If my family’s journey through the greater South West United States was christened “The Tour of Rocks” then this adventure through Cusco was “The Tour of Carefully Placed Rocks”. There are plentiful reasons why these ruins are so well-preserved but I’d wager a guess that one of the main reasons is that most of them are built entirely of stone. But more on that later!
First let’s talk spelling. You’ll notice in the title of the blog post that I spelled Cuzco with an “s”. Yet in the previous sentence, I spelled it with a “z”. You may be asking why. Well, frankly I did it because I adore alliteration and didn’t want to misspell “Cruising”. However, this debate on whether it is Cuzco or Cusco is a real actual debate in the real world, not just among those of us cursed (curzed?) with a love of languages. Luckily for all of you, however, I’m going to let someone else do the talking here. If you’re as curious about it as I was, click –> HERE. And actually, before we go on with the part of the blog that everyone wants to read, can we just admire my alliteration in the title for a second? Both the hard C sound and the “oo” sound. Dang, I’m good.
APRIL 22 – 27, 2015
The adventure arguably began with an office slumber party on April 21st because we had to be up at 3:30 the morning of the 22nd and some of us live a little far out to be taking a taxi at that hour. A group of us asked Lali if we could stay in the office and she agreed. We didn’t do much other than tie the chair cushions together and crash on the floor.
Ain’t no party like an IFSA office party because an IFSA office party don’t start.
DAY 1. 3:30AM came very quickly and we were soon packing into a van and heading to the airport. We arrived in Cuzco at around 7:45 in the morning. The air was crisp and beautiful and mountain-y. I began having flashbacks of family vacations out west and visiting Glacier National Park. Turns out that, much like the Amazon, the mountains have that same intoxicating aroma here as they do back home. We drove to the hotel and had mate de coca – tea made from the leaves of the coca plant – and then retired to our rooms. We napped for a while before having a light lunch of quinoa soup, bread and the most delicious pineapple juice I’ve ever tasted. We had to nap when we arrived (even though it was only like 8:30am) to allow our bodies to adjust to the altitude. This was also why our lunch was the lightest served lunch that I’ve had in Peru. You have to take it easy the first day, even if you think you feel fine. Our first stop was Qorikancha (Quechua for Golden Courtyard) – which contains the Temple of the Sun for the Inca people in Cuzco. During the time of the Inca, its walls were covered in sheets of gold and silver, and there were life-sized golden figures of corn, llamas, babies and altars as well as a replica of the sun. During the first conquest, however, all of these treasures were looted and melted down. The Spanish didn’t destroy most of the Courtyard, however, they just covered it in dirt in the 1500s. Qorikancha remained undiscovered that way until an earthquake that killed hundreds of people also uncovered some of the temple wall. Peruvian government was called in and excavation and preservation began to take place. According to our guide, there is still gold and silver in the walls because the Incas used the precious metals in construction and since the Spanish never destroyed the temple, they didn’t take any of the precious metals inside. Gold and silver had no value to the Incas except when formed into religious items. Another interesting fact is that the Inca people believed that gods couldn’t die (which isn’t something uniquely Inca) The Inca also believed that their mortal kings were gods. To keep up the idea that the kings weren’t actually dead, they would bring their mummified bodies out each day and offer them food and drink, which was then ritually burned.
Sacrificial altar where both human and animal sacrifices would have been performed. Slightly morbid. Fascinating. But morbid.
The Incas discovered that trapezoid shapes withstand earthquakes better than rectangles or squares, so you will notice a lot of trapezoidal windows and buildings
These are the original walls of the Temple.
View from the museum outside to Cusco. Incredible
We also visited the ruins of Pucapucara and Tambomachay. These ruins were once outposts for soldiers defending Cuzco. A pre-Inca civilization called the Wari had a system of earthquake-tolerant building in which two large rocks were separated by smaller rocks. When an earthquake occurred, the smaller rocks acted as a buffer between the two large ones, preventing them from smashing each other to bits.
The Convento de Santo Domingo and yard from outside
This alpaca was seen achieving the highest level of laziness, eating only what it can reach while laying down.
A random dog just chilling by some ruins. Nbd.
Next we visited Qenqo (pronounced Can-co) and Sacsayhuaman (more or less pronounced sexy-woman [no, I’m not kidding]). These were also soldier outposts protecting Cuzco. Sacsayhuaman looks out over Cuzco and thus served as the final line of defense. All genders participated in the soldier lifestyle. While the men of the village defended Cuzco, it was the mother’s duty to train her children to become soldiers. When they turned 13, they began taking sparring tests and were not considered adults in the society until they had passed.
Kat at Q’enqo ruins
Looking out over Cuzco
The door is so high because they would bear their king through the doorway on a litter on their backs
Sacsayhuaman– imperfection was not tolerated and something done wrong often resulted in death for the wrongdoer
The ruler in charge of Sacsayhuaman’s building wanted a llama in this outpost. So they made a llama.
The sun was beginning to set, making for beautiful pictures
Sunset from Sacsayhuaman over Cuzco
Part of the Sacsayhuaman ruins are this natural rock that just so happens to serve as a slide for tourists now. It is allowed by the security guards so I doubt we’re ruining anything too sacred. 🙂
Our day ended with dinner on our own, most of us opted for pizza in some form or another, before heading back to the hotel to sleep and get ready for day 2.
DAY 2 started bright and early with my alarm going off at 5:30. Our hotel had possibly the most delicious breakfast buffet I’ve ever had and we took full advantage of it before getting into the van for a 3 hour drive through gorgeous mountain countryside. We ended up in Chahuay, this little itty bitty farming town a few hours south of Cuzco. Like most everything in this part of Peru, it was beautiful. Quinoa fields stretched for miles on the banks of Lake Pomacanchi. We toured a farm before the compañeras treated us to second breakfast (we ate like hobbits that day) in the middle of the quinoa field. The spread was out of this world, and all homemade and grown locally.
In the cuy house with Gabo and Rachel
Hi little cuy. I’m gonna eat you. 🙂
This cat had the most beautiful green eyes that were always closed when I snapped a picture. Little brat. 🙂
Oh you know, just casually in a quinoa field.
See that greenish grey thing? That is a fruit. I can’t remember the name of it but it was so delicious and sweet.
This was a guest house that you had to bring your own bedding to, but it would be worth it for this view out of the dining room window.
After touring the farms, which were run by Sierra Productiva – a self-sustainable farming non-profit, we drove to another small town. This time Yanoaca (Yah-no-cah) for MORE food (I told you we ate like hobbits). None of us were very hungry but we ate our fill again. It was strange because, though the place was a restaurant, there were no other patrons and the atmosphere was very homey. What appeared to be the cook’s family was enjoying conversation in the other room and the buffet was set out by a single woman who I can only guess was the mother of the house. After lunch we left Yanoaca for Pampamarca, the town that Fallon and I would be volunteering in the next week. We visited the girls at Casa Hogar de Maria de Nazareth. This is a home for girls who come from abusive families or situations. In some cases, the government has intervened and forcibly removed the girls from their homes but in other cases families send their daughters here. When we arrived, the girls danced for us then we were up. On the drive there we had quickly thrown together “Let it Be” by The Beatles and “Halo” by Beyonce. Sam had brought his guitar so he played as we sang. After that, the girls were given permission to “atacar los gringos” (attack the white people). We spent hours entertaining the girls, all of varying ages, with volleyball, bubbles, catch, tag and other games. When it got dark, the girls brought out the music again and started teaching us how to dance. It was…. entertaining, to say the least.
The girls and the IFSA group
By the time we left, it was around 6:30 and already very dark and we gratefully relaxed for the drive back to Cuzco.
Day 3. We got to “sleep in” until 7 and checked out of the hotel at 8 after packing a smaller bag in preparation for Machu Picchu. We ate breakfast then journeyed to a llama and alpaca farm where we had the opportunity to feed llamas and alpacas and see vicuña on the hillside. We learned a little about the yarn-making process then had the opportunity to shop for souvenirs and clothes made of alpaca wool. After everyone had made their purchases, we drove through la Valle Sagrada (the Sacred Valley) to see the Pisaq ruins. One of the most interesting things that I learned about these particular ruins is that they weren’t so much discovered as people just stopped living there. No one had to discover them because they knew they were there, the people had just moved into Cuzco and other modernized areas. Another interesting fact is that if you see a building that appears to be thrown together, it was likely slave quarters. The rest of the buildings are works of art, but the slave quarters appear roughly made. The Pisaq ruins were beautiful, probably my favorite of the trip, and the hiking – while difficult at times – was worth it. Word to the wise: when your guide says “oh you can climb this huge hill but it’s only a view” CLIMB THE HILL. I can almost guarantee that the view will be worth it.
An attempt to understand the difference between llamas and alpacas and vicuñas
How to make different colors of yarn
Erin feeding a llama, alpaca thing
Gotta get that llama selfie
Group picture in the Sacred Valley
Lali camping out in the van
La Valle Sagrada
This cow licked my hand 🙂
That’s the view I was talking about earlier
See the building on the left and how it looks significantly less beautiful than the one next to it? The one on the left was the slave house.
I love Cuzco. Can I go back?
Our trusty guide, Fernando.
This cliff-side was riddled with holes. When archaeologists excavated it, they found each hole to contain a mummy.
The Incas believed that a person couldn’t move on to the next life if he/she had been decapitated. For this reason, when Moctezuma was captured by Pizarro and knew that he would die, he requested that Pizarro’s men not decapitate him. His wish was honored and Moctezuma was killed with a garrote.
View from the road in front of the restaurant
After we left Pisaq, we drove about 10 minutes to this adorable little buffet for lunch. It was one of those places that must have a great reputation because otherwise I have no idea how anyone would find it. It was at the end of a dead-end road, about 5 minutes away from any tourist civilization. But the food was delicious. They ran out of guac so Erin improvised, using pico de gallo and the palta (avocado) for sandwiches to make our own in a coffee mug that we weren’t using. After we ate, we went to a market and were given some time to shop to our heart’s desire and try out our bargaining skills. It was possible, with some discussion, to cut prices in half if you were determined enough. We also employed group tactics. We would say ‘well my friends are going to buy stuff from you too so maybe you can lower both of our prices?’ Or ‘one is 40 soles but all together we’re buying 6. We want to pay 25 soles each.’ This tactic proved surprisingly successful. Granted this is an environment that expects and thrives on bargaining. Those tactics would probably be significantly less welcomed in the US.
We then visited the ruins of Ollantaytambo. These ruins consist of more than 300 stairs, but we arrived late so we couldn’t see all of it before we were forced to come down due to fading light. Some claim that Ollantaytambo is the Sun Temple because during winter months, the sun touches this place before anything else in the valley and at night, 3 important stars are visible in line with the temple. However, at the Sun Temple in Cuzco, the stars form a perfect circle (or something like that I can’t remember exactly), leading most people to believe Cuzco’s to be the true Sun Temple.
From Ollantaytambo, we drove a short way to the train station, where we took a train to Aguas Calientes. This town is small and essentially serves as a halfway house for Machu Picchu visitors. It was dark so at first we didn’t notice that the darkness around us wasn’t sky, but mountains.
Day 4. MACHU PICCHU DAYYYYY!!!!! We woke up at the buttcrack of dawn, packed and grabbed a “quick breakfast.” I put this in quotation marks because Peru time applied to everything on this trip. But it should not have applied to Machu Picchu. Granted, I’m a fairly time conscious person. I’m that person that everyone either loves or hates to travel with because I MUST be on time for EVERYTHING. Not to mention I tend to bring reading material wherever I go so my general time motto of “I’d rather be 30 minutes early and wait in the car than 5 minutes late” isn’t a problem. Whatever. I’ll read. This is also why the “arriving to parties” thing confuses me. If you tell me it starts at 7, why in the flabberbargen would you expect me to show up at 7:30 or 8? Whatever. I’m getting off track. THE POINT IS that I understand that not everyone is habitually early and respectful of other people’s time (woops, was that out loud? Darn. Truth hurts people) so I should have planned in advance for a slow start. But really? How often do you get to see one of the New Seven Wonders of the World? Ok, so blah blah blah I was antsy, that’s nothing new, we got on the bus. The bus zigzagged up the side of a mountain before finally pulling to a stop. We were there.
To be completely 100% honest, full disclosure — there is nothing that compares to seeing those ruins. In my opinion, they aren’t even the coolest ruins we saw on the trip. But there is something so perfectly right about getting past security and turning a corner and -bam- there she is. Wayna Picchu soaring up behind, that silhouette that nearly every educated person on the planet can recognize, ruin upon perfect ruin greeting the day’s warm glow. The forest looms up around and the Urubamba flows below, birds soar above and it is something out of a fairy tale.
Before we could admire very long though, Lali led us to a place where we could get better pictures with fewer tourists in the background. As the day progressed and the ruins got busier, the notion of a “tourist free spot in Machu Picchu” became an oxymoron. NOTE (aka I’m going to rant for a paragraph): if you want to come to Machu Picchu to enjoy the ruins in blissful silence, don’t. Lower your expectations. Machu Picchu is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and thus full of tourists. If you hate tourists being “disrespectful” and “rudely taking selfies” — go home. Selfies and selfie sticks are ever present. Society has invaded what the Spaniards could not and while there are no kiosks set up on the ruins, there are plenty of tourists who only care about themselves. Chances are that you’re one of them whether you realize it or not because this is probably your one chance to see Machu Picchu and thus you don’t want to miss out on anything. Join the club. It contains every person on that mountain while you’re there, every day before and every day after. Rant over. Please continue reading 🙂
DFTBA (Don’t Forget To Be Awesome)
Photo credit: Fallon
Erin, Catherine and I
After all of the pictures were taken, we were free to do as we wished. Our Wayna Picchu hike was scheduled to start around 10 so most of us chose to haphazardly map a route through the ruins roughly leading to the big mountain and tour hop along the way. Tour hopping is when you stand close enough to a tour guide’s group to hear what the guide is saying but far enough away so as to appear busy doing something else. This is infinitely easier if you are bilingual because you can listen in on both Spanish and English led tours. And, while this method could save you a couple bucks, in hindsight I would have preferred my own tour guide. As I wandered the ruins, I was left with so many questions that the little map that they gave us at the entrance just couldn’t answer. If you’re ever there my recommendation is to spring for a guide or bring a book about Machu Picchu so that you can look up information as you go.
Majestic llama on Machu Picchu picture? CHECK
From the top, these stairs look like they just kind of drop off the mountain, but Erin walked down and took this picture looking up and apparently the path continues along the side of the ruins.
Photo credit: Fallon.
That picture that Erin took looking up? This is standing just about 10 feet back from the stairs at the top, so you can see why we just thought it ended.
The clouds really add the the majesty
Some Potterhead desecrated a ruin in the name of the Hallows. I’m both ashamed of and impressed with my fandom because of this.
Around 9:30 we began congregating around the entrance to the Wayna Picchu trail. Some llamas invaded the peace but thank goodness I’m an animal whisperer (and some little girl across the way was eating cookies that distracted them) and they left our little group of IFSA alone.
Wayna Picchu is the name of the mountain in all of the Machu Picchu pictures. The big one. And it is climbable. You have to buy your ticket beforehand (like when you buy the Machu Picchu ticket, beforehand) but they’ll let anyone willing to pay do it. To say I was worried about this climb was a drastic understatement. I’m not in the best of shape, the altitude would play a factor and I’ve never really considered myself a “mountain climber.” But I took the challenge anyway. Like I said earlier, you’re only there once. Why not? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
We began our hike at 10:20 and at first things seemed promising. Once the inevitable stairs started, though, it was another story entirely. I’m just going to put it out there and say that I wouldn’t have made it halfway – much less to the top – without my friends. They refused to leave me behind, despite my insistence that they do just that, and they calmed me down when I started doing that “hyperventilating can’t breathe holy crap” thing. Seriously, Leah, Fallon, Kat, Erin, Erin, Gretell, if you guys are reading this thank you from the bottom of my heart. I love you all. You carried my bag, you let me drink your water since I foolishly had none, you didn’t leave me behind and you encouraged me every step of the way. I’ll never forget that.
Heartfelt thanks aside, the climb was doable. I’d recommend being healthy, take it slow if you need to and heed this warning: The sign warns against doing the hike if you’re afraid of heights. It does not however, mention that there is a tiny little tunnel thing that must be crawled through to actually get to the top. So if you’re claustrophobic, this could prove difficult.
When we finally got to the top, every snag along the way was worth it. The view was beyond amazing. Nothing compares to looking down on those ruins, to knowing that you’re at the top of the mountain that the world can recognize. I was shaking, I was sweaty and all around not the most beautiful human being at that time. But damn it! I did it.
Kinda close to the edge, there. eep
Just a look at some of the path on the way down. (I was too concerned with dying to take pictures of the seriously scary ones)
I made it. ❤
Bogey made it too. #iammckendree
Everything seems smaller when you’re on top of the world.
Getting down, however, was another matter. It had started to drizzle rain which covered the rocked steps in a lovely moisture. (note the sarcasm) I went down on my butt for most of it, honestly. For some reason the descent had fewer hand holds and railings than the ascent did. I’m hypothesizing that this is why going down was so much scarier. We passed some ruins on the way down (which took a slightly different path than going up) but I was so concentrated on not slipping and falling to my death that I really didn’t stop to admire them. We made it back to Machu Picchu at 12:36.
In just over 2 hours, I climbed up and back down a mountain. Talk about a feeling of personal accomplishment. A huge moment for me was actually post-climb. I looked back at the mountain and – instead of cursing it, as if my struggles were somehow the mountain’s fault – I thanked it. I pushed limits that day, endured more than I thought possible, struggled the entire way up but I DID THAT.
At that point we were all exhausted so we made our way back through the ruins and bade farewell to Machu Picchu before getting on a bus and heading back to Aguas Calientes. There, we enjoyed lunch and went to the thermal baths that give Aguas Calientes (literally Hot Waters) their name. The water was warm and tinted kind of yellow with minerals. The buoyancy was incredible too, the water seemed to support you and even though there were no seats, standing wasn’t a burden. But the backdrop was the most beautiful. I wish we had been allowed to bring cameras in because essentially this area is a series of pools that look out into the jungled mountains. Rainforest is all around you, a huge mountain in front and then it started raining. As if the setting wasn’t already perfect, steady cold rain fell as we rested in the warm mineral water.
We headed back to the hotel for a short time before heading to the train station that took us back to Ollantaytambo. Our van was waiting there to drive us back to Cuzco and the hotel there.
Day 5 was a free day. I and a few others of us used this to go explore one of Cuzco’s artisan markets. After shopping for a while, we left to get lunch at a small place serving cheap (but good) food. At that point, I broke off to explore the Plaza de Armas. I took some pictures and then met up with Hannah and Fallon to shop for ADENAR related things for a while. We ended up walking through the Central Market of San Pedro. It is a street market that has what can only be described as a unique smell. Imagine – if you will – the smells of a city, stray dogs, whole butchered chickens waiting in the sun to be sold, cooked and raw foods of every variety, vegetable stands, fish and seafood stands, artisan kiosks, stores with doors wide open selling any and all manner of things in one central location. That my friends, is what the Market smelled like. The smell was so pervasive that it was easier to just get over it than to risk opening your mouth and wafting that delicious odor over your tongue. So we got over it. After getting some shopping done, we headed back to the hotel to rest for awhile before heading back towards the Plaza in search of cuy and/or alpaca for dinner. We found both, though the quality was something to be desired. For this reason, if none other, Cuzco is still on my list of places to see so that I can have another shot at properly served cuy. I want my guinea pig, people. And I want it fricasseed. I also want a steak big enough to warrant a steak knife, but that’s another thing entirely. On the upshot, our meal came with pisco sours, so that was nice. By the time we finished eating, the day had come to an end.
All of the dogs in this set of photos are stray, to my knowledge.
Plaza de Armas, Cuzco, Peru
CAAAKKKEEEE. Yes, please.
Day 6 began my adventures with ADENAR – but that is another blog for another day. I packed my bags with the rest of the group that was returning to Lima, though, since I also left Cuzco that day, just not for Lima.
I mentioned earlier that this trip was “The Tour of Carefully Placed Rocks” and it really is. The physical feat of moving some of those rocks that are some easily 8 or 9 tons is incredible. And these rocks didn’t just slide across flat ground, no. They were moved up mountains and across rivers, they were transported miles before being hoisted into their final resting place. And the evidence of that work is still here! It never ceases to amaze me, but some of those ruins look as if they were built yesterday. All that is missing from the buildings are their thatched roofs. Hundreds of thousands of tourists have walked on the ruins, the tours take you right up steps that the Inca used long ago and along halls that they would have walked. In Cuzco, you can step into history, and quite literally walk the path of the Inca. The Inca people built a society that not only withstands earthquakes, but withstood the Spanish conquest and continues to withstand time. Their people may have perished, but their legacy lasts. It is my sincere hope that it continues to last for many more generations.
Cuzco is one of those places that I didn’t expect to love. I expected to enjoy my time there, but I in no way thought that I’d leave with such a strong desire to return. Granted, a lot happened in between when the IFSA trip ended and when I actually left, but still. The idea is the same. The hiking and sheer amount of ruins we saw each day was exhausting but I would happily do it again.
I realize that this blog was a long time in the making but I hesitate even now to post it since I’ve got readers who are – in the very near future – going to be seeing these things (!!!!) I don’t want to ruin the surprise for them all. But they are only 4 out of a bunch (I have no idea who all reads this thing but you’re all awesome), hence the posting.
Until I get around to writing the next one, I hope you enjoyed this journey From Lebanon to Lima!