Evolving impressions of Cusco, Peru

My first impression of Cusco was not a good one. After a 10 hour bus trip from Cocacabana on Wednesday, with fitful sleep over the last couple hours, I arrived here around 11 p.m.

In the bus station, I was pounced on by more than a half-dozen men with hostel and hotel flyers, some grabbing me by the arm and trying to lead me to their cars. I went with a taxi driver who flashed me the badge hanging around his neck, but one of interlockuters jumped in the front seat to join us, earning a kick in the leg from one of his competitors.

My preferred hostel, Loki, was full, so I took the passenger´s advice and went to Arco Iris Hostel because he said it was 25 soles (about eight bucks), it was close to Plaza de las Armas in the center of town, and because it was late and I was tired and hungry. It turned out to be 30 soles and a dump: the room stank like shit, there were puddles of water on the bathroom floor from a leaking pipe, and the shower didn´t work. The taxi driver charged me a steep 20 soles, the other guy tried to get me to pay him for the room and wouldn´t leave me alone, and it took 10 minutes of ringing the buzzer to get in that first time and them later. And it wasn´t much better when I ventured out. Flyer-wielding hustlers filled every block around the plaza, I was offered cocaine, marijuana, and a prostitute within the first half-hour (all offers I politely refused), a weird guy lingered too close as I used an ATM, and my late dinner sucked. After a warm and welcoming Bolivia, this city felt dark and dirty, with everyone working scams.

I didn´t sleep well and in the morning got the hard sell for tours and an extended stay from my hostel´s senora. When I used their touted free Internet service, the booking computer at the front desk, I learned that Loki was still full and I was on a waiting list. Then the 11 a.m. checkout time I´d been told of turned out to be 9 a.m., forcing me to do my search for a new hostel with full backpack on steep cobbled streets.

Hostal Mira Sol, my preferred choice from Lonely Planet, wasn´t too far away but it turned out to be full. The guy directed me to another hostel just down the uninviting street. It wasn´t in the guidebook and I had become skeptical of advice from people here, but I was desperate.

Hospedaje Turistico Cassana turned out to be clean and nice, with a private room with bathroom and panoramic view of Cusco for 35 soles. And the guy who ran it was friendly, helpful, and soothing of my frayed nerves. He even brought me a pot of hot coca mate. After showering, unpacking, breathing, and taking in my view, things started to seem OK. The steep stairway next to the hostel led to a wonderful boulevard, Saphi, that led straight into Plaza de las Armas, where I had breakfast on a quaint balcony overlooking a scenic square that was once the heart of the Inca empire.

Yes, things were looking better by the light of day and with a cozy and secure place to call home for awhile. Next, I ran into Marc, a new friend from Belgium that I met on Isle del Sol, and we sussed out the trekking trips and booked a five-day hike to Machu Picchu that begins on Monday.

In the late afternoon, I got a massage, which at just 25 soles I might just do everyday. And we partied until the wee hours at some great clubs as I once again turned happy and social and met interesting people from all over the world.

I suppose that without a few lows, we don´t truly appreciate our highs.

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