Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cusco and Pisac

Cuzco is a place I´ve been dreaming of going for a long time.  We arrived at 6am after an uneventful night bus from Arequipa, and quickly jumped in a cab for a hostel.  We chose the silly Hostel Frankenstein, which promised "cold, dank rooms" just because it made us laugh.  Well, really we chose it because it was relatively cheap, but a laugh never hurts either.  We were just glad they had a room free when we arrived, we were so tired.  But not so tired to miss noticing the fireplace.  Score!

After a nap, we headed for the streets.  And the city did not disappoint.  Large plazas surrounded by churches, tiny cobblestone streets snaking off in all directions, atmospheric staircases climbing between buildings up the hills, and plenty of people, locals and tourists alike, percolating through it all.  The historic capital of the Incan empire, Cusco (or Cuzco, depending on your preference) now has a population of about 400,000.  We were glad to find that our few days in Arequipa had helped us adjust to the altitude, and even now at 10,800 feet we were breathing easy as explored the town.  We were also glad we had our new coats, cause while it was warm in the sunshine, it got cold when it went down!

Cusco is well positioned as the natural stop before heading up to see the infamous Machu Picchu, which means that just about every tourist who comes to Peru comes to Cusco.  And the city is well set up for them, with lots of shops and hotels and restaurants.  Cusco is also a city of festivals.  In our three days there, we saw at least one parade a day.  One seemed to be a sort of dance recital given by every dance studio in the city, with thousands of young girls doing extensive routines in elaborate traditional costumes.  Some of the girls were barefoot as they danced down the stone streets, and I felt for them, happy as I was in my newly purchased alpaca wool socks.  Another was a parade of religious floats that came out of the church and slowly - SLOWLY - circled the square.  The costumes and colors are amazing, but all the parades were sorely lacking in tempo.  lol  The floats were all carried around on the shoulders of about 20 men, which is I guess why they went so slow, because judging by the expressions of the men below, they were all extremely heavy.  Many of them had "alternates" who would follow them and tag people out to take a rest.  I enjoyed the bands that played, many of them oddly dressed in matching Hawaiian shirts.  They would march in to the square from all directions, stopping traffic wherever they went, which no one seemed to mind.

After an assortment of museums, our first Incan site was that of Pisac in the Sacred Valley.  We took a city bus out to the town, and then hired a cab to drive us up to the entrance at the top of a very steep hillside.  We arrived early in the morning, so there weren´t yet many people around which was nice.  We always face the dilemma of whether to hire a guide or not, but we decided to do it on our own.  The ruins are well preserved, featuring lots of the famous Inca stonework.  The Incas used no mortar when they built their stone walls, they just carved the rocks to fit together to well that even today you can´t fit a piece of paper between the stones, which have withstood centuries of weather and earthquake.  There were large terraces built into the hillsides below the buildings, which were used for agriculture.  It was all gorgeous, and we quickly wandered off up into the ruins, exploring every room and vantage point.  The tour groups with guides soon began arriving, and we noted with satisfaction that almost none of them entered the ruins like we had, sticking to the main and easy paths.  Guides can give great information and anecdotes, but it comes at the price of being free to explore at your leisure and fancy.  The guidebook told us we could hire the cab to wait for us for two hours, but instead we decided to walk back down the other side of the ruins back to town.  This turned out to be a good idea, because we were having so much fun climbing through Incan tunnels and admiring the massive valley below we spent almost four hours in total walking about.  The walk down was a bear with thousands of Incan steps, but we still enjoyed it.

Back in town we found a little restaurant to have lunch. We ordered shrimp chowder to start, but weren´t prepared for the red, whole shrimps floating in the soup, complete with antennae and claws.  How are you supposed to eat that? 

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