Peru


 Arequipa

Bang! Bang! Bang!
Half past five in the morning. Our taxi driver was determined to rattle the hotel concierge from his sleep behind the roll-up iron curtain.
The curtain went up, and a door about four feet tall opened with a screech.
We mumbled our "Gracias," paid the driver, and sneaked inside. Quickly, we found that the wheels of Peru-Hotels.com didn't grind fast enough to make our reservation at Los Tambos Hotel; the concierge fixed that on the spot, and we've crashed for a three-hour sleep after the flight from LAX to Lima, three hours and two pisco sours at the airport, and a quick hop on LAN Peru to Arequipa. Around nine, the friendly people at the hotel's cafe made our first cups of great Peruvian coffee.
We brought ourselves to a semblance of normalcy, and went out to town.
The hotel is right off the Plaza De Armas - so we immersed into the local life, bought the first fistful of souvenirs, booked a four-hour bus tour of the city and next day's passage to Puno. All - within half an hour.
After walking around the center of the city, and a fantastic lunch with our first taste of Alpaca and guinea pig, we went to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. It was a Sunday noon, and the monastery was full of history-conscious locals with children rather than tourists. Sun was high, air - warm, and the monastery appeared to have been a rather pleasant place to live for 391 years it has been closed for curious public.
When it was our time to hop on the tour bus, the tour operator was already looking for us at the hotel! Off we went - through various neighborhoods of the city, getting our glimpse at the terrace agriculture and two volcanoes towering over Arequipa, learning the differences between Vicunas, Guanacos, Alpacas, and Lamas, and walking the halls of the former house of Arequipa's founder, Manuel Garci de Carbajal.
Returned back to Plaza De Armas loaded with bad photos, an alpaca sweater, and a floppy hat. Lena insisted on asking the hotel staff for dinner suggestions; the restaurant happened to be a few doors down from our lunch place, quite funky, and food was good.
Next morning, we were escorted by the tour operator to the bus station, and deposited at the glorious seats on the top deck and right in front of a huge tour bus.


Arequipa to Puno

The five-hour bus ride to Puno was very educational.
First, we figured out the ranking of the participants of the street traffic.
At the very bottom of the scale are the pedestrians. They are assumed to be intelligent enough to judge distance and speed of other moving objects, and agile enough to yield to an imminent disaster.
One small step up take the bicyclists and tricyclists, followed closely by moto rickshaws.
Next stratum is occupied by taxis. Some of them, made by Daewoo, are about the size of a medium U.S. refrigerator, but give it a run for the money by having five doors. Two western tourists with carry-on luggage typically warrant the use of the Crown Victoria of the developing world - Toyota Corolla station wagon. Taxis do not hesitate to yield to the farmers' pickup trucks and riches' four-wheel-drives. Minivans, vans, and small busses follow - not by horsepower or loudness of the horns, but by the number of people inside.
These, in their turn, pay respect to full-sized trucks, eighteen-wheelers, and long-distance buses.
The tour buses, with their sense of importance, glamour, and relative horsepower, dominate the lesser brethren.
Enfin, trains trump them all.
It should be noted that pets and livestock are placed roughly in the middle of taxi band of the spectrum. That is, a tour bus driver won't lift his foot off the gas pedal for an old grandma lugging a hundred-pound sack of corn on her back, but will come to a screeching halt should a dog or a chicken or oveja end up on the path to an inevitable collision.
The road winds up to an altitude about 300 meters short of Mont Blanc, with occasional (what seems to be) 300-400 m drop-off at the side of the road. Apparently, one has to have no fear of heights in order to qualify for the bus driver's job; our fearless captain would not hesitate to pass a couple of semis lumbering up the grade, with barely a couple of miles per hour of speed advantage, and a blind right turn a quarter a mile away. A couple of times the on-coming vehicles had to stop and pull over to let our four-axled mammoth of a bus through (see traffic ranking above) - it was absolutely awesome to see the situation unfold from the panoramic window atop the driver's (especially, being able to see further into the turn than the driver).
The bus goes through and stops at Juliaca - a large grim-looking city of about 250 thousand people. It seemed that most of them spend their time on the road - afoot, on a bike, trike, driving or riding in one of fifty thousand moto rickshaws, dodging traffic and swerving to avoid potholes that would make a Russian road builder proud. A strange thing drew our attention - the city looked like it was caught in the middle of a building boom that ran out of money. The tribute to earthquake safety is in stacks of rebar encased in badly poured concrete, spaced ten to fifteen feet apart, and the wall filled up with bricks (often - mud bricks). After a floor of the dwelling is completed, the rebar is left sticking up, as if in anticipation of future cash infusion good for another floor or two.
Some of Juliaca views brought back memories from the Soviet past - roads made much wider than current traffic dictates, with raised median covered with grass - which is closely guarded by two or three loops of barbed wire. Doesn't matter that there's a volcanic crater in the middle of an intersection, the grass must be kept untrampled.
There was an additional entertainment on the bus - every once in a while, the driver picks up a roadside vendor, and you are offered - nuts, candy, home-brewed drinks, coca leaves, you name it. One fellow was peddling something - don't remember if it was dried coca leaves or something more chemically enhanced - that was supposed to enhance every positive virtue of a human being, and get rid of all negative ones. The guy was truly an Amway-class salesman. We resisted the urge to better ourselves.
Later in the evening, the bus zig-zagged into Puno. We agreed to the third offer of the taxi ride - our hotel was a couple of miles out of town - and the taxi driver (rather, a manager of a taxi driver) promptly arranged everything we could possibly need: taxi to the hotel, a boat trip to Lake Titicaca tomorrow, taxi again, taxi in the morning of the following day to the bus station, and the tour bus from Puno to Cusco. All in ten minutes. We were getting amazed at the efficiency of Peruvian tour operators.
Our hotel in Puno - Sonesta Posadas Del Inca Lake Titicaca - turned out to be a perfect place to end a long day. Nothing but great words about this hotel.

Lake Titicaca
Reed Islands

The tour boat picked us (and a few others) from the hotel's pier, and off we went under the cheerful chatter of the lady guide. Soon we learned a lot about Pacha Mama and Pacha Camac, and their tumultous relationship. The boat (one of the flotilla of similar boats) was swiftly approaching the floating reed islands; the tour guide explained that each island will host the guests from one boat, and I caught myself comparing "our" islands with the others. "Ours" somehow didn't look as picturesque and glamorous as the others...
We were seated in a circle, given fresh reeds to chew on (lightly sweet and crunchy like a styrofoam cup with a sprinkling of Splenda), and given a lecture on the technique used to build the islands - a low-tech approach to Water World: the chunks of dirt with reed roots are cut off, tied together with rope, and dry reeds thrown on top.
The islands are somewhat a maintenance-heavy affair: the reeds get wet, and the island slowly sinks - so everything on the island needs to be lifted up (including the huts), and a fresh layer of reeds thrown in every couple of weeks or so.
The huts themselves bridge a five-hundred year gap in technology: it is definitely easier to throw reeds on the wooden frame than to weave the entire thing; also, each hut sports a solar panel on the roof, and some products of western ingenuity and eastern workmanship - a TV, a cassette player, and a car battery to feed'em when the sun goes down.
After the lecture about pretty much everything related to the Lake and reed islands, we were released to the natives - Lena's motherly instincts directed her to keep a continuous watch on a three-year-old kid that balanced precariously on the edge of the island (wonder how he made it this far without her...). She was rewarded by the mom - by getting to wear a full Aymaru lady outfit. I didn't ask what was that dark mark on the skirt...
In a short time, we were invited to take a trip to another island in the reed boat - the boat turned out to be remarkably stable and comfortable! The island we ventured to had two distinctions - a pond (a pond in a floating island!), and a crow's nest made in the shape of a fifteen-foot-long reed fish standing on long legs near the edge of the island. Lena almost fell into the pond, and I turned down the offer to climb into the fish.
Finally, souvenirs were procured, and Aymaru ladies sang us a parting song - a few of them, actually, including not-quite-Peruvian Guantanamera and Bésame Mucho.
We boarded our (motorized) boat and sailed on to Isla Taquile.


Isla Taquile

That was one long boat ride away - nearly an hour and a half - and even our cheerful guide temporarily ran out of trivia from Andean history. She rounded us up at the stone steps near the boat landing, and gave the quick run-down of the place.
The island is indeed a pretty remarkable community - about thirty miles' boat ride from the nearest convenience store in Puno, it is rather isolated. A lot of what's eaten and worn on the island is grown and caught and made right there - so people live simple but busy lives. A man can only marry when he's weaved and knitted his own cap; I haven't heard of entrance exams in catching trout or slaughtering sheep, though. Our tour guide described the significance of minute differences in headgear - it was indeed more complicated than in the middle East.
The community of the island (the population numbers from Wikipedia and our tour guide differ by a factor of about two, with two thousand look like a good compromise) is split into several groups of families, and seems to be peacefully self-governed to keep the food at the table and tourists (some forty thousand a year) coming. Part of communal work is keeping the pathways in a good shape - which is not a small deal. The top of the island is at 4050 meters above sea level, the paths from two boat ramps to the village are steep, and every modern-world commodity must be hand-carried up the hill. I've seen an old man lugging a wooden door up the long flight of eight-inch steps - quite a murderous task.
The Quechua population is not content to live in reed huts like their Aymaru brethren - all buildings on the island are made from either stone or brick. Like Aymaru's, each house has a solar panel on the roof, and many if not most have a satellite dish: according to our tour guide, it was one of the better ideas of the late dictator Fujimori in the area of population control (that was one of many great stories of our guide, including the urine-based shampoo that was said to be the best hair lotion ever).
We had a great lunch in one of many small eateries at the island - fresh grilled trout, with corn soup and beer from Puno. Afterwards, we crossed the island, and descended into another boat landing for our ride back to the continent. As the evening was approaching, so were the ominous dark clouds bearing the rainstorm and a few squalls. The night fell with some impressive sky fireworks on display, on Bolivian side of the lake.


Road from Puno to Cusco

Next morning, the day-before-yesterday-arranged taxi picked us up at the hotel, and dropped off at the bus station. The Inca Express bus filled up, eventually, and we've noticed some familiar faces. Some people we saw on the boat yesterday, some - at the hotel, some - from the bus from Arequipa. As people's minds in trip planning work alike, we would be seeing familiar faces all the way to the airport in Lima.
The only major road from Puno goes through Juliaca, so we were treated to another view of the city. Here, Lena's curiousity about unfinished construction was satisfied - the guide mentioned property tax policy as a good incentive never to finish the building. All these bundles of rebar sticking up to the skies now made sense.
The bus rumbled along the rather rough pavement across Altiplano, and we settled to observing whatever little action we could notice. We stopped briefly at Pucará - the site of pre-Inca ruins with an imposing Spanish cathedral and a small Inca culture museum. The road kept climbing up, cresting at La Raya - at slightly more than 4300 m above sea level. The stop at La Raya gave us a magnificent view of snow-capped peaks of High Andes, rather large roadsize bazaar with all sorts of leather and lamb or alpaca wool things, a little motorcycle gang, and a sizeable Quechua lady with a lama on a short leash, collecting donations in exchange for a photo.
In about an hour or so, the bus pulled over at Raqchi - the site of one of the largest Inca temples, only molested by the grind of times. The size of the temple is amazing - and the sight of the old stone walls jutting up to the blue skies, with a gentle howl of the wind, started giving us some feeling of Inca empire.
Inca Express treated us to a nice lunch in a roadside restaurant - in a shade, with two Quechua youths playing a variety of Latin American tunes in a duet of a flute and guitar. Here we had our first encounter with Paul Simon's "El Condor Pasa" - somehow, every person ever to get his/her hand on a flute was inclined to reproduce it.
The last stop before the final dash to Cusco was at Andahuaylillas - home to the "Sistine Chapel" of South America. What it lacked in Italian Renaissance, it surely made up in six-foot-thick mud-brick walls, inside richly adorned by huge paintings of biblical scenes. Huge is rather an understatement here - rare European museum would have room for six fifteen-by-twenty-foot paintings, in gold-covered carved-wood frames more than a foot thick. If you are a Catholic, this is the place for you to visit!
Towards late afternoon, the weather turned worse to low clouds, drizzle, and some rain. The Andean scenery changed with this of poor and dusty suburbs of a large South American city. The bus bounced past the airport, and stopped a mile short of Cusco's Plaza De Armas. A helpful taxi driver dropped us off at the narrow cobblestone street in front of Terra Andina hotel, leaving us just enough time to take a walk to the Plaza.


Cusco

Note to self: never, ever, read other travellers' commentaries. Aside from online tourist guides, somehow, the majority of people seemed to dismiss Cusco as a boring place to spend a night or two on a trip to Machu Picchu.
Note to the reader: don't take my word for it, either, but... if one had to pick just one place to visit in Peru, it should be Cusco. I wish we had more than a day's worth to walk around the city - however hard it may be, at 11200 ft (3400m) above sea level, with many streets leaving the center being steep as hell, sidewalks narrow, traffic crazy, and pisco sour sloshing in your brain.
We spent two evenings on the balcony of a cafe on Plaza De Armas, overlooking the cathedral. The Spaniards mercilessly razed down the Inca Capital, but they sure made a good effort to fill the architectural void. The results of their work still look good, about five hundred years later.
I would call the market one of the main attractions - after you've survived the gauntlet of Alpaca wool clothing and bright-patterned bags (by the way, very convenient to haul away the souvenir harvest), you run into local produce. I never knew there could be so many kinds of corn! Fish, frogs, guinea pigs, meat - what is it? Remember these onions or garlic tied together in one long bunch? Just like that, but - bull testicles!
We bought some cookies and cheese, doubled our stock of alpaca sweaters and scarves, a pair of ceramic bulls to mount on our roof, Peruvian style, something made from bronze and something made from reeds, bought another bag to keep it all, and stumbled out nearly exhausted.
Lena's main gripe about our second night in Cusco was the Hotel Arqueologo - which I would have to disagree with. Granted, it was on the chilly side; no TV, no internet, no... you name it. For about $100 a night, we had a full suite with two beds in the loft making up for California King size (but not very willing to stay together), and a few rather dim lights. Given the opera singing at the restaurant downstairs (no kidding!), it made for a very romantic setting. Should you plan some romance there, however, keep in mind that by the time you cover about a quarter of a mile from the Plaza De Armas to the hotel, you might need an oxygen tank. Or a prolonged break in the bar (two pisco sours take just about enough time to catch your breath).
On the flip side: things rarely happen on time. That applies to just about anything in Peru; don't worry too much about it, but don't expect your flight to Los Angeles to wait for you.


The road to Machu Picchu

You go to the railroad station, board the train, and three and a half hours later you're in Aguas Calientes (a.k.a. Machu Picchu village). Right?
Wrong.
Soon after I booked our trip to Peru, some weather calamity happened there, leaving about three thousand hungry tourists in Aguas Calientes, with mostly each other to eat, and river water to drink. The railroad, the only real means to reach Machu Picchu, was destroyed, and Inca Trail, apparently, was out of question for those not willing to spend four days in the wild and having to cross a 13000-ft pass from the bottom of a jungle-covered canyon in pouring rain.
We came at the time when the Peruvian tourist machine was slowly recovering, physically and otherwise, from this disaster.
That is, the railroad was in operation - which we only learned before our trip.
But only the last 30 kilometers - which we only learned while buying PeruRail tickets at Lima Airport.
And it only takes a three-hour shuttle bus trip from Cusco to Piscacucho. PeruRail-dot-com was remarkably silent about this little detail. The lady who sold us tickets (at their full price!) mentioned something to the tune that we needed to make it somehow from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and board the train there. Only the night before the trip we learned that we needed to go about an hour further than Ollanta, and it turned out a very entertaining hour in a shuttle bus on a dirt single-lane road.
That said, the last thirty kilometers on the train were a blast. The train cars had rounded windows along the sides of the roof (Alpine windows in Land Rover lingo), and half of the time both sides of the canyon were visible at the same time through the roof! About as much time one could not see the ground from the river-side windows - only the white waters and pretzeled remains of the railroad of two months ago.
The railroad descends from the low-Altiplano height of 8800 ft in Piscacucho to about 6600 ft in Aguas Calientes. In less than an hour, the dry climate-vegetation of Altiplano changes dramatically to the dense tropical jungle below. Agave-like plants grow on the tree branches, eventually killing the host tree. Tree leaves grow in size, and vines stretch in all directions.
Finally, the train arrives to Machu Picchu village, and discharges you in a huge gift shop called Aguas Calientes. Unless the place you're staying is a treehouse, somebody from your hotel will meet you and walk you to the place. You'll have time to have a drink, and still enough sunlight left to make your ascent to Cuidad Inca.


Machu Picchu

Here's what you do in Machu Picchu, all-of-Peru-in-a-weekend style:
1. Get off the train.
2. Get on the bus up the hill.
3. Get through the gates to the City.
4. Fill up your camera's memory chip with photos.
5. Get through the gates to the bus.
6. Get on the bus to the village.
7. Get on the train and on to where you came from.
Done. If you're good, you can check it off your list in less than a day.
One has to be adventurous and enterprising to deviate from this scenario.
Once we dumped our bags at the hotel, we decided to hike around. In the deep canyon, one can go in two directions; in one direction, the trail was closed because of rain damage, and that left us with the walk towards Machu Picchu. That presented us with another choice - dodge the buses and their dust, or follow the railroad tracks and then the Inca stairs to the hill. We did our best to skip the buses - until about an hour into the climb, Lena pointed out the small sign showing that we've made roughly one-third of the way up... And the sun was about to hide behind the Huaynapicchu. The descending tourists made a few discouraging comments about walking down these stairs in the dark. We took the bus for the rest of the way, discovered that we weren't likely to sneak through the pearly gates, and I diligently ran down and up to make sure that one cannot steal the look of the Cuidad Inca from the steps without paying his/her dues. Nope, they plant these trees just right so they block the view.
The evening was spent at the dinner, and later on with cocktails in the hot springs. Very nice.
For the next day, we harbored two main ambitions: one, to see Machu Picchu at sunrise. This was supposed to be a traveller's equivalent of tantric sex (whatever that is). Another - to be among the 400 chosen people allowed to climb the Huaynapicchu (that rock knob right above the City). Our american-born hotel clerk was somewhat skeptical about both, and suggested to sleep at least until five in the morning.
At five-thirty, fueled up with coffee and cookies, we joined an already three-hundred-foot-long line to the buses. We've got to the fourth bus in still complete darkness, and half an hour later joined a large disorganized mob waiting for the gates to open. I had our tickets stamped for the entry to Huaynapicchu - numbers 353 and 354, out of 400.
At six-thirty, we were inside, and of all the crowd, joined the small part that raced up the steep stairs to the "House of the Guardians." This crowd had cameras with largest lenses, which we used as an indicator of a particular scenic quality of what was about to unfold.
The sun came up right by the time clouds rolled in. Shivering photographers waited for a miracle for about an hour or so, then dispersed around the city.
For the rest of the day, the visibility would change from halfway up Huaynapicchu, down to a hundred feet or so. It felt really bizarre, seeing everything bright and clear one minute, then disappearing in the fog. We walked down from the House of the Guardians to the terraces, then to Dry Moat (all - in Hiram Bingham's decisive nomenclature), then to and through the rest of the City. It took us about four hours to wind our meandering at the bottom of Huaynapicchu - by which time the peak was completely engulfed in clouds, and drizzle changed to rain.
We waited for about an hour in the hut near the Sacred Rock - after a while, most of the current population of Cuidad Inca seemed to have gathered there trying to wait out the rain. The walk up to Huaynapicchu have lost its purpose; we ambled back, taking whatever few photos the clouds let us, and went back to Aguas Calientes.
The vague plans for having a coffee and communicating with the world were discarded due to a power outage, and we napped until dinner.
Next morning began with the same fog and drizzle - as if to make us feel better about not having waited more for the ascent to Huaynapicchu. But... as we gathered our stuff and headed to the train station, the clouds lifted up, skies cleared, and the sun came out. Inca Gods must have decided that our time to see the City had not come yet.
The trip back to Cusco from Piscacucho was nice and quiet, in the back of a private minivan (and at a half the price we paid to the tour agency). As a bonus-point experience, we've got to participate in un-tying a traffic jam.


Cuidad de los Reyes - Lima

I'd start with a quote from enjoyperu.com:
The visitor to Lima will never be bored, as there are so many nooks and crannies to discover and get to know. Visitors, like the native "Limeños", will notice that time flies while in the "City of Kings."
Had I read this quote before our trip, I'd have planned to spend more time in the Cuidad de los Reyes. Fortunately or not, I hadn't...
We arrived to Jorge Chavez Int'l Airport from Cusco fairly early in the morning, and our flight back to LAX was at 4 in the morning of the next day - so we had some time on our hands.
The airport offered its friendly side by having the luggage locker - it was fantastic that we didn't have to lug stuff around town. Following our beaten path, we agreed to the 3rd offer of a taxi ride to the airport. Along with the driving, we received a pretty decent narrative (in Spanish) about things around and things to see. Instead of change from a $20 bill, we've got a graphic advice - finger pointed to my wallet, then rear pants pocket, and an emphatic "No!"
We were dropped close to the Plaza De Armas De Lima, took a stroll in the Parque De La Murala, saw the crumbling walls of some of Lima's first dwellings, had some instant coffee, and marvelled at what to do in the city. Consider this: it was a Sunday morning in a heavily-Catholic South American capital. The streets were largely empty - everybody went to the services. The last-day-of-the-trip tourist garb was clearly improper for the occasion, so visiting the churches was put on hold. A few blocks from the Plaza, we've spotted a large double-decker tour bus, and bribed our way into it, for a narrated trip to Miraflores.
Here, something must be mentioned that I think illustrates Lima well: near the Plaza, there was a large billboard with several dozens of city photographs, showing the city's best views. Only one of them had blue sky in it! The perpetual coastal fog mixes well with the dust and soot from diesel exhaust, to leave the coat of dust on every single surface of the city with less-than-vertical angle, and very little chance for sunshine.
So, back to the tour bus. We hopped on the last half-hour of a two-hour tour - a quick ride from Plaza De Armas through the business district of San Ysidro and on to Miraflores. From the bus stop, walked to the coast; on a sunny day, it could have been one of the better views of the city; it is easy to draw the lay of the land for someone who lives in San Diego: take the Torrey Pines golf course, put a road near the cliff (Avenida de la Aviacion) and another one - on the Black's Beach (Circuito de Playas), and plop a picket fence of 15-20-story apartment buildings on top of the cliff. Tack on Crystal Pier (from Pacific Beach), and put a small copy of Hotel Del Coronado at its end (La Rosa Nautica). You get the picture.
The surf was good, despite the muddy-greenish-brown water color. Wealthy inhabitants of the apartment buildings seemed to have had some sort of a sports competition - one of those where everyone's a winner, for we haven't seen anyone without a medal dangling from his/her neck. Good stuff.
Walked back to Parque Central de Miraflores' main square just in time for lunch. Great place on Diagonal, great waiters, food... bad enough for a good laugh.
Time clearly didn't fly fast enough, so we went back on the same bus - this time, on a one-hour tour ending... at the Plaza De Armas.
Lima is an amazing collection of all architectural styles, thrown here and there by bits - it must have been more coherent before the big earthquake. One can see colonial-style two-story houses with elaborate balconies either carved from wood or made of cast iron, churches and cathedrals of every vintage, art-deco of the turn of the 20th century, pseudo-industrial style of the mid- to late 1930s, neo-classical of 1940s - early 1950s, modernistic yet again but of early 1960s (some - Le Corbusier-style, supported by seemingly thin round columns). A complete lack of purpose and ingenuity marks the 70s and 80s; then, slowly, the blank flat facades start acquire tinted glass, then - some shy curves appear, to pave way to "looks like their CAD models" creations of the 21st century.
All of that is desperate for one hell of a rainstorm - to wash off the dust - but rain is a rare commodity in the Cuidad de los Reyes.
We had a few drinks and ice cream a block away from the Plaza, and remembered that in our desire for the time to fly we forgot to buy Pisco. The goal was achieved in two little grocery stores in the neighborhood; plastic is not always accepted in these places, so we had to make a long trek to the moneychanger fellow at the corner of the Plaza. We did return to the store, and were rewarded with fairly stiff Pisco Sours to go along with our purchase; these cocktails were probably the best we've tasted in Peru.
The next half an hour saw us sitting on the steps of Cathedral de Lima, observing a huge line of people waiting for the evening service. Finally, we ran completely out of ideas, and went on to hail the cab. To our surprise, only the 4th cabbie agreed to take us to the airport. Two cuadras later, he reached over to the roof of the car, removed the illuminated "TAXI" sign, and shoved it under the seat. Hmmm.... We were rolling down some dark and empty side streets, with very little clue about the surroundings, and zero sense of direction. At some point, I've spotted a bank and a car dealership that I vaguely remembered seeing on the morning ride; then the sign "Avenida Argentina" appeared, and I figured that we were, after all, going in the right direction. The cost of the ride was less than a half of that from the airport.

One important thing should also be said: we've been repeatedly warned by Peruvians of malicious merchants, pickpockets, fake taxi drivers kidnapping people, etc. - and have never been "taken" or merely disappointed (maybe, with the exception of the cell phone rental place at the airport). We've been waiting nervously for a few things to happen - but all of them happened, and every time a service was promised, it was delivered.
Our trip finally wound to an end... We spent five hours hanging around the airport - buying souvenirs at exorbitant prices, drinking beer and pisco sours, arguing with the cell phone rental company over the final bill (our advice: don't rent a phone there. Bring your unlocked, quad-band, GSM phone, and buy a SIM card), eating all sorts of junk food, and watching many of our fellow travellers we've met elsewhere in Peru.
It was a fantastic trip - and, at the same time, it made us appreciate more what we take for granted in sunny and clean Southern California.