In Part 1 of our trip to Peru, you read about our very exciting stay at a Best Western in Queens, and my attempt to watch a Matthew McConaughey movie about crop rotation during our business class flight. Today it’s all about actual Peru!
Started the day with another free Peruvian breakfast featuring that “coffee essence.” Today we were determined to see a bunch of Incan sites. Our very helpful innkeeper suggested an array of tours you can take that will bring you to every big name site for Incan ruins around Cusco in one day. Lots of people do this, and I think he was a little surprised at the extent to which we wanted to “go it alone.”
Seeing everything from Pisac to Moray to Chinchero in one 8 hour shot would be overwhelming. You will spend a lot of your time driving around on a trip like that. We’d rather go at our own pace. There’s nothing worse than being rushed out of a place you want to see more of. I’m sure that would’ve happened numerous times with a tour group. We tend to linger in places.
I noticed a lot of good sites were within walking distance of downtown Cusco. But they were all uphill from downtown, and being that we were at that exhausting 2 mile altitude to begin with, we hired a taxi to take us to the farthest site. We then walked our way back, hitting every site on the way back. Pretty brilliant, right?
Farthest away from the city was Tambomachay. Like every Incan site, it’s shrouded in mystery, and us modern folks have to kind of guess at what the purpose was. I heard Tambomachay described as a spa or a resort, which may or may not have had religious qualities. Regardless, there are definitely spring-fed baths built into the hillside. This was our first glimpse of the Incan aptitude for carving insanely perfectly fitting stones.
On our way out of Tambomachay, we found a pair of llamas walking down the street together. And they were tied together. It was odd, like one was a cop and the other had been arrested. We watched these poor llamas for a while as they struggled to keep from getting tangled while they chowed down on grass. Eventually a little girl came down the street to bring them back home.
Next down the street, within sight of Tambomachay, was Puca Pucara. This was supposedly a military outpost or some kind of roadside motel for the Incas. It’s actually a fairly boring site, but the views are fantastic.
Continuing down the main road, we walked through a rural village. It’s hard to believe we were only a few kilometers from congested, smelly Cusco. It’s very peaceful up on the hillside.
Each of the houses had these decorated clay oxen on the roof, supposed to bring good luck. And speaking of the houses, we saw some dudes building a new house. If you’re curious about traditional building techniques, you can see that’s how they’re still doing it.
Our next Incan site was Qenko. We could’ve continued down the road, but I noticed a footpath to the side which seemed to head in the right direction, so we took that instead. The path headed through some meadows where it was mostly us and sheep.
We innocently, INNOCENTLY, approached the sheep. They wouldn’t let us get too close, though, and they headed in the other direction. Then a sheep herder showed up. Seems we accidentally “herded” the sheep in the wrong direction! He tried to herd them back up. Sorry…
Eventually we made it down near Qenko and found a different ruin site. We explored that for a while. This one had a big flat area in the middle. We found spots similar to this at other sites and came to call it the “party room.”
Then on the way out, we noticed a big PROHIBIDO sign next to the site. We couldn’t see it from the direction we approached the site, but we were walking around a prohibited Incan site. Again, ACCIDENTALLY. The site didn’t show up on any maps, so I don’t know the name of it. But clearly, after the sheep incident, this was our second tourist fail of the day.
Then we came to Qenko, a supposed site of Incan sacrifices.
As with all Incan sites, it’s hard to know what you’re looking at. My guidebook referenced a “stone altar” where the sacrifices were performed. Well, I found three or four things that could’ve been alters, so who knows? I’ll post a picture of this one because it was inside a meticulously carved cave.
It was getting late into the afternoon at this point, and we were hungry, so we decided to head back into town and skip the most famous Incan site in Cusco, Saqsaywaman, for now. The walk took a while, and I wasn’t sure where we were going, but luckily there are stairs leading down from the road which will eventually bring you down into the historic quarter. Can you spot the stray dogs in the photo? There are strays all over Cusco, and they are always either sleeping, or running down the street after one another.
On the advice of our host, we went to La Quinta Eulalia for lunch. Any place named “La Quinta” means you will be eating outside. This place was pretty popular with the locals. The menu is short and is only on a chalkboard.
Did I mention neither of us speaks Spanish? Marge and I both took French in high school, which helped us pick out some words. But other times, all I had to go on was a free Spanish dictionary app on my iPod. Still, that didn’t help a heck of a lot. Our host said we had to try the lechon, which is “baby pork”. I also ordered a 1/2 chairo, without having any idea what it was. Turned out it was soup made with the less desirable parts of a pig. I liked it pretty good, but Marge couldn’t stand the offal taste.
The lechon is just a big piece of pork cut from a roasted pig, just like you’d imagine. It was served with a couple whole fried potatoes, a tamale, and a stuffed green pepper. Really good, but also really difficult to eat, and not super healthy.
After that, we toured one of the churches in the main square, the Church of the Society of Jesus. I wish I had pictures for you, but photos were not allowed. A Google Image search will have to suffice. We’ve seen some spectacular churches in Europe, but like Marge said, these Spanish colonial churches were definitely not the Protestant churches of Switzerland.
Seemingly everything inside the church is painted gold. And instead of carved stone or painted representations of Jesus and the saints, they have dolls. I’m not sure if that’s how they refer to them, but that’s how we kept referring to them. The dolls have real human hair and wear intricately embroidered clothing that is switched out every few years. And though we may have crucifixes in American churches, the actual gore of that moment isn’t fully captured.
Well, these churches did not spare the gore. Inside the Church of the Society of Jesus is a larger-than-life crucified Jesus that is absolutely horrifying. You turn a corner and suddenly it’s like you’re seeing an actual dead person hanging from the wall. Again, sorry for the lack of photos. (Or maybe you should be glad, because this Jesus could give you nightmares)
Then we headed down to Qorikancha, a Spanish colonial church literally built on top of an Incan temple for the Sun God. Out of a mix of respect and incompetence, the Spanish did not/could not completely disassemble the Incans’ pagan temples. The photo should give you an idea of how insanely perfectly carved the stone blocks were made to build this temple. No mortar necessary. The Spanish could never build something like this. They couldn’t even take them apart sometimes. The stones were too heavy!
We walked back to our inn and walked through an animal rights protest in the central square. After a whole hell of a lot of hiking that day, we were spent, so we went back to the inn. Lunch was so big that we didn’t eat dinner, although we did go out for ice cream later!
Gross Fun Fact! During our three nights in Cusco, we heard people vomiting at our inn on two nights. There are only four rooms at the inn in total, so do the math. We might’ve been the only people to not throw up. One sick person was a college age guy. Not sure what his problem was. The other was a boy who had bad cuy. Cuy is guinea pig, a local delicacy. I was all set to try cuy at some point. When in Rome and all that, but after I heard that kid, I knew I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it, so no cuy for me.
Another free breakfast today, then it was time to enact my big plan for the day. I wanted to get to Chinchero Market. The town of Chinchero is about an hour away from Cusco. You can hire a taxi or take a tour to get there (although, honestly, a tour is more likely to take you to Pisac market which is more touristy) but Marge and I decided to do our Frugal Best and get there as cheaply as possible. This meant taking a collectivo!
A collectivo is a cross between a van and a bus. Each van will hold about 12 people, and has a specific destination. Once all of the seats are full, the van leaves. I was very nervous about taking it, mostly because I was afraid we’d get on the wrong one or something. Did I mention we don’t speak Spanish? But it turned out not to be an issue at all. You don’t need to find the correct bus. It finds you!
Basically, if you head down to Pavitos Avenue in Cusco, you’ll see guys yelling out their collectivos destinations. To get to Chincero, you get on the Urubamba-bound collectivo and make sure the driver knows you want to get off in Chinchero. For an incredibly good price, you get an hour long drive through the Peruvian country side in a van packed with locals. It was actually great, and Marge didn’t even feel sick like she sometimes does on long bus trips.
By now you’ve already read about the vegetables we bought in Chinchero and my love of Andean women’s clothing. But in Chinchero, we also fortuitously arrived not just on any Sunday, but on Palm Sunday, which meant there were more holy week processions in town. These women in traditional garb must’ve been highly regarded in the community because they were leading the procession.
Marge and I were very happy in Chinchero to see that we had few Pale Friends around. “Pale Friends” is what we called the white tourists like ourselves. There was nothing being done for show. Chinchero was just an honest town in a gorgeous setting. We tried to stay out of the way and just observe. We followed the procession up the exhausting stairs to the church.
Up on this hill is where you’ll also find a bunch more Incan ruins. Terraces as far as the eye can see! We checked these out while the church service was going on. Once the service let out, we went inside the church to check it out. It was definitely rural with murals inside that looked like they hadn’t been touched in a century. Again, no photos allowed.
Then we went back down to the actual market and labored over what to buy. Bringing only backpacks to Peru, we didn’t have much space. So Marge bought a scarf for herself and one for her mom. And, of course, we bought those nummy vegetables.
We were a little confused about how to take the collectivo back to Cusco. But eventually figured it would be back by the main road where we were let off in the first place. And wouldn’t you know it, but once we started walking down the hill we heard that clarion call from the collectivo driver. “Cusco cusco cusco!” I think he spotted us before we spotted him.
After getting back to Cusco, we decided we needed to see Saqsaywaman, so we headed to the square and hailed a cab. As we learned later in Lima, this is not always a good idea. You should probably always have your inn set you up with a taxi. But this time went okay.
Saqsaywaman is a massive site with unbelievably huge stones assembled into impenetrable fortress walls. Stone walls might seem pretty dull sitting in front of a computer screen, but I was ceaselessly fascinated by them.
Saqsaywaman is probably the best example of the Incan attention to detail out of all the sites we went to. First of all, each stone had to be carved into the exact right shape. And as you can see, they are not squares at all. Each stone is different, and is carved so perfectly that there is no space in between the stones.
You can try all you want, but you won’t find any gaps in between the stones. The only times we did see gaps was when the ground had obviously shifted, pushing the stones out of place.
And after the stones are carved to exact dimensions, they had to be fit in place! This is even more mind-boggling than the carving! The largest stone is well over 100 tons.
The whole construction made our attempts to build a stone patio seem pretty pathetic. We intend on laying 20 pound stones and joining them with polymeric sand. Marge wishes she had some Incas around to build a serious patio and stone wall area in our backyard, something that would last for centuries. Sorry, Margie, but those skills have been lost to the ages!
Beside the fortress at Saqsaywaman, there is an outcropping of volcanic rock. It’s very tall, and has slopes that are so smooth, kids use them as slides! We saw a bunch of families picnicing and having fun on the rock slides.
That’s all for now. In the next installment, we take whatever means necessary to get to Machu Picchu!