Friday, November 1, 2013

Cusco, Throwback to the Inca Empire

Happily, Cusco is absolutely lovely.  It was the capital of the Inca Empire and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's the perfect mix of bars and restaurants catering to tourists.  There is a bagel cafe just off the main plaza that serves proper Jewish bagels with your choice of cream cheese, avocado, and/or various types of salad.  Across the center of town is the San Pedro market, where you can find all sorts of woolen items for cheap, as well as baked goods, dried fruit, horrible Andean cheese (it's practically impossible to find good cheese down here... all they have is this white, crumbly, mildly salty stuff similar to Colombia's campesino cheese,) pasta, coca leaves, cow entrails, disembodies donkey faces, frogs' legs... virtually anything you can think of eating.  And aside from all that, the buildings are beautiful - churches and museums and statues all over the place, hiding around every corner.

People from Cusco are also all incredibly friendly.  Lisa, Darragh, and I have been here at least ten days now and nobody has tried to rip us off or been unnecessarily nasty to us.  In fact, people seem to be thrilled to say hello to tourists.  While going on a nature walk with a shaman in the Inca archaeological site outside the city, Saksaywaman, I wandered off by myself and happened upon two farmers carrying bundles of sticks.  They were very nice, even though I may have been technically trespassing, and eager to hear about where I was from and where I was going.  Later, when we stopped for lunch of bananas and pepinos (these shamans have hardcore dietary restrictions...) at a one-room house built of adobe bricks and corrugated tin where a little old couple lived, they lamented that they hadn't had notice that we were coming, or they would have cooked us a lunch.  They were adorable, and we left them the rest of our bags of fruit before heading off.

A gang of nine of us recently took a three-day trip to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town set up as a springboard to Machu Picchu.  To quote the venerable Obi-Wan Kenobi, "You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."  (Unless, of course, you go to Máncora.)  The people, knowing that anybody who wants to visit Machu Picchu has to spend at least one night in Aguas Calientes, use that as an excuse to suck as much money out of tourists as they can.  Everywhere we went we met with secret, sneaky "local tax" which is basically restaurants adding an extra 20% onto your bill without telling you.  Philip, one of our traveling crew, accidentally left his camera at a restaurant and had to use both bribes and threats of calling the police before the proprietor would give it back to him.  There are other crummy things I can say about Aguas Calientes, but I would rather talk about how wonderful Machu Picchu was.

An old Inca town way up high in the mountains, it was the only place never discovered by the Spanish conquistadores, meaning it was discovered in the 19th century almost entirely as it had existed centuries earlier, except that all the thatched roofs were gone.  So the layout of the town was perfectly preserved, with its temples and plazas and irrigation ducts and houses, and we just spent all day exploring the ruins and climbing up and down the walls.  We hiked up to the Sun Gate, which gave us the perfect view of the village just as the sun hit it from the west and made the entire mountainside light up.  It was beautiful and tranquil, and the whole day was an exhausting hike but well worth it.

Now I'm back in Cusco for two weeks while the guys have gone off to Copacabana in Bolivia, to return on my birthday which is coming up!  So I have two weeks to write and work and explore Cusco, which I am looking forward to hugely aside from the fact that it's cold and rainy nearly all of the time.  Rainy season, sigh... and here I thought I'd timed my trip so perfectly to coincide with summer.

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