is merely advisory. Cars typically take the inside line on corners, irrespective of whether it was "their" side of the road, or whether it was a blind corner. It is not uncommon to see cars going in opposite directions pass each other on the "wrong" side. The concept of "right of way" is also somewhat vague, the rule of thumb being "hold your line, and swerve if someone is about to hit you". Naturally, none of the cars have seat-belts.
As we got on the bus, a young local man got up to give me his seat. Simon told me that this was normal. "I've tried telling them I don't want their seat, but there isn't much use. They insist that we sit, even the old people.". It was nice to be able to have a seat, but I couldn't help thinking of Rosa Parks and civil rights. This turned out to be a portent of a wider trend we would observe later. Wherever we went in Peru, there seemed to be a feeling that the locals felt themselves to be inferior to the gringos - as if the spanish conquistadors had hit these people so hard that they had yet to pick themselves off the floor and were still looking up meekly at their former conquerers hoping we wouldn't hit them again.
Soon, we arrived in Ollantaytambo and Simon led me to the house where he was living. Simon had been having quite an adventure. After working as a consultant in the UK for several years, Simon had come to realize that he didn't actually enjoy being a consultant, and that there were more exciting things he could be doing with the greatest years of his life than restructure the business processes of financial institutions. It was with this in mind that Simon had set off on a year-long holiday. He had sailed a yacht from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, taken a jaunt around the South American coast, and had now been living in an Inca village in Peru for a month, doing volunteer work for a friend's charity. Simon told me his plans to become a film producer on his return to England, and, since Simon is one of those rare people who tends to do the things he says he is doing to do, I imagine he will indeed do that.
Simon also gave me an update on our current transport situation. As I would later discover is often the case in Peru, things hadn't turned out quite the way they were supposed to. Our original plan had been to hire a car and use it to drive around the country. With this in mind, Simon had arranged for a tour operator to provide him with a selection of several vehicles that he could inspect that day. Unfortunately, when he arrived, the tour operator was surprised to see him actually turn up, and didn't have any vehicles to show him. After exploring several alternative car-hire plans, we eventually came to the conclusion that we were going to have to do this trip by coach.
This was a problem. I had done my packing on the assumption that we would have a car, and thus had brought all my luggage in a large, hard, wheeled suitcase. We soon realized that the only option was for me to repack my clothes in one of Simon's backpacks and have me buy a new suitcase when I left from Lima airport. I soon found myself regretting having brought all the unnecessary items that I had brought along purely to fill up extra space in my suitcase, which I was now going to have to carry on my back for a week.
Now that our logistics were at least vaguely understood, it was time to explore the town.
Ollantaytambo is a strange little place. In same ways it is a time warp, a small Inca village cut off from the modern world, but in other ways, it is a haven of the west, a stopping post on the way to Machu Picchu, the biggest tourist destination in Peru. This could be seen in the numerous English signs, advertising "Cold Bear" or "Dawn Load", and in the suprisingly large ex-pat population, including an old friend of Simon's who had gone native, married a local, and was now raising a daughter in the village.
The buildings are still essentially the way the Incas left them, complete with an Inca water supply in the form of a diverted stream flowing through special channels that route it past the front of all the houses. This stream serves as both water supply and sewer. It is where you drink, where you wash your clothes, and also where you pour your waste. I made sure to keep a good stock of bottled water.
Our first excursion in Ollantaytambo was to the Sun Temple, the main tourist site in Ollantay, and a place of great importance in the history of the Inca people. Like most Inca sites, the Sun temple consisted of stone terracing, a collection of strange little buildings, and a number of things that align with other things during an equinox.
After a few hours spent wandering round the temple and the surrounding countryside, it was time to buy food for tomorrow.
The local market revealed another of the strange principles of peruvian life that would perplex me for the rest of the trip. The market consisted of large number of stalls, each of which represented a different farm, and each of which sold almost exactly the same selection of items. There was no attempt at division of labour, or of collective organization. I wondered why they didn't have just one person selling the produce from all the farms, or why the farms didn't agree to each produce only one product, thus improving their efficiency. I eventually came to the conclusion that, in fact, the Peruvians didn't particularly care about efficiency. This was reinforced later on, when I was told that hard work has considered a key virtue by the incas. If hard work is a virtue, why go to the bother of avoiding it by being more efficient...
For dinner, I was keen to try "Cuy", the famous Peruvian guinea pig dish. After locating a restaurant that claimed to sell it, we discovered that actually the didn't have it. Accepting the bait-and-switch, we chose to stay in the restaurant, but instead eat Alpacha, which was quite delicious - somewhere between goat and venison. The restaurant was clearly aimed at tourists and, like most of our visits to tourist restaurants, we were the only people eating there - Simon speculated that, since the amounts tourists pay for food are so great by local standards, a restaurant only needs to have one customer every few days in order to make a healthy profit.
After a brief meet up with some other ex-pats in a local bar, it suddenly got dark. Since Ollantay is near the equator, it gets dark strikingly quickly. And since Ollantay has no lights, once it gets dark, it gets very dark indeed, making it difficult to do anything useful. We thus retired to Simon's apartment, to plot our holiday, and to sleep.