Hi everyone. I’d like to post the first installment of my travel journal concerning my recent trip across the Andean Altiplano from Cusco to La Paz. I wrote a lot on this trip, so I’ll post my journal as separate installments: Cusco, Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca (Puno, Copacabana) and La Paz. Below you’ll find my journal entries for Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
ps- I’m still editing the journals, so please excuse any typos or grammatical snafus…
Saturday, August 29
The Andean Adventure Begins
“Mate de coca, senor?” asked the smiling young campesina, brushing her two jet black pigtail braids over her left shoulder. “Si, si, gracias,” I replied. It was around 11am; Susanne and I had just arrived in Cusco at the Hostal Loreto following a 12-hour trip from Washington DC to Peru. At over 10,000 feet in elevation Cusco is higher than anywhere I’d ever spent any length of time, and altitude sickness is common among gringos arriving here from the flatlands. The local Quechua indian descendants of the great Inca empire continue the tradition of offering weary travelers a cup of mate de coca – herbal coca tea – to help deaden the effects of two miles’ elevation.
Susanne and I sat on the terrace of the colonial Hostal Loreto sipping our first taste of mate de coca. Our visit to Peru was barely ten minutes old and I’m already struck by the cultural differences between the US and the Andean highlands. At home my steaming cup of herbal tea would be considered contraband, despite its accepted harmlessness, yet here in the Andes it is a custom of friendship and generosity to share coca, no different than inviting a neighbor in for coffee. I suppose such differences shouldn’t surprise me, though; the mountains of Peru are a whole world away from my realm of experience.
The city of Cusco (also spelled as Cuzco, though the locals actually prefer the spelling Qosqo) is a living center of ancient Peruvian culture. According to legend Cusco was founded in the 12th century by the first Inca, Manco Capac. The term Inca, despite popular misconception, does not connote an ethnic tribe like the Cherokee or Lakota Sioux. The Inca was actually the royal line of a tribe of Quechua indians first proclaimed by Manco Capac as well as the term used to describe the king, much like Rome’s emperors could be referred to as caesars, or Russia’s csars for that matter. As the ancient story goes, the gods sent Manco Capac to the earth, rising him out of the azure waters of Lake Titicaca. They gave him a divine rod with which he was to mark the spot for his capital city and proclaim as the home of his chosen people, the Quechua. When Manco Capac found the perfect spot – a beautiful valley high in the Andes – he planted the rod in the ground, designating the spot as the Navel of the Earth – Qosqo in the Quechua language.
The legend of Manco Capac is a great story but unfortunately the archaelogical evidence suggests the Quechua weren’t in control of the Cusco valley at that particular time. However, the 9th Inca, Pachacutec (pronounced Pacha Cootie), initiated a period of swift military expansion during which his armies captured much of the Andes from Columbia to Chile. By the 1430’s Cusco became the capital of this new empire, Tawantinsuyu (the Four Corners), which were divided into the regions of Chinchaysuyu (the north and northwest), Kuntisuyo (the south and west), Kollasuyo (the south and southeast) and Antisuyo (the east), all of which radiated from the navel of the world, Cusco. Tawantinsuyu and the Inca dynasty thrived for all but one hundred years until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
At first, Francisco Pizarro’s small group of soldiers struggled against the Inca’s armies until a civil war erupted after the death of of Huayna Capac in 1532. Two of the Inca’s sons fought over their right of ascension, dividing Tawantinsuyu into two rival subkingdoms. Prince Hu*scar ruled his lands from Cusco while his half-brother Atahualpa ruled from Quito, the capital of the northern enclave of Chinchaysuyu. During the civil war Atahualpa defeated Hu*scar, killing him in at the battle of Huancvelica. When the Spaniards arrived two years later, Atahualpa Inca wrongly believed that Pizarro was actually the coming of Viracocha, a powerful god of Inca legend, and concluded that Viracocha had come to support him.
In what proved to be a most fateful move, Atahualpa agreed to meet with Pizarro at the stronghold of Cajamarca. Pizarro and his men ambushed the Inca and held him for ransom, demanding that an entire room be filled to the ceiling with gold and treasure. The Inca’s people faithfully responded to the demand, gathering all the sacred relics of Chinchaysuyu in the ransom room. But when Pizarro got word that one of the Inca’s armies was heading to Cajamarca he executed Atahualpa on the spot. This betrayal marked the end of indigenous rule of the Andes and the beginning of Spanish control. During the chaos that ensued Pizarro sacked Cusco, eventually capturing the capital. The Spanish looted the city, melting down its gold in a matter of weeks. They also took advantage of the Quechua’s superb masonry skills and built their cathedrals and churches on top of Inca-period structures. This architectural blend of native and colonial elements remain in place to this day, making Cusco a historical gem of the Americas.
After finishing our mates we gathered our cameras and daypacks and headed for the Plaza de Armas, about ten paces from the Loreto’s door. The Plaza de Armas is an immense public square that serves as the center of historic Cusco. While having a Plaza de Armas is common throughout colonial Latin America, Cusco’s plaza stands out because of the immense Inca foundations surrounding it. Buildings such as the Cusco cathedrial and the Iglesia Compania are built on mounts of Inca masonry, including the Hostal Loreto. Our room even has a 500-year-old Inca wall inside! The plaza itself contains a central fountain, cobblestone paths and countless benches surrounded by beds of flowers – a perfect spot for people watching. As soon as we stepped out into the plaza we were taken aback by its grandeur: a colonial town frozen in time with the Andes as its infinite backdrop. We were quickly hounded by boys offering to shine our shoes – well, Susanne’s shoes actually, since mine weren’t made of leather – as well as older campesinas trying to sell us wool and souvenirs. But we hardly noticed them as we stood in the plaza, gazing in all four directions of the Inca’s Tawantinsuyu, silently telling ourselves, “We’re in the Andes now.” No doubt about it.
As tempting as it was to break out our cameras – there were even llamas standing in front of the cathedral – we resisted the urge and opted for a rest at a local cafe. Susanne and I had little choice but to make our first day in Cusco a lazy one, since overexertion in the first hours of arrival at this altitude often leads to severe cases of altitude sickness. We both carried a bottle of Diamox, an epilepsy drug also used for controlling altitude sickness (yet with the curious side effects of dehydration, tingling extremities and a constant taste of iodine in the mouth). Still, if we rushed about all day we’d certainly be asking for trouble. To avoid the pounding headaches and nausea that accompany the illness we planned to do as little as possible today: drink tea, read and make travel arrangements to Machu Picchu, nothing more. Our first foray into prescribed inactivity began at the Plus Cafe, a precious little balcony restaurant with a perfect view of the cathedral and the Iglesia Compania. Having quickly developed a taste for mate de coca (taste, mind you – this stuff isn’t addictive) we both ordered two cups and some sesame rolls with jam. The day had become rather overcast so we continued to resist using the balcony for lots of pictures. I do, however, take advantage of the opportunity to test out my new 300mm telephoto lens which allowed me to get some great candid shots of local benchgoers. I couldnt’ decide if I felt like a voyeur or Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Either way I enjoyed it.
After having our fill of rolls and mate we returned to the plaza and ambled along its perimeter, visiting shops and tour agencies. Susanne and I needed to make arrangements to get us to Machu Picchu this Tuesday as well as to find a good day tour of La Valle Sagrada del Incas – the Sacred Valley of the Incas, home to several notable villages and ruins along the Urubamba River. Most agencies offered Machu Picchu packages for $50 to $100, depending on the class of train service you wanted for the four hour ride to and from the ruins. Sacred Valley trips run from $7 to $70 depending on whether you want to go in a large group or on an exclusive private tour. One particular agency on the southern side of the plaza, La Compania de Servicios Turisticos, seemed to stand out over the other. We told their senior tourguide, Luis Guillen, that we would get back to him by 6pm that night. Susanne and I then returned to the hotel for 30 minutes to relax and talk through our options. While we both would have preferred to hire a private car for our tour of the valley (as we had done in more affordable locales like Cairo and Delhi) it was clear that there were no bargains to be found in Cusco. Seven or seventy bucks, you get what you pay for. For both the valley tour and Machu Picchu we decided to deal with a larger tour group in order to save some money but we would spend a full three days at Machu Picchu in order to take in as much as possible by ourselves.
As we departed the hotel we walked east along the Calle Loreto towards a local crafts market. The entire street was walled with Inca masonry; I felt as if we were going back in time as we paced further down the ancient road, especially as we passed another campesina tending to her llama. But the Inca gods chose to frown upon us that afternoon as the skies opened up and rain fell hard on us. Rain in the middle of dry season? There was little we could do except get out of the showers; continuing to search for this craft market would not prove to be a wise solution. We concluded it would be best to save the mercado for another dry day – assuming every day in Cusco wasn’t this damp. Susanne and I doubled back to the plaza in search of another round of mate de coca.
As we approached the plaza we could hear the sounds of a brass band echoing down the stone walls of Calle Loreto. Across the plaza by the cathedral we spotted a procession of uniformed police and musicians carrying what appeared to be a statue of the Virgin Mary – or was it Santa Rosa de Lima? Today was her festival day in Lima. I immediately had a flashback to The Godfather Part Two, a sombre procession carrying a statue of Mary through the crowded streets of Little Italy. Same idea, different script, I suppose. The rain now began to fall even harder so Susanne and I ducked for cover under a plaza archway where numerous children and campesinas were keeping dry. Following the archway we crossed over to the western perimeter of the plaza and climbed to the top of Cafe Kero, another popular balcony hangout. I relented and ordered hot chocolate while Susanne stuck to a reliable cup of mate de coca. We loitered there until 4pm when we decided to buy a pair to tourist ticket passes, which we would need to enter the major attractions in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. It should have been as simple as making a single stop at the local tourist office, but recent changes in the office’s address coupled with schitzophrenic office hours sent us on a wild goose chase in the drizzling rain. By our fourth stop we finally found a place to buy our passes: the Museo de Arte Religioso. As we left the museum we noticed our tickets had already been marked for entry into the museum – I guess the ticket man had assumed we would stay awhile.
Susanne and I briefly returned to the tour agency to book our tours of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu as well as our train tickets to the city of Puno, along the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. It was now past 5pm; I hadn’t slept much on our overnight flight from New York to Lima so I was eager to get some supper and call it an evening. We ate dinner at D’Onofrio’s, a pleasant enough Italian joint best known for its ice cream. We ate the lasagna and roasted chicken instead.
Sunday, August 30 The Sacred Valley of the Incas
Today we’ve hired a tour service to guide us around the Valle Sagrada del Incas – the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The valley is a wide expanse north of Cusco stretching over 100km east-west. The road to and from the valley are notoriously treacherous, some with drops of over 1000 feet, so it’s wise to have an experienced chauffeur when circumnavigating the area.
The tour included a group of 25 people; we were transported in a comfortable, yet slightly cramped bus. Before reaching our first stop the bus climbed steadily to an altitude of 4100m, driving past the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman. Our descent into the valley was swift; soon we found ourselves dropping to around 3000m, significantly lower than Cusco. The bus pulled over for a brief visit at a roadside market in a Quecha village to small to be on our tourist map. Inside the market campesinas sold typical Andean wares – alpaca sweaters and scarves, clay pottery, zampona pan flutes and tapestries. I was tempted to buy a sweater but I concluded the trip was still young and there would be plenty of time to find bargains elsewhere. Susanne discovered a Quechua man with four llamas charging one sole to photograph them. The llamas were much shorter than I expected – their heads only came up to my chest. Their wool is magnificent, though; I gently stuck a pointed finger into the back of one of the llamas to see how deep it would go before hitting the skin. My hand disappeared under matted wool up to my wrist.
Once back on the bus we drove another 30 minutes to the eastern end of the Urubamba Valley, where we paused to take photographs of the postcard-perfect terraced hillsides, the Urubamba River flowing far below. Along the roadside campesinas sold more sweaters and souvenirs, including plastic packets of the two dozen varieties of corn that grow in the valley. Several young girls dressed in traditional Quechua costumes. I offered one of the half a sole for a photograph. Reboarding the bus we descended further into the valley until we reached Pisac, an ancient Quechua village famous for its Sunday market. Our guide Alfred recommended we leave our jackets in the bus – a wise suggestion since the drop in elevation had also meant an increase in temperatures to the mid 70s. We’d have about an hour to wander the market before our noon rendezvous at the bus.
After briefly checking out a local adobe-oven bakery Susanne and I split up so we could each go at our own pace. She paused to take photographs of local children while I worked my way down Pisac’s narrow (and occasionally treacherous) cobblestone streets. The haunting sounds of zampona pan flute music emanated from all directions as local merchants demonstrated their many instruments available for purchase. Many of the hawkers called out to me as I passed: “Comprame amigo!” Buy from me, friend. Each time I would shake my head with a polite, “No gracias, senora,” a strategy that usually worked save for the random aggressive merchant.
I soon began to hear a cacophany of noise coming from ahead – music, shouts in Quechua and Spanish, laughing and singing. Turning the corner I discovered Pisac’s Plaza de Armas crowded with over 1000 people, mostly Quechua women in tradition dress buying and selling from scores of carpets of produce laid out along the cobblestone. My mind flashed back to Cairo, Varanasi and Kathmandu – the glorious chaos of the morning market. While the previous section of Pisac’s market had obviously been dedicated to tourists and souvenirs, the plaza was truly a local affair. Young campesinas sold dozens of varieties of corn and potatoes. Old men weighed cups of powdered dyes on tableside scales, selling the brilliant colors to campesinas wishing to dye their newly spun alpaca wool. Grandmothers argued over the quality of a freshly slaughtered pig as a teenaged butcher’s apprentice enthusiastically pointed out the finer cuts of meat. The sights, sounds and smells of the morning market: nothing in the US seems to come close to the sensations felt at these decidedly exotic, yet inherently mundane events.
With less than 15 minutes until our appointed return to the bus I spotted Sussane entering the plaza. I quickly squeezed through the crowds to reach her. “Time is getting short,” I said. “You’ve got to see this.” Her excitement surpassed mine as she raised her camera, carefully selecting her subjects and executing each shot like a master assassin. Soon enough, though, our time had run out and we had little choice but to leave the market and return to the bus. I quickly purchased two pieces of freshly baked pitas from the bakery for 10 centavos each before we climbed aboard and departed Pisac.
The drive to the Inca fortress of Ollantaytambo was over an hour from Pisac so we broke for lunch in the village of Urubamba. Urubamba has apparently cornered the market for tour group lunch stops with practically every restaurant charging seven to 20 dollars for a fixed price, luke warm buffet. Nothing like reaping the benefits of a captive audience. The food was terribel by any standard save a tasty quinoa soup. Quinoa, an indigenous Andean grain with superlative nutritional qualities, has been a favorite of mine for several years so I had been looking forward to my first taste of it in South America. I’ve always prepared it like a rice dish but here it worked well in chicken soup. I also sampled a strange, dark purple pudding that tasted like nutmeg. A retired Peruvian couple explained to us it was a popular local dessert made from a dark blue corn. As Susanne and I tried to eat our meal, several restaurant employees walked the room stalking countless flies with swats from dirty rags. My apetite lessened with each frustrated swat.
After wasting away the hour in Urubamba we finally embarked for Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is a massive citadel located at the confluence of three valleys, a scant 50 kilometers from Machu Picchu. The citadel served as both a temple and a fortress, the latter becoming of most importance upon the arrival of the Spanish. In 1536 Hernando Pizarro and his cavalry of 70 men attacked the citadel. Manco Inca, who had holed up his army at Ollantaytambo after the fall of Cusco and Sacsayhuaman, successfully halted Pizarro’s initial siege as the Spanish horses were easily repelled by Inca warriors pelting them with rocks and arrows high atop the citadel’s stone terraces. Pizarro retreated in humiliated defeat but Manco Inca’s victory did not last; Spanish reinforcements eventually arrived and forced the Inca to retreat with his men further into the mountains, initiating the beginning of the end of Quechua rule in the valley.
Directly below the citadel’s eastern slope sits the village of Ollantaytambo, a museum relic of a town if there ever was one. Quechuas continued to live in houses built by their Inca ancestors, using their ancient irrigation and plumbing systems as well. After squeezing tightly through the village’s narrow cobblestone streets the bus reached the citadel. High along the mountainside I could see tiers stone terraces climbing hundreds of feet into the air. Near the top I spotted a complex of of immense stone blocks interlocked in typically Incan, yet mystifyingly precise patterns. Our guide led us slowly up the main terraces. He pointed out that in times of peace Ollantaytambo served as a waystation along the Inca highway system, with the three local valleys converging at this very point.
We climbed further up towards the massive stone walls. Huge granite blocks of 30 or 40 tons each were interlocked perfectly with no mortar or glue holding them together. The Inca empire possessed a lost art of stonemasonry in which they could manouver multi-ton blocks, carve them into precise jigsaw-like pieces and fit them together, all without metal tools or even the wheel, let alone modern technology. Perhaps even more incredibly, all of these giant blocks were somehow transported from the mountainside ten kilometers away, across the valley and beyond the Urubamba River.
Because the Inca left no written records of their techniques scientists have hypothesized how the process might have worked. In terms of transporting the stones the Inca laid down an extended zigzag path from the quarry down the mountainside, allowing hundreds of men to drag the rocks with ropes, perhaps with the assistance of wood rollers or sled-like sliding beams. Some people have even suggested they may have diverted the Urubamba around the boulders, allowing them to drag the stones across the river without getting them stuck in the water. To fit two stones together the masons might have first carved the desired shape out of the first rock, fitting it in place, and then somehow suspended the second rock next to the first one on scaffolding, in order to begin tracing out the second rock’s necessary jigsaw shape. The Inca masons might have used a straight stick with a hanging plumbob to trace edge of the first rock and mark off exact points for carving on the second rock. Again, this is merely scientific speculation. In theory this method might have worked but that doesn’t mean this is how the ancient stonemasons did it. In my mind, our lack of knowing the truth can only add to our respect for this lost art.
Near the top of the citadel Alfred pointed out a huge lintel stone that he claimed weighs over 400 tuns. I’m not sure how much of an exaggeration that might be, but I estimated its dimension being 20 feet by 10 feet by 10 feet, all solid granite. No matter its actual weight I can’t but admire Incan tenacity for dragging this monolithic bohemoth down and up the mountainsides in order to position it at this very spot. Not far from the lintel stone we found the Temple of the Sun, a row of equally sized granite slabs separated by tall, thin sheets of rock. Five hundred years ago the Inca maintained this temple so that those slabs were covered in sheets of gold. Gold was seen as the tears of the sun, just as silver was considered the tears of the moon. When the sun rose in the east, the temple would face west and thus greet its creator each morning.
Before departing Ollantaytambo Susanne insisted we explore a series of stone watchtowers on a cliff high above the Temple of the Sun. I wasn’t too thrilled with the prospects of climbing this precipice but I didn’t care for the idea of Susanne going solo, either. Ignoring my fear of heights I followed her up the stone crags. In hindsight I admit it was a thrill to stand on the edge of a cliff with nothing protecting me but a two foot-wide, 500 year old stone path; I just won’t go looking for this sort of adventure on a daily basis.
The sun began to sink behind the mountainside as we returned to the bus and continued to the village of Chinchero, high atop the valley at 4000m. The temperature had dropped at least 30 degrees; Susanne and I donned our layers of sweatshirts and jackets before visiting Chinchero’s modest, yet popular Quechua market. The market was much smaller than Pisac’s, spread generously across Chinchero’s Plaza de Armas, but it was also less touristed; apparently our group had the market to ourselves. With the sky darkening further the market was obviously winding down for the evening, though the locals seemed happy to see us nonetheless. I found one campesina selling alpaca scarves. I was getting chilly at this point so I decided to shop. I picked up a grey scarf for which she requested six soles, around two dollars. Ever eager to haggle, I offered two soles. The campesina laughed. We spent a minute or two haggling back and forth, both of us using broken Spanish. Eventually I convinced her to settle for three and a half soles, about $1.15. We both seemed pleased with the outcome.
After visiting a small, dark chapel perched above the plaza Susanne and I rejoined our group on the bus before beginning the 45-minute drive to Cusco. At first I was a little weary at the thought of our bus careening down hairpin turns in the Andean darkness – “Busloads in India are killed this way,” Susanne joked – but I was comforted by the appearance of stars high in the eastern sky. As I spotted three, then five, then a dozen stars glittering over the mountains I came to the modestly profound realization that this was the first time I had ever seen these particular stars. As a kid I used to love the night skies. I would pour over my astronomer’s star charts before dragging my telescope outside in the wee hours of the morning, marveling at the crisp Florida sky. I knew exactly what stars would rise and fall depending on the time of year. But now I was in South America for the first time, eyeing stars for which I had no reference. I’d thought about this before coming to Peru but now it struck me world was so large there were entire constellations and galaxies I would never have had the pleasure of seeing without crossing thousands of miles first. I wondered where the Southern Cross was – my trip to South America wouldn’t be complete without spotting it at least once.
Back in Cusco Susanne and I sat inside a dark cafe with a roaring fireplace. Many local cafes are essentially all-day breakfast joints, but that suited us just fine. Our lousy lunch had killed our apetite for the day and we munched on a roll of mint Mentos (the freshmaker) throughout the afternoon, so we ordered a light meal of yogurt with fresh fruit and meusli. It was a refreshing way to wrap up what had been a hectic, yet fascinating day.
Monday, August 31 Sacsayhuaman: Flying Kites Along the Ramparts
Today we had a free day in Cusco. Our primary goal before departing tomorrow for Machu Picchu was to visit Sacsayhuaman, the magnificant Inca fortress high above the city. When the first Incas expanded Cusco they envisioned their capital being in the shape of a puma, the South American mountain lion they so revered. Cusco itself served as the puma’s body while the fortress of Sacsayhuaman formed the lion’s head, its neck a stone highway leading down to the center of town.
We ate breakfast at 7am inside a cafe along the northern side of the Plaza de Armas, just to the left of the cathedral. We had discovered the cafe the morning before; while its menu was basically the same as every other cafe on the plaza, this one opened early (7am instead of 8am) and piped in an assortment of classicl music while we ate. Susanne and I fortified ourselves with a hardy American breakfast of eggs and toast (well, at least I did – Susanne was more healthful with her yogurt con meusli). We’d need the calories, though; Sacsayhuaman lies several hundred meters above Cusco, and the hour-long ascent has demoralized many an unprepared (and unacclimated) traveler. We were determined to take our time no matter how long the ascent. Both Susanne and I very much wanted to enjoy Sacsayhuaman; if we got to the top in record time, nausea and hyperventilation would surely ruin any chance of adventure and fun.
After breakfast we walked northeast from the Plaza de Armas along Celle Suecia. The cobblestone road rose slowly – certainly less steep than your average San Francisco hill – yet we could already feel the effects of the altitude. About five minutes into the walk we reached a pedestrian stairway known as Calle Rebalosa. We had to pause every 20 steps or so in order to catch our breath but the picturesque views down the stairs and across the hillside gave us ample excuses to pause. Rebalosa terminated at the Iglesia de San Cristobal, a pretty church with a vast courtyard. Yesterday we had driven by the church on our way to the sacred valley and there had been sereral Quechua campesinas posing with their llamas for photographs. Today the plaza was deserted save a young boy playing a solitary game of soccer with an empty plastic water bottle.
A paved road stretched up the hill counter-clockwise until we reached the entryway to the Sacsayhuaman ruins. A tourist policeman greeted us with a subdued “buenos dias” as he punched a hole in our Cusco tourist tickets. We now had a steep 20-minute climb up the old Inca road (the puma’s neck) leading to the fortress itself. In its heyday the road must have been a masterpiece of Quechua engineering; today it’s a jumbled mess of insurance- premium-rising rubble. An elderly campesina in her traditional long skirt, sweater and bowler hat entered the site about the same time we did. She soon passed us as Susanne and I tripped over the stone pathway with heavy breaths. Her strong longs were designed for climbs like this, I thought as she took each step, taking her time while maintaining a determined pace. Occasionally we caught up with her but we’d always fall behind as we stopped to catch our breath. Eventually the campesina veered right towards an unpaved rocky path with an even steeper incline – vaya con dios. Soon we reached a classic Inca wall extending far along our left – this must be the edge of Sacsayhuaman. Moments later three Quechua kids appeared out of nowhere with their llamas, each animal decorated with coloful pierced earrings. We knew they wanted us to photograph them for money so we gladly jumped at the opportunity. Susanne snapped away as I paid them 50 centavos each.
After saying goodbye to the kids and their llamas we entered the main fortification of Sacsayhuaman. Even though the Spanish dismantled the majority of the fort in order to use the stones for new construction in town, the remains of Sacsayhuaman are still a magnificent testiment to Inca engineering and ingenuity. The fortress is comprised of three tiers of 22 zigzagging ramparts. Strategically it’s an excellent defensive design, taking advantage of the pointed ramparts in the same way that their European counterparts used star-shaped forts to repel cannon fire. It’s hard to comprehend what Sacsayhuaman would have looked like in its prime 500 years ago: three great towers once stood over the 22 ramparts while as many as 5000 Quechua warriors called the citadel home.
We climbed to the top of the fortress and discovered a stupendous view of our valley around us. To our north lie Sacsayhuaman’s grassy plaza; beyond that stood Rodadero, a giant rock hill with numerous stairwells and benched carved into the rock. Off to the northeast I could see another hill with a giant statue of Jesus. And below to the east and southeast, Cusco appeared as a vast, quiet expanse of Spanish architecture as far as the eye could see. Climbing the hill just behind Sacsayhuaman we found an even grander view. A woman sat in the grass sketching the scene below while a young cyclist, probably exhausted from conquering the mountain, contemplated the vista in silent solitude.
Susanne and I scurried down the hill back into the fortress, making our way to the first tier of ramparts. The walls of the lowest tier were made out of gargantuan granite stones, many weighing well over 100 tons, interlocked with such precision it almost appeared as if a giant, flat wall had lines carved into it to create the illusion of individual blocks fitted together. I didn’t realize how massive they were until Susanne had me pose leaning against a wall. I walked towards a stone shaped like the state of Utah. As I got closer and closer the giant block seemed to grow as if it really were the size of Utah, towering well above my head. And all of this was somehow built without the aid of modern machinery. Incredible.
I could feel the sun bear down on the back of my neck as we crossed the grassy field to Rodadero hill. Somehow I had neglected to put sunscreen there this morning and I was now paying the price of it. A group of schoolchildren, perhaps in the 1st or 2nd grade, were picnicking at the base of Rodadero with their teachers. Each student had a kite kit with them. The grassy plaza below Sacsayhuaman seemed like a great place to fly a kite – I hoped the winds would be in their favor.
The main reason to climb Rodadero is to take advantage of its strategic view of the 22 ramparts. The rock is smooth and rounded so it’s difficult to climb the hill but the view still makes it worthwhile. Four British tourists were sitting in the Inca’s Throne, a large stone bench carved into the hillside. After a while we got our chance to occupy the this popular spot. As we settled into our stone throne we could see that the young students had finished their picnic and were now starting to fly their kites. Most of the youngsters could only get their kites a few feet off the ground but their teachers proudly applauded each attempt. A little further up the hill a young father was teaching his son how to fly a kite as well. It seemed so ironic, yet so marvelous, that a place once heralded for its strategic capabilities was now the best place in the valley for a child to fly a kite. I bet neither the Inca nor Pizarro ever fathomed such an end result for this sacred warrior place.
By the time we climbed down from Sacsayhuaman it was mid- afternoon. Susanne and I wanted to stop by the tour agency that had planned our Sacred Valley trip to see what arrangements had been made for our excursion to Machu Picchu. Luis Guillen, the man who had helped us previously, wasn’t around so they suggested we come back in 20 minutes or so. Susanne and I decided to walk to the Iglesia Santo Domingo, a Dominican church built over the Incan temple of Coricancha. In its time Coricancha was one of the greatest temples of the Tawantinsuyu empire. Coricancha, Quechua for Golden Courtyard, proved a fitting name for this place since its outer walls were covered with a staggering 700 sheets of gold, each weighing in excess of four pounds. Sadly, the Spanish melted down every ounce of gold in a matter of weeks after capturing the city. None of the riches of Coricancha survived the conquest. Francisco Pizarro’s brother Juan was given the temple as his private estate but he soon died in the battle of Sacsayhuaman in 1536. Juan’s will stipulated that the temple be given to the Dominicans, and they’ve occupied it ever since in the form of Iglesia Santa Domingo. The outside of Coricancha/Domingo is a testiment to the history of Cusco. The lowest level of the structure represents architecture of the early Inca period. The middle layer is a grand example of classic Inca architecture at its peak. The top layer is, of course, Spanish colonial. Just as layers of earth can represent epochs of time, the layers of Coricancha tell a story of imperial birth, growth and collapse.
Coricancha lies at the end of Calle Loreto, not far from our hotel. The last time we walked down this long street of Inca stone, the skies opened and poured rain on us. Today seemed to be no exception: as we penetrated further down towards the church the skies clouded over. By the time we reached the ancient temple a forboding blue- black cloud blotted out the sun. Today would not be a day to fully appreciate Coricancha. We contemplated its exterior layers of Inca and Spanish architecture for several minutes before retreated back down Loreto. Like clockwork, the closer we returned to our familiar surroundings at the Plaza de Armas, the sooner the the skies cleared, return the sun to dominate above us.
Having returned to the plaza we figured it was as good a time as any to visit Cusco’s cathedral. It’s hard to give an impression of the cathedral’s interior except to say one thing: darkness. As far as cathedrals go, this one was unusual for its utter lack of windows, be they stained glass or otherwise. The darkness made it very difficult to appreciate what was probably a beautiful church. The Quechua artisans of Cusco had little to go on when the Spanish set them out to paint Catholic churches; apart from a resident Van Dyke and some Spanish renaissance paintings the local artesenas had never seen European religious art before. This ignorance led to the evolution of a unique style of painting: the Cusqueno school. Cusco cathedral is perhaps the world’s best collection of Cusqueno religious art, but sadly the interior of the church was so dark I found it difficult to apperciate it. Perhaps one day I’ll return on a major holiday when the entire cathedral is awash with the flicker of candles. That might make all the difference.
After sending emails to our families from a local Internet cafe we returned to the tour agency to find Luis. Alas, he still wasn’t there; his assistant said he was stuck at the airport. Another agent, Carlos Quispe, promised us that Luis would pick us up at 5:45am the next morning to catch the 6:30am tourist train to Machu Picchu. Luis would have our tickets and vouchers to visit the ruins and to stay at a hotel in Aguas Calientes, a small jungle village 1500 feet below the ruins. I didn’t like the idea of not having our tickets until the morning of our departure but I realized that’s the way the game was played here in Cusco. Tour operators control the whole Machu Picchu tourist trade; it’s extremely inconvenient to put together your own plans without their help. A case in point: in early August Susanne had telephoned a popular hotel in Aguas Calientes affectionately known as Gringo Bill’s in order to make a reservation for our stay. Today we called them to reconfirm but they changed their tune and now insisted we go to a specific tour operator in Cusco and purchase hotel vouchers from them. Of course, this operator wasn’t the same agency we had been dealing with, and our guys could only get us the vouchers at an inflated rate. To make matters worse, each time we ran by the other tour agency it was closed, a large padlock latched defiantly to the door. Eventually we concluded that Gringo Bill’s must now be managed by jerks, so we grugingly accepted a hotel voucher from our agents. The hotel, La Cabana, received grim reviews from Lonely Planet – “stark” and “basic” comes to mind. Carlos promised us that the hotel was now much nicer and swore we would have a private bath with hot water. We’d just have to see about that.
After finally settling our hotel situation I was in bad need of a beer. We visited the Cross Keys Pub, a quasi-British hangout on the southern end of the plaza. Susanne started with a Coke while I tried the local cerveza, Cusqueno. I sat on the balcony writing in my journal until it became too chilly to sit outside. Susanne had resettled inside the pub next to a roaring fireplace. We were in no rush to leave so I ordered a coffee while Susanne snacked on a small plate of cookies.?The remainder of the afternoon passed by as I continued in my journal, hoping to get caught up with the day’s events.
Around 6pm we decided to get an early dinner at the Inka Grill. The restaurant appeared to be a recently refurbished place that played up a nouveau cuisine atmosphere, even though the menu didn’t stray far from standard Cusco fare. Susanne and I both ordered a bowl of quinoa soup as well as lomo saltado (sort of a beef teriyaki with fries) to split. We sipped our mate de coca as the bartender channel surfed on the resident TV: Beastie Boys on MTV (“Intergalactic”), local soap operas, the evening news. He eventually settled on the Discovery Channel, which turned out to be showing a thorough summary of our last two years of travel. As a program featuring Bangkok’s Wat Po wrapped up, we were then treated to the highlights of India, including Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and the majestic palace of Fatehpur Sikri. I’ve rarely seen any of these monuments on TV in the US before so it was a little odd to catch them while in South America. The quinoa soup was really a fish soup – trout, I think – with only hints of quinoa sunk to the bottom of the bowl. Nonetheless it was quite delicious. Our lomo saltado soon arrived and we ravenously devoured it. Not long after finishing dinner, as I paid the bill, I felt a disconcerting rumble in my intestines. I took this as fair warning for possible trouble over the coming days.
Along the perimeter of the plaza we stumbled upon the evening market, a nightly cavalcade of Quechua art, trinkets, candies, wool goods, and pratically anything else a Gringo might desire while passing through Cusco. I considered buying an alpaca sweater, for the sweatshirt I had packed for the trip had proven to be poor protection against the chilly Andean night. Most of the market stalls had similar sweaters, each with a checkered pattern around the neck hole. I didn’t really care for the style so I ducked into a shop to check out its selection. I soon found a nice sweater Susanne and I both liked, though it appeared to be too small for my build. Susanne encouraged me to try it on anyway; to my surprise, the sweater fit perfectly. I asked the shop owner how much she wanted for it. “Cinquenta y neuve soles,” she replied, just under 20 dollars. Inwardly I was ready to buy it, but ever the negotiator, I removed the sweater and said, “Cinquenta y neueve? Mas barato. Too expensive.” Wanting to recover the sale the owner grabbed a similar garment and said, “Treinta soles – cinquenta perciento alpaca.” Fifty percent alpaca wool for 30 soles, but what was the other half made out of? “Acrylic,” she replied. “Forget it,” I shook my head. “Ok, senor,” she said. “How much, mister?” “35 soles,” I answered. The woman began to spout something in Spanish I could only imagine meant “But sir, even the wool and workmanship alone are worth 40 soles. How can I stay in business for 35 soles?” I knew I was lowballing, but it got the reaction I wanted. “Okay,” I said. “45 soles.” “No, 50 soles,” she replied. Sole by sole, I went up as she went down. Finally we both settled on 48 soles, about $16, for the 100% alpaca sweater. I was quite happy with the purchase.
My happiness soon faded as I attempted to go to sleep. My stomach growled with displeasure from eating the lomo saltado. What was I thinking? I don’t even eat red meat in the States. Worse still, the coffee and Cusqueno I had guzzled at the Cross Keys Pub earlier that afternoon had left me simultaneously feeling wired and dehydrated. My dehydration was probably exacerbated by the Diamox, which acts as a diuretic in its own right. I spent the entire night tossing and turning, my pulse racing as fast as my mind was from one useless thought to another.
The last time I checked the clock it was 3am; I have to get up at 4:45am to catch the train to Aguas Calientes and begin three potentially grueling days at Machu Picchu. I hope I can get at least an hour of sleep tonight.