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In Cusco, Peru from May 19 to June 6, 2014
Written by Roxanne

We arrived in Cusco on May 19th without a place to stay, without plans of what to do or even how long we would be there. We weren’t too worried, as we knew we would fill our days. At the airport there were many people trying to sell excursion/tour packages, many hostel representatives, and multiple taxi drivers begging to drive you to your destination. While Len was waiting for our luggage to arrive I scored us a guesthouse for the night, two rooms for $35 each. We took a “recommended taxi” to our guesthouse. It was by far the worst taxi ride of our trip to date, we should have been in at least ½ dozen accidents in the 20 minute ride to our guest house, but somehow we arrived unharmed. We checked in at the PumaMarka Guest House. The kids quickly turned on the TV and watched the Simpson’s in Spanish. Within a few minutes the administrator called us to the rooftop dining room where we each had a cup of mate de coco (a cup of tea). It is to help with altitude sickness. And since Cusco is approximately 11,200 feet above sea level Len and I drank the tea and encouraged to kids to drink theirs (we failed at this, they did not like it). By the time we returned to our room it was almost 4:30 pm and we were all hungry, tired and very cold. While we were all bundled up, Len went to check if they had any heaters for us to use. For an extra $10 we got a heater for both rooms, but by the time Len returned to the room that we were all huddling in, Noah and Aurora had already curled up on the bed and fallen asleep. We decided to let them sleep for a while before having supper. The next thing we knew it was 12:30 am when Aurora woke us up all upset because Noah kept pushing her off the bed. Len took her to the other room to sleep. It was 7:30 a.m. when Aurora and Len came knocking at our door telling us to up to come up for breakfast. Altitude sure can do strange things to you. We had just slept 14 hours straight and we were still tired.

With the altitude issue, we were finding just walking up a set of stairs was leaving us gasping. Walking around the city, which is very hilly and sloped, was also difficult, since we at such a high altitude.
After breakfast we decided to continue staying at the same guesthouse for our remaining time in Cusco. However, we got one room for the four of us, which worked better. We all moved into our new room, unpacked a few things and went out exploring.

We spent most of our days in Cusco walking down narrow cobble stone roads with sidewalks so narrow that at times we barely had room to put one foot in front of the other. As we walked we had to constantly look ahead and behind for vehicles and other pedestrians because we either had to duck into a nook to give the other person room to walk around us, or step down onto the street to go around the person, although you only do so if there is not an auto or taxi speeding towards you. You have to have your wits about you or you will either get hit by a vehicle, honked at or get pushed out of someone’s way. At intersections without lights or traffic police, you basically wait for a break in traffic and bolt across the street when you can. Len timed a few waits to cross the street, and because of busy traffic, it can easily be at least a minute of time, before you get a traffic break that allows you to cross. There is no concept of “the pedestrian has the right of way”. In Cusco and it seems all South American traffic, the most aggressive drivers and/or pedestrians take the right of way.

Cusco streets are filled with many tiny shops (honestly, our bathroom is bigger than some of the shops). Many of these little shops are similar to your corner store confectionary; they sell pop, water, fruit, buns, candy, and even toothpaste. There may be only room for one or two customers in the store at a time; any more than that and you will knock things over. Cusco is also filled with travel agencies trying to sell you the best deal to the Sacred Valley or to Machu Picchu. There are many restaurants offering great lunch deals. For 15 Soles (approximately a little under $6 CAD) you can get soup, main course, beverage and dessert. If you can find a good local restaurant you get a much better meal and price than the much touristy ones. Many of the restaurants have one of the employees standing outside the restaurant with a menu in hand, calling towards every tourist within earshot, to come in and “comer” (“to eat”). After a while of being here with Spanish, Len figured out how to say, “No gracias, Nosotros non hambremos” which is “no thank you we are not hungry”.

There is so much to appreciate about Cusco. Exploring, getting lost on the narrow cobblestone roads, trying new restaurants, peaking into tiny stores, glancing into the doors and windows of the houses we pass by, hoping to get a look at life in Cusco. Sometimes we saw briefly a person or two inside, or heard some conversation or music drifting out of the buildings we were passing.

To us, it seems there may not be any zoning bylaws, you can have tiny shops, next to a Farmacia (Pharmacy), next to a historic building, then a hostel, tour agency and then a row of residential houses. Cusco like any large city (we were told the population is approximately 625,000) has its poor and homeless. What struck us about Cusco and all the other South American cities was the obvious poverty, amidst the tourism. One of the saddest sights was children selling bottled water or candy on the street or at traffic lights, to earn a bit of money. We saw a man who was obviously crippled who did not have a wheelchair. He was getting around, by literally crawling on his hands and knees with leather pads on his knees and hands. It was unsettling to see these worlds clashing, i.e.: the wealth of tourism versus the obvious poverty.

The hub of Cusco is the Plaza del Armas. There were many historic buildings of significance, interspersed with shops and restaurants. There were kids in school uniforms with backpacks slung over their shoulder, tourists trying to snap the perfect picture and dozens upon dozens of touts assaulting any tourist walking by with everything from paintings to fake alpaca mitts and sweaters. The streets are lined with shops, kiosks and individuals selling local Peruvian food, snacks, art, souvenirs, trinkets, sunglasses, clothing, tour packages, almost anything and everything. There were many locals traditionally dressed holding baby llamas or sheep hoping to pose for photos with tourists, in exchange for a few soles (yes, we paid for these photos too). In amongst all these people, we and many others were very obviously identifiable as tourists, trying to absorb it all and get photos of every interesting thing we saw.

Around the city and country, there were hundreds of stray dogs. They were everywhere, sleeping in doors ways, in the middle of the sidewalk, wandering around on roads, sidewalks and alleys. As well, there was a lot of trash and litter in and on the streets, garbage bags on the sidewalks, yet to be picked up. Packs of dogs would be looking for food in torn up trash bags. Locals were not bothered by this they just walked around the dogs. Aurora, however, most times stopped to have a good look at the dogs and comment “ahwwww did you see how cute that puppy was?”, and if she had time she also snapped a photo of the pup too.

We planned two tours while in Cusco. The first was of the ruins just outside of Cusco. For $10 US each included a 5 to 6 hour walking/bus tour of Cusco and the surrounding area of ruins of Inca structures and locations. The second tour was a two day tour of Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, Noah got sick the night before the tour, so Len and Aurora went on the tour, while Noah and I stayed back.

Here’s Len take on the afternoon/evening tour of Cusco and surrounding area:
The afternoon tour of Cusco and area started with a tour of the Cathedral in the heart of Cusco, located at the Plaza De Armas. It was absolutely beautiful inside, but not as beautiful on the outside. Photos were not allowed inside the Cathedral, so we can’t share any photos in this blog. The church consisted of three large sections, which were in fact three churches built together. The middle was the Basilica Cathedral, and the section to the North was Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia and the section to the South was Iglesia Del Triunfo. The first church (Cathedral) was built between 1556 and 1564. It was added onto and the two additional churches were built in the years following. The Cathedral was built as a replica of a Cathedral in Spain (but I did not hear the name of the Cathedral or the city). Our guide said this Cathedral, and the two adjoining cathedrals, were when considered as one building was the largest and most ornate Catholic Cathedral in South America. The Cathedrals were filled with art and ornate monuments, statues and ornaments made of pure gold and silver. The many paintings were amazing and reflected the history and culture of the time in which they were painted. It was just an amazing experience to see these Cathedrals and hear about the history surrounding them.

We next visited the Iglesias Compania de Jesus, which had much art and ornate décor, like the Cathedral we just saw. As we walked towards our next spot on the tour, our guide told us about local building histories and we saw the excavated and now protected foundations of Inca buildings and homes that would have belonged to Royal Inca families.

Our next stop was at Convento de Santo Domingo del Cusco (a Catholic Structure), which had been built on top the foundation of what had been a mythical Koricancha or “Golden Temple” or “Sun Temple” which was built by the Incans and used to worship and venerate the sun. The temple stonework had come from a quarry near to another Incan fortress called Saqsaywaman. The Spaniards following their conquest of the Incans, dismantled the temple and many other Incan buildings (but maintained their foundations) and built this convent and other Catholic buildings. Small areas of the Incan temple were left in-tact. The guide explained the building system of the Icans, which in one word can be summarized, as “amazing”. They built the temple with huge heavy stones that were cut and transported over great distances. The rocks were cut and placed with razor sharp precision, with no grout between. You could not even slip a single sheet of paper between the rock joints. The way the rock was cut and placed, it withstood multiple earthquakes. That is why the Spaniards maintained the rock solid foundations the Incas had built, and built their buildings on top. Unfortunately the Spaniard buildings did not withstand the earthquakes as well and many of the new buildings crumbled from earthquakes that occurred over the years. Most of those buildings were rebuilt. The original Incan Temple had been adorned with much golden and silver décor, as the Incans were well established metal/jewelry smiths. Following the conquest of the Incans, most of the Incan treasures were pilfered or melted down by Spaniards and reformed into Catholic decorations and other ornaments and jewelry.

Following the tour of the Convent and grounds, Aurora and I were bused to out of town sites to see. They included stops at a number Incan ruins and spots of interest which included Puka Pukara, Tambomachay, Q’eno and Saqsaywaman. A Q’eno, we saw a cave in which sacred rites would have been performed, to embalm the dead leaders. It was also explained that tradition was to take the mummified body of their leader with them as they felt that the leader was still with them in spirit and provided for them and kept them safe. At Saqsaywaman (pronounced as “saxywoman”) we got our best panoramic view of Cusco. Much of the ruins were still in place, it was a huge fortress of stone walls, of stones of immense size that were placed there from a rock quarry that was kilometers away. Our guide told us that archaeologists have deduced that approximately 20, 000 people approximately 77 years (from 1431 to 1561 A.D.) to build the fortress. The largest remaining rock in the fortress wall was estimated to be 70 tons.

We also visited and had a chance to shop at a Co-operative Alpaca factory where many different alpaca products were produced and sold. The patterns, art work and colours of the alpaca products are were very colorful, bright and beautiful. There were so many different items that we would like to have purchased and taken home.
Aurora and I got our money’s worth from this tour, we started about 1 pm and did not get home until close to 7 p.m. or so. My head was overloaded with info and history of the Incans. It was a lot of info to absorb, and a very good tour.

Our second tour while in Cusco was a two day (overnight) tour of the Machu Picchu site. We left early on a Saturday morning and returned very late to Cusco on Sunday night.  There were a number of stops along the way giving us he opportunity to see more Inca ruins and do some shopping.

We took a tour bus from Cusco to the town of Ollantaytambo where we caught a train from there to Machu Picchu Village, where we were booked into Denny’s House (Hostel) for the night. It was a small village and easily walkable to all destinations in the village. After we checked in to our two rooms and got our standard floor heater for the rooms (it gets cold at night and without a heater in the room it gets pretty chilly) we went for a walk to explore the village. It was much like Cusco, with many small shops, restaurants and kiosks selling almost everything you could imagine. We had our supper in an Italian style restaurant, and explored the village a little more before going back to our rooms and getting to bed. There was a hot springs in the village but we were on a quick in and out trip so we did not have a chance to go soak in the warm mineral spa.

We caught our bus early the next morning for the bus ride up to the Machu Picchu site. The distance we travelled was only nine kilometers but the drive up took about 45 minutes and was like a thrill theme park ride with some hair pin corners so tight that the bus on the one lane road had to back up and go back and forth to maneuver around the corner. There were cliffs going up on one side of us and cliffs going straight down on the other side of the road. It was by far the most exciting, yet scary bus ride of our lives.

When we got to the top we had to wait for our guide to arrive and get our group organized for the tour. There was hundreds upon hundreds of people getting tours today along with us, and once we got started through the mass of people it was hard to keep up with our guide, as the crowds were so huge we had to be rude in the crowd to keep up with our guide and not get lost. We had about 30 people in our tour group. Fortunately the crowds thinned out as we got deeper into the complex, and the pace of our tour slowed, allowing us to absorb it all.

We still found it hard going up and down many steps and steep paths. The high altitude was affecting us all and it was superhot that day too. We were dressed for cooler temperatures, than what we experienced, so were a little smelly by the end of our tour.

Really it is hard to describe the scene other than to say it was amazing. Words and photos cannot give it justice. One must see it to enjoy all its beauty.

The site was so large; we did not get to tour around the whole area. We also heard that we were one of the last tour groups that would be allowed to explore Machu Picchu like we did that day. We were told that starting June 1st, that restrictions would be put in place that would reduce the number of people allowed into the site per day, as well as restrictions on how you enter the site. We were allowed to go in with or without a tour guide and spend as long as we wanted exploring around before we left, as well as being allowed to enter, exit and reenter as much as we wanted. However, following June 1st the only way people would be allowed in was on a booked tour with a guide, and you had to be accompanied the whole time by the guide and could only spend two hours maximum inside the site. If you wanted to see any more than the two hour tour you would have to book another two hour tour with a guide to get back in. Having heard that, we made sure we took our time following our tour to look around and take it all in, and there was a lot to take in.

Noah and Len took the opportunity to take a hike up a trail to the top of mount Intipunko, to see the Sun Gate. We were told it would only take about 45 minutes to get to the top. It took them more like an hour and a quarter, with a lot of and huffing and puffing by the time we got to the top. It was a spectacular view.

We caught the 7:30 pm train back to Ollantaytambo where we caught a bus arriving back into Cusco at about 11 pm at night, and cabbed back to our hostel.

Seeing another of the 7 Modern Wonders of the World was a truly unforgettable experience. The lost Inca city, high in the Andres, is an amazing architectural feat built 2400 metres above sea level in the 15th century. There is no way to describe it other than to say it was simply amazing.

Thanks for reading our belated blog post and we hope we were able to put you in our shoes for our experiences, for you to imagine a little bit of what we experienced.