We arrived at airport with just 1 hour to spare. I am quite impressed with LAN Chile Airline. Plenty of professional bilingual staff are available to assist passengers at automated check-in kiosks. Oh and they’re all attractive young women. In other parts of the world some old traditions still persist. Our flight to Cusco was short, about 1h. Our Peruvian fellow passenger was nice enough to stick the my GPS receiver behind the window shade so that we get a GPS trace of the flight path. As expected, it was a straight line! Those who were fortunate to sit on the left side of the plane were treated to a bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu and majestic snow-covered peaks.
As soon as walked down the stairs to the tarmac, first thing we immediately noticed was the shortness of breath. I had to consciously take a deeper breath. The second was how intense the sunlight was. The sun seemed a lot closer and, with few trees or tall buildings to provide shade, it was blinding, relentless, pounding. Sun-block lotion is a must, preferably one with a high SPF (ours was SPF 85).
We took a taxi to the hotel where the very pleasant receptionist named Luce let us check in and gave us some coca de mate (coca-leaf tea) to help ameliorate any potential altitude sickness. I felt perfectly fine aside from mild light-headedness, but the tea seemed to dissipate even that. We called the travel agency to get our Machu Picchu tickets. Within about 15 minutes a rep arrived with our train and bus tickets and instructions. No complaints about the service from Lima Tours.
With that out of the way, we explored Cusco’s famous main square (in Peru and elsewhere in Latin America the main square is usually called Plaza de Armas or Plaza Mayor).
The plaza teemed with gringos, locals and an army of street vendors offering paintings, hats, scarves, finger puppets and all kinds of knick-knacks. Not surprisingly, Cusco was the only place where we encountered a large number of streets vendors. I must point out that like most Peruvians, they are predominantly very polite and good-natured. If you’re not interested a firm no, gracias is all that was necessary. Some even offered a genuine gracias señora or buenos dias back. I’ve seen much more persistence and boldness in other countries. They are also very patient. While at dinner on a balcony overlooking the street, we saw a kid, who mustn’t have been older than about 16, waiting and approaching dozens of people. He stopped only briefly to eat a bowl of soup on the doorstep. This was late in the evening and the saddest part was he didn’t make a single sale. It pained me to see people have to work so hard for a living. I would dearly love to help them out. Unfortunately, I packed light and had I bought even a few things there would have been no room. I had to be content with the knowledge that by coming here, we are indirectly helping them. In the same spirit, we tried to buy essential things, in this case water, from street vendors rather than from a market.
The plaza was much larger in Inca times. It is now dominated by the cathedral and the Jesuit church. On Sundays there are some sort of celebration with staged performance and loud firecrackers going off at intervals. As in Lima, the grounds in the tourist-friendly areas are spotless, thanks to the legions of uniformed street sweepers who scoop up trash as soon as it falls to the ground. Once you’re outside the popular neighborhoods, the cleanliness tends to fall off.
There are many restaurants occupying the colonial buildings lining the plaza. We had lunch at one of these restaurants. I forgot the name, but it was on the second floor at the southwest corner of the square. It was the site of my first encounter with alpaca steak, and it was love at first bite! It appears that Kate was also pleased with her lomo saltado.
The colonial buildings with their carved wooden balcony were lovely, but we were here to see the work of the Incas. We didn’t have to go very far. Right off the plaza is a narrow alley, Calle Loreto, lined with huge stone blocks. I had heard reports about how they were fitted with such precision that you cannot slip a blade between the seams. This is completely true! The stones fit together like Lego blocks, if Lego blocks weighed 5 tons.
We had a close encounter with a vicuña. Of the three camelid species, it is much rarer than llamas and alpacas. It’s also the national animal of Peru.
We followed the Calle Loreto to our first stop, Qoricancha. This was the site of the glorious Temple of the Sun, the most spectacular temple built by the Incas. It held a treasure trove — wall panels, life-size statues, altars and a huge sun disc — all made of gold. The invaders usurped the gold, much of which probably ended up on the bottom of the ocean, and built the convent of Santo Domingo over the old foundation. The juxtaposition of the stone work is striking. To these eyes, there is no doubt that the Inca stone work is vastly superior in quality and aesthetics.
You can see how the polished surfaces align perfectly.
The knob-like protrusions are believed to be used for lifting the blocks into place. While they were supposed to have been sanded smooth, some remain.
This massive wall is as straight as any constructed by man.
As impressively high as it is wide.
An inner chamber viewed from the top.
The classic trapezoidal shape of Inca doorway and windows. Earlier builders had created rectangular windows. But the trapezoidal frame better withstand earthquakes.
We see the system of seqes lines.
It is best explained by the accompanying plaque:
The Inca capital city and its immediate surroundings contain numerous shrines, temples and other sacred places: rocks, caves, springs etc., venerated by the population of Cusco. All these places were called wakas. The wakas were connected with each other by imaginary lines that radiated from Qorikancha and were known as seqes. in Quechua seqes means “line”. Qoricancha was the center from which the seqes spread.
The rest of the monastery is pretty, if not extraordinary.
Leaving Qoricancha we walked down Calle Palacio, another cobblestoned street lined with impressive stone work.
Off this street is Hatunrumiyoc, a narrow alley which borders the former palace of the Inca. The palace wall is made of huge stone blocks which fit together with the same astounding precision that we saw everywhere. It’s unfathomable that they were able to build something like this using no more than simple hand tools.
The Spaniards, of course, proceeded to put a thoroughly unremarkable Archbishop’s Palace on top.
On the other side of the palace can be found the famous 12-angled stone, which also happens to be the symbol of Cusqueña beer. According to an unofficial tour guide who camped out in front of it, it represents Cusco’s 12 neighborhoods. It also acts as a foundation stone and is 2 meters deep! If this wasn’t impressive enough, in Machu Picchu we saw a stone that has 32 corners.
We wandered back toward the plaza. It was now dusk and the light was much more pleasing.
The cathedral with the Peru and Inca rainbow flag.
The Jesuit church.
Del Prado Inn is very good and just steps away from the plaza. This is where we had breakfast every morning.
Unfortunately it had a drawback. Two doors down was a club, which played pounding house music from around midnight till 5 in the morning, non-stop, every day, including Sunday. The hotel nicely provides earplugs, but they don’t help if the bed is vibrating. We didn’t get much sleep for a couple of nights. On the third night, coming back from Machu Picchu, we were given a nice suite on the top floor and were able to sleep much better. Not to mention the view was much more scenic.
The highlands cuisine is starkly different from that of the coast. Instead of seafood heavier fares such as meat and potatoes dominate. While on the whole I prefer seafood, I enjoyed a lot of the dishes such as alpaca steak, while Kate found a favorite in sopa criolla, a hearty beef noodle soup. On the first night, we had dinner at an upscale Peruvian-sushi restaurant, Limo, about a block from the hotel. Second night, we went to another restaurant, Kusukuy, just a few doors from the hotel. The name means “Crazy Guinea Pig”, which also appears to be their signature ingredient. On our last night, we went to A Mi Manera, which was the furthest away from the hotel, a whole 5-minute walk. As this was also our last night in Peru, I ordered the Inca special.