Magical Cuzco

Getting cozy!

To continue my mother's and my story… The bus we took overnight from Arequipa to Cuzco was by far the most comfortable bus either my mom or I had ever been on. The leather seats reclined to 160 degrees with leg rests, we had individual TVs with a wide selection of movies, TV shows and games, a full dinner was served, and pillows, blankets and headphones were distributed. With the curtains shut over the windows all night, it almost felt like we were in first class on an airplane, minus the excessive “turbulence” of the mountain roads and regular speed bumps.

We arrived to the Cuzco bus station around 6:30am and promptly took a taxi to our B&B. I had found Monica, our host, through a website called Air B&B, and we were lucky to have a wonderful experience. Monica welcomed us into her home with a cup of coca tea. Cuzco is approximately 3400 meters (11,200 ft) above sea level, enough to cause altitude sickness in many people, but neither my mom nor I felt too terrible after having survived the altitudes at the Colca Canyon. We spent our first morning in Cuzco napping, then headed out to explore the town.

One of the quiet alleyways of Cuzco

Cuzco, known in Inca times as “Qosqo” was the capital of the Inca empire before the Spanish invaded in the 1530s. The Spanish conquistadors and catholic priests constructed their towns and temples over the Incan towns, not only in Cuzco but all over the empire which extended as far as Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and even Argentina. As a result, walking around Cuzco, we could see foundations of Inca remains with colonial structures above them. We explored some of the main plazas and streets in town, walked around the famous San Pedro market which was very similar to the market in Arequipa, and did some more shopping in the artisan shops. Peruvian artesania (handicraft) is some of the most beautiful I have seen on my trip so far, and I'm sure we made a little boost in the local economy with all of the things we bought. We ate a late lunch at a local Cuzqueño restaurant where the food was okay but the portions were gigantic! No way to finish our plates in this country! Later on, we met Juve, the man who would be our tour guide in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. While we were skeptical of paying cash up front in a tiny office with no street signs, Juve's small company ended up being wonderful- more later in this entry.

Inside the Qorikancha

On day two in Cuzco, we started our day checking out Qorikancha, an Incan temple which the Spanish had of course built a catholic cathedral/monastery over during the conquest. Both the architecture and the grounds of the monastery were quite beautiful, and it was fascinating to see very tangibly how the two cultures united architecturally.

We then walked up to the main “Plaza de armas” (it seems like every city in Peru has one of these), and opted to take another “mirabus” tour around the city, just to get a feel for Cuzco. We passed by several churches, famous buildings and plazas before heading up out of town to another Inca ruin site known as Sacsayhuaman (sounds like “sexy woman” when you say it aloud). We also stopped at the “Cristo Blanco” (White Christ) to take pictures of the beautiful city of Cuzco from above. Finally, we finished our tour and had a delicious lunch at an Australian-owned restaurant called Jack's Cafe. We walked off our lunch around the quaint neighborhood of San Blas, full of local artist galleries, cute shops, and mostly European owned hostels and new-age businesses. Then it was back to the B&B to rest up for our Sacred Valley/Machu Picchu tour.

Staying dry on the bus

El Cristo Blanco

Beautiful Cuzco

Pisaq ruins

Tuesday morning, at 8am sharp, Juve knocked on our door, ready to begin our tour of the Sacred Valley. We met our driver, Luchito and made our way to our first destination, Pisaq. In Pisaq we had the opportunity for the first time to actually walk around the expansive site of Inca ruins. As was the case of all of the ruins, with the exception of Machu Picchu, the Spanish had destroyed much of the buildings, using the stones of the walls to construct their own buildings and cathedrals. The Incas were masterful architects, cutting stones into perfect trapezoidal shapes to fit together into completely aseismic (earthquake proof) structures, directing the flow of water of the natural aquifers into extensive systems of aqueducts to deliver water to their cities and irrigate their fields, and designing miles and miles of terraces to facilitate agriculture on the steep mountainsides. We also learned that the Incas typically built over the Pre-Inca structures and that they had peacefully united Pre-Inca tribes into the Inca empire, respecting both the buildings and the cultures of Pre-Inca civilization. This was a far cry from the Spanish style of conquest which involved violence, disease, looting, destruction of Inca temples, and colonizing physically, religiously, and culturally directly on top of Inca civilization.

Stopped to buy a bracelet from this woman who came down from the mountain to sell her crafts

Ollantaytambo ruins

After Pisaq, we moved on to Ollantaytambo to visit some more amazing ruins and have lunch. The trout was delicious though portions were again too huge for an individual to finish. Coincidentally, in Ollantaytambo, we got to experience yet another anniversary celebration. The town square was packed with both townspeople from Ollantaytambo and with locals from the mountains in their traditional dress; Juve told us they only come down to town once or twice a year for festivals. The live music was loud and festive, the dancing lively, and the beer abundant. My mom and I found a cafe with a balcony overlooking the square and thoroughly enjoyed our tea and people watching.

Love this picture- beer in hand =)

At 7pm that evening, we boarded the train in Ollantaytambo that would take us to the town of Aguascalientes at the base of Machu Picchu. Aguascalientes is a town created in the 1980s strictly for the purpose of tourism for Machu Picchu. It is only accessible by train and as you might imagine, the prices of food and lodging reflect its touristy nature. We were really only there to sleep however, and the hotel was perfect for just that.

Breakfast in the morning was at 5am- we wanted to catch one of the first buses up to Machu Picchu to try and see the sunrise. By 5:20 we were in line with the other tourists, by 5:50 we had arrived to the entrance to Machu Picchu and at 6am, they opened the gates. Unfortunately, the beautiful weather that had accompanied us in both the Colca Canyon and the Sacred Valley wasn't so cooperative at Machu Picchu. Our first view of Machu Picchu was obscured by a dense fog that made it difficult to see the ruins themselves, let alone a sunrise in the sky. Not to be discouraged, we began our tour walking around the ruins while waiting for the clouds to lift. Machu Picchu was the only major city of the Incas (as yet discovered) that the Spanish did not reach. According to Juve, when the Incas got word of the Spanish destruction of Cuzco and other Inca towns, they fled Machu Picchu, covering their tracks, and used other routes out of Cuzco and the surrounding towns- routes that did not go through Machu Picchu. They therefore deterred the Spanish from finding what was likely the second capital of the Incas. When Hiran Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu in the early 1900s (I say rediscovered because there is evidence that a German guy found the city first, and locals were also living there), the city was still very much in tact, just overgrown with local vegetation.

And it was as incredible as people say it is. After walking through the ruins, we walked up dozens of steps to see the city from above. The clouds lifted just enough to get a panoramic view of the majestic Machu Picchu, while still giving it a sort Middle Earth feel. We were scheduled to climb Machu Picchu mountain to get an even higher view of the city, but unfortunately the clouds that lifted over Machu Picchu itself settled directly over the mountain and we would have seen nothing if we had ascended. We opted instead to hike to an old Incan bridge and to spend more time taking in the sites and inexplicable peaceful aura of one of the 7 wonders of the world. It was also in this moment that Juve, my mom and I began conversing more about the Incan descendants that still inhabit the highlands of Peru. Juve himself is one of these descendants. He grew up in a mountain town where he only spoke the Quechua language up until high school when he began to learn Spanish. One of the tours to Machu Picchu that Juve gives is through some of the local communities where tourists have an opportunity to meet locals and learn of their traditions and lifestyles. I shared with Juve about some of the medical work I have been doing on my trip and that I would be interested in volunteering to meet the medical needs in some of the communities he knows. While it was a little too late to coordinate this sort of project for my remaining couple of weeks in Peru, my mom, Juve and I came up with the idea to coordinate a sort of medical trek to these communities, a trek which would end up at Machu Picchu but serve some of the locals along the way. Juve was very excited- he has the unique advantage of knowing the local communities and speaking the Quechua language. We brainstormed some ideas and my mom and I hope to get a small group of interested medical professionals together for a trek in April 2015. Coordinating something like this will require a lot of research and planning, but we are up for the challenge!

After an overpriced but delicious pizza lunch in Aguacalientes, we caught the train back to Ollantaytambo where Luchito was waiting to take us back to Cuzco. As we rode back, the sunset reflecting off the mountainsides delivered a beautiful end to our tour.

We returned to Monica's house for one final night in Cuzco, and Luchito drove us to the airport in the morning for our flight back to Lima. The flight was uneventful. Giovanni picked us up and took us back to the mansion we stayed at before to get our things together. October 31st is not only Halloween but also my mom's birthday. I treated her to her first manicure ever (taking advantage of the cheap price of manicures in Latin America), and we walked around the neighborhood admiring the troops of trick-or-treaters in costumes. I had planned on taking her to dinner as well prior to her flight home that evening, but we hadn't counted on the insane traffic in Lima that made our trek to the airport longer than we had anticipated. Instead, Laura, her boyfriend Alfredo, my mom and I had a late dinner in the Lima airport before my mom's flight.

I was sad to see her go and felt pretty homesick yesterday, more than I've felt so far on this trip. I have been traveling now for 8 weeks, and have 6 more weeks to go before I come home at Christmas. As Laura, Grecia and the rest of the family were going to be on vacation in Bolivia all weekend, I made the decision to take an overnight bus back to Arequipa, and it is from this bus that I am writing this entry which I intend to post as soon as I have Internet access again. I am almost in Arequipa- the 16 hours on the bus haven't been bad at all. I slept well and awoke to some incredible views of the rocky Pacific coast of Peru and the white deserts of Arequipa. And the trip continues…



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