July 27-28 (Cusco)
After spending two weeks volunteering and sightseeing in Ecuador, I hopped on a plane and headed further south to Peru. From this point on during my South American excursion, I traveled on my own. My destination: Cusco–the former capital of the Inca Empire. Like Quito, Cusco is settled in a valley high up in the Andes toward the southern end of the country. In fact, it’s situated at a higher elevation than Quito, just around 11,000 feet.
Peru is Ecuador’s southern next-door-neighbor and it didn’t take very long to get to there; maybe only three hours flying time. I had a short layover in the capital city, Lima, which was on the coast and under heavy fog. For most of the trip however, the skies were clear and I had a splendid view of the mountains all the way to Cusco.
As I exited the aircraft, I already had a good feeling that I was going to really like Peru. It was a gorgeous day out with temps in the 70s and I was surrounded by mountains (kind of like home on a nice summer afternoon!). It was beautiful. Thankfully, I was already acclimated to the high altitude after spending a few days in Quito and felt pretty good. After grabbing my bag and exchanging my US dollars for Peruvian soles, I hailed a cab and headed off to my hostel. Cusco is much smaller than Quito, but still holds a population of over 300,000 people. From what I saw from the taxi, the roads were pretty well-maintained and most of the city looked fairly clean. I suppose they keep it that way to make it appealing to tourists, since this is a very touristy town. The ride was short and I soon checked in to my hostel. By the time I had everything settled in, it was probably around 4:00 pm–late in the afternoon in Peruvian time. Since it was winter in the southern hemisphere and with Cusco’s close proximity to the equator, the sun normally goes down between 5:30 and 6:00. With two hours of daylight left, I decided to take the 10 minute walk to the main plaza (La Plaza de Armas) to take some photos.
After wandering the streets for a bit, I decided to hit up one of the nearby restaurants to try a famous local dish–cuy del horno. Translated to English: baked guinea pig. Unlike the U.S., where the furry rodents are kept as pets, Peruvians (especially those who live in the mountains) raise them for lunch. 🙂 I actually tried cuy twice while I was in Peru. It has a very gamey taste to it (I would imagine it’s similar to rabbit or squirrel). The meat–tough, greasy, and fatty. It took quite a bit of work to get a descent meal out of it. Most of my time was spent picking out all the small bones from the meat while the severed head stared blankly back at me (which I didn’t have the stomach to try). An interesting experience, but I don’t think I would eat it at a restaurant again.
It was dark out (6:30ish) by the time I finished dinner and I stopped by a small shop to buy some Inca Kola to wash it all down with on my way back to the hostel. Although it was dark and the streets looked somewhat sketchy, I don’t ever remember a moment in Cusco (or anywhere else in Peru for that matter) where I didn’t feel unsafe. Even at night, there are usually plenty of tourists out and about. Besides, like the people of Ecuador, Peruvians are very friendly (albeit a tad quieter). Once I got back to my room, I hit the sack pretty early and went to bed.
I slept in the next morning (felt so good!) and kind of took it easy for most of the morning. When I was ready, I set out to go to an orientation with the trekking company I would be hiking the Inca Trail with the following day. I went with Wayki Trek, one of the few local companies among the multitude of foreign-operated travel businesses that are based in Cusco. I met my guide, Edgar, and a couple from Vancouver, BC who were also coming along on the trek. Small world! I was surprised to see that only three people had signed up in our group on these dates. Typically, tour companies will only provide service when at least six people reserve dates to make the trek. Since it was end of June, I was expecting a larger group as it was the nicer time of year weather-wise with the tourist season in full swing. However, despite our small group, the trip was still good to go. Taking only three people has its costs and I thought it was very generous of Wayki to basically give us a private tour for the regular group price. Talk about customer service. 🙂 Over the course of the meeting, we introduced another and discussed the logistics of the trek over a cup of coca tea.
After the meeting, I wandered around town a bit more and eventually found myself at the main market. This one was much smaller than the Otavalo market in Ecuador, but was still a pretty descent size. In fact, I think I enjoyed this one a lot more–most of the merchandise seemed pretty authentic and there were still some pretty good deals all around. I picked up some things for the hike, including an awesome Peruvian wool hat for S/6.00 (a little over $2) and six pieces of flat bread for S/1.00 (which were super good!). I wish I took some pictures of the market to post on here, but I was honestly too preoccupied with browsing to pull the camera out. Afterwards, I wandered around the streets some more and took photos.
Before it got dark, I made my way back to the hostel to pack and get ready for the trek the next day. One of the people I met while staying there recommended a place to eat at the main plaza so I went there for dinner. The place was called Norton’s Pub and at 7:30 in the evening it was still pretty empty (I would imagine the larger crowd comes later in the evening). I felt kind of silly going into a bar and not getting any beer, but alcohol and altitude don’t go together very well so I opted for water and a hamburger. While I ate, I sat outside on the balcony which had a great view of the Plaza de Armas.
After dinner, I headed back to the hostel and got ready for bed. I talked with my roommate for a little while. He was a college student from Chicago doing a research project on the local language spoken in this part of Peru (Quechua). We talked about linguistics, family and various other things–turns out his family lives in Snohomish, Washington just an hour away from my hometown. The world just keeps getting smaller!
We chatted for a while, then went to bed early. The group I was going trekking with was coming to pick me up around 5 AM the next morning and I wanted to make sure I was all rested up for the journey to Machu Picchu! Which I will write about in another post, so stay tuned!