Another casualty of my SD card loss is I have no photos from Lake Titicaca.
The border crossing at Puno may be the most chaotic I’ve seen anywhere. The Bolivian and Peruvian customs stations are well apart from each other and separated by a bridge, but in the middle, Puno’s business continues unabated. Everywhere there’s produce, and chickens, and electronics, and tire repair shops, and everybody’s running back and forth in a swirling crowd of low-end commerce. Our bus can’t get through it, so it drops us off near the Bolivian consulate, and we’re left to get our passports stamped there, and make it through town and to Peruvian customs, then find the bus somewhere on the other side. Nothing is marked, and the town is almost labyrinthine. The whole experience feels like playing a Call of Duty map for the first time, except with merchants taking the place of enemy soldiers. There’s some uncertainty as to whether we ended up in the right place, but the bus picks up in due course.
As for the lake itself, there’s the option to check out some floating islands out on the lake, but I skip it. From everything I hear it’s a complete tourist spectacle. I’m not the kind of person who seeks out exclusively authentic experiences while traveling, but completely manufactured fake cultural productions are not my interest.
The land beyond Titicaca is barren and dry. We stop briefly at a roadside oasis for some food and bathrooms and I’m introduced to a new characteristic of rural Peru: toilets without toilet seats. By now it’s hard to faze me about these things and I adjust quickly.
Ten hours after leaving La Paz, I’m in Cusco.
I don’t know if Cusco is the best-preserved colonial city I’ve visited, but it’s certainly the one packaged up best for Americans. I have barely met any in the past three months, but this town is crawling with them. For some reason, Machu Picchu seems to be the one approved, non-scary destination in South America for the general American public. Lining the main square are not only two massive colonial churches, but also McDonald’s, Starbucks, and a KFC – though to the city’s credit, the signage is very discreet, and you’d only know they were there if you went looking for them.
While I’ll confess to eating at McDonald’s once while I was in town, the Peruvian food is a welcome change from bland Patagonian cuisine. I’m a fan of lomo saltado at the local restaurants, but my favorite meals are anticuchos – the local variant of my all-time travel favorite: meat on a goddamn stick. An old lady a couple blocks outside the main square sells them for a buck or so. Beef is the safe choice, but over a few days I cultivate an appreciation for sticks of corazon – beef heart.
With a week or so to kill before I need to be in Lima, my plan is to book a trek to Machu Picchu. If you want to do the Inca Trail you have to book way in advance, and my schedule was never solid enough to commit to a specific date. The good news is that there are other treks you can book on short notice, and the one that seems right to me is the Salkantay. I book it through my hostel for about $250, which is really not bad considering that it covers a guide, porters, all your meals for five days, tent rental, the actual Machu Picchu entrance, and transport.
Having booked the trip, I have a couple days to relax. I make friends with, of all things, a Czech dude who also favors black button down shirts, although we are easily distinguished by our relative affinity for weed. He has a local friend though who is a good dude to explore the admittedly very touristy nightlife in Cusco. Also aggressive is my hostel, Loki, which as always is 90% wild college age kids and three or four people squeezing this trip in before they get too old for this nonsense. I get mildly into the spirit of things by painting myself with glow-in-the-dark paint before heading out to the Temple Bar, a dumpster fire of a dance party not too far from the main square.
One mild disaster befalls me in Cusco. Throughout my travels, toilet amenities have been suspect at best, so I always have some backup TP with me at almost all times. While at a Starbucks skyping with Shannon in advance of our Lima meeting, it seemed like a good time to take advantage of high-end facilities. Who could have imagined that the stall would not have any toilet paper in it? I don’t mean it was out. I’m talking no toilet paper holder at all. I realized this all too late. Fortunately I still had some 2 Argentine peso notes in my wallet, which really are good for little else. Turns out the TP dispenser was outside the stall; you have to estimate your needs in advance, I guess.