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Published: December 7th 2013
Cusco--Lingering in the Navel of the World
What a magical swirl of life was Cusco! I stayed four months and never got tired of exploring its cobblestone streets, hiking to ancient ruins in the mountains above the city, and visiting museums in colonial mansions. Though other visitors were breathless climbing the city's hills at its dizzying 3400mt/11,150 ft, I'd been high for months and had no problems.
Cusco had been the sacred center or navel of the Inca Empire, and there remained impressive remnants of what the Spanish had described as a dazzling city. On top of the perfect masonry of the Inca palaces and temples, the Spanish built their intricately detailed mansions and churches. This unique Inca-Spanish city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was layered with history.
Not only was there an incredible sense of the past, but also the present was alive with colorful indigenous and somber Catholic festivals Festivals of Cuzco
, indigenous people in their traditional clothing visiting from surrounding villages, tasty street food, market fare, and tropical fruits from the Amazon (just over the mountains), and great friends in my Magic Hostel.
Charming Central Plaza
The principal Plaza
Catholic and Inca=Cusco
in the plaza, La Compania and great Inca Pachacutec
de Armas was utterly charming, and I made daily pilgrimages there, always catching my breath at its beauty and feeling as if I'd come home. The flower-filled plaza was surrounded by the huge, elaborately carved stone cathedral and the delicate La Compania Jesuit church and arcaded, balconied colonial buildings reminiscent of my favorite plazas in Spain and Italy.
Equally picturesque was the setting amidst hills and mountains, green when I arrived in March that later faded to brown for the tourist season. The plaza was always filled with a panoply of people for watching, but was sometimes a hassle because of the constant approaches of street vendors trying to make a living.
While this stream of sellers often turns people off to Cusco, I cultivated a smile and subtle shake of the head to quickly ward off their offers, leaving us both feeling pleasant rather than me harassed or them rejected.
The Magic Hostel and Volunteering
I'd come to Cusco for the Hostel Magico to volunteer in their program for disadvantaged children, stay in a friendly place, and save money in the cheapest dorms in town. It was more than
I'd hoped for; I gained a family with the staff (for whom I was the resident translator and English teacher) and successions of volunteers and guests, many of them long-timers like me.
As a bonus, we had a big goofy dog, giant iridescent hummingbirds, a garden, wifi, a convivial kitchen and a steep hill for exercise. Because it was in the San Pedro working class neighborhood on a dead-end street, we had peace away from the noise and bustle of the center, and I often awakened to the sound of birds. This was heaven!
Volunteering with children turned out to be sweet yet more challenging than I'd thought, having only taught college before. I walked into the after school program, and my heart melted as I was enveloped by a swarm of hugging arms from little people welcoming me into their space.
However, I soon learned that these loving arms were attached to minds with the attention spans of jello. It wasn't completely their fault--how can you imprison 6-year-olds in a classroom all day, and then expect them to complete a couple of hours of often meaningless homework?
They needed to play! We'd regularly get up, wiggle and dance, but too-often, focus, focus, was my boring refrain. Oh, for a Waldorf school down here! Still, the children were lovely, we had fine times, and it felt good to give something of myself.
My daily walks about town always brought wonderful surprises--a quirky little museum, another Inca wall, fabulous architectural details on colonial buildings, a church usually closed but now open, and unique neighborhoods, such as the charming San Blas one where I often hung out reading by a fountain. For those with more money, this was the place to stay.
Bohemian San Blas was up another steep hill, had little artisan shops and restaurants along its narrow, pedestrian streets with their original Inca water channels, the oldest adobe church in town (1563) with an elaborately carved wooden pulpit, and a plaza with a fountain where dogs and hippies played, and I saw a portly, middle-aged woman strip naked and bathe--always something going on.
Another fave reading spot was stately, flowered Plaza Nazarenas surrounded by upscale restaurants, the excellent Pre-Columbian Art Museum and regal hotels in former
monasteries. The 400-year-old Hotel Monasterio had landscaped patios, antique-filled public spaces, and a hyper-gilded chapel with Gregorian chant piped in; I often wafted around, imagining I was staying there.
My favorite sojourns were above the city walking on the earth. The most popular led to the Inca ruins of Sacsaywaman; a big white Cristo patterned on the one in Rio, given to the city by the Palestinian people whom Cusco had helped; and vast views over the city's red-tiled roofs to snow capped mountains.
Other hikes, known mostly by locals, took me up solitary canyons crossed by dodgy bridges, or to the hills above San Blas, to the little-visited Temple of the Moon and its caves and to ruins which I had to myself. So many possibilities for discovery!
The Tourist Trot
Unfortunately, I'd also make another discovery, leading to the infamous tourist trot (to the bathroom). My stomach is excellent for traveling, and I've always eaten lots of street food and just been careful with water.
In Cusco, I often visited the vast San Pedro market, just down my hill, where Ana, my fave juice lady,
would give me, for a pittance, a glass of freshly squeezed, tropical fruit juice--mango-orange, papaya or carrot. Then from street vendors, I'd get a slice of pineapple, some sugar cane or a little fried potato ball with veggies to munch on as I walked. I'm sure none of these could harm me!
On the other hand, at first, I was good and boiled my drinking water. But then, Cusco seemed so clean after Bolivia, and I slacked off, guzzling freely from the tap for months. But then--my gut rebelled and for nine days, I was doubled over with cramps and having to make the difficult decision of which end to put on the pot. It was all a bit worse for the bathroom being downstairs and far away, and the water often not functioning.
Not having health insurance, I drank tea with cayenne, ginger and garlic, and stayed in bed when not on the porcelain throne. The internet said I could have any number of parasites or bacteria and should be tested to get the right prescription to nuke the beasts, so I did nothing.
Friends had similar symptoms and with
their insurance, went to the foreigners' clinic where they were hospitalized and put on intravenous solutions for days, which certainly enriched the clinic. I swear, after a couple of weeks, we were all in the same shape, so I'll stick to my natural approach though be better with my water.
I could have stayed in Cusco forever, but the tourist season had arrived with crowds cramming the streets and a tour group taking over the hostel. Oh well, four months was almost enough. Next up, a better kind of tourist trot--taking in the museums and sites of Cusco Cusco--Doing the Tourist Trot
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