After our harried departure from Lima, landed and were collected by our local fixer, Alejandro, and our driver Carlos. They help us load our luggage into a black Hyundai van, and we leave the small airport for the city of Cusco.
Cusco sits in a valley among the Andes mountains. The earth is red clay, just like where I grew up, in North Carolina. Most of the low buildings are brick. Peru gets earthquakes so buildings cling close to the earth. Our van bombs through traffic to the historic, ancient, and trendy neighborhood of San Blas. Cars barely fit down the tiny Incan streets. Sidewalks are barely a foot wide. Some intersections require a 3-point turn in order to hang a left. Our hotel up one of these tiny streets. Like everything here, our hotel is hidden behind a thick wall with a small door. This opens into a small chamber, which opens onto a courtyard. The Spanish-Colonial architecture is built atop Incan foundations, and that’s probably the reason it survived many earthquakes over the years.
Cusco sits some 11,000 feet above sea-level. Our travel agency has admonished us not to do anything to strenuous today. Walking from the van to our hotel room has us winded. We started taking altitude sickness medication some 24 hours earlier. The medication is weird and makes unexpected parts of your body tingle as if they had fallen asleep. Like your face. High altitudes affect people very differently. Some feel basically nothing but a little winded. I feel like I’m breathing sand. Everything is difficult.
After checking in and freshening up from our flight, our first job is to find lunch. There is a profoundly excellent vegan restaurant on the very same tiny street as our hotel, so we carefully walk downhill on the tiny 18-inch sidewalks, dodging cars, wheezing, to find lunch. The restaurant Green Point is tucked behind a door, down a corridor, and up some stairs, and then, somehow, an open terrace. The architecture here makes no spatial sense, doors at street level are suddenly 3 stories above ground, but also downstairs. The hills, the walls, and the tight spaces conspire to make things confusing. Reading a floor plan of the building would require VR goggles.
Like everywhere in Peru, the portions at Green Point are absurdly huge. It’s a lesson we never learn. Our starter and two mains is enough to feed 7 people. We have a little starter of a hummus like salsa of chickpeas with bread. I get a “ceviche” starter made with all manner of veggies, paired with thin slices of sweet potato. My main is two huge skewers of grilled oyster mushrooms atop roasted corn, potatoes, and a stuffed chili.
Many foods served in Cusco are served with a mild yellow chile salsa. It’s slightly fruity, earthy, rich, and fantastic on potatoes.
We are stuffed and sleepy and we can’t breathe at this elevation. The hotel is uphill from here, and we feel every single step.
We settle in for a nap. I wake up hungry. She wakes up sick. Traveller’s belly has caught up with us. It will be my turn tomorrow. We lay low in the hotel until dinner time. She takes all the meds and rests. I fluff around on my iPad. We are following our travel agents instructions after all. Later I venture back down the hill to find us something mild to eat. My strength is returning. The air is beginning to feel like it air again, only 60% sand. I find a cute little pizza place. My terrible Spanish is enough to order a margarita pizza to go. I note the menu offers vegan cheese and gluten fee crust. Is Cusco the Portland of Lima?
We have some of our pizza for dinner. Her appetite is nil. I swipe a beer from the mini-bar. We wrap up the leftovers and tuck into the fridge, behind the sodas and beers. I spend a little time freaking out about whether the phone chargers we’ve been using our whole trip. (They were fine)
By morning, Mrs. Barrett is well enough to adventure. Our guide, Juan, meets us at the hotel with a driver Franco. Juan introduced our driver as Chaleco and then have a good laugh at our expense. Apparently chaleco is slang for “bad driver” in Peru. His actual name is Franco. (When I got home and looked up chaleco it seems to mean vest so perhaps the joke is on us twice).
Franco threads the van through the tiny streets of Cusco, northwest and of town to visit Sacsayhuamán (pronounced like sax-y-hwa-man or even sexy woman).
This sexy woman is a fortified citadel atop a hill overlooking downtown Cusco. Since we were feeling puny and gasping for air, we strolled along the base of the three, massive stone walls which surround the terraced structure overlooking the city. The walls are enormous, some 20 feet high and made of immense blocks of stone.
Stones are cut in this intricate, organic, pattern with interlocking curved corners. The effect reminds me of corn kernels tightly packed together.
The joints seem impossible. So tight a credit card can’t slide between. There is no mortar between these stones.
Much of the stone was pilfered by the Spanish during their invasion and used to build much of old Cusco below. The stones left behind were too large for the invaders to move.
Our next stop is Quenko, a holy place or huaca, devoted to Patchamama, the Earth Mother goddess of Andean and Incan belief. Quenko is hewn from natural rock formations, with cracks, crevices, caves, and tunnels. To commune with Patchamama, you must enter the earth. Through out the huaca there are small offerings of coca leaves. This is an active temple, still used by farmers. Much of the Andean faith survived Spanish conquest, practiced privately at home, away from the murderous, oppressive scolds at the cathedral in Cusco.
Coca leaves offered to Patachamama
Inside one of the little caves you can see a sort of altar sculpted from the rock with three small steps leading up to a small platform. Juan explains that you will often see this altar scattered with offerings from the local farmers.
On our way back into town, we stopped at a marketplace. Juan showed us around and told us about the challenges tourism brings to a place like this. The market supports local farmers and communities with produce, fruit, meat, as well as prepared meals. We see farmers seated at tables enjoying a hearty chicken soup at 10:30am. They’ve been working since sun-up so it’s time for lunch. Juan tells us about how folks usually build relationships with two or three vendors, becoming regulars. As tourism has grown in Cusco, the market is transforming to sell more things for tourists. Alpaca textiles and other tchotchkes are pushing out traditional market fare. It’s more profitable but the cost to the community is dear.
We leave the market and make our way to the Convent of Santo Domingo. We are not here to the convent itself, but rather Intiwasi , also called Coricancha, this temple to Inti, the Incan god of the sun.
On our way to the temple we come across dancers performing traditional Mexican dance. Mexican music, food, and culture is imported here much like it is in the US.
Outside of the convent we see traditional Peruvian dancers as well, wearing tall hats and gesturing rhythmically with handkerchiefs.
This temple marks the (mythic) location where Cusco was founded. The temple is said to have once been covered in gold. When Spanish conquerers came, the gold was stolen and the temple mostly destroyed. The Incan stone work became the foundation for the convent. The remaining in-tact rooms create a cloister along one corridor. The temple remains are a museum within a museum. I imagine the bureaucracy governing this state archeological site within an active Catholic Church must be dizzying
The precision on these stone blocks is uncanny. Again stones cut precisely with no mortar, nothing wobbly, perfectly level. Throughout Cusco Incan foundations were repurposed for Spanish buildings. Once you are shown, you begin to see it everywhere. It makes for some interesting integration into the modern city.
Incan foundation with Spanish architecture above. The slanted walls are characteristic of Incan buildings and protect against earthquakes.
After a day of site-seeing we return to the hotel to find our laundry has returned pressed and folded. With Amazon sweat and grime rinsed from my shirts, I feel fresh and new. We polish off our leftover pizza and head out to explore on our own.
Just down the the slanted road from our hotel is a little pie shop with a bawdy name. We stop for coffee and end up chatting with the owner. He’s a Peruvian-Ameican who moved to Cusco to reconnect with family and ended up stating a business.
We make our way back to the main plaza and visit a museum full of pre-Columbian artifacts, a community art museum, stumble into a body-building competition next door to the art museum, and then stumble across a what appears to be photoshoot for a quinceañera on the steps of the old cathedral.
Night falls and we head back out to the plaza for dinner at Chincha, an absolutely amazing restaurant blending Peruvian and world cuisine.
The restaurant is upstairs, overlooking a smaller plaza, one block from the main plaza. Fortunately we have reservations. Many folks are sitting around the small waiting ara with hopeful looks.
We’re both feeling wobbly, but we’re going to rally and try to enjoy the food. She orders a sweet potato stuffed pasta dish. I order a relatively simple dish of grilled trout with spinach and potatoes. The trout is crispy outside and melts in your mouth. For dessert we split a custard made with the local fruit lúcuma.
Back at the hotel we choke down medicines for traveler’s tummy and sleep. Tomorrow we head northwest to Chinchero, Moray, and Ollantaytambo.