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Peru without a guide

The splendour of Cusco.

The splendour of Cusco.

In the first of a series of three travelogues, Mark Strijbosch is left slightly baffled as he travels from Lima, through rivers and lakes, until he’s finally on a long trek to Machu Picchu via Cusco, one of the country’s finest, highest and coldest cities.

The next four weeks of my life would end up being among my most challenging and tough adventures so far. My hands and arms are still itching from the constellations of mosquito bites that make them look like I have been attacked by a ferocious dog.

Peru is a country that initially left me a little baffled. Hoards of tourists head here yearly, squeezing in between the most popular months of May to November. Yet, despite no obvious shortage of tourism, everything is for sale, and everyone foreign-looking face represents a dollar sign to the local.

They will offer to polish your shoes at any opportunity, sell you sunglasses when you are still wearing yours, tease you with all sorts of food that would make you B line to the nearest rest room instantly, tempt you with thousands of look-alike traditional clothes made from alpaca and above all will throw ridiculous prices to maximise profit. Don’t only prepare your wallet but prepare to negotiate for every sole out there, especially at the local markets – one of each city’s glorious highlights.

By means of an introduction, we were rushed from the airport to our first hostel in Miraflores by the angriest and fastest driver. After 40 minutes of this I felt I could have returned home after the adventure of my life. This set the tone for the rest of the trip, which included miles of trekking, amazing surf, climbing (both with and without ropes), zip lining and whitewater rafting.

We asked life for an adventure, and Peru certainly delivered. When we asked to slow down, Bolivia was an excellent pit stop, with its fascinating colours and natural beauty.

I’ll take you from Lima to the desert, from dunes to rivers, to lakes and finally up a massively long trek to Machu Pichu, via the culinary experience of Cusco, one of the country’s finest, highest and coldest cities.

We surfed in Miraflores, dune-boarded in Huachachinea, whitewater rafted in Arequipa and climbed in Cusco. After all the adventures, Cusco came calling; we had intended to use this as our base for the projected highlight of the trip: the journey to Macchu Pichu.

Every single tourist loves Cusco. This city has a heartbeat of its own and is truly lovely. Tiny streets branch out from the Spanish colonial plaza in dizzy directions, with the locals painting their little houses and streets in all colours.

Our hostel was based in San Blas, and just like Gozo’s namesake, this little area was just perfect. Located on a low hill, San Blas had commanding views of the city underneath it and a hike around the area can give you perfect viewpoints, as we discovered while sneaking past the park’s security guard.

Due to the massive amount of tourism, Cusco has in some ways sadly sold its soul, and everything has a price. Virtually all the locals work in tourism, selling all sorts of tours to different areas and regions. Little tourist traps are all too common here, but with tourism it’s easy to see why.

We asked life for an adventure, and Peru certainly delivered

Digging our heels in, we always bought food from the local market and often cooked our own Peruvian meals. Cities in Peru have two markets, one for the locals and a bigger one which attracts tourists. Here, you can buy your Inca outfit, your souvenirs and all the alpaca jumpers you need. Prices here are sometimes double those of the local market, but because it is more visible, the sheepy tourist will head there and will pay over the odds. The little commadores, off the beaten track, are an experience in themselves and probably the main attraction in Cusco.

Hearing the sizzling pans as women prepare for Sunday lunch in San Blas is magically relaxing.

Mark Strijbosch (centre) with friends en route to Machu Picchu, which included miles of trekking, surf, climbing, zip lining and whitewater rafting.Mark Strijbosch (centre) with friends en route to Machu Picchu, which included miles of trekking, surf, climbing, zip lining and whitewater rafting.

Clinically white walls cordon each little individual kitchen off each house, a mother and at times her baby. The market is organised with the purchasing goods packed in the middle, housing the chefs on the borders of the walls.

Unlike any other market, I felt this was peaceful and the cooking instantly makes you feel happy and gives you a sense of homecoming. The smiling mothers have each made their little quarters their own, and each dish is seasoned with love, bursting with enough flavour to tempt you to try every dish possible.

Those white walls give the place a sense of order and you feel the locals do not mess about when it comes to their food. Each tiny little kitchen corner is fully equipped with a sink, oven hobs, the suez chef and her master chef.

Twenty minutes before noon, I snuck my order in, before the massive onslaught began. As the minutes ticked by, the intensity of the sizzles grew louder and a sense of urgency gripped the chefs. No sweat, no panic, just faster chopping adding to the cocktail of wonderful sounds produced by the synchronised intense cooking.

Just imagine about 30 versions of our grandmothers cooking together, each with their own old pots bubbling away, enhancing the amazing, sensual experience.

As we moved closer to midday, scores of little Peruvian kids poured in, hungry after school and each was served with what could be the healthiest school lunch possible. Having a market near the schools can give the children all the substances they need to grow and improve their concentration levels at school. With parents working day jobs, each know their sons and daughters are well fed and returned to school with not only a full belly but wide grins.

The starter: an amazing thick maize soup which fills the pallet well leaves you totally enriched. The main: a little plate crammed with a cocktail of fresh vegetables hugging a piece of fried chicken, dusted with spices and rich flavours. Finally, neighbouring chef Maria prepared a lovely, succulent, freshly squeezed juice to wash all the unique and fun flavours down.

With every passing moment, more surprises came as the class captain Diana served her mother’s food with pride to all the kids. At just 15, this student has already learned so much from her experience of the San Blas market, you get the feeling Diana will soon fill her mother’s large shoes in the commodore, ensuring health and happiness to the kids of Cusco.

Eating all this would be scary in Europe but when she asked for only seven soles (€1.89) I was shocked. Avocados and quinoa are also in abundance here and to us westerners the prices come as a shock. Rather than forking over a ridiculous sum of money per avocado, as we do in our supermarkets, each barely costs 20c here, so we were quick to fill our boots.

“Sin guia…?” he barked? “Yes, no guide,” we repeated.

Six days, one mountain, a 60km trek, one world monument… three locos.

Still, we had worse reactions along the trip – particularly by other tourists we met on the way who could not seem to understand the monumental task we set ourselves.

(To be continued)

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