Monday, January 12, 2009

Cusco

We woke up early on the 30th anxious to get out of Lima and start our real vacation. For some reason, I could not shake the feeling that Lima was just a place filler, that we somehow weren't on our real vacation until we got to Cusco. So when we got to the ridiculously freezing cold airport extra early (our Atlanta delays left me a bit paranoid), you can imagine how upset we were when our flight was delayed. And how anxious we became when they announced that the flight was overbooked. I clutched my ticket and hovered a bit too close to the gate thinking if I get on the plane as fast as possible they can't kick me off. After a lengthy wait, we were finally allowed to board and leave Lima behind.

The flight was short and the moment I stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac in Cusco, I declared that I love it. The air felt cleaner and I did not yet notice how thin it was and the surrounding hills were beautiful. I am a mountain girl at heart and whether it is the Uintahs or Andes, mountains make me happy. Before leaving Lima, we made a happy discovery that the Lima airport had a luggage storage check so we were able to lighten our load by one bag and left our sleeping bags, trekking poles and a few other superfluous items (water purifier) behind and were able to travel with the far more manageable ratio of 1 bag to 1 person. After collecting our bags we walked outside and I immediately spotted my name on a sign. The woman was from our trekking company - who had rearranged all of our Cusco and Machu Piccu travels. She took us to our hotel and got us all checked in and gave us directions to their office so we could pick up the rest of our itinerary. The hotel - Hotel Garcilasco - was so cute with its bright blue doors and trimming. Our room was off an interior courtyard and the bathroom looked brand new. After our Lima hotel with its tiny cockroach bathroom, this felt luxurious. We were soon greeted with a our first sampling of coca tea which locals drink to combat altitude sickness. We deemed it herbal and imbibed and Erin fell in love with the stuff.

After settling in we headed out to find the trekking office so we could figure out what we would be doing during our stay. Cusco is beautiful. The architecture, the gardens, the people, the narrow cobble-stoned alleys. We loved it all but definitely noticed the thinner air when we marched up the steeply inclined streets. I wanted to give Ambar - our agent - a giant hug when I met her for saving our trip. She and I had been corresonding by email since we missed our flight in Atlanta working out new hotels and excursions. She sat down with us and explained all our options and gave us tickets after ticket and vouchers for everything and listed off meeting points and times and I grabbed a notebook and pen and made her repeat the whole thing one or two more times until I not only had it written down, I had it memorized.

When we said goodbye, she recommended a place for lunch that we never found and instead opted to check out a little place with incredibly enticing aromas wafting out into the street. Despite a friendly "tourists welcome" sign hanging inside, this was clearly more of a locals only type of place. When we walked in it was nearly empty and we took our time perusing the menu before Erin got brave enough to order alpaca and I stuck with some sort of chicken with fried potatoes. Which, in case you are wondering, means french fries and nearly every meal is served with them - even Erin's alpaca stir fry with rice. And the fries really aren't good. As we waited for our food to arrive the tiny place filled up and more and more people were shuttled upstairs. I was reading through my guidebook trying to plot what to do for our one free afternoon in Cusco as Erin text messaged a co-worker who was also in Cusco trying to figure out a rendezvous place and time. After a while I realized all of these other tables of people who arrived after us were busily eating and here we were still waiting for our food. We tried to flag someone down but couldn't make eye contact with anyone. When we did finally manage to get a particularly hurried server's attention, I did not think he understood what we wanted. But soon enough we had our food although I was pretty startled because mine initially appeared to be pancakes with berry syrup and fries. Except it wasn't pancakes - it was chicken with berry syrup. And it was tasty. We had another significant wait for our check and concluded this was not exactly the most tourist friendly lunch spot and hurried off to take photos and explore a bit before meeting Erin's friend.

As we were sitting in the still-sunny Plaza de Armas waiting for Erin's friend, I thought I felt rain. Before I knew it, big fat raindrops were falling more and more rapidly and it became clear that just pulling on the rain jacket hood was not going to do. We, along with all the other people milling about the plaza, ducked for cover under the covered sidewalks around the perimeter and watched the rain speed up in intensity and turn to large chunks of hail as lightening danced behind the cathedral directly in front of us. Suddenly everyone around us with pulling on brightly colored ponchos and the streets were covered in nearly an inch of water which splashed high as cabs hurried to rescue stranded travelers. We watched the scene as Erin's friend made his way to us from wherever he had sought refuge. When the rain lightened (relatively speaking), we made the short walk back to our hotel to take a bathroom break and to outfit ourselves in better rain gear as we had all decided to stick with our original plan and go to the ruins above town rather than museums. By the time we were changed into rain pants, had wandered around looking for an non-existent tourist office with some sort of discount pass, given up and jumped in a cab, the rain had slowed to a negligible drizzle. Erin's friend is a native Spanish speaker and has an inherently wacky personality which was a welcome respite from the two of us pushing each other's buttons. Not that we weren't getting along, just that it is far easier to snap at your sister when you are tired and things aren't going 100% as planned than it is when you add someone new and interesting to the mix.

We spent the soggy afternoon giving ourselves a self-guided tour of Sacsayhuaman which I constantly referred to as Saskatchewan because I didn't know how to pronounce it and that seemed to be the closest thing in my head. Roman (Erin's friend) often prompted me to read about what we were looking at as we tromped along the muddy paths and rain splattered onto the pages of my book as I stumbled through descriptions of what I thought we were looking at. Roman and I both got excited about some sort of "slides" across the way from where we were standing at the time but Erin pushed us up toward what we discovered was a fantastic view of Cusco. The Sacsayuaman ruins are in the hills overlooking Cusco and it was fun to look down and easily spot the plaza where we met up not an hour earlier. The three of us laughed and joked and explored the winding trails around the ruins and then hiked up a hill (again taking note of the thin air at 13,000+ feet) to where a statue of Christ overlooks the city. By this time the rain had subsided and Erin and I were overdressed in our rain pants but when you bring only one pair of pants (ahem, like me), you can't risk muddying up that one and only pair so early in the trip.

We returned to the parking lot to plot out how to get to our next destination - Qenko (or, as I called it "Kinko's") - another Incan ruin site. My book said it was only a 20 minute walk but also indicated it closes at 530 and since it was already after 5 we needed to track down a taxi.

Let me take a moment and explain something about taxis in Peru. First off, do not call them cabs because people will just stare at you blankly. They are known only as taxi. Secondly, while I was initially quite skeptical of my book's claim that approximately 70% of vehicles in Peru (or maybe in Lima) are taxis, after spending some time in both Lima and Cusco - I believe this statistic. In Lima, if you are not being harrased by a guy with a menu begging you to eat in his restaurant (even if you just walked out of the one next door), a taxi is stopping and asking if you need a ride. There is no meter and generally, anyone with a car can be a taxi. They just have to buy the little white "Taxi" sign and stick it on their roof. In Lima there are a couple of "official" taxi companies but there are also hundreds and hundreds of sole proprieters out there trying to make a few soles. Which means, taxis are cheap. As in, $7 for a 25 minute trip from the Lima airport to the Incan Markets cheap. For a New Yorker, this is a welcome shock. Oh, and they don't tip. Which pained me so I was always throwing in a few extra soles.

Given the proliferation of taxis we didn't think about getting down until we were standing in a parking lot filled with tour buses and no taxis. But it didn't take long for one to show up and Erin and I happily sat back and allowed Roman to negotiate the price and location and all of that and happily accepted our driver's kind offer to wait for us at Qenko after we gave him a 2 sole tip (less than $1).

Qenko (which also sounds like cankles in my head) is an Incan huaca - which is a revered location used for ceremonies. This particular huaca was formed out of an existing cave. While no one is entirely sure what took place there, they believe the altar built inside the cave is where the Incans sacrificed llamas.

After returning to our waiting taxi, we had to skip the last of the three Incan ruins since it was after 530 and it was surely closed. So we returned to Cusco and searched out a place for dinner. We were all in the mood to try the pizza and selected a place on that basis but once inside none of us tried it. We befriended a solo diner at the next table who made a few recommendations and words of caution about the massive meat plate which consisted of skewered meat served on a grill still cooking on the table. Despite the inclusion of intestines and heart and such, Roman ordered it. Erin went with the grilled chicken and I tried the trout which I'd read was good locally. My trout was good and I probably would have enjoyed it more had I not tasted Erin's chicken. I have no idea what they did to it but it was the most deliciuos chicken either of us have ever eaten. My mouth is watering just thinking about this chicken - it was tender and juicy and a little bit smoky. Our friend from the next table found out Erin and I were heading to Machu Piccu next and gave all kinds of tips and advice - some confirmed by other information I had read but always good to hear first hand. He also pointed us toward the best place to exchange money was turned out to be extremely helpful as it had a far better exchange rate than anywhere else we had been.

After dinner we explored the square a bit more with Roman until we were all too tired and bid farewell with hopes of meeting up when Erin and I returned to Cusco in a couple of days. The rain had turned things pretty cold and we discovered our room lacked heat so we drank more tea and spent some time in the lounge area where there was a nice fire waiting for a turn at the computer where I lucked out and caught both my parents and Tiffany on google chat and was able to catch them up on our adventures to that point.

We packed a lot into our one day in Cusco but we both wished we could have more time - like the original two days at least. My advice, if you are in Peru, plan lots of time in Cusco.

5 comments:

Ma said...

Wow! You two have had some amazing and very memorable vacations together. What great memories you'll have to share with each other through the years. I'm jealous.

KimmyGoat said...

Just so you know, I'm living vicariously through you. Am loving Peru!

Tiffany said...

Two thoughts:

1. Cusco is STUNNING.

2. I've said it before, but you and Erin really need to audition for The Amazing Race. NOW.

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