Tag Archives: Cusco

Busco Cusco

(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Cusco.  I woke up that first morning back with the altitude singing in my veins.  I looked over at Sarah and sighed as I got up from bed, knowing that our stay would soon be coming to an end.  I took inventory of my body.  I was covered, I mean covered, in bug bites, my hair looked like Chico had just given me a noogie, and it seemed that I still had part of a thorn lodged in my arm.  Basically, I looked amazing.  On the bright side, my stomach felt surprisingly settled.  And now, I was hungry.
Before we could go for lunch, Harol, one of the coordinators, picked us up with a taxi to go to tie up any loose strings at the office.  Side note: Harol is arguably the nicest person I’ve ever met.
When we got to Jack’s cafe I decided to make up for lost time and ordered the nachos loaded with meat, beans, and cheese.  Sarah and I reminisced over MLC memories and chatted with a couple of British tourists about their South American adventures while I cleared my plate for the first time in days.  Looked like the worst was over.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
After lunch, Sarah and I tried to find the travel agency Harol recommended, but when we reached the address there was a different agency there.  Tired and hot, we decided to take a look at what sorts of deals they had.  The woman helping us, Claudia, spoke great English and unfortunately for her, did not realize that I spoke Spanish.  “Where did I put my pen?  Oh my, what do I do next?  What do these people need now?” she said in Spanish to herself, not realizing that I understood everything she was saying.  Despite her confusion, she booked the train tickets, found us hired cars and buses, and made us a reservation at a cheap hostel.  It seemed that everything was in order, and after paying the bill, we arranged to pick up all of our tickets later that day.
On the way back, Sarah and I were bombarded with masseuses.  “Massage?  Masaje?  Pedicure?  Manicure?  Shine shoes?”  If I had any doubts about looking rough, they suddenly vanished.
Staying cool in the shade.  Notice the man with the
backward baseball cap.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
An old man peddling instruments asked if we wanted any pan flutes.  We said our no thank you’s, but as he turned to leave, I remembered the mouth harp that Juvenal had in the jungle.  “Do you have an icarro?” I asked him, not knowing at the time that the instrument was called a dan moi.   I described the instrument, and he nodded.  “Aaaa si. I think I have some at my shop.  Which hotel are you staying at?  I can meet you there with the instrument,” he said.  Erm.  No.  “How about we meet here at 6:00?” I offered.  “No problem,” he responded.  We shook on it, and the man went his merry way.
Sarah rested up in the room as I did some shopping at an outdoor market.  Beautiful tapestries and alpaca textiles, pottery and hand-sewn dolls, and jewelry and pan flutes decorated the myriad of stands.  “Señorita, mira aquí,” the vendors would say, trying to get me to stop and buy their wares.
A plump woman smiled at me and motioned toward her goods.  A gourd with a decorated nativity scene caught my eye.  “Do you have a smaller one of these?” I asked her in Spanish.  “No, no, señorita.  No smaller.  But I give you a special price,” she said temptingly.  From past experience I knew that every price was a “special price.”  Still, this knick knack was too nice to pass up.  She gave me a jacked up price that was still a reasonable one by US standards, so I didn’t bother haggling.
 “How do you like Peru?” she asked me.  “Oh, I love it,” I replied and went into the details of my stay.  “The jungle?  Dios mio.  I’ve never been,” she divulged.  “You’re not afraid to travel alone?”  “Not particularly,” I shrugged as she whipped out the day’s newspaper.  “Mira,” she said pointing to a young man’s picture on the front page.  “This boy, que guapo, so good looking, missing!  From the states!  Yes, yes, he looks dark, I know.  He’s Peruvian, but he lives in the U.S.  And now they’re bringing dogs to look for him.  Yes, dogs!  They can find people by smelling at things.  Can you believe it?  I hope they find him.  So guapo, so good looking.  And from the U.S.!  Que triste.  So sad.  So guapo.  So good looking.”  “Que triste,” I agreed, trying to make my exit after a good ten minutes of hearing the sad tale on repeat.
“Wait, come look in my shop!” she said as I headed toward another stand.  There was more?  We walked in the store behind her stand.  Oh, there was more.  I looked at the first row of shelves and much to my dismay, saw several smaller nativity scenes.  I sighed.  Lies, lies, lies.  I turned toward the jewelry case and saw some earrings my mother might have liked.  “Ah, you like earrings?” the woman asked.  “Mira, look at these,” she said, pulling out a pair bearing a condor, a puma, and a serpent.  “The symbols of the city,” she smiled proudly.  I smiled back.  She wasn’t going to let me leave.  I quickly bought the earrings and left the shop.  I looked at my watch.  Wow.  Twenty minutes had passed.  I shook my head and moved to a stand out of her field of vision.  I knew she was liable to chase me down.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.
The pigeons in Cusco are a bit handsy.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Finally it was time to make our way back to the travel agency.  “Um, Claudia’s not back,” another travel agent told us when we got there.  “Come back in 45 minutes, yes?”  When we returned another woman was sitting at Claudia’s desk.  “Here,” she said passing me her cell phone.  “Hi,” said Claudia on the other line.  “We have a problem,” she blurted.  Uh-oh.  “I made a mistake and bought the train tickets for a week from now,” she confessed.  “But I’m buying tickets for tomorrow now.  They will be for the middle of the day, yes?  But the thing is, I will have to give you the tickets tomorrow morning, okay?”  I agreed, not really having a choice.  Sarah and I hoped for the best and left.
We stopped in the Plaza de Armas to meet up with the instrument seller.  No mouth harps, but he offered up beautifully painted ocarina flutes.  They were so lovely, and I hated the idea that he went through all that trouble for nothing, so… I let guilt and consumerism get the better of me, broke down, and bought two.  One for me.  One for Sarah.
Fried Guinea pig, anyone?
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Later that night Sarah and I ate dinner with Harol at the fanciest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen.  My stomach was still feeling fine, and my appetite was alive and well, so once again, I stuffed my face.  A big mac.  Large order of fries.  A chocolate shake.  I was unstoppable.
After we had gorged ourselves, we made our way to a place Harol told us about called Inkateam that had salsa dancing.  After about 11:00, the dj started playing club music and locals and tourists started pouring through the doors.  The music was fun and upbeat, but- I can’t believe I’m saying this- lacking in hip hop.  Hmm was this homesickness I detected?
On the way home my stomach started churning.  Oooooh, no.  Oh.  No.  We took a break and sat on a bench.  Did I really eat nachos and a big mac?  Fries and a shake?  What was I thinking?  The plague doesn’t just disappear in one day!  Back in the hotel things got… worse.  I finally accepted the bitter, stomach turning truth I had been denying for so long: I had parasites.  Jungle parasites.

That is one Sacsayhuaman

On our last day in Cusco, we had the pleasure of going to the outdoor market.  Women with babies on their backs carried on with business as usual selling fruits I’ve never seen before, a variety of different potatoes, cheeses, textiles, jewelry, and mysterious herbs to heal and protect.  Scrappy dogs perused the aisles for tasty morsels, and children playing with sticks ran in between flower stands that filled the air with fragrant perfume.

Tilman in the market

I wish I could tell you all that we ate there, but I can’t for the life of me remember the Peruvian fruit names beyond star fruit and papaya- a.k.a. the bane of my existence.  Anyway, the fruit featured below was tasty, but I kept imagining I was eating frog eggs, which detracted from the experience just a little.

A granadilla

Soon after, we visited the office of the organization to get more information about the compilation of occupations we were going to partake in.  Yes, I am ridiculous.  We met the founder of CREES- who seems very passionate about his work- and the other members of the group as well.  Got to say, as usual, one of my favorite parts of this undertaking was the food.  We went to a restaurant for lunch after our meeting and ate ceviche- a classic Peruvian raw fish dish.  It was delicious.

Ceviche is amazing.

Back to the center of town, and Tilman informed us that we were going to take a scenic walk.  Now, I thought we were going to go on a nice little stroll through the side roads of the city, but no, we are full-out trekking up this “hill” which would definitely be considered a mountain back in North Carolina.  At first I ambled along, unaware of our destination, but after a good twenty minutes, it was obvious where we were headed.  We were going to see Jesus.

At the top of the hill was a massive, cream-colored, Rio de Janeiro-like statue of Christ watching over the city, arms open wide.  God, I needed a hug right then.  I struggled up that hill.  At some point, the incline was absolutely vertical.  I whipped out my inhaler to battle my exasperating asthma and prayed that my brain wouldn’t explode from the altitude.  To add an element of confusion to the mix, a man passed by and called Tilman a “sexy woman.”  Eh?  Only days later did someone explain to us that the man was headed to the ancient Incan site of Sacsayhuaman.  Anyway, by the time we got to the top of the hill, I understood the need for the statue- I’m pretty sure I almost died on the way up.

Approaching Jesus.

By the statue were three decorated crosses.  In the background, an old man played the guitar and sang Peruvian folk songs.  We looked down below at the landscape of the city, and what do you know, the climb was worth the reward.  Before we left, a little boy named Roberto let me take a picture of him with his baby llama, Poncho, and so I felt that even if my brain did combust, I would die happy.

The view from way up there.

Roberto and Poncho the llama
Our green meal at the end of the day.

Coming to Cusco

I slept through the flight from Lima to Cusco until turbulence jolted me awake, and I opened my eyes to the most incredible mountains looming outside my window.  Stepping off the plane and onto the runway, my mind still felt like it was high in the clouds; the altitude and fog melded into a strange dichotomy of obscurity and definition- a bright haze settling over everything.  In a blur, I retrieved my bags and merged into a cinnamon-colored crowd pleading with me in Spanish and English to please stay at their hotels.

For the first time since I had begun my journey, I was confused.  Where were the people I was supposed to meet?  After having to convince many a taxi driver that I did indeed already had a ride to my hotel, I finally spotted two white faces in the distance: a man with glasses holding a tiny sign with my name scrawled across the bottom, and a friendly looking young woman.  I made my way over to them.  The man introduced himself as Tilman.  I failed to mention that I already knew him and that he was German through the organization’s facebook page (best not creep out these people from the beginning), and instead introduced myself.  The girl, Sarah, an aspiring archaeologist from the UK, and though she seemed a bit shy at the beginning, she opened up soon after, admitting to a deep love for all things Inca.

Sarah and I quickly caught onto the practice of thrusting ourselves into the middle of traffic in order to get across the street- a habit that I am now struggling to break- and nimbly climbed into the taxi that took us to our hostel, the Hotel el Rosal.  Even after all the days we spent there, I still can’t tell you what that place is.  Tidy and bright-colored, with statues of llamas and a neon-lit Virgin Mary, there are always tourists, children, and nuns coming and going, and populating the lawn.  My best guess is that it is one part hostel, one part convent, one part orphanage, and two parts labyrinth.  Basically, it’s an awesome place to stay.  When we arrived, the other volunteers were still asleep after their nearly two-day long voyage from Singapore, so we drank some tea for the altitude sickness and went off to explore the city for a few hours.

Hotel el Rosal. Hostel, convent, or orphange?
No one knows.
Cusco landscape
As Sarah mentioned, pigeons are the same everywhere.

Cusco is a modern city with a rich history as the Incas’ capital and the center for Spanish colonization beginning in the 14th century.  In some places, the stones of the ancient Incan walls look as if they were erected yesterday, seemingly left unscathed by the Spanish conquest.  More impressive than the endurance of these massive walls are the images that they hide in plain sight.  If you look hard enough, you can see that some of the stones make up the city’s symbols: the puma, representing strength, the serpent, representing knowledge and a connection to the spirit world, and the condor representing wisdom, freedom, and balance.  This information, of course, was derived from a savvy artist who decided that Sarah’s and my walk to the nearest deli was actually a tour which had been entrusted to him.  Needless to say, I bought one of his paintings by the end of the day at much too high of a price.

As we walked down the spacious sidewalks, I realized that I had never really experienced sticking out so much as much as I did at that moment- my dark hair and eyes usually let me pass for many nationalities, but in Cusco, my light skin and cargo pants definitely gave me away.  While I certainly did not look like a local, Sarah had me beat with her fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes.  Taller than most people there, she shone like a beacon from miles away.

Sarah and I bonded over some coca tea at Jack’s café, discussing our pet cats and mutual love of dresses, still somewhat reeling from the altitude.  Please, if you ever go high above sea level, do not underestimate altitude sickness.  You walk over a speed bump and you get lightheaded.  A flight of stairs?  You’re out of commission for at least a couple of minutes.  Your body feels like a ton of bricks, and you basically just feel like poo for a good while.

Anyway, by the end of this very long day, we finally met the other volunteers, Hanako, who is of Japanese descent, and Erica, who is English- both friends living in Singapore, traveling together on their gap year.  Tilman, our ever-helpful guide took us all to a pizza place where we met Harol who also works for the organization.  Things were a bit awkward since we didn’t know each other and we were all tired, but the pizza was delicious.

So, all in all, though we didn’t know quite yet what we would be doing in the jungle, this first day gave us a taste of what Cusco is all about.  Like many other places, the city is a contradiction where new and old, wealth and poverty, acceptance and rejection exist alongside one another.  There is the brightness of the multicolored hats and dresses, plaited hair, and smiles of the locals, and the sadness of the homeless, shivering on the side of the road in the cold, Andean nights.  Tiny children play on the side of the road while their parents work to sell their wares- beautiful textiles, jewelry, and hot meals.  Tourists are at once cherished and detested depending on the person, depending on the day, depending on the season.  The weather is changeable too.  In the rainy season, one instant it’s warm and sunny, and the next it’s raining and freezing with not even a hint of what’s coming next.  And that is life in Peru.  What will happen tomorrow?  Heaven only knows.  But you know it won’t be boring.

Cusco and Hanako