Cusco - this place literally took our breathe away!!


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June 4th 2019
Published: July 12th 2019
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4th June – Fly to Cusco (rest day) – this place literally took our breathe away!!

Only our second day in Peru. There was no let up at this early stage as we took the 1 ½ hour flight to Cusco, 3400m high in the Andes. On arriving at Cusco airport, we were met by a guide who distributed a multi coloured ticket which we would need to bring with us on most of the tours as this was our entrance in to the ancient sites and other attractions. I noticed a desk that had a sign above advertising Inca rail. I chuckled to myself when I thought of some poor unsuspecting traveller buying a ticket expecting a train to Machu Picchu or the Sacred Valley when in fact the sign was missing a ‘T’, that had fallen off. The poor sap had just signed up for four days of excruciating pain, trekking the Inca Trail!

Coca leaves were readily available at various points around the airport. We had heard so much about these. The locals tend to chew these leaves as it is supposed to help with the altitude. I popped a couple in my mouth. I didn’t want to overdose as I knew what these leaves contained! They had a bitter taste and a pretty unpleasant texture. When Roisin asked me where had I deposited the chewed-up leaves, I replied quizzically, ‘Deposited?’ No one had told me you weren’t meant to swallow them!!

We had heard so much about the thin air, high up in the mountains. We weren’t sure what to expect. We seemed to be breathing OK (or no worse than usual, anyway!) as we walked across from the terminal building to the car park. In twenty minutes, we were checking in to our hotel, Los Portales, where we freshened up before deciding to take a walk to the main square about half a mile away. The walk was slightly up hill, I say slightly because back home we wouldn’t have even been aware of the gradient but after the first block both Roisin and I were wheezing quite heavily.

Sod this!’, I panted. ‘The itinerary badged this day as a rest day. Let’s head back to the hotel and do just that!!’ The guide lines state that when arriving in to Cusco, one should do nothing but rest for the first twenty-four hours or so for the body to acclimatise to the depleted oxygen level at this altitude.

5th June - Tour of Cusco’s surrounding area (of Sexy Humans and Klingon sounding settlements)

We both had a very bad night’s sleep. When finally dosing off, I would wake with a start, hyperventilating and gasping for breath. I had to control this by drinking water and concentrating on my breathing. This happened all through the night. It turns out that we weren’t the only ones in our group to have had a disturbed night’s sleep, everything from headaches, stuffy noses to a tingling sensation in the fingers.

Today’s excursion took us to some of Cusco’s most prominent historical Inca sites. Roisin decided to stay at the hotel to try and catch up on some sleep. In the hotel foyer, two flasks had been made available to all guests as required. The first flask contained Coca leaf tea. This is a stimulant, made from the coca leaf, that is supposed to help with the altitude. There are side effects to this drink and is not recommended after mid-afternoon as when it comes to sleep, you may find yourself clinging from the bedroom ceiling!! The other flask contained the more subtle Muña (moon-yah) tea. This is a mint-like Peruvian herb that’s wholly organic with medicinal properties such as helping with digestion and cleansing the stomach. Before leaving on the tour, I bought a cannister of oxygen from reception. This was a large aerosol that came with a face mask. I left this with Roisin in case she needed it during the day. I just reminded her to try and not get it confused with the bug spray as I didn’t want to come back to the hotel and find her on the bed in the dying fly position!!

Our first stop was only a short fifteen-minute drive up a steep hill overlooking the city of Cusco. We ascended to an altitude of 3700m. Our guide, Joel, explained we were going to visit sexy woman. Aye aye I thought, I didn't think it was that kind of excursion!!! When we arrived at the site, the welcome sign said Saqsayhuaman to the dismay of all the blokes on board!! The was an Inca citadel originally built by the Killke culture’ During the rise of the Inca Empire, they expanded and added to the site. One of the remarkable things about the construction of Saqsayhuaman is the stones are so closely spaced that a human hair could not fit between any of the stones. This precision, combined with the rounded corners of the blocks, the variety of their interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inward, is thought to have helped the ruins survive devastating earthquakes in Cusco. The longest of the walls is about 400 meters. They are about 6 meters tall. The estimated volume of stone is over 6,000 cubic metres. Estimates for the weight of the largest block vary from 128 tonnes to almost 200 tonnes. On leaving Saqsayhuaman, 50% of the people on board were still thinking of how this visit could have turned out!!

The Incas were a civilisation that, although as well known as the Aztec or Mayan empires, only lasted just under a hundred years, having eleven kings in the process. The conquistadors of Spain were the ones to finally lay to rest the Incan Empire as they wreaked devastation and destruction over the area now known as Peru and Bolivia. However, Francisco Pizarro and his brothers hit lucky when they invaded the region. The Incas were in the middle of a civil war of succession between the sons of Huayna Capac, Huáscar and as it turned out, the final Inca King (number 11), Atahualpa. This conflict had left the Incan army depleted so it wasn’t too difficult for the Spanish to overrun the vastly reduced and therefore inferior force.

Our next stop was to the obligatory factory/store. In this case it was a weaving factory. This was slightly more interesting than I expected. We were told about the five different types of the llama family. Who would have thought they came in all shapes and sizes from the thick necked stumpy alpaca to its more slender, long slim-necked cousin, the vicuña? The factory also made and blended its own dyes from various plants and roots. We then had about thirty minutes to look around. There were no prices on any of the goods which meant only one thing. Haggling! Although many of the items were fantastic works of art where you could see many hours of work had been put into the production, I had no idea of the cost should I have purchased something similar in the UK. $300 for a jumper. Is it worth the price? I’ve no idea. Would I pay that much on something I may wear a few weeks a year? I’ve plenty idea but I’m not going to insult your intelligence with a response!! After a quick wander around, I retired to the street where I sat drinking my water and catching my breath!!

Tambomachay, was our next stop. The mini bus climbed yet higher. It pulled up adjacent to the entrance. ‘Don’t forget your water’, announced Joel. ‘Only another 200 metres, on cobbled path, up a slight incline’. There were the usual souvenir stalls lining one side of the approach whilst several women in their colourful national dress squatted by their baby alpacas on the other side, beckoning us to come have our photo taken. Last time I fell for this I was in Rome with Roisin, at the Coliseum. I thought it would be a good idea to have our photo taken with one of the centurions who were milling around. That is until one of them would not give me my camera back whilst the other one threatened Roisin and me with a short sword unless we paid twenty euros!! I managed to whittle them down to five euros and although Rome was now just a distant memory, I still didn’t want to take that chance. Who knew what they concealed under those layered dresses!!?? Nevertheless, sword or no sword, I could have sworn they all wore smirks across their faces as they saw a dozen or so reasonably fit (and me!!) westerners struggle with the relatively short walk. (Or it could have just been the cold steel against their thighs!!)

Tambomachay comes from the Incan language (Tamba = Inn and mach’ay = cave or it could be machay = drunk!!) The structure consisted of a series of aqueducts, canals and waterfalls that ran through the terraced rocks. The function of the site is uncertain: it may have served as a military outpost guarding the approaches to Cusco, as a spa resort for the Incan political elite, or both!!

Back on the bus and we then called in at Q’enqo.This site is a mysterious and dark reminder of the death rituals of the Incas as it is a place believed to be where sacrifices and mummification took place. Cool, I thought as the schoolboy inside me started to show an unhealthy interest!! Q’enqo stretches across a hillside, it is a unique temple in its construction, as it’s carved entirely out of a naturally occurring monolith. We were led down some steps in to a small but roomy cavern. We were told that the slab of rock before us is where they disembowelled their dead (I’m assuming the bodies were dead – of course they were. They had just been sacrificed!!) before binding them in the foetal position then entombing them in to the walls of the temple. There was a natural flue in the cave which would have provided ample illumination throughout this gruesome process.

The transport we were in for this tour was a 16-seater minibus. Roisin is not too clever with small vehicles, as conditions can appear cramped and slightly claustrophobic. I spoke to Joel, our tour guide for today who informed me that their vehicles are used by Condor Travel for all its excursions but there are never more than 10-12 passengers in any one vehicle.

For our final stop of this tour we were taken back down in to Cusco and stopped at Qorikancha, the ruins of the most important temple in the Incan Empire where they paid homage to one of their highest deities, the Sun God, Inti. During the war with the pesky Spanish in 16th century, much of the temple was destroyed; the foundations of this temple then became the foundation for the current building, the Convent de Santa Maria. Joel took us down in to the crypt and showed us how perfectly butted the foundation stones were. He then went on to add that the Incas where one civilisation that did not employ slaves. (OK, employ is probably the wrong word but you know what I mean!!) because each stone laid required the skill of a master craftsman. The method used to interlock each stone and the thickness of the walls, made destruction very difficult as well as timely and expensive!!

This was the end of the tour. We all started walking down a hill until we were told to wait for the bus. The drop off point was the main square in Cusco, about a kilometre’s drive. As I looked over the well-groomed Jardin Sagrado, I remarked to Ian, one of the other passengers that the road at the bottom of the hill looked vaguely familiar. I’m sure our hotel is around here somewhere. ‘Do you mean that one there!!’ Ian replied, pointing to a building no more than a few hundred metres from where we were standing!! Needless to say, as most of us were relishing the prospect of air conditioning and a whiff of pure oxygen, we decided to walk back to the hotel!

This evening we attended a culture and dance evening. This was an attraction valid on the multi coloured ticket we were given on arrival in Cusco. The event took place next door but one from the hotel so no walking involved. It was not what I expected (in a good way!) I imagined round tables set out in a cabaret style surrounding a dance floor. At some stage of the evening I expected there to be the obligatory audience participation. We showed our tickets and were beckoned to venture down stairs where we found a small theatre. The stage was in darkness. Five minutes before the performance began, a man hurried down the left aisle and ran his hand over half a dozen old fashioned light switches in one fell swoop. The stage half illuminated. He then rushed back up the left aisle, across the rear of the theatre and down the right aisle where he repeated the process. I’ve never seen a stage being lit up this way before. It was if we were sitting in someone’s front room. This was only one step advanced from someone coming on stage and lighting each lamp individually (with a match!!). The show started with a short movie about the history of the region. We felt like we were revisiting the 60s where a B movie (usually a documentary about grizzly bears in the Canadian wilderness!!) always preceded the main event. The dancing was very colourful and entertaining. A narrator explained the significance of each dance and a live Peruvian band kept the rhythm up beat. During the penultimate number, the dancers came down from the stage and selected those of us who were stupid enough to make eye contact!!

Breathing has still been laboured today but, apart from the exertions during the tour, I seemed to get better as the day wore on. Roisin used the oxygen mask periodically during today which had also helped. The question was, would we wake up refreshed and revitalised ready to tackle our next challenge…err! I mean excursion!!!


Additional photos below
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The suburbs of Cusco from the Plaza MayorThe suburbs of Cusco from the Plaza Mayor
The suburbs of Cusco from the Plaza Mayor

The flag is not the Gat Pride Flag although it is very similar. It is the emblem of the Cusco region and it represents the true rainbow. Compare this to the Gay Pride flag and you will see a distinct difference!!


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