One of my most memorable holidays would undoubtably be Peru. Even getting there is an adventure. Melbourne, to Auckland to Santiago (Chile), to Lima and finally Cusco. There’s not many airports in the world where they sell cans of oxygen instead of selling cartons of duty free cigarettes. The lack of oxygen hits you like a mother in law request you can’t ignore. You just have to grin and bear it. Somewhere between tipsy but with a nagging headache. But the buzz goes and the headache beckons.
Once you’re in town the place is painstakingly beautiful but the altitude doesn’t get any better. Oh and for good measure, there’s plenty of climbing up the long, steep undulating streets of Cusco. It’s so much of a work out, that you can come back and go to the gym for 3 months and STILL not be as healthy as when you got back from Cusco. So the first few days, just write off to altitude sickness. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
Being a bit adventurous we decided to up the ante and stay on the outskirts of Cusco’s old city. About 20-30 minutes from the Plaza De Armas. It doesn’t sound like much, but most streets are too narrow for cars and have steps. Having said that where we stayed had amazing views of the town, was family run and just breathtaking. It felt hundreds of years old and had a dark, almost Gothic Spanish ambience. During the day, the alleys are scattered with grandmothers selling home spun woollen beanies and scarves. At night they’re quiet and dark.
One night, my girlfriend and I were tucked in bed by 11pm. Don’t forget all that extra exercise is knackering. And only the most cocksure, energy drink guzzling singles have enough energy to party. We were just about dead to the world when we heard an English hid with the diction of Harry Potter screaming “Help! Police! They’ve got a knife!” We were almost dead to the world, but you can’t ignore someone with a certain shrill in their voice of terror. He was in deep shit. Despite my girlfriend, I decided to get dressed and head down into the alley.
The Englishman was lying on the ground, coming to. A posse of about five tourists including myself all came down to help. The Englishman’s adrenaline was palpable.
“They said give me my money. I told them to fuck off and they pulled a knife on me”. The muggers were long gone into the darkness.
“Are we going to punch on?” one of the posse asked. A thought quickly quashed as whoever pulled the knife was clearly a lot more desperate than we were. We very quickly went from revenge to help mode.
“Did they take your whole wallet?”
quickly we realised that Cusco is not the place to rely on a credit card company to post a replacement card. Being one of the highest cities in the world, I wouldn’t bet your life on reliable, cheap international postage.
“I have a copy of the card in my hotel room” the Englishman conceded. Quickly we realised the best thing a posse could do, was get him safely into the Plaza De Armas to the ATM. There he could withdraw a mother lode of cash and then cancel the card, before the muggers could trash it.
We walked through the twisted alleys and lane ways on a busy Saturday night. Each of us growing more relaxed but vigilantly looking out the corner of our eyes for the assailants. Thankfully one of the guys was an expat Aussie, also a Matt, that managed to relax the mood.
As we got the local ATM, we were in a sort of red light district. A nightclub spruiker was sleaze talking our local Matt into a night out. He was talking in his dirtiest Spanish but clearly we weren’t in the mood for tits and arse. Especially not when it was probably their brothers that mugged the Englishman.
After a late night chat with the Tourist Police, translated by Matt, our little adventure was almost over. “These back streets used to be full of dealers. Now we patrol them ourselves and they’ve cleaned up a lot” Matt said. He operated a local hostel within spitting distance of where I was saying. Evidently he still had his work cut out for him.
When the night was over it dawned on me. I probably saw the two local kids that attacked the Englishman. We were waking home from dinner and two twenty somethings are starting straight at my girlfriend and I. They stood firm in our path. Feeling a bit cocky, I gave them the thousand yard stare and thought nothing of it. Eventually they smiled and we kept walking. I couldn’t help but feel they were waiting for just a bit more darkness and someone alone. Maybe they had the decency not to mug a bloke with a girl.
We stayed in the bed and breakfast for the entire length of our stay. There was no more hassles or dramas. As we did walk home at night though, I always kept an eye out for friendly cops and guards. They will keep an eye out for you if you give them a friendly smile. You will even hear their whistle as they patrol around, their way of letting you know they are there.
Cusco is a great place. You will find amazing food, tourist kitsch and truly amazing Incan and Spanish sights. Once you climatise there’s truly unforgettable experiences. But keep your wits about you. Peru still has some darkness.