Cruzin’ ’round Cusco – The Gang’s All Here!

We left Puno much as we came in: crammed into a 15 passenger van loaded up with locals. 1 hour later, we braved the streets of Juliaca and made it to our designated Peru Hop pick-up point, which was a small restaurant on the main ring-road.

Having over-estimated the amount of time this journey would take, we had to kill an hour and a half waiting in the restaurant until the big, blue Peru Hop bus picked us up and began the 5 hour journey to Cusco.

As luck would have it, our Peru Hop guide was Nilo, which was a welcome sight…although he looked a bit wiped out from the previous overnight bus. As delighted as I was to see Nilo, I was somewhat apprehensive to see the return of our fearless driver from our Huacachina to Arequipa leg. Living up to his legacy, he hurtled us around the mountains roads of Peru at speeds that would make Dale Earnhardt tighten his grip on the armrests. Our driver had also picked up a new habit: honking at everything and everyone, like the neighborhood dog that won’t let anything go. I was wide awake and staring out the window, but a lot of the people on the bus where trying to sleep. I can’t imagine it was a very relaxing experience, being dragged out of your doze by the blarting of panicky horns.

The landscape started to change as we approached the Sacred Valley; a lot of what I saw out the window reminded me of the Scottish Highlands. IMG_2302.JPGIMG_2303.JPG
When we arrived in Cusco, taxis were waiting to whisk us off to our various hostels and hotels. We rented an apartment through Airbnb for our stay in Cusco, as John’s son, Nick, and Nick’s fiance, Wendy, are joining us for a week. Our apartment seems like a palace compared to the hostels we have been staying at…the kitchen is bigger than most rooms we have lived out of so far. It’s nice to end the Peru trip with a little bit of luxury…at least, luxury for us.

The cupboards were bare, so we walked across the square to a small convenience store, well…convenient if you only needed the bare essentials. Most of the goods were behind the counter, so we acquired our wares ‘wild-west’ style, which meant pointing at dusty food relics on the back shelves, and then pointing some more, until the shop keeper alighted on the desired food-stuff. We ended up with 1kg of sugar, the majority of which we will be leaving behind, which was scooped from some unseen barrel under the counter. Our total was totted up via pencil and paper and we left the market with enough supplies to get us through the night.

Bright and early the next morning, we were driven to the airport to collect Nick and Wendy. These guys had been up all night, on no less than 3 flights, in order to join us in deepest, darkest Peru and they were pretty wiped out. After about 30 minutes of reunion-fueled energy and some drags from the oxygen canisters, they started to fade and were sent off to bed. Unlike us, who have worked our way up to 12,500ft, these guys dropped directly in from sea level…which is a bit of a bitch for the old bag of bones to handle. Giving them a full day to adjust and rest was top priority, so nothing much was done until the next day…EXCEPT party with the supporters of political candidate Willy Cuzmar (who sports a tremendous mustache). Our house sits on Plazoleta San Borja, a concrete square lined with uncomfortable benches. Throughout the day we had been monitoring the raising of a stage just below our 2nd floor window onto the square. We were slightly concerned about the number of speakers that were being mounted on the rickety scaffolding, but managed to forget about the stage until we came back from dinner to the biggest effing party that has ever been thrown on Plazoleta San Borja. We were only 5 days from election time, and the hopeful candidate, Willy Cuzmar, was in full swing. IMG_2363.JPGIn addition to his impressive ‘stache, Willy’s entourage included a personal mascot of himself, a couple of hype guys and a collection of naughty Peruvian ladies who shimmied along to the band and occasionally shared a bit of bump and grind with the guy in the Cuzmar mascot suit. This rally had everything you could dream of…especially if you are a fan of potentially dangerous fireworks, the organization of which was managed by a guy in a string vest and 90’s shell suit who had set up a pile of fireworks in the corner of the park. No safety perimeter had been set up and often times the fireworks would explode into the crowd. During Willy’s speech, firecrackers were thrown at the feet of the front row after a particular stirring point had been made. As far as we can tell, Willy wants to pave Tacna road, build a supermarket and pick up trash…which sounds like a reasonable platform. He definitely got our vote…but that could have been due to the constant repetition of Willy Cuzmar, marque dos! for four hours straight. The party wound down around 10pm, and about 30 minutes later, so did we.

John and I have been very dedicated to not buying much along the way, as we have to carry everything we own on our backs…but now that we were at our final destination, it was time to load up on gifts for the folks back home. The next day, we wandered through the labyrinth of handicraft stalls that seem to be the backbone of Cusco economy. I’m sad to say, not much of what was offered actually seemed to be handmade, as every stall pretty much had the same exact stuff. I spotted the sweater I bought 472km away in Arequipa about 15 times, sprinkled throughout the city’s stalls. After about 3 hours of walking through these Peruvian Artisan Walmarts, we finally found items for everyone that we hadn’t seen in every other stall. Shopping takes it out of the boys, who needed a bit of refreshment about mid-way through. IMG_2318.JPGWe did stop at a couple of actual ‘handmade’ stores…you can tell you’ve encountered them as the prices triple…and did some damage on the old wallet.

Cusco is a beautiful town, filled with narrow and outrageously steep cobblestone streets. IMG_2359.JPG Sitting at 3.4km above sea level, it was the capital of the Incan Empire, and was originally shaped like a puma, the ruins of Saqsaywaman making up the head. 85% of the cars on the roads are taxis, which is very convenient when your lungs can’t hack the uphill hike anymore. The main square is lined with Colonial buildings, usually sitting right on top of Incan foundations. IMG_2325.JPGA lot of the materials that were used to build these buildings were nicked from the Incan temples that are strewn around the hills of Cusco. Those Conquistadors…what a bunch of bastards. This building was built on the site of an Incan temple, the resident of which was the last surviving Incan, until he died of small pox.IMG_2320.JPG
Currently, the city is excavating some underground ruins found during street maintenance, so traffic is being rerouted through tiny, winding streets instead of using the main drag. IMG_2319.JPG The alternate route makes taxi rides a little more white-knuckle than usual…you kind of feel like you are in a pinball machine. We’ve grown used to the taxi-antics, but Wendy and Nick were a little taken back.

All shopped-out, we dropped our loot back at the house before heading back out into town to meet up with Dave at the Cross Keys pub, where many drinks were consumed and a pretty close game of darts ensued.

The next day, I awoke with a pretty gruesome headache and opted to stay at home for a sick day while John and the kids explored the town. John joined a walking tour and he came home armed with the following facts:

1. Cusco was the capital and center of the Incan empire, which ruled only for about 85 years.
2. Once Pizarro arrived in 1532, things went badly and declined rapidly for the Incas. There were fairly well wiped out in 1536, when they staged a failed rebellion against the Spanish at Saqsaywamán.
3. Many of the Spanish cathedrals, churches, and more impressive homes were constructed using stone pilfered from Incan temples, including those at Saqsaywamán.
4. A drink mixing aloe vera and papaya juice is sold in the local markets. This is an excellent cure for hangovers.
5. Túpac Amaru was the leader of an indigenous uprising in 1780 against the Spanish in Peru. Although unsuccessful, he later became a mythical figure in the Peruvian struggle for independence and indigenous rights movement and an inspiration to myriad causes in Peru. Túpac Shakur was named after him. Poor old Túpac Amaru was drawn and quartered by the Spanish in Cusco’s town square.
6. The cathedral in town contains a painting that has come to be known as the Andean Last Supper. This painting was created by Cuzcan painter Marcos Zapata in the 1700’s. The Spaniards instructed him to paint Jesus and the discliples eating the best food. In this painting, Jesus is eating a guinea pig (with head and legs still affixed), and drinking chicha beer. Coca leaves decorate his plate.
7. The chewing of the coca leaf is prevalent. This phenomenon was studied by German scientist Albert Neimann, who figured out that coca leaves contain fifteen different alkaloids. One of them interacts with blood and thins it, creating higher oxygenation in those who chew it regularly.
8. There is a trail hike that can be done along the classic Inca trail to Machu Picchu. It generally takes gringos 4 days to complete this trip, and they are assisted along the way by porters. These porters are native Peruvians who carry camping gear and generally run ahead to make sure that the “next thing” is ready, whatever the next thing happens to be. These boys chew a lot of coca leaves. Every year there is a trail race along this course. Porters only can complete. The record for completing this course is three hours and forty-five minutes.
9. Coca-Cola started out using coca leaves and kola nuts from Africa. The drink was originally green, but was colored brown later, once the Coke folks realized it probably wasn’t a great idea to have a derivative of cocaine in your family beverage. No more coca, and let’s do something to create some distance between the old drink and the new version.
10. It takes 300 kilograms of coca leaves to create one kilo of cocaine.
11. The fluted shape of the glass Coke bottle is meant to resemble the verugated lines on the coca seed.
12. The red and white of the Coca-Cola logo is lifted from the colors of the Peruvian flag.
13. Although most lodging and food is very inexpensive throughout Peru, Cuzco has a small handful of high-end hotels. One of them, the Palacio Nazarenas, has rooms that range in daily cost from $800 to $4000. A few years ago, Mick Jagger and friends visited Cuzco and stayed there. He spent $8m in two weeks in Cuzco and the surrounding area.
14. Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew made out of Banisteriopsis caapi vine alone or in combination with various plants. It is either mixed with the leaves of dimethyltryptamine (DMT)-containing species of shrubs. The brew, first described academically in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who found it employed for divinatory and healing purposes by the native peoples of Amazonian Peru. When one ingests it, they should do so under the watch of a shaman, who knows how to administer the dose and assist with “bad trips”. Our tour guide for the street tour has used it and said that it changed his life, following a bad childhood.

That night, it was John’s turn to get sick, so Nick, Wendy and myself braved the Cusco night and ate like kings at a candlelit Peruvian steak house, where various delicious meats were cooked on steaming volcanic stones at our table. IMG_2362.JPGThat’s alpaca, lamb and steak sizzling away. It was the swankiest meal we’ve had so far…and it was only $28 per person. We’re definitely going back before we leave…

Cusco sits in the region of Peru called the Sacred Valley, which the Incas deemed the belly button of the world. Cusco is the gateway city to the Andean countryside that contains many Incan sites, including Machu Picchu. Wanting to see a bit of the area outside of Cusco, we signed up for a day tour of the valley. We signed up with a company called Conde Travel, who provide the transportation and guides. We were out the door at 8am, but after an hour of waiting for our bus at the appointed pick-up time, and many calls to the office, we discovered that the bus couldn’t find us (although every taxi driver seemed to to find it with no problems). Conde Travel fumbled bigtime, and they were indifferent when we contacted them. Bottom line, don’t use them.

While we waited, we were entertained by Mr. Megaphone. Every morning, this guys tri-cycles by our house, advertising his wares via megaphone with a distinct Stephen Hawking-esque cadence. “Piñas…papayas…naranjas…” IMG_2315.JPGOur day tour was swiftly cancelled and re-scheduled for another day with a different provider…and so we found ourselves with a free day to take in the ruins of Saqsaywamán, or as the gringos end up calling it, Sexy Woman.

IMG_2355.JPGSaqsaywamán, or satisfied falcon in Quechua, is about 2km outside of central Cusco, perched on a hill overlooking the sprawling city. Only 20% of the original structure remains, as those sneaky Spaniards destroyed the other 80% block by block to build their own houses and churches. Still, what’s left is incredibly impressive.IMG_2350.JPGSaqsaywamán was the site of the Siege of Cusco when Manco Inca stood up to the Spanish in 1536. About 4000 Incans, armed only with spears, were slaughtered during the siege by the Spanish, their gun-toting army numbered no less than a 10th of the Incan force. Andean condors picked at the remains of thousands of Incans, and the tragedy is memorialized by the addition of 8 condors to Cusco’s coat of arms. Now llama/alpaca hybrids graze on the battlefield.IMG_2349.JPG
The most striking part of the site are the towering terrace walls that zig-zag along the main plaza. It is this zig-zag shape that forms the jaws of the puma shaped Cusco. The mighty blocks that make up the terraces are among the largest used in any building in pre-hispanic America and are so closely spaced that a single piece of paper will not fit between them. The stones came from quarry 7km away and were carved into a variety of shapes that interlock, which has helped the ruins survive all of the devastating earthquakes that have shattered this region time and time again.IMG_2351.JPGThe walls are about 6 meters tall, and the largest block is thought to weigh between 128-200 tonnes. In fact, the segment of the terraces that remain today are the ones constructed with stones that were too large for the Spanish to steal. From the top of the ruins, you can see Cusco is spread out below you from tip to tail.IMG_2324.JPGIMG_2356.JPG

Speaking of tails…mini-llama opportunities abounded and John got up close and personal with a wooly creature other than his beard.IMG_2354.JPGThe Incans also built a huge reservoir system, complete with channels hewn out of the rock to funnel the water down to various parts of the complex. Now dry, these tunnels are very fun to crawl around in, although there were some tight, dark spots that I wouldn’t have wanted to get stuck in overnight.IMG_2353.JPG
About a 15 minute huff-and-puff uphill from the ruins sits Christo Blanco (white Christ) which was a gift from some thankful Christian Palestine gents (wha???) who were given refuge in Cusco in 1945. John can’t let anything on the top of a hill pass him by, so we trudged up the hill, via fields full of llama shit and marveled at Mr. Jeeseybits for a while. I expect he’s used to it.IMG_2357.JPG
We took a taxi up the steep hill, but decided to brave our way down the hill under our own steam. We left the main road and began the climb down to Cusco via a set of seemingly endless steps. Along the way we encountered some friendly llama’s and Nick and Wendy officially busted their tourist cherry.IMG_2361.JPGWe finally spilled out into the Cusco neighborhood of San Blas, which is known as the artist’s sector. We didn’t see much art, but we saw a variety of street life, including some handsome Levy boys at rest.IMG_2321.JPG


IMG_2360.JPGTomorrow, we get up bright and early (5:15am…ouch!) to start our trip to Machu Picchu. Pffftt…whatever. I’ve heard half of the buildings have fallen down. Yawn.


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