Peru, part 14
We woke up early even though our Cusco city tour isn’t until nine this morning. It was nice to just laze around the room and chill out for once. We had the usual breakfast at Maytaq of fruits, great croissants, juice and scrambled eggs. I even eat a couple of slices of avocado which I love although I find it an odd thing to serve for breakfast.
We expect to join a busload of tourists on the city tour but are delighted to find there are only four other people with us. The two couples are from California and will be trekking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu in two days. Our guide, Carlos, is even more exuberant and dramatic than Lalo our guide for Moray and Moras! He is full of facts, has a quirky sense of humor and is a bit of a drill sergeant. When he wants us to get a move on he snaps out “chop-chop, let’s go” and then scurries ahead of us. His hurry up phrase amuses me every time.
Our first stop is at Saqsayhuaman (sahxywoman) the mind-blowing ancient fortress that sits on the outskirts of Cusco. I simply can’t come to grips how the Incans were able to sculpt these enormous stones, some that weigh one hundred ton, move them into place and have them fit together perfectly. Paul and I notice how the women and one of the men in our group are puffing pretty hard when we climb up steps. The big guy, who looks like he could have been an NFL linebacker in his day, even has to sit down a time or two. This is their second day in Peru and we wonder if they are going to be acclimated enough to trek the Inca trail in two days where some passes are over 14,000 feet!
We must leave Saqsayhuaman too soon in our opinion but chop-chop, on we go. After a short drive we stop at Qenko. The main attraction here is a sacrificial stone altar in a cave, similar to the one we saw at the moon temple with Norma. This cave has a shaft of light playing over the stone altar too. Outside of the cave instead of a serpent carving there are carvings of puma heads. There is another interesting aspect at this sight. Several Cusco residents are working at rebuilding a stone retaining wall around Qenko. They trade there work for the right to have a vendor stall near tourist attractions.
The next site is Qoricancha, the Inca temple of the sun that was razed to its base by Spanish conquistadors along with most of the Incan buildings in Cusco. The Spanish did incorporate some parts of the original Inca building into what is now Iglesia Santo Domingo. Restoration work is being done to remove the plaster from the original walls to show the Inca work. As we walk through some fully restored areas for some reason the slant of the Incan built walls make me feel queasy. The Incans built slanting walls because they were stronger and stood up to earthquakes, this is the same reason they made their doors and windows trapezoidal. There is one section which has loose stones lying around to show how rocks were cut and they resemble pieces of a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Unreal to say the least. Remember that the Incan used mostly stone tools although they did have some bronze tools.
Our last stop is at the massive cathedral that dominates one side of Plaza de Armas. Although most of the churches we have been in were overwhelming this cathedral takes the cake. The opulence that surrounds us is on the edge of disbelief and I again wonder what the worth is of all the gold and silver present throughout the cathedral. One of the claims to fame of the cathedral is the Last Supper painting which features a guinea pig as the main dish along with fruits and vegetables that are known to Peruvians. This is the end of our tour and we thank Carlos for his vast knowledge of the sites we visited and for his cheerful and humorous demeanor throughout the tour.
It is just past noon so Paul and I search for the restaurant Carlos has recommended to us that the locals frequent. We climb the stairs to the small second floor cafe and claim one of the four tables. The cozy eatery has a balcony that makes for a great place to photograph interesting people. My camera is capturing mostly older women in traditional dress selling or transporting goods. Our lunch arrives and Paul’s alpaca shish kabob is excellent, my spaghetti with pesto sauce is a bit bland. My meal only cost 11 soles (5 bucks) and the huge helping is more than I can eat so a lack of spice is tolerable.
After our late lunch we wander the streets of Cusco leaving the bustling historic area behind. We find a young man up a quiet side street with his crafts spread out on the sidewalk and on a table. For once we see things that aren’t the exact same products offered for sale at every other place we have been. He has some interesting jewelry but what catches our eye is the hand painted tiles neatly arranged on the cobblestone. We choose four tiles, three depicting traditional women and one of a toucan. Now we must dicker over the price, well Paul does. The young man doesn’t speak English so Paul must write the price he is willing to give on paper with the vendor writing down his counter offer. After a short time the men come to an agreeable price and we continue exploring the city.
The streets in Cusco are not on a straight grid and often just end abruptly and despite having a city map we become completely lost. I am sure that we must head south and since I have been more oriented than Paul in Cusco he decides to follow my instinct. Big mistake:). We finally arrive at an area where we can see the big cathedral that is near our hotel. We head towards the unmistakable steeples and when we get within a block I insist our hotel is south. Paul disagrees and insists we must go the opposite direction. After discussing who is right Paul points out that we are on the backside of the cathedral when we are normally looking at the front. I absorb this information and finally my head accepts that indeed we need to go north to reach our hotel. I hate the feeling of being completely turned around! To soothe my injured ego I buy a milkshake from a vendor just a couple blocks from the Maytaq and a big piece of chocolate cake from the pastry vendor next door! Yum.
Today we are touring the Sacred valley and our pickup time is eight o’clock. We must run around the narrow streets of the city and gather up the other tourists going on this tour. There are twelve members in the group which is the most people we have been with up to date. We drive north out of Cusco and although this is the third time Paul and I have been on this road as usual there are fascinating sights to gaze at. Our first stop is at a market selling the exact weavings, scarves, hats etc. that we have seen everywhere. I suppose that the tour company has a deal with the sellers to bring their captive clients to this place in hopes of making some sales but it seems a waste of time. Paul did buy me a cup of munos tea.
The road we are on hugs the side of the mountain and the geometric fields of the Sacred Valley stretches out below us. The bus stops at a pull over and we snap photos of the productive valley from our lofty view. The fields range in color from greens to brown and we also can see large tracts of corn, hand placed on end to dry. This fascinates me and I wish we had seen the actual process instead of just the end result. We arrive at the Inca site, Pisac, where the ruins grace a mountain peak. Our guide first shows us the side of a mountain where hundreds of holes have been dug that is Inca burial chambers. Most of the grave sites have been looted but looking through my binoculars I see a skull and here and there some human bones. We are only here for twenty minutes and I decide not to join Paul in a sprint up the mountain to the actual ruins. I was puffing for breath on the climb to get to the burial chambers! I notice several people in our group, like me, opt to gaze at the ruins from below.
We descend into the Sacred Valley to the modern-day village of Pisac famous for its huge crafts market for tourists. We visit a store that makes jewelry, specializing in silver and they give us a demonstration of their craft. Once the demo is over we again are given a short time to check out the market. There are hardly any other tourists here which I find surprising but nice. Paul and I do make a few purchases for gifts and are pleased to find that Pisac vendors seem willing to come down on prices much quicker than in Cusco. One woman in our group sees Paul bartering on an item and asks if he would bargain for her as her husband is already in the bus. Paul says sure but then she decides she should ask hubby which item he prefers and he ends up doing the dickering. The young woman and I discuss how much we hate bartering but how men seem to love the game. I believe nearly everyone in the group was carrying packages as we climb aboard the bus.
We eat lunch at an open air restaurant in a beautiful sitting near the Urubamba River. There are lots of new Peruvian dishes we haven’t seen before including ceviche, a raw fish dish. Paul and I try many of the new dishes but turn our noses up at the ceviche. Ick. There is a table of wonderful desserts and I sample five of them. Yes you read that right and I’m not afraid to admit it:). The restaurant has a scruffy macaw out front and a couple of small parrots that makes me sad to see but other than this the place was great.
On we go to Ollantaytambo where we tour the Inca ruins. These are the most spectacular ruins we have been to so far and for reasons unknown to me I didn’t get a photo of the main temple. What baffles me about this place is that the Inca people moved the rocks, some weighing 60 ton, to build this stunning temple from a mountain range across the fast-moving Urubamba River. Supposedly, the Inca built another river channel and they would block off the water in one channel, move the rocks across the now dry river bed then divert the water back and move the rocks across the second channel to the bank. Once the rocks were on the right side of the river they would drag the stones up a steep ramp to the Ollantaytambo building site. Are you kidding me?
Every time I look at these places with the flawless joints, multi-ton rocks, temples that tower over our heads, buildings constructed on precipices that look impossible to get to, I can’t believe that this was humanly possible particularly since the Inca only ruled for 200 plus years. Perhaps the young couple that fall in step with me on this tour sense my skepticism over the explanation on how they moved these enormous rocks. They begin to talk about their interest in the possibility of other worldly help or in plain English, aliens. They have been to the Nazca lines, 2000 year old “drawings” that the Nazca people created in the desert. The weird thing about the Nazca lines is you really can’t tell what they depict unless you are looking at them from the air. Anyway, I don’t scoff at their theory of alien help as I too have read and watched the theorists who put forth this explanation of the incredible feats of Inca culture and others around the world. Paul just shakes his head at us but the pondering of this theory just adds some spice to the mystifying ruins. I also laugh as the young man comments on the thin ropes that occasionally are strung along the steep drop offs of the ruins. His assessment is that in Peru if you aren’t smart enough to know that clambering around these ancient sites is dangerous then you can help prove the theory of natural selection!!
Our Sacred Valley tour is over and those of us who are staying in Ollantaytambo are taken to our hotels. Paul and I must walk part way to El Albergue as the hotel sits inside the railway station. This is where you catch the train to Machu Picchu where we will be going tomorrow. When we walk to the front desk to check in our name isn’t in the system. We give our itinerary to the Peruvian manning the check-in desk and show him that we are to be staying here tonight. The young man checks the computer again this time running my name through the machine too. The fellow comes up with zilch for a reservation for us and is beside himself telling us that the hotel is full. An American woman walks into the room who is the owner of El Albergue. The two discuss the situation and the man makes a phone call to a friend from another hotel. It seems the owner has made a reservation with the Albergue for someone else but using his name. After the phone conversation they explain that he overbooked his hotel and this reservation is for us. A big sigh of relief is dispensed by all of us as this town is full of tourists and the odds of us finding another room would have been slim. The El Albergue is a very nice hotel and our room is rustic and roomy with a small balcony that overlooks the train tracks and the Urubamba River.
The woman who owns the hotel told us that tonight the locals are having a festival celebrating El Senor de Choquekilla, the town’s patron saint. The natives will dress in elaborate costumes and will dance all night with fireworks to be shot off as part of the celebration. We thank her for the information as we had no idea this was going on for the one night we will be here. How lucky can you get! We intend to check the festivities out once we settle into our room. Chalk up two more great days in Peru.