Taking the Long Way to Cuzco

Gabriel Goldstein
Aug 17, 2019 · 20 min read


It took us two hours this morning just to get out of Lima, that interminable city where one out of every three Peruvians live. Traveling on a quite comfortable Wari Palomino bus, up the mountains to the city of Ayacucho. Figured out that the front seats, the panoramicos, afford a widescreen view of the landscape, and will try to sit here every chance I get. After escaping the clutches of megalopolis traffic, we ride two more hours south along the coast. More barren desert, naked hills, dirt sand planet, chicken warehouses, desolate farmsteads of dust. Green life in the river valleys, growing corn, growing cotton, but for the most part, this is the Sahara on the Pacific.

I am trying my best to ignore the third movie of the day, some kind of dystopian cop B-movie with Will Smith. The twist is that his partner, along with many other characters, are in fact Orcs, in addition to the presence of Elves, who are like the elite in the world of the movie. It’s like someone said: “I know, let’s combine Lord of the Rings with an LA buddy cop flick!” I can’t believe this movie was made.

At one certain river we turn east and up and have been following that river ever since. Three hours slowly up and up following a blue river. Eventually even the mountains themselves are tinted green, with plants again — albeit dry plants. There are little mountain villages, the astounding appearance of random trees. Feels medicinal to be back in the mountains after eight nights on the desert coast. It’s better up here. The air is better. The earth is living.

Up and up past the tree-line, we make a pass high in the Andes, and then we are on mostly level ground for the next three hours. I have decided to take the long way to Cuzco: ten hours up to Ayacucho, five to Andahuaylas, three more to Abancay, and then eight more to the Inca heartland, the navel of the world. I’ll do it in four days, all to avoid a single twenty-four hour bus, which is in some ways a strange choice, given that I have limited time left to travel. Soon I will be living in a city in Perú, a city I have never yet set foot in.


Been a fairly rough day so far, my first in Ayacucho, but I feel like I’ve made it over the hump. Sitting in a shaded spot in the combi lot, waiting for a van to take me to the Huari archaeological site. Sharing a bench with a rounded middle aged indigenous woman wearing a felt hat and white dress embroidered with flowers in colored lines. She had been calling out to people, selling bags of canchita — popcorn — but is now taking a break. I am off the beaten path, off the Gringo Trail. There may be other foreign travelers in this town, but I have not seen them.

Pulled into the terminal here last night at 8:30 pm, the ten hour trip from Lima turned into eleven and a half. Por supuesto. Got a taxi from the station as we were two miles from the centro, a gregarious guy in an unmarked Toyota. He convinced me not to stay where I’d been planning, said there were too many borrachos, drunks. Was very interested at the sight of my tent, asking if rain passes through it, offered me $150, which is probably a good price, but I need to keep it, as it is the closest thing I have to a home. He seemed disappointed, took me to a little hole in the wall hospedaje three blocks from the Plaza.

Inside a young man slid open a tiny little window in the wall. Quince soles, he said, a very good price for a single room. It was true, a little less than five bucks. The room wasn’t dirty, and I was too tired to look around at other places, so I took it. The walls seemed very thin, like they might fall down if you leaned against them, and the hall bathroom was the kind of place where you don’t want to touch anything. So it goes. Outside of my room was a rat’s nest of narrow hallways, doors ajar, TVs on inside, battered furniture in the corridor that no one sits on. Went out and walked a couple blocks to a pedestrian street that was surprisingly full of people at almost ten at night.

Found a cheap, unassuming restaurant and got half a pizza with pepperoni and olives, nothing special but it filled the belly. Even mediocre pizza is still pizza. Back to my room, feeling shaken by the long bus ride and nine thousand feet of elevation gain, I went to bed despite blaring TVs and loud conversations in adjacent rooms.

Somewhere around 4 the noise woke me up, still going strong, and my first thought was, “this is a shitty hotel.” Dozed on and off until 5:30 when the man in the next room began a shouting cell phone conversation, mostly in Quechua. I became angry, banged on the wall, yelled “Por Favor! es muy temprano!” None of this had any effect; after fifteen minutes I went to his door and banged on that too. The conversation went on for over an hour, despite my periodic banging and yelling, and a woman down the hall yelling too. The only response I got was once when he came over and banged on the other side of the wall. I guess you get what you pay for.

Fell back asleep when he went out around 6:45, and woke up again to a maid cleaning the hallways and singing at 8, which is when I was planning to get up anyway. But by now I was exhausted and bitter. Within half an hour I was out of the place, looking for other lodgings, walking the streets with my bags. Had the illuminating experience of having my bags weighed at the bus terminal in Lima yesterday. Not counting my bag of food I generally carry, my big and small backpacks weigh a combined 25.7 kilos, or fifty six and a half pounds. I’d been wondering how much it was I was carrying. I’ve gotten used to it, but it’s a lot.

Found a bunch of hotels and hostels for way too much money, without available rooms. In a town where backpackers don’t go, there were either fancy rooms for $20–30 a night, out of my budget, or horror shows for $5–7. By ten o’clock, I was fading in the hot sun, doused with sweat, getting very discouraged. I’d also been walking around with my pack for about an hour longer than is recommended.

Ayacucho had turned out to be a charming, if gritty mountain town, great plazas and pedestrian streets, unadorned colonial architecture. This place had been the stronghold of the Shining Path terrorist group, so for many years it was considered off limits to tourists. I was happy to be there. But it didn’t seem like the town wanted me. Even considered just taking a taxi out to the bus terminal, but I was in no condition to get on an 8 hour bus. I needed to sit down and take off my bags, get a caffeinated beverage. A cup of tea in these parts was not going to be satisfactory, so when I saw a sign in one of the cafes on the plaza for chocolate caliente, I was sold.

Took up a whole corner of the little cafe with my bags, got a chocolate with canela and clavo, and a sanguche de lechon, a roasted pork sandwich, with a huevo frito. Just stopping and taking off my bags, drinking a good beverage out of the sun, did me a world of good. Putting decent food in my belly was redemptive. Walked back out into the late morning with renewed determination to find that good place to stay, feeling… if not the sensation of new legs, then at least not old, tired ones.

Decided to get farther away from the plaza, and four blocks down the hill I came across the Hostal Tres Máscaras, where a kindly older woman said they had rooms for thirty soles. The room wasn’t ready yet, but the slightly disheveled but green courtyard looked like paradise compared to where I’d been. I paid for a night, left my bags in a storage room and walked across town to this little gated lot where the combis leave for Huari. After forty minutes waiting, we have enough passengers to make the trip.

The ride out to the site follows a little river valley, the hills dry and rocky, but with green all over them, cactus and scrub trees and dry grass; a far cry from the barren coast. What would have looked like desert to me a month ago now was oasis. Down in the valley bottom it was lovely, plots of green farmland, willow trees. Could have been the canyonlands of Utah or the state of Santander in Colombia. Ruins of adobe brick houses, working farms, horses grazing. That good feeling when it’s hot and dry with a cool breeze, the rivers clean and rocky. Good country.

When I arrived at the ancient city of Huari, the site was closed, a few local women selling handicrafts outside the locked gate. “Estan comiendo,” one of them said — they’re eating — “abre a las dos.” And so I wandered around the impressive stone exterior walls of the site, looking out at a valley full of prickly pear cactus, tuna they call it, the most I’d ever seen in one place. A few women with baskets tied to their backs picking the red fruit. This was a very dry place, hilly desert land, except for at the narrow river a good long ways below, where it was green.

This place had once been the capital of a vast kingdom, the biggest in the history of the Andes before the Incas, with a significant urban center of perhaps fifty thousand people. Which is a lot for the ancient world. Either there had been a different, much wetter climate here, or these people had been masters at living in this environment, finding, storing and conserving water. Probably both. I came back to the gate, still closed, to sit in the shade of the building. An older man in a vest and a hat, clearly a guide, came up to me and asked in Spanish what I was doing.

Esperar, I said. Escribir, he said. Si. Un libro? Maybe…a journal. I asked if he was a guide, and whether I could ask him some questions. Claro, he said. I noted how dry it was here, and asked how so many people were able to live in this desert. This is what you can learn about on the tour, he said — thirty soles. I told him it was too much for me, and he asked me Por que? and I said that I was traveling for a long time. He said I should travel for less time and take the tour, and then walked away. No answers would be given for free.

Begrudgingly, the guards opened up the gates to the site. A meager one room museum: some painted pottery, copper hair pieces, the stone parts of some clubs and maces, a few maps, and signs all in rambling Spanish. A decent map of the site. Apparently this empire covered most of the coast and highlands of modern day Perú. A skeleton in mummy position, knees hugged to the chest. It always feels wrong to me, for this poor human, probably a prisoner, who not only had the bad luck to be sacrificed by other humans, but now to be looked at in a case. This place is even worse funded than La Huaca de la Luna. It is amazing to me that absolute treasures of archaeological sites like this are left to fend for themselves, mostly unexplored, decaying out in the elements, when they are the common wealth of all humanity.

Ventured out into the ruins. Most of the city has been swallowed up by the earth: humans have not inhabited it since 1000 CE. A million stones, covered with dry dirt and lived on by a jungle of tuna cactus, an army of it. It was as if the cactus was slowly absorbing all the remnant energies of this city that lasted for five hundred years and at one time was probably the most powerful center on the continent.

The already dry climate had gone through an extended drought over centuries and turned to desert, and the people eventually abandoned it. It seems to be the case with most of these ancient cities that some environmental factor helps bring about its end. Usually something to do with water: mother nature generally gets her way. Looking at piles of rock amidst the cactus, I wondered what our cities would look like if they were abandoned for a thousand years. In the year 3000. Probably not much. Asphalt and concrete break and crumble, drywall and and soft-wood lumber disintegrate, metals rust. They’ll know us from all the plastic we left behind. And our nuclear waste will still be going strong.

The city went on and on — buildings and walls cropping out of the earth as far as the eye could see. Only 15% of the site has been unearthed, let alone fully excavated or studied. Even the majority of fully excavated sections were closed off with barbed wire. Apparently it’s just too expensive to maintain the areas for tourists: they can’t afford to show these parts.

You just walk around the periphery of the fences and peer down into the past. The Templo Mayor was an open plaza with two shallow long buildings on each side, a semi-circle structure at one end with what appear to be seats built into the rock walls, a short white obelisk in the center. It looks very much like a ceremonial meeting place for a large council. At the top was a giant thick slab of grayish-white stone; now sinking into the earth from its weight. Farther up above that, a sacrificial table with a raised lip around the edges, presumably to catch the blood: a twenty-foot long single block of stone.

The twenty foot exterior stone walls of the city were likely the only thing visible before excavation. Aside from the templo, there were two large areas of deep tombs you could only look into. The most interesting thing about these were that the interior stone work was entirely different from anything else on the entire site. Whereas everything was rough rock connected with mud masonry, these were square-cut blocks fitted together by shape, much more like Inca stonework. It was as if that level of quality was reserved for the dead.

I wandered around the extensive ruins for an hour more, finding another section of tombs farther up the dry hillside, looking out over the valley. Sat there for awhile, pondering the passage of time, the ephemeral nature of empires and any kind of human ambition. It makes it all seem pretty vain, the things we think are important and strive after. And yet, the strivings of these people over a thousand years ago can still be seen — these humans made a mark on the earth. Then I walk back through the forest of cactus living atop all those stones to sit by the road and wait for a combi back to Ayacucho.

Turns out my room at the Tres Mascaras was excellent, high ceilings, a writing desk, comfortable bed with three blankets. It opened up on an arcade hallway, and on the other side of the railing was a garden courtyard full of plants and a big green parrot in a cage. The perico says “hola” and will scream if no one answers. If I wasn’t on my way I would stay here for a week and write. The señora who owns and manages the place seems a little eccentric, maybe a bit meddlesome, but it’s a damn good room. She has two friendly little dogs, Oso and Lukas, who she talks in funny voices to, and run up and down the hallways.

After a dinner of bland pasta bolognesi at a family restaurant upstairs from the main pedestrian street, on my way back I bought a couple Tres Cruces beers and settled in to watch, over the hostel wifi on my little ten-inch ASUS laptop, the Warriors get blown out by the Rockets in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. Depressing. Win some, lose some. Houston had home-court advantage, the W’s had stolen that by winning Game 1 — which I’d watched my last night in Lima — but the Rockets had come back with a vengeance, and looked dominant in a game that felt further apart than the 22 point outcome. It looked like it was going to be a long series.

I decided I needed to stay another night here in Ayacucho. This room is too good to leave. It will be good to get an extra day of rest in preparation for fifteen more hours to Cuzco. I walked over to the other side of the garden where the woman lived, and rang the timbre to tell her I was staying. Then I came back to my room and wrote for some hours on the computer about crossing the border of Costa Rica and Panama, and now wrote awhile more in my cuaderno with the bright orange cover that says Standford, about now. The idea tomorrow was to go to the battlefield outside of town where General Sucre delivered the finishing blow on the last Spanish armies of South America, but given that I’ve stayed up past three writing, it’s looking unlikely.


Road to Andahuaylas, PE-35 Longitudinal Sierra Sur 5/18/18

A half hour out of Ayacucho, in a very comfortable, and fairly expensive combi. These passenger vans which end up being the main form of transport in much of mountainous Perú are not all created equal. This one has individual cushy seats, rather than the shared benches in the more utilitarian ones, with headrests even, so you can lean back, all of which make for a good ride, not to mention the view of climbing farther into the Andes.

We are in the mountains above the city, dry but green, eucalpytus grover, a lot of the young trees with those unearthly silvery blue leaves. When we take curves to the left, I can see Ayacucho off in the distance below, a city’s worth of windows reflecting morning sun.

I felt generally comfortable in that town. Worthy of further time. Yesterday I slept in and got up in time for lunch. Walked up a few blocks and found a fantastic menu lunch: a filet of trucha, white beans, rice and a cabbage onion salad. Amazingly I found a shade spot in the plaza — a precious commodity under the sun of these latitudes — and sat awhile and read my book. It’s called Shadow of the Wind, a Spanish novel set in Barcelona after the Spanish Civil War. Never heard of it before, just happened upon it in the book exchange at my hostel in Lima. It is haunting. Sadly I am reading it in English; not ready for novels in español.

Went back to the hotel and whiled away the afternoon, did my handicapping for the Preakness Stakes. Though I had no business gambling any money, I’d done well on the Kentucky Derby two weeks before, and couldn’t stand to leave while I was ahead. So under the guise of further developing my (amateur) handicapping system, the GHI, I spent a few hours calculating averages of Beyer speed scores and Late US time forms and the like, until the sun started to go down. In the evening I went out for a greasy dinner of pollo and fries, perhaps the most popular meal in every country I’d been in, and stocked up on cash, water, cigarettes and snacks for the journey ahead.

When I laid down eventually, I couldn’t sleep, one of those nights where my mind just won’t stop running and wandering, poking into things. It’s like periodically my brain needs to do a full assessment and consideration of all memories and plans lying around the cluttered rooms of my mind. As if I’d had way too much caffeine, but I hadn’t had any tea since early afternoon. Long lost people, reliving memories from years ago and earlier on this journey, thinking through plans and logistics and moneys and starting teaching in a couple weeks. Stop, I’d tell my brain. Sleep. Rest. And then I’d just start thinking about the next thing, and off I’d go. Thus my plan to be well-rested was foiled. Somewhere in the wee hours I sank amidst the flurry of thoughts and slept.

It’s dry up here at the crest of these mountains, high plains of short brown grass studded with gray rock, occasional protected hollows of purple and deep golden yellow wildflowers, alpine. Air cool and crisp. The soundtrack for our ride is mostly what must be Peruvian traditional popular music: guitar or harp, lots of pan flute, female singing in Quechua or Spanish, in this high warbling trill that is vaguely reminiscent of Indian music. Then, of course, the same damn reggaeton songs I’ve been hearing since Mexico, and the same variety of generic cumbia rock they’ve been playing since Panama, though I think each country has its own versions.

We stop at a gas station and everyone but me buys bags of popcorn or puffed rice from a woman outside the store selling various items. Street food in Perú is so informal — often they don’t even have a table, just selling things out of bags on the ground. The van is full of munching and a comforting, grainy smell. Strange to look out and see so much open space, not even livestock grazing. It would appear that there are many places along the Andes in this country, without any water, where no one lives. Is it possible that no one even owns these lands? Are there places like that left in the world?

A big bright blue sky, occasional puffy clouds. Naked land for hours. Wild light-brown alpacas of some kind, either vicuñas or guanaco. I can’t tell the difference. They’re light-limbed, with patches of white fur. Wary while grazing on dry plants, ready to bound off into the desert distance. Like deer, but they weren’t. A big brown falcon on a rock, surveying. The indigenous woman next to me is knitting something green. There’s something about this country, about the colors, the elements, that seem somehow more real than other places.

I kept seeing this lighter-colored ribbon over the plains, a forty foot wide, perfectly laid out swath out on the mountainsides. Couldn’t help thinking that it must have been an Inca road. It definitely looked like some kind of road had once been there, but it was way too wide to have been a colonial road, and besides, only the Incas made roads like that. Roads that refuse to curve, absolutely straight, mountains be damned, go straight up. No switchbacks. There were also these occasional big circles as tall as a man made of stones, too wide in diameter to be the foundation of ruins. Maybe they were llama pens. I got this strong feeling that if you put something here, it would still be there in a thousand years.

Then we came over one last crest, and down into a sheltered hillside valley, trees and farmland and a village of whitewashed adobe brick houses, red ceramic tejada roofs. Corn fields tucked inbetween houses. We stopped at a lunch place outside of town, even though we’d only been driving a few hours. Very few things, it would seem, warrant interfering with mealtimes in these parts. It’s quite civilized, really. A healthy sense of priorities.

I decided to try something new and ordered olquillito con carne, not really understanding what it was. Turned out to be a plate of julienned potatoes in a broth, some little bits of stewed beef, next to a towering mountain of rice. Too much starch! Where are the vegetables? I’ve seen them at the markets — they’re tremendously good here.

Continued down and down, switchbacks dropping off into space, until we crossed the Rio Pampas, a pale green fast moving river, willows and greenery lush along its high banks. And then it was back up again. Following a tributary river, through little villages and one decent sized town, finally up above the trees again, more high plain, which I’m assuming is what they call altiplano. Black sharp-beaked rocky mountains above us, certainly an apu, spirit peak, among them, some potato fields, sheep grazing. Looking down along this long valley, even higher peaks can be seen in the far distance, snowcapped, the first I’ve seen since Ecuador. Every kilometer takes us deeper and deeper into the heart of Perú.


Abancay, Terminal Terrestre 5/19/18

Late morning, sitting in the terminal waiting area, orange light coming through a dusky old skylight. There’s a battle raging between the barkers at the various bus companies, like an auction cattle call or a mercado with ladies calling out their foodstuffs. Para Lima-Lima-Lima-Lima-Lima-Lima. Para Cuz-Cuz-Cuz-Cuz-Cuzco! Para Lima-Lima-Cuzco-Lima! Andahuaylas-huaylas-huaylas! At best, they take turns; at worst, they’re all doing it at the same time. It is, at first, charming and eccentric, but after a while, incessant, maddening.

This will be the last leg of my crossing. Supposedly Cuzco is only four hours away, though I’ve learned better than believing transport companies’ time estimates. I have a seat on a real bus this time, after two combis yesterday, a ticket on Expreso Los Chankos — Servicio Imperial, and a ticket for the navel of the world according to the Incas, the city shaped like a jaguar. I am beyond excited to see it and as much of the Sacred Valley as I can. For now, it’s just bus station humans coming and going, Para Lima-li-ma-li-ma-li-ma-li-ma, caballero-dama li-ma li-ma!

I passed a good night here in Abancay. Got in at seven, after dark, and dragged myself six blocks up a steep hill — it appears the whole town is a steep hill. Up to the centro, dusty, crowded streets with narrow sidewalks, full of people walking around at night, a good sign but difficult to navigate with my pack on, taxis all honking all the time, an annoyance I’ve almost stopped noticing. Talked the clerk at the Hotel Imperial down to thirty soles for a habitacion sencillo. Went out to an upstairs restaurant the clerk recommended for a half decent spinach and mushroom pizza, though the mushrooms came from a can; a jar of chicha morada, the purple corn beverage which I’ve really come to like, read further into my mystery novel about mysterious lost books.

There was time to make my bets for the Preakness tomorrow (today), write an email to an old friend who had just moved to Chicago, and sleep like a baby in my hard bed for nine hours. After a good hot shower this morning, the hot(ish) water lasting just long enough, and a couple little sanguches I bought at the restaurant across the street from the terminal, I am as refreshed as could be hoped. It seems to be a universal thing in this country, these small sandwiches on pita-like bread, the standard offer being queso, huevo or palta (what they call avocados). Of course my gringo instinct was to combine two of the options, and people are willing enough to sell me a queso-huevo or even all three. But the price for a queso-huevo is double, and you only have one sandwich vs. two, so I’ve learned not to try and change the system.

I’d love to stay in this area longer. Somewhere in the towering, near vertical mountains above town is Choquequirao, which is supposed to be one of the best treks in the country. Two days hiking in and two days out, up and down from jungle canyons to high peaks, gets you to a not-long-ago-discovered Inca settlement on a mountainside that was an imperial residence. It looks from pictures to be remarkably intact, in a stunning location, like a poor man’s Machu Picchu but without all the people there. But I’d never heard of it until Ayacucho, so I didn’t budget the time, and my days are limited now. I’m due in Arequipa in nine days.

The Great Southern Migration

in which the author journeys over land from Virginia to Uruguay

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store