The first thing I noticed when I got out of the airport in Lima was how humid and muggy the weather was. The sky was gray and thick with fog. I wanted to ask my hostel cab driver if that was normal, but he didn’t speak a word of English, and I didn’t know the Spanish word for fog. We sat in the car without saying a word, him listening to the radio and occasionally shouting into his phone. We were heading to Miraflores, a more affluent district that most tourists stay in. We drove down highways, into narrow streets, and then we came back out onto another highway right next to the Pacific Ocean. It was a magnificent sight. All I could see were teal blue water crashing onto the the shore right next to us. Then I understood why Lima was covered in fog, it was the condensation caused by the ocean waves crashing into the side of the cliffs. Clouds were forming right in front of my eyes.
My driver, who was texting and reading the newspaper at the same time didn’t bat an eyelash and for some reason I didn’t either. Previous travels have taught me driving laws are nearly nonexistent in third world countries. Plus the roads were nearly empty. Finally after about an hour of driving, we arrived to my hostel.
It was only 8am and it was too early for me to check in, so I locked my stuff up in the hostel storage, and went out for a walk to find the nearest ATM. To my surprise I saw a lot of locals going to work. It seemed like Miraflores was a town where real locals lived and worked, and tourists were the minority. Everyone was walking in a hurried pace, dressed up in business attire or some sort of uniform, and they were all heading the same way. No one really paid attention to me, which I liked.
Still, that didn’t stop me from feeling a little nervous and anxious while going to the ATM. It reminded me of my first night in Thailand. I clutched my bag closer, making sure that if someone tried to grab it and run, they wouldn’t be able to. I looked around again, making sure that no one was watching me and started to withdraw money. The Peruvian currency is called soles, and it’s about 3 soles to $1USD. I withdrew 400 soles, which was the maximum that I was allowed. If I had known, I would’ve brought more cash with me and just exchanged it. When I was done, the world appeared as it was, and I chuckled at how paranoid I was. On my way back to the hostel, I already started to feel more at ease. Miraflores was going to be a pleasant place to stay.
Over the next few days I explored the whole Miraflores by foot. I walked to the beach, I walked up and down the wide and narrow streets discovering small bakeries and restaurants, and beautiful (expensive) houses. I went on a free walking tour to downtown Lima (which is considered a more dangerous area) with some local tour guides, and learned a lot about the city. The tour guides taught us how to ride the local buses, which were very convenient and safe as long as we stayed on a certain route. We stopped by government buildings, the town square, churches, and other famous landmark buildings. It was hot in late April, and the sun was strong. I also met many other travelers from all over the world, and got to try some delicious national Peruvian dishes as well as pisco sour, a national cocktail. It was a great time.
At night I visited the famous water fountain park in downtown Lima, which was a spectacular display of lights in water. It was kind of strange to me how much electricity the Peruvian government was willing to put into this one park, but it was fun and definitely an experience for locals and tourists alike. As a side note, I noticed a lot of children staring at me, which surprised me because I was told that there were many Chinese and Japanese Peruvians in Peru including their former president.
After I got tired of walking around Miraflores, I took the bus to the next town called Barranco. It was a much older and antiquated looking district than Miraflores. Boutiques, cafes, and older style Spanish buildings lined the streets. I walked around with a friend checking out the architecture, the ocean view, and the restaurants. It was a quaint neighborhood, but definitely quieter and had less to do than Miraflores.
On my third day I flew to Cusco. Cusco is 11,000 feet above sea level, Lima is 5000, New York City is 33. Can you imagine what happens to a person when they go from such low elevation to that high? Well I’ll tell you.
Altitude sickness did not hit me until an hour after I landed in Cusco. I was in the middle of a delicious falafel and mango smoothie, when all of a sudden my stomach started to churn. I got queasy and nauseous fast. I put down my falafel and just hung onto my table for dear life. Once the queasiness settled a little bit I slowly made my way to the coca tea counter, which I was told would help, only to find out that they had just ran out of hot water! “You can go to the other one downstairs” the woman suggested. So I did. My head was spinning at this point and when I finally dragged myself to the first floor, what did I find? Another empty water station! I’m not exaggerating when I say I felt like I was dying at this point. I wanted to puke and use the toilet at the same time if you know what I mean, it was NOT a fun experience. Then I realized why there were so many people sitting around in the front yard. They weren’t sun bathing, they were all suffering with altitude sickness.
It took about 5 hours of napping, and 3 cups of coca tea, but finally I started to feel better towards the evening. Once I mustered enough strength and sanity I went outside, and for the first time I was actually able to appreciate the beauty of Cusco. The entire town was set at the foot of a mountain, and orange houses cascaded down the hills. It was a breathtaking view. I felt like I was walking around in an oil painting.
After that I walked around some more, observing the locals and tourists on the streets. I felt pretty safe. Many of the streets were cobbled and they were steep. I can see how the Spanish conquistadors and their horses had trouble climbing up these steps. I wasn’t dizzy anymore but I found myself breathing heavily with each step. Finally I found a supermarket and decided to grab some snacks and water for my trip to Machu Picchu tomorrow. Did I mention Peru has baby sized shopping carts? They should have that in the U.S.
That night I went to bed at 9 PM, sick as a dog from altitude sickness compounded by a nasty cold. I made sure to pack all the things I needed for my Macchu Picchu trip, and went to bed fully dressed because I know myself. I know that I basically cannot function as a human being when I’m asked to wake up anytime before 4 AM and definitely not when I’m sick.
The next morning I woke up to a man waving a flashlight in my face shouting, “SENORITA! SENORITA! YOU HAVE TO WAKE UP!” I had woken up AN ENTIRE HOUR late for my trip to Machu Picchu. Panic would be an underestimation of how I felt. Did I just travel this far and spent this much money to miss Machu Picchu??? I must’ve been REALLY tired and sick from the previous night to have completely missed my alarm, which for some reason I thought I should put on vibration mode (yes, I was an idiot.) The man yelled at me again, “Senorita, you must go now, must go now!” I responded, “Ok! Five minutes por favor! 5 minutes!” to which he replied,”No! Now!” I didn’t have time to brush my teeth or wash my face, so I just put on my socks and shoes and ran out the door.
Somehow, somewhere, miraculously, an angel appeared (an employee of the travel company) to help me catch a cab that raced to the edge of town to catch up with the original bus that I was suppose to be on. I never found out her name, but I swear to this day that I had a real life fairy godmother.
Needless to say the rest of that morning was a blur. All I knew was that by 9AM, I was at the entrance of Machu Picchu. A tour guide picked me up along with a group of 10 others and we toured the site. I can only describe the feeling that I got when I first saw the ancient town of Machu Picchu as elation. It really was as grand and magnificent as people made it to be. One look and I simply forgot all the stress and chaos from my morning and from life really. This moment was totally worth everything that I’ve worked for.
After my tour and making sure my passport got the Machu Picchu stamp, I went to the town of Aguas Caliente at the bottom of the mountain for lunch. I walked around town with a friend I had just made from Macau, and we browsed through the souvenir shops, and drank coffee while waiting for our train. It was a surreal moment for the both of us. We couldn’t believe that we were there, and that this was a place where people lived and got up to each morning. We observed the children on the sidewalk that were walking home from school, and I wondered if they knew how amazing of a place they lived in.
At about 5PM, I said goodbye to my new friend and boarded the train. I got back to my hostel at about 10PM that night. I was sore, I was tired, and I was sick, but I didn’t realize how sick I was because I was running on adrenaline the entire day. That night was horrible. I couldn’t sleep much because I was coughing every other minute, and I must’ve blown my nose for about 100 times. I’m sure my roommates thought I was dying. But that’s what happens when you travel sometimes. Your body has a tough time acclimating, you are exposed to different elements, the food and water is different, and your body just cannot keep up.
The next few days basically consisted of me trying to get better, and thankfully with the help of my friend and his family I was able to get proper medication and rest. I stayed at their house in a town called Saint Martin right next to the airport. That was definitely a special treat because I was able to see what a typical Peruvian house looked like and what the town was like. While I was there I never felt unsafe, but I can definitely see how it can be intimidating for a lone traveler to be in the area especially if you don’t look Peruvian or speak Spanish. I stuck out like a sore thumb and people were definitely confused about why I was there. A woman from a local Chinese restaurant actually stopped me to ask why I was there. Either way it was definitely an unique experience seeing Peru from this point of view.
Peru, you’ve been a treat, and I’ll definitely be back for more.