Due to the vaguaries of our tickets, our flight from Buenos Airies to Cusco in Peru was a long affair in three legs, BA to Santiago, Santiago to Lima, Lima to Cusco. The combination of too many late nights, a very early start (3.45am), too many inflight movies, and the thin air of Cusco meant that on arrival neither of us was feeling great. At 3300m, the air contains only 40% of the oxygen found at sea level, and as we found in Tibet, it takes the body a few days to get used this new environmet. Despite the changes involved, we arrived at our final destination at the same time as our baggage, something of a miricle given the number of bags we were lugging around with us at the time (something to do with the cheap shoes and bags on offer in BsAs!).
During our final flight change in Lima, it turned out that we were something of an attraction for the local kids at the airport. At the prompting of their parents they approached giggling the two rather tall and fairheaded strangers and seemed quite shocked when we greeted them with a perfect "Hola". Strangers speaking Spanish (albeit a very small amount) was not what they had been expecting! They ran back to their parents very shyly.
Our hotel in Cusco was fantastic - Casa de Campo. Although a 10 minute walk uphill from the central Plaza de Armas, it more than made up for it with the wonderful panoramic views over this beautiful city. If you go there, ask for room 30 which has an open fireplace and a glass sunroom where day and night you can see the beautiful city of Cusco. We made sure that the fire was lit every night and we were able to enjoy the warmth of a crackling fire whilst enjoying some of the local (ok, so it was Chilean) vino tinto.
We decided to spend our first day acclimatising to the altitude because we had flown in from sea level and a vertical gain of 3300m in one day often leads to mild altitude sickness. We suffered from a shortness of breath whilst walking anywhere, let alone up and down the short steep hills of Cusco! Andrea also had a headache and was generally fatigued. So the first day we took it easy and walked (downhill!) to the Plaza de Armes to try and sort out our itinerary for the next few weeks. On the way we encountered local people embracing the tourist industry in a multitude of ways. These ranged from teenagers selling postcards, to men seeling painting of the local sights, to young girls dressed in traditional costume, holding young lambs and looking for a tip for letting you take their photos. This was also our first encounter with kids selling knitted fingerpuppets of the local (Llamas) and not so local (spiderman!?) animals.
Cusco is a beautiful city with narrow cobbled streets and lovely early spanish colonial architecture. The people are very friendly and don't seem to mind us talking to them in our very bad spanish! I think we were also very lucky with the weather. Every day was beautiful with stunning, deep blue skies and bright sunshine. Although cold at nights the days were balmy and we enjoyed being able to walk around in just t-shirts.
Whilst in Cusco we decided to take a day trip out to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. We set off in our coach at 7am and headed straight to Pisac (well, we had one "unauthorised" stop at an "authentic" local market where we were able to pick up "genuine" baby alpaca sweaters for $10 - a real steal given how cold the nights are!!) We wound around the mountains and then headed straight into the valley towards Pisac. The Inca's must have felt that they hit the jackpot when they came to power in this region... the valley is lush and green and apparently you can grow almost anything there. One grain which is a Peruvian speciality is Quinoa (of recent Gillian McKeith fame...) but one that many of the people here start there day with... apparently more protein per serving than meat!! Pisac market was pretty unimpressive in that it sold only tourist garb, with the exception of a few dead things that collected flies on stone slabs.
We quickly headed up to the actually ruins of Pisac and began our 3km "stroll" at the height of the sun (I can see why the Inca's worshipped the sun... freezing cold valleys and mountains until it peaks its head over top then the sun is so strong that (uh-hum..) even minor bald spots get sunburned!). After climbing in the sun and with the altitude we were thrilled to reach the top and view the valley and the terraces below us. Andrea had a bout of vertigo given the paths hugging the mountain face with oh, only a 1500m drop if she slipped... Luckily for her, another fellow traveller, Gail from Montreal, suffered along with her and together they made quite an amusing pair holding each other's hands for support (I think Andrea was feeling quite brave at this point.. perhaps the trick is to pretend I am suffering from vertigo as well so she has to be the brave one???) The structures, irrigation systems and astrology impressed us immensely... particularly given that during this time most of Europe was still contemplating their naval! We all felt quite satisfied as we made our way back to the bus to find some well-earned lunch before heading to our next site, Ollantaytambo.
We were quite pooped by the time we reached Ollantaytambo. Lucky for us, there were several tour groups arriving when we were, all about 30-40 years our senior. As they all bounded up the enormous terraces to the top, we could not show that actually, they were much fitter than we are, so we bounded along behind them. The site was very interesting, and our guide, Martin, explained how the Incan Astrologers were able to determine when Summer and Winter began (based on the movement of the sun behind a particular mountain - when it reached the edge of the mountain, where there happens to be a venerated natural "face") and therefore when the planting season should begin. These "powers" made these individuals VIPs in the Incan community... Many of the ruins we have seen were actually only used by the Royalty and the Inca Astrologers. The common man lived mostly in the valleys. What is particularly interesting about this ruin is that the town is still lived in to this day. The irrigation systems are still in use, and the quarry is clearly visible from where they dug out the enormous rocks for their structures.
Our final stop for the day was Chinchero, at 3700m and the village where our guide comes from. As we hiked up to the main square to see the church, we both felt the altitude. The views were stunning - you could see the snow capped mountains (Cordillera Real) in the distance as well as green fields as far as the eye could see. The church was an early example of Spanish architecture as was the square.... we headed back for a quick bite to eat to prepare for our next day of siteseeing.
Surprisingly for us, we opted for another tour, this time of the city of Cusco, and the same company (SAS Travel) did a pretty good job for us. We were suprised at the first stop to be called off of our 30 person bus and asked to stand aside. I admit that I thought maybe there had been a mistake and that we were about to be put in with the tour to be conducted in Russian, but we were pleasantly surprised to be put with 4 others with an English speaking guide. Much more preferable to the 30 we had been with.
The first stop was at Coricancha, where a Spanish colonial church has been built atop an important Inca ruin. Inside the courtyard of the church, you can see the original Inca walls which were all in place for different religious rituals. The thing that stands out with these particular walls is the the stones are fit so tightly together it is difficult to tell where one begins and ends. All this with no cement, only precise carving and interlocking stones, like Lincoln Logs - amazing!
Quickly afterwards (we were being pushed along a bit and went to La Catedral, the Cathedral that dominates one side of the Plaza de Armas. The Catedral is actually a combination of three churches all built at different times. The inside is very gaudy and very similar to Catholic churches you will see in Spain. The differences are largely in the wood carving (particularly the choir area which is stunning) and also the paintings... all painted by Cusqueño Indians. For this reason, it is very evident where the indigenous people tried to combine their exisiting beliefs with those that were being thrust upon them by the Missionaries. This is shown by, for example, a painting of the last supper has a "cuy" in the middle of the table with its feet sticking straight in the air - this is roasted guinea pig and very popular with the Andean peoples (makes quite an amusing painting as well!). Other examples of this include painting the Virgin Mary like an upside down "V" - they worship her as they did Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) which they always put in form as mountains... all very fascinating!
Next on the whistle stop we visited Sacsayhuaman (pronounced like "sexy woman") which is an old Inca fort with zigzagged terraces that overlooks the city. Some of the stones in the fort weigh over 300 tonnes! The view of Cusco from this site is superb and inspite of its size, only 20% remains of what it was before the Spaniards destroyed most of it. The Incas envisioned Cusco in the shape of a puma (a sign of strength) and this site was the "head" of the puma and the 22 zigzagged walls form the teeth of the puma.
Our final destination was Tambo Machay, which is a spring with a ceremonial bathing area. This is the site that apparently gave rise to the idea of the fountain of youth that the Inca's told Pizarro about... apparently if you drink from the water you will live to 100 (that's if you make it past what it may do to your stomach!!)
Cusco is a beautiful and brilliant city... settled in the valley of the high mountains gives for a perfect setting a great start to our time in Peru.