A major tourist destination, Cusco is chock full of museums, old architecture, and traditional customs. It is also the starting point for tours to amazing treks and many Inca ruins. Over the week, we had first-ever experiences like dealing with altitude sickness, holding a baby llama, eating alpaca steak, and waking up at 4 AM to the heart pumping sensation of an earthquake.
After a short flight from Columbia, Bob and I were the first of the family to arrive in Cusco. We had rented a 3 bedroom apartment owned by a friendly Peruvian couple named Karin and Juan Cesar. Out the bedroom window, we had a fantastic view over the city.
On the other side, we looked down to a shared yard with pots of geraniums, chickens, dogs, cats and laundry on the line.
It was a pretty exciting moment when each taxi pulled up to the tall metal gate at the street. First Kelsey and Chris from Calgary on Saturday, and then Sunday morning, Brett and Katryna arrived from Winnipeg.
Even after a grueling 20 hours of travelling, they were all still game to get out and explore the city. We walked up and down outdoor staircases to get to the center, or took the bus for 1 sole ( 50 cents). Together we toured museums, visited the basilica, marveled at the architecture of imposing old churches, ate great Peruvian food, tried on many alpaca wool sweaters and constantly said “no, gracious” to the persistent street hawkers.
Cusco sits at a height of just over 11,000 feet. Knowing that altitude can cause major problems for some people, we were concerned about our ability to cope. Fortunately though, each of experienced only mild symptoms. Just getting dressed could leave you gasping for air. We drank the local remedy, a tea made with dried coca leaves, which is quite pleasant, and no doubt helped to ease some discomfort. And we quickly learned that alcohol was NOT a remedy. Quite the opposite.
We had a great time scouring the amazing indoor San Pedro market. Each long row is dedicated to one type of produce. We gaped at piles of fresh breads, round fat cheeses, naked meats, gutted pink guinea pigs, ceviche stalls, mountains of fresh cut flowers, all kinds of vegetables, and sacks and sacks of grains and potatoes.
We drank delicious smoothies from the fresh fruit stalls. One morning Chris Kelsey and I ordered chicken soup with the locals. In Peru it is breakfast food. Sitting on wooden benches, we received a huge bowl of steaming broth loaded with crisp broccoli, carrots, and noodles.
A cooked chicken sits at the front and center of each soup stall, and just before serving, a chunk is whacked off and added to the bowl. The broth was very flavorful and the vegetables lightly pickled. We liked it. But it is kind of difficult to eat a bony piece of chicken with a spoon, on a bench.
Peru is known for its fantastic food. So much so that Lima, the capitol city, has 3 of the top 50 restaurants in the world. No wonder that we had many great meals, with excellent service, in Cusco. It turns out that Alpaca steak is tender, lean and very tasty. We went twice to Indigo, a Thai food restaurant that had 5 different flavorful curries, and played hilarious games of Jenga while waiting for our meals.
Chris was pretty adventurous and one evening he ordered a popular Peruvian dish called Cuy, otherwise known as guinea pig. He shared a taste with each of us. If you can get passed the rat on the plate, it was not bad.
Both in the city, and in rural villages, many women were wearing traditional Peruvian clothing. The hats are priceless. Some tall in the center, others flatter, all with wide brims. Heavy full skirts above the knee, thick leggings, bulky wool sweaters, and hair braided down the back.
A cloth of bright reds and blues is slung over the back, and the women bend forward to manage the load. One afternoon, a woman in this traditional clothing came to our yard selling milk. I watched from our balcony as she called out at the door of one of the homes that share the central yard. A man appeared carrying a metal pot. Out of her cloth sack she brought out quart sized containers of cows milk and poured them, one by one, in to his pot.
Wednesday was a big day for us, our reason for coming to Cusco in the first place. Tickets for Machu Picchu had been purchased months ago. Even though it was a day trip, it turned out to be a trek of sorts. We got up at 3 AM, took a taxi to meet a van, drove in the van for 1.5 hours, and caught a train for a 2 hour ride through the Sacred Valley.
We had seats in the vista dome car with large windows on sides and ceiling. The train tracks followed the Urambamba River, giving us spectacular views of the turbulent brown water that rushes from the glaciers. Sheer massive rock stands literally straight up on both sides of the narrow valley. Our necks got cricked from looking up. Here and there were small plots or a few animals grazing. It was remote and beautiful.
When we arrived at the tiny village of Aguas Caliente, we hopped another bus up to the entrance of the ruins, arriving there at 1030 AM. We did the return trip the same way, on the same day.
Yes, it was worth it.
Stunning. Majestic. Powerful. Peaceful. Set high in the mountains, Machu Picchu is another world. Built by the Incas in 1436, its wide green terraces and sturdy stone structures stretch along a saddle between two mountain peaks. From the site you can see way down into the valleys below. We had 3 hours to stand on rocks, climb through doorways, walk down corridors, peak through windows, and take photos until batteries died.
February is the low season, so there were only about 1500 other tourists that morning. It is such a large site that there was plenty of room for everyone. (In the summer months there are 5000 per day)
Expert engineers, the Incas knew they were building on a fault line. Without mortar, they somehow placed the rocks so that they bounce during an earthquake, and then settle back in to place. Two major earthquakes in Peru have not caused any significant damage. Although built for privileged Incas, the site was never finished, and was abandoned in 1572.
Well hidden for centuries, Machu Picchu was left completely as it was built. A temple in the sky.
Over the week, we explored other ruins, taking a taxi to some near Cusco, and one day we booked a private van tour through the Sacred Valley.
Each site is unique and interesting in its own way. And being all together, just bouncing around in a van on rough roads, through farmland and small Peruvian villages, was a lot of fun.
Moray was an experimental series of circular terraces, simulating different growing climates, allowing the Incas to develop new varieties of crops.
The ruins at Ollantaytambo were once a large Inca fortress with incredible vistas of the lush valley that lies between imposing rugged green mountains.
The large spread out ruins at Sacsayhuaman, were built on a ridge overlooking Cusco, as a fortress to protect the city.
We learned so much and I can’t remember half. But it is certain that Incas were advanced engineers with sophisticated agricultural systems. Gigantic stones used in building weigh over 50 tons. They not only moved these stones, but cut and polished them, fitting them perfectly into each other using a Lego-like connector system with no mortar.
Food was stored at different altitudes to maintain the required temperature. Aqua ducts were constructed to carry glacier water over large distances, ensuring successful crops throughout the year. Using the changing angle of the sun’s rays as they projected through mountain passes, the Incas accurately determined the solstices, and the proper times of the year in which to plant.
Our last day trip was to Lago Huamantay, a 3 hour van ride, first on paved road, then on a mountain trail. At one point Brett asked “Is this a road?” It was narrow and had the most hairpin of hairpin turns ever. A very near miss of an oncoming truck around one of those turns had us raising our eyebrows. But we made it.
It was a good hike, crossing a few clear creeks and an hour and a half climb on a well worn trail up the grassy mountain.
When we reached the ridge we were rewarded with a gorgeous green-blue alpine lake. Across and above, a thick white glacier spread over massive rock peaks.
It was tranquil and a little chilly.
The Plan. Sadly the week came to an end. Brett and Katryna flew back to Winnipeg. Kelsey and Chris took two days to enjoy the city of Lima. Surprise! Friday night they got engaged. Congratulations! Bob and I go back to Columbia with 2 new fuel filters that Brett bought for us in Winnipeg. Hope they get through Customs. (yes they did)