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October 14th 2018
Published: October 14th 2018
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By 7 AM, after a quick breakfast, (mine was coca tea and toast with honey, I could barely eat a thing due to altitude sickness) we were back on the bus on the road to Cusco, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, via the high Andes mountains. Cusco, at a purported 11,000 feet, those of us struggling with altitude sickness were looking forward to this change in elevation!

As our bus progressed north through the grassy plateaus I could see some very big mountains on the horizon. Although I had done my research and printed a chart of all the major destinations and their altitudes, I did not record the “minor” stops along the way. After drinking plenty of water over the two hour bus ride we arrived in Pucara (elevation 12,664 feet…we were climbing!) for a bathroom break. Pucara, Quechua for fortress, is an archaeological site of an ancient culture dating back to 1800 BC. These people were well known for their pottery. Of course the bathroom stop included a shopping option at the Pucara Museum Store for said pottery and other things Peruvian. Perched on the tile roof of the museum were two Pucara Bulls, well represented in pottery in this region. When the Spanish brought bulls to Peru these animals quickly became part of the Inca culture. Local artisans still make each bull out of clay to, as legend has it, protect your home and to be seen as a symbol of prosperity. After noting prices in the markets in Lima and Puno I found these prices quite steep (noting their aforementioned prosperity) and so passed on the bulls. There really aren’t many bathroom or shopping options along our route because there was nothing but farmland and distant white peaked mountains as far as you could see, so we made use of our stop, bought more water and snacks and hopped back on the bus.

We progressed another 2 -3 hours over winding roads with vistas of rolling fields of tawny grasses, farm land with cows and haystacks of barley and corn, this being the colors of winter in Peru. The snow capped Andes mountains were getting closer and closer and we began to see stone and mud houses surrounded by stone or adobe walls. One particularly big mountain stood out above all others. We were told this was Chimboya at 18,009 feet high. Dear God, we aren’t going there are we???

The bus pulled over to the side of the road near a collection of farmhouses to see the Vicuna, Peru’s native llama. The vicuna is one of two wild South American camelids which live in the high alpine areas of the Andes known for their extremely fine wool. These animals can only be shorn every three years so the very soft and warm wool is quite expensive. The king and queen of the Incas had clothes made from the wool of these animals whereas the lower classes were relegated to the alpaca wool. Although mostly wild, the vicuna we stopped to see were enclosed in wire fences and we were cautioned not to get too close because, despite how sweet they looked, they had a reputation of being vicious. Someone on our bus discovered we were at “only” at 14,285 feet high. I made it up a fourteener! (Okay, it was on a bus.)

We continued our bus journey alongside the “most beautiful railroad line in the world” according to Franco. We got to enjoy this view at more than half the cost on our bus, plus we had the advantage of stopping every so often to explore the native cultures. Thankfully our next stop was at “only” 14,222.44’ high at La Raya on the border of Puno and Cusco counties. We are going downhill! At the top of this mountain pass we found tables upon tables of colorful alpaca and wool products for sale along with a few live alpacas and their colorfully dressed owners. The snowcapped Andes mountains provided an incredible backdrop to this setting. I enjoyed having my picture taken with two alpacas and their joyful owners (2 Soles each), a postcard memory to cherish for sure.

Getting us enthusiastic tourists back on the bus was difficult but despite the rugged beauty, the unique photo and shopping opportunities and yes, the banos, we were still at high altitude and it was cold, so off we went in search of lunch. As we began to make our descent on route 3S Franco pointed out the tall eucalyptus trees dotting the valley and foothills of the mountains. The trees were imported from Australia and each individually planted, replacing the native plants that these people think are not useful. The extensive root system of the eucalyptus is intended to help stop erosion but the roots are so thick they found it is impossible to plant anything near them.

A large buffet lunch was prearranged by Kaypi at La Pascana Restaurant at the edge of the town of Sicuani at an altitude of 11,747’ (I took notes). Set in a valley with a backdrop of mountains, cow pastures, waterfalls and a small church with an alpaca and a llama tethered in front, this place was intended to be the quintessentially picturesque Peruvian pitstop. There was plenty to choose from on the buffet table but if you lingered at your seat you lost out on some of the options. The classic quinoa soup and lomo saltada were among the offerings along with rice, French fries and fried wantons. I am always amazed to find both rice and French fries on the same plate. I devoured the pesto pasta, beets and carrots trying to tame my stomach, not yet used to the altitudes. I did drink the coca tea and delighted in the quinoa flan and caramelized bananas. The flowers surrounding the restaurant were lovely. I was told that despite the altitude, since they are close to the equator, it doesn’t snow here except on the mountain peaks but Franco said that global warming is changing that.

After lunch we headed to our next to the last stop on this tour from Puno to Cusco, the Raqchi Archaeological Site at 11,417.32 feet. Dave was still reeling from altitude sickness so he and Ed languished on the bus while most of the rest of us joined the tour. To get to the historic site we had to meander through a church square lined with people selling their brightly colored and unique crafts. It was a struggle for me to pass by. Once inside the ruins I was amazed to see the size and scope of this important Inca settlement. Franco pointed out the Inca trail that lead out of this settlement to Cusco, the Inca capital, and for those who wanted bragging rights, we were able to say we walked a small part of that famous trail. Surrounded by high mountain peaks, we walked through paths leading us to stone foundations that were once houses, and round stone rooms that had held layers of grain, corn, and quinoa. the entire settlement was enclosed within a long stone wall. The largest and most prominent structure left standing is that of the wall of the Temple of Wiracocha, the remains of what was once an enormous rectangular two storied building believed to be the largest single roofed structured in the Incan Empire. Wiracocha was believed to be a deity, the giver of all life, as well as a mythological figure who created the sun and the moon. This temple was thought to be built to honor and appease him after he had sent a rage of fire from the sky.

As we left the ruins we had a little time to look at the church and peruse the crafts offered for sale in the square. I was enjoying the warm sun in the protected plaza after freezing in the high Andes, Puno and Lake Titicaca. Quechua people offered pottery chess boards, dishes, tapestries and T-shirts for sale. I was attracted to the display of stones for it is my custom to bring home a piece of geology that would represent where I had been. After some discussion I purchased an agate geode for 65 Soles (about $20), I had something beautiful, spiritual and from the earth of Peru.

I was not the last, but close to it, to be torn away from these opportunities to visit with and photograph these people at Raqchi, but I joined my fellow travelers, boarded the bus and we were off through the Southern Sierra of Peru to the village of Andahuaylillas with its unassuming church of classical architecture indicative of a typical Andean church. But this church was was more than it first appeared, it was the Baroque church of San Pedro Apostol, the “Sistine Chapel of the Andes”, a mere 25 miles from Cusco.

It was dusk by the time we walked on the beautiful tree lined village square of Andahuaylillas and I looked up at this unassuming whitewashed church built by the Jesuits near the end of the 16th century and thought how quaint. While I was able to photograph the sun setting behind the three carved crosses next to the church that represent the Catholic trinity, I felt a ghostly holiness emanating from the surrounding dark mountains. The Quechua sellers were wrapping up their wares, and with the fading light there was little time to photograph the outside of this church so I joined our group inside the church. The church was built over a pre-Columbian huaca or religious place. We gathered in hushed silence, looking up at the colorful ornate patterns painted on every square inch of the ceiling and its beams. As we learned about the history of the church, sadly we learned we were forbidden to take any photos at all regardless if we had no flash.

My eyes were drawn to the beautifully decorated gold altar with Inti, the Incan sun god, shining down above Mary to the congregation below. Many other Incan cultural beliefs and traits such as references to the Incan cosmos, and paintings of local animals, plants and fruit, were all intended to bring familiarity and merge the different beliefs into one. It was pointed out that Jesus is represented with brown skin and Mary and the other saints are dressed in the colorful Quechua clothing, including the A-line skirts that represent the mountains and mother earth.

As in other such conquered cultures, the Catholics from Spain who so often brought their religion to people who spoke no Spanish, commissioned many murals that told stories to overcome the language barriers. There were many such murals tucked in chapels or decorating the nave but in the loft at the entrance to this church were two important opposing murals; one with naked bodies swirling in anguish with demons and dragons warning of the dangers of not becoming Catholic, the other depicted lovely angels blowing trumpets and bubbles that represented the ideal in morality on their way to heaven. Lesson learned. Also high above in the loft, safely enclosed in a colorfully painted wood cabinet, rests the oldest organ in Peru that is played only twice a year. A new area of tourism is growing up around the Southern Sierra of Peru called the Andean Baroque Route. This route hopes to link churches like the San Pedro Apostol across the high Andes mountainous country, bringing more economic opportunities to these rural agricultural communities.

After a very long day of touring we were on our last leg(s) to Cusco. On the way Franco stopped in his home town Oporesa, the “yummy bread town” a suburb of Cusco, to buy some of their famous bread called chuta, the Quechua name for this special round bread made from quinoa, barley, wheat and honey. Hints of cinnamon and anise rose to satisfy my tongue. There are about a dozen families keeping this ancient Inca tradition alive baking these round flat breads in large adobe ovens. It has been a tradition to give a gift of chuta when one goes visiting. In this way, Franco proudly tore off pieces of this large round, soft bread to share with us. Hungry and grateful nodding heads agreed that the sweet bread was unique (Franco claims due to the local water), and delicious.

When six of us were deposited at our Hotel Polo Cusco, we couldn’t decide if we were more hungry or tired. Celia, Larry, Dave, and I voted for dinner at top of the Hotel Polo Cusco Suite while Kathy and Bud retired early. I think the comfort food revived us and we were glad we stayed up to enjoy the good company, the amazing view of Cusco and the random fireworks that punctuated the hillsides in all directions. It occurs to me now that my attempt to improve my altitude sickness was not improved by staying in Cusco at 11,200’ and then dining at the top of a 12 story hotel. Sigh.


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