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Published: November 26th 2010
lovely churches in Cusco
I'm enjoying the ambiance here in Cusco...and the street food is amazing! Truly a photographer's dream, but really, any town that has those striking terracotta roofs and narrow cobblestone streetways already gets my big stamp of approval.
On almost every street corner, little old gals in their brightly colourful petticoats and round bowlers sell their wares, or offer up steaming pots of stuff to try. I try everything. The tamales which come in either sweet or salty, the gigantic corn cobs with a green cilantro spicy sauce, humitas that taste like corn muffins, llama on a stick, all different kinds of Chicha (a fermented corn drink) one I particularly liked flavoured of strawberry beer, or the various tejas (snacks of dried fruits and nuts or chocolate). Where ever I travel, I prefer to eat street food rather than go to restaurants - and yes I have an iron stomach - but here in Cusco, I notice they have several diverse and trendy eateries, so after all the Peruvian fare I've experienced so far, temptation gets the best of me. We find a Bohemian place that served up homemade spaetzle and a beef burgundy that rivals my Oma's. A Spanish Tapas
house with fresh calamari and a red wine onion soup to die for. We even went to a crazy thrash-metal nightclub and had the best pumpkin quinoa soup I've tasted yet.
Getting around in old Cusco is extremely easy. Once you have found the main Plaza you can go in just about any direction and find lots of things to do and see. I spent a total week in this bustling city and saw everything. Lots of time for shopping and wandering about. Of course, there are the endless museums and churches too. The Museo Inka is interesting, I had arrived when they had a huge funeral procession going on, so I quietly watched until a guide wandered by and offered a tour in English. Turned out I knew more Spanish than he knew English, so we reverted.
The story of Cusco fascinates me. You can see remnants of the Incas everywhere you go. Especially the fantastic calle Hatunrumiyoc which has a polished stone wall foundation from an Inca palace. Cusco is fabled to be built by the children of the Sun and Moon, and was occupied by many cultures way before the Inca dynasty rolled in and
The Money Shot
Machu Picchu at its finest
ruled between the 12th and 15th centuries...their Empire was built in less than a century and flourished - they even fashioning the town to resemble their sacred Puma - which you can still see from an airplane. Then, the Spanish arrived in 1533 and defeated them, built over everything, giving Cusco it's colonial look. It wasn't really until Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911 that this town turned into the hub it is today.
I highly recommend just sitting on a park bench at the fountain in the Plaza de Armas and watch the goings on. One officer is assigned to chase off the painting salesmen and shoeshine kids, their antics rival a Benny Hill show. At night, locals sometimes gather at the Plaza San Francisco and tell jokes to huge crowds of locals. Gambling boards are set up and you can place bets. We tried our luck, but nada. A word to the wise, if you are going to hang out at night, try not to wear anything flashy or snatchable, as you will be targeted. Even Patty Cho-la got nervous a couple of times, so we moved on quickly.
Through the narrow cobblestone streets near the
These little camera jockeys enjoyed their following of tourists
Plaza San Blas - where our hostel was, you can climb the hilltops and get a Birdseye view of the city which is pretty fantastic. There are also ruins on the outskirts, the Sacsayhuaman (pronounced oddly like sexy-woman...woot) was built as a fortress, and considered the 'head' of their sacred Puma town. The engineering of this site was absolutely stunning and was designed to hold all of Cusco's peoples should a disaster strike. Unfortunately, they were unable to defeat the Spanish and were slaughtered. The Spanish then used Sacsayhuaman as a quarry to build their own buildings and churches in Cusco, right over the Inca temples.
Patty Cho-la was born and raised in Cusco, so she knows all the cool places around, I met up with her a few times. We went out to do the Tambomachay tour which is about a 10 km hike where there are different ruins with tunnels and caves, alters for sacrifices, etc. On the south side of town is another ruin called Tipon which I thought was great because it showed all the Inca engineering, they were pros at underground aqueducts, waterfalls and fountains, and really knew their hydraulics. Patty was also a
Spanish built on top of the Inca buildings - must of realized they were pros at foundations
godsend when it came to checking out Cusco's nightlife. I think the earliest we got home was 7 am. Lesson learned...I am not 20 years old any more. Oh my head.
On our way out of town we got to see the Moray site which looks like a Greek amphitheatre, but is believed to be a crop laboratory, the Salinas de Maras salt mine, and we visited an animal refuge where they had rescued two pumas being drugged and used to entertain people in the Cusco nightclubs. Also being cared for were three gigantic condors, so I got to get up close - they were very cool but their red, beady eyes bore a hole right into your soul. As we make our way along the sacred valley, I also noticed many flapping red flags on sticks outside random houses - Patty said it signified a Chicha brewery - the locals are all getting sauced on the stuff daily...and I don't blame them, that flood landslide that devestated this entire area less than a year ago is still very real and sad.
Ollantaytambo was probably the most interesting for me on this entire trip of the Inca heartland.
A room with a view
A window to the lost city of Inka
I absolutely recommend going there if you can, even if it's just to quickly wander about. Again, lots of narrow streets with water aqueducts gurgling by, the Inca architecture is alive and well, and I can't get enough dog in a doorway pictures. These are the places where you wish you had one of those fancy-dansy cameras. The ruins that loom over Ollantaytambo are amazing in their own rite. You can zig zag to the top of the terraces for a spectacular view. Every little home along the valley has a pair of terracotta bulls with hypnotic eyes that adorn their rooftops, bringing the occupants luck and fertility. I almost buy one, but talk myself out of it - my neighbours in Canada will think I have lost my mind if I put one on my roof. Tomorrow, I am taking the train to Aguas Calientes, so I decide to get something to eat inbetween power outages, and find a trendy pizza joint.....where low and behold, a friend of mine (that I travelled through Cuba with) wanders by. Another 'it's a small world' event. Those are awesome.
The Olly train station is bustling and chaotic, but easy to find,
Rows of houses at Machu Picchu
just follow all the dusty tuc tucs down the hill. Going to Aguas Calientes you can either go thrifty or first class. I am in the 'backpacker' car which is super comfortable and thoroughly entertaining. For me, it's all about the journey, and I don't see how fancy tablecloths and a stuffy maître d is gonna knock my socks off in under an hour.
Aguas Calientes is nothing more than tourist central....all tourists that come to Peru eventually have to come through here to get to Machu Picchu, so if you succumb to this fact, you'll be fine. Actually, it has that ski resort town vibe, lots of people who are patiently sitting around waiting to go up to Machu Picchu, mixed in with those who have been. A high level of extreme excitement permeates the air...add insanely priced alcoholic and food to that, and you have a Peruvian Banff or Aspen.
The Inka trail was the reason I came to Peru, but now under doctor's orders, I am on the sidelines. Boo. I struggle not to feel defeated, but as a 'cup half full' type of person, I embrace my current situation and go on to experience
The Stairway to heaven
Incas really liked stairs.
Machu Picchu. And what an experience it is! There are a trillion pictures of it, but until you actually stand on the site and feel how majestic it really is, you have no idea. I spend my day up and down and around, taking pictures, chasing llamas, and just sitting on the rocks - taking in the fantastic panoramic view with warm sunshine on my face. There are probably 2,000 tourists here with me, but if you just sit and listen, all you hear is silence. It's very Zen and peaceful despite all the bustling activity.
Calling Machu Picchu "The Lost City" is an understatement. Before the misty mountain is bathed in morning sunlight, you arrive at the Sun Gate and get a stunning introduction. Later from the top of Huayna Picchu - which was a pretty steep and crazy climb itself - a spectacular view awaits you, and it is well worth it.
For me, the ingenuity of the peoples that lived here is unmatched. The granite rocks they used are so perfectly carved to fit together without mortar and polished to gleam. When you stand on the endless terraces and look down the sheer drop to
A shot from a balcony overlooking the Plaza
the Urubamba river below, you marvel at this true engineering feat. The Spanish in all their conquering mayhem never found Machu Picchu, and later it was abandoned and disappeared into a thick bamboo underbrush. In 1911, an archaeologist named Bingham talked a local into showing him where it was...and thus the world was then introduced. No one is still quite sure what Machu Picchu's function was. There are signs that it may have been used for worship and sacrifices, the way the rocks are placed may indicate it was used to track stars and solstices, and some believe it was just a country retreat for the Inka emperor Pachacutec. Whatever, it deserves to go down as one of the World's greatest wonders.
I meet up with my group again who are exhausted but exhilarated from their four day trek. We all take the crazy train back towards Cusco while sharing stories and memories about their fantastic experience on the Inka trail.
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