Peru 2: Cusco
The Cusco phase of our trip included a memorable highlight and a forgettable low point. The upbeat experience was Machu Picchu, a truly magical setting. The bummer was Barbara getting sick, an intestinal attack of either food or altitude origin.
Pat and Doran Jason were absolutely correct about Cusco being a very special city. We stayed at the Casa Andina Plaza Hotel, a two minute walk from the lovely central plaza, the crossroad of the community. The cathedral with its very impressive art (including a black Christ, the first we’ve ever seen in a Catholic church though we were told it began as a brown figure that turned black over the years because of candle smoke!) and the Compania de Jesu, the equally imposing Jesuit structure, anchor two sides of the square. Along the other two are upscale clothing and jewelry as well as tacky souvenir shops side by side. Above the shops are more than a dozen restaurants that overlook the plaza and are reached through staircases hidden in interior courtyards. We found a great vegetarian restaurant several steps along the cathedral side where we had lunch the first day and got our bearings. It was so good and so well located we returned to it later in the week for dinner. Check out several photos of the main square that we have posted.
Pat and Doran exaggerated the number of beggars who would greet us (we encountered only 10 during our six days in Cusco) but they underestimated the number of folks who accosted us plying postcards, shoeshines, finger puppets, scarves, sweaters and much, much more. As we walked around the town, we played and replayed the recording, “No, gracias!” over and over again! We did, however, find some great “buys” during our time in Cusco, both in the city and beyond. For example, we found a stunning wall hanging at Casa de Llama, a lovely store run by two delightful young women a few blocks up the hill behind the Cathedral and a block or so from the Hotel La Monesteria, Cusco’s only five-star hotel. Speaking of the Monesteria, we were told by two women from San Francisco who we met at lunch in Ecuador when we visited the Otavalo Indian Market that the restaurant in the hotel was special, even by San Francisco standards. We followed their advice and were not disappointed, a fine meal in a lovely setting (see photo).
Our second day in Cusco was taken up by a city tour led by Jose, an enthusiastic and informed guide. We spent at least an hour learning the provenance of the extensive display of painting and sculpture in the Cathedral. Alas, the Archbishop of Cusco has decreed that there will be photography in any church in the diocese to protect its copyright and eliminate the knock-off postcards that deprive the church of revenue! We then visited the Temple of the Sun or Korikancha (after destroying the temple, the Dominicans made the rubble the foundation of their church !) before driving out of the city to visit several Inka sites (the “k” is the local way of spelling the name of the ancient native community) including the impressive fortress of Sacsayhuaman, strategically built on a hill overlooking Cusco and famous for its enormous carved stones, some of them standing over 30 ft high and weighing over 350 tons. What’s remarkable is the Inkas moved the huge stones from a quarry about seven kilometers distant from the fortress – and they had no knowledge of the wheel! Nearby Sacsayhuaman is the statute of the White Christ, a thank you gift to Cusco from the government of Pakistan in the early 20th century for the community’s acceptance of a number of Pakistani emigrants.
It was on this day that Barbara began to feel really sick. Indeed, she was sick enough for us to cancel our trip through the Sacred Valley, scheduled for the next day (Tuesday, January 30). It also had me scurrying the first thing in the morning to a nearby farmacia recommended by the hotel staff. That proved to be a memorable experience. I approached the white clad clerk and in my limited Spanish asked for Imodium for an intestinal problem. She nodded and asked “liquid or pills” and I responded with “which ever one works quicker.” The woman then began entering into a computer what seemed to be endless instructions, far beyond what I thought would be needed for Imodium. I again said tentatively, “Imodium?” and received a curt nod. She then handed me a sheet of paper (no medication!) with multiple entries typed in and directed me to the cashier who was in a “cage” in the middle of the store. The cashier demanded the equivalent of about US $15 in Peruvian soles and handed me a receipt (again, no medication!) and waved me away. Confused, I returned to the first clerk who pointed to her right (but didn’t deliver any medication!) at the end of the room where there was another clerk. I hesitantly proferred the receipt to this person who promptly handed me a good sized bag with three different items (hurray, medication!). Of course, I had no idea what the three medications were or when they were to be taken! In desperation, I returned to the first clerk who patiently explained (in English far better than my guide book Spanish!) that I had been given the “standard prescription” for the many gringos who suffer from the same affliction – a generic Imodium tablet, a week’s worth of the antibiotic Cipro 500 mgs. to fight the intestinal bacteria attacking Barbara, and a tonic similar to the Pedialite given to kids to combat dehydration. And I got all of this for 60% of my standard drug benefit co-pay!
Once she started the medication regimen, Barbara began to feel better and we decided we would take our planned trip to Machu Picchu the next day. We did, however, decide to alter our itinerary by returning to Cusco the same day, cancelling plans to stay overnight in Aguas Callientes to visit Machu Picchu a second day. That allowed us to avoid packing and schlepping (again!) and had us in the same room in a known hotel. This turned out to be a wise decision.
Early Wednesday morning, we transferred to the Cusco train station for a three hour train ride to the famous Inka citadel of Machu Picchu. The comfortable train ride itself was special as it moved up and over the mountains surrounding Cusco (by an ingenious switching backward and forward to avoid fully circling the mountain or taking on the impossible task of climbing it straight away!) and into an incredibly beautiful valley of streams, rivers, villages and mountain peaks. The train is equipped with “vista” windows that allow you to look up to see the very tops of the glorious mountains that surround the valley. The train also is “equipped” with staff who serve refreshments, entertain you and even put on a fashion show! Throw in the local folks selling handicrafts at every stop and the transportation to and from Machu Picchu is an independent event!
When we arrived at Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the base of the “Lost Citadel of the Inkas,” we transferred to a bus (with an entertainer who played two instruments simultaneously!) for a sometimes harrowing 30-minute drive, climbing 6km of winding road with thousand-meter drops and incredible vistas to the main gate of the sanctuary. Unfortunately, our guided tour of the site was the poorest of our entire trip. The combination of a poor tour guide (he must have taken a dozen cell phone calls in two-plus hours!), a huge crowd (a many time visitor remarked it was the greatest number of people she had ever seen wandering the ruins) with tour groups constantly bumping into each other along the narrow paths and small rooms (unlike the Galapagos, there is no crowd control or direction at Machu Picchu; groups just go where and when they want to go!), a blistering hot day and Barbara’s lingering illness made the tour of the ruins less than fully informative and encompassing. Because of these circumstances, we saw less of the ruins than we would have seen otherwise. For example, we did not walk to up to the highest levels of the citadel (Barbara’s knees, especially with her not feeling well, wouldn’t have survived the climb) for the broadest panorama. That took little away, however, from the powerful effect the setting had on us. The location is positively breathtaking and the photos we took simply cannot convey the splendor and serenity of the place. BTW, it is my impression that much of what the guide said and we read in advance is pure speculation (because the Inkas had no written language, everything was passed on orally) and that current commentators have molded the story to titillate visitors. Comments about the purpose and meaning of the Circular Tower, the Sacred Sun Dial, the Royal Quarters, the Temple of the Three Windows and other parts of the city seemed to be more speculation than fact. As an example, the room with some type of stone carving on the floor that may look something like a condor (see photo) was the predicate for an intriguing tale about the Inkas religious veneration of this giant bird! Nevertheless, the visit to Machu Picchu was a truly memorable event.
Luckily, we were able to take the “Sacred Valley of the Inkas” tour the following day, once again with Jose as our guide. Our first stop was a camelid ranch operated by an NGO to preserve the ancient weaving art of the indigenous people. Here we got to see llamas, alpacas and vicunas up close (see photo of Barbara feeding the animals) and to watch the local artists spin, dye and weave the yarn into gorgeous pieces. We then traveled over the Vilcanota River to a typical Indian market at Pisac before lunching at the lovely Tunupa restaurant, a far cry from the buffets we experienced in the Colca valley (check out the formal dining table set to seat 80)! We also spent some time with an interesting British couple halfway through an around the world trip (she had a scary tale of being diagnosed in Australia with lung cancer only to have discovered on the operating table that she fell into the less than one percent with her symptoms to be suffering from an easily treatable ailment!). After lunch, we visited the Inca fortress of Ollantaytambo, built to guard to this part of the valley (and the entrance to Cusco), and protect it from possible invasion by tribes in the lower jungle. The fortress consists of a series of stepped carved stone terraces accessed by long staircases (see photo; we only made it two-thirds of the way up). We also visited a typical home in a town that has preserved many of the streets, walls and buildings from the Inka era (the multi-generation family had guinea pigs, the local delicacy, running around loose inside the home!).
Our last day in Cusco was spent on a relaxing walk around town, visiting several more museums and churches, wandering past the Palace of Justice (we couldn’t get in to see the justice system in action), and some last minute shopping. We ended the day with a terrific dinner at a small restaurant, A Mi Manere, recommended by the British couple. Then we packed up for the next day’s eight-hour bus ride to Puno and Lake Titicaca. More about that phase of the journey later!