Cuzco


Cuzco is the “archaeological capital of the Americas as well as the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited city”. We walked around the city a bit, visiting popular places like Plaza de Armas, which was the heart of Inca Cuzco and still the heart of the city today. We saw two flags flown there: the red & white Peruvian flag and the rainbow colored flag of Tahuantinsuyo (representing the four quarters of the Inca empire)… which also looks very much like the gay pride flag! The plaza is surrounded by colonial arcades. There’s also a prominent cathedral and church nearby on two sides. There were no shortage of street vendors selling postcards and paintings. It reminded us of Southeast Asia although the peddlars here aren’t quite as aggressive and there aren’t as many of them.

In order to get to Cuzco, the most convenient method is to fly. We took an early morning flight and landed in Cuzco in the late morning. The moment we stepped off the plane we felt ill. We had been dreading the possibility of altitude sickness since the beginning of the trip, and thought that our “symptoms” may just be psychological. It wasn’t very severe, but we felt a little light headed and short of breath. You also have to breathe more deeply to get the same level of oxygen in your blood. You can take altitude sickness pills (Diomox) but the side effects of the medication — increased urinary volume, numbness, tingling, nausea, drowsiness, myopia and temporary impotence — sound twice as bad as the effects of altitude sickness itself. Machu Picchu is at a lower altitude for Cuzco, so with any luck, we figured we’d be able to acclimatize in Cuzco for a few days.

We liked the architecture there. They have gorgeous tiled roofing and ornate wooden balconies that display beautiful carvings. The roads are narrow and paved with cobblestones which make it uncomfortable to walk. Some of the locals still wear traditional garb (hats and flared out skirts for women), and it is not all for the benefit of tourists, although some people particularly decked out in the native costume did approach us asking whether we wanted to take their picture. We walked along the alley of Loreta, which has Inca walls on both sides. The one on the right belongs to Amarucancha, or the “Courtyard of the Serpents”. The other is Acllahuasi, or the “House of the Chosen Women”. Despite the historical significance, they look just like…well, walls.

The city isn’t that large and after a day or two of walking, we saw pretty much everything there is to see. There are lots of small nondescript museums and churches but nothing particularly memorable. A lot of the cars still run on diesel making it all the more difficult to breathe as in the thin air environment.

Local Market

We also wandered through a local market that was very dark. Less than half the stalls were open. We did see some electric lighting overhead, but they had not been turned on. We enjoy going to markets because even though they’re not particularly clean, they have wonderful displays of what locals buy and eat. If you follow the old adage of “you are what you eat” then going to markets really gives you a sense of the local culture. We were originally concerned that the raw meat wasn’t refrigerated, but it reminds us of how it is in Hong Kong where we grew up. Not many stores were open, but the ones that were all sold the same thing: ponchos and carpet looking embroidery. We guessed it is what tourists buy around here. There are also a large number of jewelry stores around – all called either H. Stern (think Howard Stern) or Ilaria. We heard that Peru, and South American in general, is famous for gold & silver.

The only thing we bought today was food. We wanted snacks so we stopped at a bakery to buy a stick of fried dough (like a doughnut) rolled in sugar with a little bit of caramel on top. It was delicious and only cost Soles 0.30 (US$0.10)! We also stopped by a local polleria to eat rotisserie chicken with French fries. One dish of quarter chicken plus a bottle of the local Cuzquena beer plus a bottle of mineral water came up to only Soles 13.40 (US$4.43). We love how cheap and good food is here.

Hotel Monasterio del Cusco

If the Sheraton Lima was a roach motel, then the Hotel Monasterio del Cusco is the Taj Mahal. Here is the Lonely Planet description, “The minute you walk into this hotel, you know you are in a different league. Set in a restored convent, the Monasterio is indisputably Cuzco’s most beautiful hotel, with stunning public areas and over 100 exquisitely decorated rooms surrounding two colonial courtyards.” Upon arrival, they served us mate de coca, a coca-leaf tea that’s supposed to help with acclimatization. It is legal and doesn’t get you high even though coca is what cocaine is from. There’s music piping through the common areas at all hours of the day. It was (appropriately) Gregorian chants in the afternoon and classical music in the evening. The rooms are quite luxurious and you can pay to have extra oxygen pumped into them. After checking in, we weren’t feeling too well so we took a two hour nap which did wonders!

Inka Restaurant

We had dinner at a restaurant in Plaza de Armas called Inka Restaurant. Its close by to the hotel – which was especially heartening given we just read in the guide book that you shouldn’t stay out late at night since Cuzco is the mugging capital of Peru! The restaurant was nice but very crowded, and a tad touristy, because it is a recommended place in all of the guide books. About 75% of the menu items were Italian, American or Thai items. We prefer eating at local/cheaper haunts. Lauren had Peruvian chicken soup and our friend Jenny ordered chicken dish. I and my friend Eugene were a little more adventurous and were intent on trying the most exotic thing we could find on the menu. I ordered alpaca! It has the consistency of pork but tastes like liver. Eugene ordered guinea pig which was served diced. Eugene says they usually serve it whole roasted, as opposed to chopped up in pieces, so you know they’re serving the real thing and not cat meat instead (good thing that culinary etiquette has spread to Peru). It tasted like a cross between pigeon and rabbit. For dessert we had a “warm chocolate tart” and Lauren claims it was the BEST dessert she ever tried. It is a tart shell with warm, molten dark chocolate in the middle that you spoon over the scoop of vanilla ice cream that comes with it. Jenny also ordered a creme brulee which tastes like Chinese double boiled milk.

Train Station

One of our main tasks in Cuzco was to purchase and collect our train tickets to Machu Picchu & Lake Titicaca near Puno. The concierge, Claudia, warned us that we shouldn’t go to the train station in person to get them even though we already had confirmed reservations. Instead, she suggested that somebody from the hotel do it on our behalf for a 10% commission. Thinking that we would be better off doing it ourselves, the four of us took a taxi down to the train station.

It was a disaster. There were crowds of people already there, so we suspected that there would be a long wait. The first thing we did was collect a ticket: E41. Then we compared it to the monitor which said that they were currently serving number E10. So the question was how long it would take to get from E10 to E41. There were plenty of other tourists there who had arrived earlier, so we compared notes as to the process for purchasing tickets. Apparently, you first had to speak to an agent to get your tickets (assuming you had a confirmation code), and then you needed to get into another line to actually pay for the tickets. To make matters more complicated, we only had a confirmation number for our Machu Picchu tickets. After haggling for an hour without making any progress on our tickets, the line inched up to E22. We were all so frustrated that we headed back to the hotel and told Claudia we’d take the 10% commission option. It literally took her two phone calls to accomplish what we were trying to do. Nice to see that the middleman is alive even in the high altitudes of Cuzco!

After that rather frustrating episode, we embarked on our day trip to visit the four ruins closest to Cuzco: Tambo Machay, Puca Pucara, Qenko and Sacsayhuaman. There are a number of ways to visit the ruins, and we decided to take a taxi to the furthest one (Tambo Machay), which is 8 km away, and then walk back to town. The taxi ride itself wasn’t expensive. It was Soles 50 (also written as “S/50″) and that included the excursion to the train station, but all the way there, we were all quite puzzled at the distance: it certainly seemed a lot further than 8 km. When we arrived at Tambo Machay, the driver asked whether we wanted him to wait for us. We told him that we would walk back to Cuzco. He laughed. That’s never a good sign when a local laughs at what you’re trying to do.

Tambo Machay

To see the ruin, we each needed to pay S/70 (they don’t take USD) for a Boleto Turistico (tourist ticket) that allows you to see a number of attractions around Cuzco over a week. The ticket is almost the size of a sheet of A4 paper and has pictures of each destination around the periphery. They punch each picture as you visit each place. It makes a great souvenir…too bad I lost mine.

Tambo Machay contains a ceremonial stone bath and is also called El Bano del Inca. It was mildly interesting but if there were no signs, you might thinks its just a pile of rocks. Lauren was disappointed because we’ve seen similar ruins in Bath, UK, and those seemed much more impressive. It didn’t help that we couldn’t locate the fountain even though it is still functioning today. Legend has it that if you drink from the fountain, you will live to 100 years old. All we saw was this little trickle of water coming out the side that looked like drainage. Yep, that was the fountain.

Puca Pucara

We quickly made our way across the street to Puca Pucara, which is supposed to be a hunting lodge. The name means “red fort”. Some people speculate that it was also a fort, lookout point and resting place for travelers. Again, it looked like a pile of rocks to us – albeit an organized pile. The views of the Cuzco Valley were nice though and we were able to make out rectangular plots of land all over the hillside. We were all trying to guess what crops were being grown. We guessed it might be potato since (1) we couldn’t see anything above ground and (2) potato seems to be a common staple in Peruvian cooking.

Afterwards, the trip got much dicier. Instead of following the road, we were supposed to take a path that led directly back to town. Unfortunately, it was not well marked and we had to follow the rather vague description in Eugene’s guide book that mentioned something about heading “left of a soccer field”. We did something that resembled a path, and also a soccer field, so we headed in that general direction. We saw some horses and there was horse manure everywhere. That’s when I came up with the theory that we were on the right path as long as we followed the trail of fresh horse dung! My thought was that horses don’t just wander around on their own, and they only go where people lead them. I think my companions were very skeptical…

After trekking for a few minutes, we saw a couple of German tourists. “Puca Pucara?” they asked, and we pointed them to where we just came. “Salapunco?” we enquired, and they pointed in the direction of where they had emerged. We continued onwards (and downhill, quite thank goodness) admiring the foliage everywhere. At one point, we saw a pig and her litter of piglets. We think they were newborns because they were so small. They were also all different colors: pink, black, black and white, and brown. They were all sniffing the ground and chewing the mud. I had to kill the mood by remarking that it reminded him of “Hannibal”, which was on HBO the night before. After taking some photos, a couple of more pigs came trotting by so we hurried away in case they attacked us in order to protect the piglets.

We saw yet a pile of rocks in the distance, but the road split. After much debate, we decided to take the right fork which looked more well traveled, had fresh horse manure and had garbage! As we continued heading down the hill, we saw a local coming in the opposite direction. Jenny and Eugene both speak some Spanish, and successfully managed to ask for directions to Salapunco and understand the reply.

Salapunco

Salapunco means “Temple of the Moon”. It was by far the most unimpressive pile of rocks. The views from the top were quite nice and we looked around trying to find our next destination, Quenko, 1.5 km away. All we saw were a pack of horses, and some tourists in the distance. If in doubt, follow other tourists, and hope that they are not lost either. We headed up another hill and sure enough, Quenko was around the corner.

Quenko

You can always tell if you’re at a tourist destination because there are always vendors selling knick knacks. Quenko means “zigzag”, and these ruins house some zigzagging tunnels (hence the name) down below. The guidebook said that the flat part on top was used for ceremonies (we saw that) and that there were etchings of a puma, condor and llama (no idea where that was).

Sacsayhuaman

One last stop before town, and before long, we were at Sacsayhuaman (sounds like “sexy woman”), which means “satisified falcon”. I’m glad it was the final thing we saw, because it made the day’s hike all worthwhile. Since the ruins are on top of a hill, you can see fantastic views of Cuzco. As soon as we got there, we went to the middle of the grassy field and lay down for 10 minutes in the sun! This large flat parade ground is used for Inti Raymi (”Festival of the Sun”) on June 24.

Sacsayhuaman is massive. On one side is a three-tiered fortress consisting of zig zag walls. The Incas thought that Cuzco was shaped like a Puma, with Sacsayhuaman as the head, and the 22 zig zag walls were the teeth. As large and impressive as it is, according to our guide book, what remains is only 20% of the original structure because the Spaniards tore down most of the walls and used the smaller stones to build their own houses in Cuzco. What’s left are massive interlocking boulders. The heaviest one is estimated to be 300 tons.

Here’s us in the field resting. Apparently there are a lot of public events in this area – but no sleeping until now!

Our traveling companions, Jenny and Eugene, went up the opposite hill called Rodadero. We took pictures of it, but we didn’t bother climbing it since it wasn’t as high, nor did it have views of anything. Its shape was quite distinctive though since there are polished rocks and a series of carved stone benches known as “throne of the Inca”. There was a musician on Rodero, and Eugene later told us that when he played his flute, the music would echo off the fortress and back.

From Sacsayhuaman, we took a series of stone steps all the way down to Cuzco which conveniently led directly right in front of Hotel Monasterio. After a brief rest, we went to a Japanese run restaurant called Pucara that servies Peruvian food. Aside from us, and perhaps one other table of diners, all the patrons were Japanese. It must be featured prominently in all the Japanese guidebooks for Peru. Like many Japanese restaurants, the menus have pictures of most of the dishes they serve and underneath each picture is a description of the dish in Spanish. We then had to compare the Spanish description with the regular menu which had both Spanish and English descriptions. Eugene ordered skewered beef heart, Lauren ordered spaghetti – and before you berate her for eating spaghetti in Perui, spaghetti is a Peruvian dish; we know this because we had it at a genuine Peruvian restaurant (also run by Japanese people) in San Francisco called Mi Lindo Peru, “My Beautiful Peru”.

Sacred Valley

The following day we registered with SAS Travel to do an all-day tour of the Sacred Valley, “El Valle Sagrado”, that started at 8:30am in the morning. There are dozens of tour companies in Cuzco, and SAS is supposed to be one of the more reputable ones. When we paid for our vouchers the night before at around 7 pm, only three other people had signed up, so we thought it would be a small, intimate group. We ended up being combined with a Spanish group so all 13 of us were crammed into a small mini-bus.

The road we took passed by all the ruins we say the previous day: Sacsayhuaman, Quenko, Puca Pucara and Tambo Machay. We made a 20 minute pitstop at a small crafts market where the prices are supposedly cheaper than that in Cuzco. We took a quick look around, and were tempted to buy some souvenirs, but ended up not buying anything. We are generally very suspicious of the souvenirs and crafts markets we’ve found in Peru; everything looks the same, and we mean IDENTICAL. We suspect there is a great souvenir factory in Peru that churns out all this stuff. We have seen some more unique items, but they are typically sold in stores and cost a heck of a lot more.

Our next stop was the side of the road where we were able to look down into the Sacred Valley and take some really great photos. The Sacred Valley is very fertile, and there are three planting seasons per year. We think the guide said they grow corn in the Valley: all 57 varieties. Speaking of corn, we have never seen such massive corn kernels in our lives. They are about 4x the typical size of the kernels found in the U.S. We love corn, and love eating corn on the cob au naturel (without butter), but the monster corn we’ve eaten in Peru tastes only starchy, and not sweet. If it were sweet, we’d be tempted to buy the boiled corn they sell everywhere on the street.

Pisac

We then ventured down into the Valley, and the town of Pisac in particular. There is a massive crafts fair in Pisac every Sunday, and a smaller one on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so we were quite excited that we got to visit on a Tuesday! There was some traditional produce for sale, but most of the stalls we saw sold souvenirs, albeit a larger variety. For instance, we saw some baby clothes that we now wish we had purchased for friends and family. We also saw some beautiful plates, painted gourds and ceramic tea sets: things that look really cool, but we’re sure we would have no clue where to place once I got back to the US. We were at this market for 45 minutes, and the only thing we bought was two sweaters for Lauren made out of alpaca fur for total of S/85. On the way back, we ran into Eugene and Jenny, who had purchased two pairs of earrings for S/70. We were all late for the bus, but managed to quickly duck into a bakery (quite by accident) to see a clay-oven bakery that made piping hot flatbread rolls. Diagonally across from the oven was a multi-floored guinea pig hutch. Later, we discovered that it is called a castillo de cuyes (miniature castle for guinea pigs). Those guinea pigs were the CUTEST cutie pies! They were small (but much larger than hamsters), furry and looked so innocent and friendly. Little did they know that they were to be skinned and eaten shortly. Jenny & I both sighed big, “Awww…”, and even Eugene said he’s glad he ate his guinea pig dish before he actually saw a colony of them all huddled together. FYI, guinea pig in Spanish is “cuy” (pronounced “kwee”).

Inca Pisac

Upon leaving colonial Pisac, we went to the archeological digs of Inca Pisac twenty minutes away up in the mountains. There are multiple trails all spiraling up the mountain, and we took the most popular one that led to the top. Now we’re not afraid of walking uphill, especially since I had finally acclimitized to the high altitude, but we were completely unprepared for portions of the trail where the dirt road and stairs going downhill were narrow, with the mountain on our right and NOTHING to the left… nothing that is, except a several hundred feet drop down into the Valley. In most other places we’ve been to, there is a big huge barrier preventing you from plunging to your death, but not at this place. Lauren has a tremendous fear of heights so naturally, she freaked out. She had to sit down and inch down on her hands and feet. The guide had to come and hold her hand. He walked on the steps beside her so that he stood between her and the chasm. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I am rooted to Mother Earth!”

Fortunately, the scary descending part of the trail was quite short, and before long, we reached the ceremonial center where we saw some Inca ruins, including a circular sun temple and a Intihuatana (hitching post of the sun). The archways are trapezoidal, rather than rectangular because they are more stable during earthquakes. Across the Kitamayo gorge from where we were standing, we saw hundreds of holes in the side of the opposing cliff walls which are Inca tombs. We have no idea how the Incas got to these tombs because they were high up and there was no discernable trail. Apparently, the stones used to build the temples/structures on the mountain we were standing on, came from a quarry on the top of the mountain with the tombs. In other words, people had to mine the quarry from the top of one mountain, roll these stones down into the valley, and they haul them all the way up another mountain to build temples. As incredible as this sounds, it is rather inefficient. We wonder why they didn’t just build the temples on the same mountain as the quarry; that would have saved a lot of time and effort. We think it may have to do with the “feng shui” equivalent of temple placement. Another thing that stood out was the numerous terraces carved into the mountain side. The Incas were really big into terracing, and you see it all over the place, including Machu Picchu. It maximizes the amount of arable land available and typical of most mountainous agricultural regions. We first saw this technique in Bali several years ago.

Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo was the next stop. Geographically, it is halfway between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. This village still displays traditional Inca city planning and architecture. The roads are laid with cobblestones and are only 2 meters wide. The area is divided into square blocks called “canchas”, with each side 25 meters wide. The layout is very symmetrical and was designed for efficient hydraulics. Most people visit Ollantaytambo to visit the massive Inca fortress on top of a hill which has… you guessed it… terracing! Terracing provides several purposes: prevent erosion, planting for hanging gardens, defense mechanism and experimental agriculture.

Across from the fortress is a mountain which has an interesting formation on the side which looks like a face. The Incas say that the face is that of the creator of the world. In case you’re wondering what it looks like, it reminds me of depictions of Zeus. There’s also a smaller face profile higher up, and to the side of the mountain, and on the day of the Winter solstice, the sun shines through the eyes. Or was it the nose? Some part of the face anyway. The other interesting thing about the mountain, is that there is a structure built right in the middle. The climb up to it must be quite treacherous because I couldn’t see proper stairs. According to the guide, archeologists who have investigated the building found food remains so they believe it is a food storage facility. If we were to built a warehouse, we would have built it closer to the foot of the mountain, but maybe they built it up there because the climate is drier. Perhaps there was also a smaller chance of having food stolen since it is such a pain in the butt to get to.

At the top the guide pointed out this very tall mountain which houses the pass of Warmiwanusca (aka “dead woman’s pass”) which is the highest point of the Inca Trail. FYI, instead of taking the train to Machu Picchu, many people choose to hike there from Cuzco. The most popular one is the 3-day Inca Trail. We would have loved to do the Inca Trail from a physical activity/cardiovascular perspective, but the thought of camping for 3 days without plumbing (hence no showers or real toilets) wasn’t as appealing.

Like all the other significant Inca structures with religious significance, the fortress is built from interlocking stones that fit perfectly together. No mortar was used to cement them together. Also, the stones are polygonal, not rectangular, and so the builders spent a lot of time chipping the sides so that they would fit. On a hardness scale of 1-10, the stones are rated 8.5, which is similar to diamond. The blocks were quarried 6km away across the river Urubamba. The stones are absolutely massive, the largest one found being 8m x 1.8m. The guide said that the stones were transported on rollers, although the Lonely Planet said they were moved by diverting the river around them. At the bottom of the fortress, back towards the exit, is a fountain. The sides are carved in a stair step pattern with three levels. The top level is represented by the condor (the heavens), the middle level is represented by the puma (earth), and the bottom one is the snake (spirit world). The guide was able to change the pattern of the water flow by dragging his fingers across the mouth of the spout. We had never seen that before.

Chincero

The last stop of our trip was Chincero. The only thing to see there was a dark colonial church. We weren’t able to take photos inside. The interior was quite gaudy, and reminiscent of some of the churches we saw in Italy. Lots of statues, paintings (painted by Peruvians but depicting western looking people), and a tomb (we have no idea who is inside). Outside the church was a small market with people selling souvenirs. Some of them were sold by little kids. One boy sold clay bulls which are often seen on the top of people’s homes. He said it cost S/5 for a pair, or S/2 each. We don’t think he’s taken math at school yet. It was very cold as evidenced by our gloomy faces in the pictures.

It was late by the time we got back to Cuzco upon arrival. When deciding what to eat for dinner, the first thing Eugene said was, “I don’t mind if we DON’T eat Peruvian food tonight!” So we went to a restaurant called “Blueberry lounge” which serves international cuisine. The boys each had a cheeseburger and the women had thai food (mee goring and tom yum gai). Lauren also had some great hot chocolate. She really likes the hot chocolate in Peru. It is very rich because they make it with real dark chocolate and not some cheap powder mix.

We were sitting in front of the TV, and although the sound was off, we could tell that there was nonstop news about a plain crash in Peru. It was a Tans Peru flight heading towards Iquitos. Not good, especially since we were flying to Iquitos the following week. Lauren was a little nervous, but was somewhat relieved that we were taking LAN Peru (a much more reputable airline), than the unreliable Tans Peru. Still…

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