After the Inca Trail, we spent a few more days in Cusco. Tennille and Matt were in town, for one thing, so we spent a few days just hanging around with them.
Cusco starts to drag you down after a while, though. On the one hand, at least while we were there it was a town permanently in the middle of some kind of celebration. You could barely move for dancing kids in traditional costume every time we ventured even vaguely in the direction of the Plaza de Armas.
On the other hand, it’s a place so dependent on the tourist industry that you can barely move without having to fend off a tout of one type or another, be they selling tours you’ve already been on, or paintings or postcards you don’t want, or woolly hats (even though they can see that you’re already wearing one) or sunglasses (even though you’re also already wearing them). When a shoeshine boy approached me in the square offering to shine up my trainers we figured it was probably time to move on…
We foolishly opted to buy our tickets to Bolivia by going down to the bus station ourselves (even though it turned out that we could have bought them from an agent in town for the same price). It’s away in a dodgy part of town and turns out to be a huge room in which people behind desks shout place names at you really loudly, as if you might pop in there to buy a bottle of agua sin gas from one of the stalls, and end up with a ticket to Lima, just because a man shouted it your general direction…
Oh yes. I can’t move on from Cusco without a brief postscript to the Inca experience. We did have a couple of slight snags that deserve a mention. Our agency, Pachamama Explorers did a generally great job, with the exception of deciding to subtly raise their prices at the last minute before we left, and also leaving us semi-stranded in the middle of nowhere at the end. The bit in the middle might have been good, but unfortunately it was book-ended with the problems that I will inevitably remember…
The way back from Machu Picchu is by train, and Peru Rail likes to keep ’em separated: the super rich tourists (the Bill Gates and Clintons of the world) go to Machu Picchu on the Hiram Bingham, a luxury service with a free bar that’s a snip at just $588 for the 3 hour journey, while the regular tourists catch the Vistadome, which has panoramic windows to give them a great view of the beautiful scenery that they’re not walking through.
At the other end of the scale, after getting us up for breakfast on the final morning of the trek, the poor porters have to pack up all the gear and the tents and run (yes, run) from the campsite down to the station to catch their train, which leaves at 5:40 am. After our time at Machu Picchu is over, us backpackers catch a train called appropriately enough The Backpacker, which takes us back to Ollyantaytambo, about a 90 minute drive from Cusco. Finally, the guides catch a slow local stopping train (at a fraction of the price we pay and strictly for Peruvians only) that runs behind the backpacker. It is, as our guide Odon told us, “the system”.
It is also “the system” that all the agencies send transport to the station in Ollyantaytambo to collect their tired trekkers and take them back to their hotels, and we were told to expect a guy with a sign saying Pachamama to be waiting for us there, but apparently this bit of the system doesn’t work so well if the train is late, which is why we found ourselves wandering up and down an empty dusty street in the tiny middle-of-nowhere town with no lift in sight. When I eventually got hold of the lady at the agency (after paying some locals to borrow their mobile phone) she told me that they “never have problems with transport”, which is of course just what I wanted to hear after spending the previous 30 minutes wondering how exactly we were getting back to town. A few minutes later a bloke popped up from nowhere, pointed at us and said “Pachamama?” and went off to grab a guy who was standing next to the train station and was conspicuously not holding a sign saying Pachamama.
Tried and annoyed by this point, I threw a small gringo hissy fit as we walked to his waiting car. “How was I supposed to know that this was the guy?” I asked the pair in ungrammatical Spanish. “He has no sign!” It was only much later that it occurred to me that the reason that neither guy seemed to be able to answer this question (expect to say cryptically that “he didn’t know the name of the agency”) was that he probably wasn’t our original driver at all, and I had directed my anger at the wrong person. Oops. Sorry random taxi driver. At least we got home in the end; we just had to wait a bit longer for that first post-trek shower.
The other snag was when we went in to settle our bill on the day before the trek. When we’d booked the trek back in February, Pachamama had, like all the other agencies, quoted their prices in US$, but had asked us to pay in Peruvian Nuevo Soles. Which is fine, except that they had decided to fix the dollar/sol exchange rate at 3:1, which doesn’t quite match up to reality (at the time it was about 2.8 Sol to the dollar, which makes quite a difference when you’re paying almost $1000 for a tour and you’re trying to budget for a four month trip…)
It seems odd to me to run a business where the vast majority of your costs are in one currency but you set your prices in another. You could argue that the agencies price in dollars because the US is their major market, but if I was being cynical, I might suggest that the trekking agencies really do it because it’s traditionally been a strong currency and they can therefore subtly benefit from any increase in its value between the time people pay their deposits (which is months in advance for the inca trail), and the time they settle up. They clearly weren’t anticipating that the dollar’s value would drop so dramatically, but it didn’t seem quite fair for them to try to have it both ways by fixing the exchange rate at a level entirely unrelated to reality.
“I didn’t want to raise the prices” said Debbie from the agency, during our lengthy discussion on the subject, even though that’s effectively exactly what she’d done (as the amount we were now paying in Soles would now buy about $60 more than the amount we theoretically owed in dollars).
I was going to suggest that maybe she should consider hedging her currency risk, but she offered to meet us half way (probably more to shut us up than anything else) so I kept shtum.