Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Exploring Peru - Series Kickoff & Cusco

When most people think of Peru, majestic and misty visions of the "lost Inca city" of Machu Picchu come to mind. And sure, if you were paying attention in high school when you were forced to read Moby Dick, you would remember the artfully crafted passage referring to the typically gray/white pallor of fog and clouds that hover over and inundate the coastal capital city of Lima. And OK, if you think for a minute you realize that virtually all nations south of the United States speak Spanish, so you might deduce that the Spanish must have arrived in Peru at some point in history.

But that's about it. End of common American knowledge about Peru.

Well, Diane and I knew a few more things about that country that tipped the balance in its favor as our big travel destination for 2012. For example, neither of us had been anywhere in the Americas south of Costa Rica, so Peru offered a first foray into South America. That was an enticing prospect, and we'd known others who had been there and liked it. We also knew that the Andes Mountains are among the world's tallest and most spectacular landscapes. And, we knew that hiking through those mountains would offer us not only a visual feast, but also a bracing physical challenge that would focus our minds and clear our stresses. All things we were up for and enjoy. And finally, we knew that one could do all that in a small tour group via the excellent REI Adventures.

We had to get some of that! And of course visit Machu Picchu. So, we booked our trip and set off last month for an adventure of a lifetime.

For those interested, I will be writing about some of the highlights and anecdotes from our journey over the coming weeks under the series title of "Exploring Peru." Just check back to this blog a few times this fall to read new chapters. First up is a bit on how we traveled to Peru and our initial visit to the city of Cusco.

Also, while I have posted some of my pictures directly in this piece, you can see more that go along with this post on my Flickr Photostream HERE. I will add more pictures as I add more reports. Another reason to check back!


Travel Trevails from the Get-Go
Getting to Peru proved to be a bit of a hassle. No, not because it's difficult to book flights, but because of the airlines themselves on the day of travel. Let me explain. We arrived at SeaTac airport on time - or so we believed - and attempted to check in at the Delta desk for our flights to Atlanta, then on to Lima. The kiosk I was using said I could not check in and to talk with an attendant. I did and she asked what flight I was on...and I said, "The 8:10 a.m. flight to Atlanta." She said, "Oh, that's not our flight, it's code share with Alaska...go down there." We did, but time was ticking away and the line at Alaska was really long and REALLY slow.

Eventually, I realized we were going to miss our flight if we stayed in the Alaska line, so I asked for help from a manager who was walking by. He took our passports and looked into it. He came back and said that no, we were not on an Alaska flight and that we really were on Delta...and the kicker...that the flight had been changed to 7:30 a.m. Given that it was about 7 a.m. already, we knew our goose was cooked.

We hustled back to Delta and to make a long story short, they initially said "too bad, you'll have to re-book for tomorrow," but after I reminded them of how they sent us to Alaska Airlines...they swung into action to see if they could get us to Lima some other way so we could arrive on time for the start of our tour. 
At this point, I'd just like to say, "UGGGGGGGGGGGGG!" At least that (or a more profane version of it) was what I was thinking at that point on that morning. But, it turned out OK as the lady behind the desk did get us on a series of American Airlines flights (Seattle to Dallas, Dallas to Miami, and then Miami to Lima) that would ensure we could catch our plane from Lima to Cusco and the start of our trip as planned. More rushed, more exhausted...but there on time.

Except for the super long day of travel and a few wee hours in the Lima airport Saturday morning, everything else went fine from there.

Instant Altitude
We live in Seattle. That is at sea level. So is Lima - the capital of Peru and our point of entry to the country. Cusco, on the other hand, is at 11,200 feet above sea level, and it only takes an hour to fly there from Lima. So, when we went there by air, we experienced a quick altitude gain and it was obvious as soon as we disembarked from our airplane.

Cusco, Peru
Now, we didn't have any dramatic problems, but for sure we could tell the air was thinner. Any slight uphill incline elicited heavier breathing, we both had very mild (but present) headaches and we had a bit of tingling in the legs. And the sun seemed unduly harsh on the skin. All of these are symptoms of altitude on someone not acclimated. We agreed that while it was a bit uncomfortable, if this was the worst of it we'd be fine. And, you know what? That's pretty much how it played out. We spent the next couple days getting used to the altitude and drinking a lot of water...and all was good. By the way, drinking a lot of water is the key to altitude acclimation. The thin, dry air just sucks you dry so you gotta stay hydrated.

Seeing the Town & Starting the Tour
Arriving by transport to our hotel at about 9 a.m., we met one of our fellow tour mates, Josh, but were also told that we couldn't check in until 12 p.m. So, we took our sleep deprived and altitude challenged bodies on a stroll around the old part of Cusco in search of some views, some food and, well, just a place to sit and rest! We quickly learned that virtually no restaurants in Cusco is open for lunch until 12 p.m. at the earliest. We were forced into a 24 hour pub along the Plaza de Armas where we ordered omelets, lots of water and...eventually...some local beer.

Yes, I know. People say you shouldn't drink alcohol at altitude or when you're trying to acclimate. But you know what? Screw it. We did anyway. It was sunny, we had a nice view of the plaza and all the colorful people and activity going on there...it just made sense. And it tasted great! Cusquena beer ladies and gentlemen. That's the stuff.

Woman selling tamales
While sitting in our second story pub perch, we noticed a woman roll up and establish a table nearby on the street. Out of nowhere, a crowd of locals and tourists appeared and started buying and eating whatever she was selling. Diane said, "You should go down there and get us some of whatever that is." I was tired and put up a little resistance, and she just repeated her opinion...to which I got up and went down there. I'm glad I did because what the woman was selling hot, fresh tamales. You could either get sweet or savory. "Con azucar?" "Si!"I got to sweet ones and brought them back for us to eat in the pub. Wow! What a sugary treat.

Soon after, we worked our way back the hotel and checked into our quiet room. With our tour starting at 1 p.m., we had a choice to make...go on the tour or crash in bed. Diane opted to stay in the room and I decided to link up with the group and participate in the tour of Cusco town.

Temple of the Sun detail
After meeting our guide Miguel and and the rest of the group, we headed out for a three-stop tour of  the city. First up was the former site of the Inca Temple of the Sun. This is right in the old part of town, and as you might expect in an area conquered by the Spanish...they stripped it of any and all gold right away and then, of course, built a church over the top of it. Today, you actually enter a church and courtyard, but then inside there are sections of the temple still present. This site, therefore, served as a good jumping off place for the tour for Miguel to explain not only Inca culture, architecture and religion, but also the Spanish conquest. (Side note: I read the excellent "The Last Days of the Incas" before our trip and I have to say it was fascinating. I'd recommend it to anyone, whether or not you ever go to Peru...it's just an engrossing and compelling story).

Ruins of Sachsayhuman fortress

Our next stop took us just outside of town to a ridge overlooking the city. Here sits the ruins of a massive Inca fortress built for the defense of Cusco well before they knew anything about the Spanish. Named Sachsayhuman, the fort actually did not prevent the Spanish from taking over the city in the early 1500s. Rather, at the time, the Inca king invited them in with the hope that by acquiescing to the Spanish desire for gold, they would either leave the Inca kingdom be or - better yet - go home. Oh how tragically wrong they were! The fort did come into play later once the Incas figured out they were being grossly exploited, disrespected, abused and murdered. They massed a great army outside of Cusco and inhabited the fortress. From there they rained fire bombs down on the Spanish in the town. They almost succeeded in driving them out. Standing on the fort and looking down on the city, you can see how this might have worked.

Ultimately, however, the Spanish were desperate enough to mount attacks up from the city on the fortress and were able to overtake it with their superior weapons - horses, steel armor, swords, lances and rudimentary muskets. Going forward, the huge stones of the fortress were dissembled by the Spanish for us in building structures in Cusco. This is why today the fort is just a ruins rather than standing tall as it did all those centuries ago.

We took in the view from the top of the fortress, then visited another site nearby where Inca shamans used to sacrifice llamas and then we returned to the city for a look inside the huge Cathedral.

Cusco Cathedral
Diane and I have been to Europe many times and, to a large degree, we're "Cathedraled out." You know what I mean...how many churches can a person possibly take in? Most all of them look the same and feature similar art - Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Saints, Jesus again, Mary, Mary, Mary and so forth. It's just a matter of which architectural style they are built in and if they happen to have any out of the ordinary artwork.

In the case of the Cusco Cathedral, it's the later that is of interest because you see in many of the pieces a blending of traditional Catholic themes along with local Inca ideas. This is for two reasons: 1) the Spanish wanted to co-opt the Incas religion to trick them - or at least make it more palatable - to convert to Catholicism, and 2) the Incas wanted to retain elements of their beliefs while avoiding imprisonment or execution by converting to Catholicism. For example, the Incas worshiped the mountains and the sun. Therefore, in the Cusco Cathedral you see paintings or sculptures of Mary wearing a dress that lo and behold looks a lot like the silhouette of a mountain. You also see her wearing a crown that looks a lot like the sun. Another example is in the locally created Last Supper painting that hangs near the main alter. The featured dish in the middle of the table is the distinctly Peruvian fare of guinea pig ("cuy" in their language).

At this point, my exhaustion caught up with me and I probably resembled a zombie more than a happy tourist. Somehow I made it back to the hotel when we finished at the church. There I happily jumped into bed and rested for a couple hours until we hit the streets for dinner.

Dinner and Done
Our final act on our first day in Peru was to head out with two of our tour mates for dinner at a great restaurant called Ciccolina's in the old quarter of Cusco. After or pub fare at lunch, we were ready to delve into something a bit more refined and this place did not disappoint. Most of us went "all in" on Peruvian style food. We got "causas" which are short, soft potato pillars usually with something inside them or on top of them. Their construction varies based on the restaurant you order them at. In this case, Ciccolina's causas are served...with guinea pig on top. You wouldn't have known it by looking as it was just a little strip of meat on top of the potatoes, but yep...guinea pig. The three guys in the group ordered alpaca, which tasted to me like a combination of beef and pork. Somewhere in the middle. But good as prepared. And we had a nice Peruvian wine to go with it all. Again, don't believe the hype on not drinking at altitude. Don't be stupid and go overboard, but please...enjoy yourself.

With a nice walk back to the hotel, thus ended our first day in Peru. We would be returning to Cusco later in our trip, with more adventures to come - shopping, eating, drinking and more sight seeing among them. But until then, questioned materialized. Would we like the rest of our tour group? Would we get altitude sickness later at even greater heights? How would the weather be? Would we get "gut sick" due to eating or drinking something our American systems could not handle? How would the trekking be? What would be be seeing?

I'll answer these and talk about our further exploration of Peru starting in my next post - which will be about the hiking we did in the Andes Mountains. And yes, I'll revisit Cusco to detail our second stint there following all the hiking.

Check back in a week or so for the next post, updated pictures on my Flickr Photostream set, and then come back again later for more installments.

NOTE: All pictures in this post were taken by Marc Osborn and are not authorized for any use by any party without written permission by Marc Osborn.

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