Cuzco, Peru, is a city full of juxtapositions. It is a place where colorfully clad indigenous descendants of the Inca brush shoulders with mobs of camera-toting, gringo tourists. It is also a place where ancient imposing Inca walls butt-up against five star hotels and restaurants. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas and gives the appearance of being a place where the sacred and the mundane coexist in an energetic clash.
Eric and I reluctantly left our beach paradise in Mancora on Saturday night and took an 18-hour bus to Peru’s capital, Lima. After arriving in Lima we learned that Persephone had succeeded in getting her stand-by flights and had arrived in Lima the night before. Fortunately, Persephone was able to use her survival skills well and, thanks to some people she had befriended in first-class, got a free night’s accommodation at the Marriott hotel.
After contacting each other, we met up with Persephone at our hostel in the beautiful district of Miraflores. Eric, Persephone and myself spent the rest of the day exploring Lima by foot and eating at some great restaurants and cafes. Although we had heard a lot of people talk trash about Lima, we found it to be a pleasant and interesting place. Our stay there was brief and largely limited to the Miraflores area, but I found it to be a place I wouldn’t mind exploring more of, some time in the future.
My interest in Miraflores was heightened by the fact that I have been reading a novel that takes place there. The novel I’m referring to is called Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and was written by Peru’s most famous novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa. I enjoyed walking through the city and picturing the characters that populate the novel. Later that same night, Eric’s girlfriend Rori also flew into Lima, so early the next morning we all took a short one-hour flight together from Lima to Cuzco.
Our first day here in Cuzco was largely spent relaxing and acclimatizing to the altitude. Due to Rori’s late arrival into Lima, she and Eric had hardly slept the night before, so they spent a good amount of the day catching up on some much-needed sleep. Persephone and I ended up walking around the city and exploring the central market. I have seen quite a few impressive markets on this trip, but the Cuzco market proved to be the most interesting. In addition to tons of locally made crafts, clothing and souvenirs, there were also coca leaves for sale, as well as an intriguing and grotesque display of dismembered animal parts. If you think the pictures look disgusting, just imagine the smell.
We decided to buy some of the coca leaves and try out the effects of this portion of the versatile coca plant. Unlike processed cocaine, the coca leaf is a much-respected, legal part of the plant that is used medicinally by the locals for everything from fatigue to minor aches and pains. The correct procedure for using the coca leaves is to suck on them for about twenty minutes before adding a little sodium or wood ash. The consequent effect numbs the inside of your mouth while giving you a slight buzz, similar to that of a cup of coffee or a cigarette.
Later that night we went out to eat at a restaurant called Sumaq Misky where we all tried the local specialty, cuy (roasted guinea pig). Cuy is regarded as a delicacy in the Andes, and I have learned it has been a part of the local cuisine since pre-Inca times. Persephone and I shared the picante version of the cuy, while Eric and Rori tried the aromatic Chinese version with thin pancakes and hoisin sauce.
The flavor of guinea pig turned out to be pretty gamy and tasted something like a cross between rabbit and goose meat. The Chinese style that Eric and Rori had was already shredded and deboned; however our picante version was served whole, replete with head, bones and skin. Overall it was an interesting gastronomic experiment, but not one I will be repeating anytime soon.
Adding to the intrigue of our cuy-eating experience, we later visited La Cathedral in Cuzco’s main square, where we saw an incredible depiction of the Last Supper in which Christ and the twelve apostles are assembled in classic form around a table that, not only featured bread and wine, but a singular roasted cuy. Sadly, pictures were not allowed in La Cathedral; but, believe me, it was one of the most mysterious and beguiling religious paintings I have ever seen. We also came to learn that the mystical cuy is also used in several shaman rituals and is even sometimes passed over a sick person’s body in order to detect the origin of an illness.
The next day we attempted to top our culinary misadventures by trying another local specialty, alpaca. Alpaca is an indigenous animal that looks similar to a lama. These animals are ubiquitous throughout the Andes, and their wool is frequently used to make sweaters. Persephone and I tried some alpaca burgers made from the tenderloin. The flavor reminded us of steak or venison, and we found it to be surprisingly tasty. Unlike the precarious cuy, alpaca is a welcome addition to my dinner plate any night.
After filling ourselves up with alpaca burgers, we visited the Inca museum. It was a fairly humble museum, but provided us with some interesting information to prepare for our trip to Machu Picchu.
Today, Thursday, we went horseback riding in the Andean countryside around Cuzco. In addition to the simple beauty of riding a horse in such a dramatic environment, we also visited several Inca ruins, including Saqsaywaman and Q’enqo. At the end of the day we visited a large statue of Jesus overlooking Cuzco in similar fashion to Christ the Redeemer in Rio. The view was both magnificent and breathtaking.
Tomorrow we will be taking a hired taxi to the small village of Santa Maria, about half- way between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Apparently there is a landslide that covers a section of the road connecting the two towns, so we will also have to do a bit of hiking before catching an additional taxi on the other side. From there we plan to do a combination of hiking, busing, and even cable car riding to reach Machu Picchu.
After doing a fair amount of research, we decided the latter travel method to be the most interesting and cheapest route. The very popular four-day hike along the Inca trail apparently books up months in advance, and the idea of taking the overpriced tourist train both ways seems like a cop out. Hopefully all will go well and Machu Picchu will live up to the hype that has caused it to become the most popular tourist destination in all of South America.
I will not have access to the internet for the next four days but will provide a blog post about our adventures, probably on Monday or Tuesday. Overall, Cuzco has been a great experience and traveling with the girls has provided us with a new and interesting phase of our journey. Tomorrow it’s on to another wonder of the world–Machu Picchu.