Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Cusco, Machu Pichu and Some Fine Dining

Saturday morning. 6 AM.  Catching our flight to Cusco. How irritating to have to be at the airport 3 hours prior to our flight for a one hour jaunt across the mountains to Peru.  Flight was on time and went fine, and we flew across some gorgeous snow covered mountains and Lake Titicaca.

When we arrived in Cusco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, our tour operator picked us up from the airport and drove us to our hotel.  Unfortunately, we went cheap and it was one step above a hostel (meaning we had our own bath), but we ended up with two little bitty beds and a room about as big as a closet.  Paper thin walls and lots of noise.  The good news:  we wouldn't be spending very much time in our room!  We got to our hotel around 10 AM local time, and had "free time" until 1 PM, when we would start our first tour of the town of Cusco, two cathedrals, and some Incan ruin sites around the town.  

While we were waiting for our tour to start, FM and I visited an old monastery which is now a five star hotel (wish we were staying there) and walked around a bit.  Then a nap before the tour!
The monastery was built in 1962.  Interior plaza.  Very romantic.

Cusco is a very Spanish town, much like what I expected from LaPaz and didn't find.  Our hotel was in the Plaza de Armas, which is dead in the center of town, and is a town square.  This Catholic cathedral was directly across from our hotel and included on our city tour, however we couldn't take any pictures of the inside.  The most impressive part was a choir loft carved totally out of cedar and very intricate.  Somebody on our trip snuck a picture and shared it with me. . . 

This cathedral was to the right of our hotel, but never open.  Cusco was very clean and fairly safe, just had to look out for the kids hawking postcards.

Where there weren't churches, the square was surrounded by two story buildings with arched doorways and a balcony all the way around.  The buildings were full of restaurants, stores, and hotels.

I can't imagine why a small town like this has so many churches built by the Spanish.  Most of the churches were built over old Incan Holy Places, so maybe that's why.  They were trying to eradicate that cultures important spots.

A common sight everywhere are adorable little Peruvian children dressed up in traditional costumes holding baby goats, llamas, alpacas.  They'll charge you a sol or two to take their picture.  The money was called "Soles" and 3.34 of them made a dollar.  It wasn't quite as cheap here as in LaPaz, but still not bad.  The local beer is called Cusquena, and tasty.

Outside of the square, things are a little more rustic.  Many building walls are made of manure and straw, and it smells real nice walking along them in the sun!

Next visit was the most important church in Cusco, called the Church of the Sun.  It was built over the original Incan Temple called (imagine this) the Temple of the Sun.  There are many relics of walls and sanctuaries within the church that the Spanish didn't tear down when they re-built it.  Again, you couldn't take any pictures INSIDE, though.  What a crock!

We left the city on the tour bus to visit Incan ruins called Saqsaywaman (sounds like Sexy Woman), Kenko, Tambomachay and Puva-Pucara.  The most impressive to us was Saqsaywaman.

Aqueducts at Tambomachay

View of Cusco
Manteled doorway at Saqsawaman
Typical Incan doorway, built in a trapezoidal shape with one mantel over the top. This was one level up from the massive wall at Sexy Woman.  

More Saqsawaman
Sexy Woman is on a large terrace about 12,000 feet up the mountain.  On one side is a massive long wall of rock built by the Incans.  It stretches and bends for about 400 feet.   Most of the structure up top has fallen down or been demolished, but still hard to figure out how they got these large rocks in place without mortar.  Kind of like the pyramids, only horizontal.
And more terraces at Saqsawaman
Across the terrace from the huge wall is Incan terraces cut out of the mountain which they used for agricultural purposes.  Again, they have all this flat land to farm on, but choose to terrace the mountain for growing.  Theory is the center part was used as some kind of communal meeting area of Main Square.

The other ruins we visited before returning to Cusco were small, but neat.  One was a fountain, one was a labyrinth were they mummified their dead, and the other was a look out building (fort) for protection of Saqsaywaman.

This is the land of llamas and alpacas and even vlcunas (which I never heard of and look a little like deer with really long necks).  It is a staple of their economy from the wool they shear to the meat they eat (yes, we ate llama).  Anyway, when we got out to Sexy Woman there was a bunch of llamas there.  They are so cute, but pretty dirty and shy. I went over by them but they all just showed their butts.
We returned to the hotel around 7 PM, and it was already dark.  We were told by our guide that Peruvians consider guinea pigs a delicacy, so the six of us decided that was what we would dine on tonight.  Unfortunately, they didn't tell us how it was SERVED!  It was a struggle, but we tried it (once!), and enjoyed our several side dishes.  The worst part was when I ate something that I thought was a mushroom, but turned out to be the poor little guy's liver.  They split them right down the center and serve each person half a guinea.  Sorry to anyone that had one as a pet as a child. . . .

After dinner, we went and washed down the guinea pig with a couple beers (and tried to forget what we had for dinner).  Wake up call at 7 am for more touring.

After a pitiful breakfast at our pitiful hotel, the tour bus picked us up at 8 AM for a full day tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incans.  This is the valley that eventually culminates into Machu Pichu, however today we would not get that far.  Our first stop was a village about 90 minutes out of the city called Pisac, which is one of the agricultural centers of the area.  They also have a THRIVING artisan market which we were obligated to spend an hour at.  The first trip through the market was with the guide, who took us to a "bakery", where we had an empanada to subsidize our weak breakfast, and saw how they cooked Guinea pigs.  Great, I had almost forgot I ate one of those things!  
Sacred Valley

Returno n the Guinea Pigs.  They actually had live ones right next to the grill.  My stomach and I are at war today
After our shopping expedition, we continued down the valley for another hour, and then stopped to have lunch.  Everyone on the bus had lunch someplace different, so after about 90 minutes, we regrouped and went on.  We had a HUGE buffet lunch, including trout from Lake Titicaca and Llama (which has no fat or cholesterol and is really quite tasty). 
The hotel we had lunch at had quite an extensive garden where they grew all their own vegetables.  They also had a neat cactus garden and some unusual flowers.  The hotel was really nice, but out in the middle of NOWHERE!

Finally full, we continued down the valley to Ollantaytambo (old Incan fortress city that protected the valley).

As we continued to Ollantaytambo, we all "voted" to stop at an Alpaca, Llama, and Vicuna ranch to check out where they raise them, shear them, and then dye the wool and weave it into handicrafts.  Surpisingly enough, they didn't try to sell us anything, just let us wander around.  Very nice little stop.

These poor vicunas are almost extinct, as they are slaughtered in the wild for their wool, which is the softest of all natural fibers in South America.  A scarf made of Vicuna costs about $500 US. They remind me of a giraffe the way they twist their necks around.


Weaving the wool into tourist products.

Baby vicuna.  Just need to figure out how to get him home.

The Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo were a very strategic ruin for the Incans.  It was not only a fortress for the sacred valley, but also a holy temple for their priests and a huge agricultural center.  Some of the original streets in the town are still present, and new houses have been erected over old foundations.  The Spanish did find this fortress and destroyed a lot of it, but the original aqueducts, terraces, and base are still there.

Some giant steps

These are the tops of the five sacred stones, and the steps behind it are the remains of a fortification wall that was built behind the terraces.

We were also able to go into an authentic Incan home (currently lived in by Andeans).  They keep the mummified skulls of their ancestors on the mantle (UGH!).  First they bury them for about 7 years, then they go dig up the skull.  
And some giant sacred stones

Looking down

Way, way, way, way WAY on the other side of the other mountain they built storehouses (on the right) for their excess produce.  The face carved into the mountain is of an old Incan legend that came to the civilization sometime around the time of Christ.  A tall, thin, white skinned man who taught the Incans about astrology and astronomy. . . Hmmm.


Gratuitous Pretty

After leaving Ollantaytambo, we stopped on the way to Chincherrios (where we were going to visit ANOTHER spanish cathedral) to take some more scenic shots.  When we got to Chincherrios, I was losing the war with the guinea pig and had to hit the bathroom and return to the bus.  
A stop along the way.  I look a little better than I feel.


We returned tired and exhausted to Cusco around 7 PM, went out with a couple girls that TJ had met on the tour (flight attendants for Delta) at the Incan Grill.  Skipped all local food and had some chicken soup, then off to the Irish Pub for a little refreshment.

Finally, the day arrives we are heading to Machu Pichu.  Sure has seemed like a lot leading up to what we thought was the purpose of this weekend jaunt.  Breakfast at 5, bus leaves to go to the train station at 5:30.  The train will follow much of the same route we were on yesterday, so we grabbed quite a bit of sleep in the first couple hours.  We were exhausted.  We had climbed a lot of stairs at Ollantaytambo, but were warned that it was nothing but a warm up for Machu Pichu.  But, first a four hour train ride (to travel 110 kilometers).  The train leaves Cusco and goes up the mountain, but the mountain is too steep to climb directly, so we have to go through 3 switchbacks.  Half of the first hour we are going backwards.  Slept through most of that, though!

After arriving at the train station in Agua Calientes (Hot Water), we then have to get a 25 minute bus to go straight up the mountain to Machu Pichu.  Now it's 10 AM.  Here we go up a gravel road with Jeff Gordon at the wheel and thousand foot drop offs over the edge, and it's a two way road on a one and a half lane street.  YIKES.  Have to remember not to sit by the window on the way down.

Looking back at the road I'm already dreading taking down

After turning in our tickets and walking along the top of the mountain, we finally turn the corner and see our first view of Machu Pichu.  We are in the clouds and it is beautiful.  The mountain behind Machu Pichu is called Mayna Pichu and you can climb it.  They say it only takes 90 minutes up and 60 minutes down, but we arrived too late to do it and the tour and make our train - THANK GOD!!!!!  

Machu Pichu was lost to the jungle until 1911 when Hiram Bingham from Pennsylvania re-discovered it.  The Spanish never found it during their occupation, so much of it was still intact.  Much of it has been rebuilt as well.  It's unbelievable that they built this way up here, the vista's are amazing and the clouds keep rolling in over our heads.

Finally we climb and climb to the top of the terraces to take some pictures that look like National Geographic!  Well worth the trip up, and the trip down is a piece of cake. . . Until we get to the bus again!

Eat your heart out Nat Geo.  LOL

I sit in the middle of the bus on the way down, so I don't freak out too bad.  When we return to town we have time for a late lunch (around 2:30) before our train leaves at 3:30.  Another delicious buffet, and today I feel well enough to try the llama.  Delicious. Back on the train for another 4 hours, return to hotel around 8:30.  We are exhausted and we have to get up at 7 AM tomorrow to catch our fight.  

We decide to skip dinner, go to a bar called Norton's (the owner is from Cleveland, Ohio) and play a couple games of pool.  Have some beers for sleeping because tomorrow we get up, get packed, get on the bus to the airport and return to LaPaz.

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