Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Cusco and Christmas

Cusco is a really pretty town, once you make it to the old center. It's all hills and narrow cobblestone streets and colonial buildings, surrounded by mountains and comfortably cool. Aside from the altitude (3500m), which makes hills extra challenging, Cusco is a fantastic town for exploring on foot, and explore we did.

That historic center is of course also the most touristic part of town, full of restaurants, shops, travel agencies, clubs and pubs - including at least two Irish pubs. We visited Paddy's a few times, drawn by the Christmassy atmosphere and the model train which circled the place every few minutes, enjoyed a cosy Internet café named Ubuntu and had some very nice meals.

In Cusco there are dozens, if not hundreds of people on the streets trying to sell trips, massages and trinkets to gringos like us - we hadn't been this popular since Mexico.

But even that had a silver lining: within ten minutes of our arrival on the main square, we were approached by a friendly young woman asking if we needed to book some tours or hotels. We mentioned the Inca trail and she promptly took off her travel agent hat and assumed the role of salesperson for KB Adventures, one of dozens of companies organizing Inca Trail hikes, that just happened to be run by a good friend of hers.

We were sceptical, but in the end we took her up on her offer, getting both the date we wanted (the 19th) and the best price we've heard of: $230 each.

Having thus sorted out our trek within 3 hours of getting off the bus, we spent the next couple of days sightseeing and hunting for hike-worthy shoes for Ewelina. Our first attempt was ultra-cheap rubber shoes which she soon discovered were too hot, then at the last minute we bought her a pair of nice brown hiking boots which she ended up wearing on the trek.


We returned from the Inca trail on the 22nd, tired but happy, looking forward to Christmas in Cusco before heading further South. We stayed that night in Hostal Rojas, where we had stayed before our trek. Rojas was a nice place, but we had fancier plans for Christmas.

We had reserved a beautiful, if expensive, room at the oddly vacant Rupa Rumi, in the charming San Blas neighborhood. It had everything we needed to make our own little Christmas: hot showers, wifi, a kitchen. The manager was a bit iffy, but we didn't expect to see him much.

Wrong! When we arrived on the morning of the 23rd, we quickly discovered that the wifi didn't work. Considering the cost of the place, and the role Skype was to play in our holiday plans, this posed quite a problem to us. We complained, and the manager made an appearence that afternoon, blaming the problem on "his employee who didn't pay the bill" and proposing to fix things by lending us a powerful wifi antennae with which he hoped to "borrow" Internet from his neighbors. Why pay when he could steal? - he joked.

When it turned out there was nothing within range he could steal, he tried calling his "friends" in nearby hotels, begging for passwords - considering his sense of humor, I was not very surprised when they refused.

At this point, Ewelina had lost her patience and quietly begun packing. I joined her. The guy wanted us to stay the night, claiming that during one of his many phone calls, the manager of Nextel in Cusco had personally promised him he would have a new working connection by morning. That sounded rather like "free Pisco Sours" to me; we kept packing.

When he realised he had lost us, he showed his true colors, first demanding we pay for the night anyway, then shouting at us to "get the fuck out of his house, right now".

Up until that moment, I had felt some sympathy for the guy, he had seemed to be really trying to fix the problem. But that was too much. We now felt we understood why the place was so empty, and wanted nothing more than to do as he so rudely demanded.


I spent the next hour looking for a new place for us, hoping for a double bed, Internet and a kitchen we could use. I failed quite miserably. When I rejoined Ewelina around sunset, empty handed, I felt like Christmas was ruined. We shouldered our packs and headed towards town, dejectedly making new plans.

But as luck would have it, we hadn't walked more than 100 meters when we passed the Koyllur hotel and Ewelina suggested we give it a try. Bingo! A cosy room, hot showers, fast wifi and best of all: friendly staff who said we were free to use their kitchen as long as we cleaned up our mess. And it was even a bit cheaper than Rupa Rumi.

Christmas was saved!

It was great. We exchanged gifts from the amazing Christmas market, chatted with our far-away families over the Internet, and cooked a fantastic little dinner together.

We shared some of the dessert with the receptionists as a thank-you for their kindness - the next day they gave us a piece of typical Peruvian cake.

So in spite of everything, Christmas in a quiet hotel was the perfect happy ending to our stay in Cusco. Thanks Koyllur!

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