Last Day in Cusco

Nice muggy picture of the plaza… the weather luckily got a bit nicer.

I didn’t have a very ambitious day planned for my final one in Cusco. Originally, I had been thinking that I would do a day trip to one of the towns close to Cusco like Tipon or Pisac, but considering how I felt when I finally rolled out of bed, I figured it would be a better idea to just take it easy. Pretty much my entire body was aching. Between the hiking and biking, every muscle in my legs, plus my shoulders and back from carrying a backpack, wanted to die. Trust me, it’s an accomplishment that I even managed to motivate myself to leave the hostel.

One of the churches in the plaza, Templo de la Compañía de Jesús. There are two (this one and the main cathedral) and then there are about 4 other churches within a 1 block distance

I decided to do the self-guided walking tour that I never got around to on day 1, and this time, I was sure to avoid every tour salesperson in the Plaza de Armas. I spent some time sitting on a bench in the plaza, then on the steps of the church, then on another bench. I know, really strenuous stuff. I just wanted to have some time to get to know the personality of the city. I spent all of my other days running all over, and I never had a chance to just sit and observe the people and understand what makes Cusco unique, besides all of the mountains and pretty buildings.

The entry hall into the library

After sitting in the main plaza, I continued my stroll, browsed the public library (a popular tourist destination, I’m sure – not), sat in a few other, smaller plazas, watched tourists take pictures with alpacas and get harassed by people selling paintings and necklaces and whatever else, saw schoolkids getting into after-school mischief, visited the market, and tried to imagine myself as a Cusco-ian (or whatever the word would be).

My late afternoon was spent reading in a cozy little plaza by my hostel. I don’t know, I guess some people might think that I wasted my last day, but sometimes it’s fun to do normal things in a new place and pretend for a second that it’s your usual life. The city and I bonded.

Well, I didn’t spend the WHOLE day just wandering. I had a nighttime plan to go to the Cusco planetarium! I love stars, so this was something that I had been looking forward to. The Cusco twist is that besides talking about normal constellations, they also talk about the Inca constellations.

Another church, La Merced, just one block from the Plaza de Armas

Anddd another church, Iglesia de San Pedro

My reading spot… next to another church of course

The planetarium woman started out talking about rivers. Okay, not exactly the introduction I was expecting, but sure. She mentioned that Peru is the most ecologically diverse country in the world. I think I talked about this before, but Peru has 30 out of the 32 climates and something like 84 out of 114 microclimates in the world (don’t quote me because I couldn’t find support for that statistic, but that’s what she said). A number of them are quite fragile, so climate change is a very real issue for Peru as they’re already seeing big impacts on their wildlife. She said that many of the Andes mountains around the Sacred Valley used to be snowcapped about 15 years ago, and now barely any of them are. It was interesting to hear about things from her perspective, based on things she’s seen through her lifetime. Anyway, she tied all of this into how the rivers are the source of life. This is how the Incas saw them as well, so for them, the rivers were incredibly important. Ready for this segue from rivers to stars? The Milky Way was seen as the river of the sky. Aha.

We headed into the planetarium, and she showed us the night sky and some of the “modern day” northern constellations before switching to the southern hemisphere. That was cool because, as I realized, I know nothing about the southern sky, but of course there are just as many constellations as in the north.

Planetarium starry sky

Talking about zodiac signs

Finally, we got to the Inca constellations. Some of them were constellations in the way we see them, by drawing lines between the stars. However, they also saw figures in the dark spots in the Milky Way. To them, the Milky Way was a river in the sky, and the creatures they saw inside were alive (because river = life). Here’s an image of the dark spot constellations:

I swiped this graphic from futurism.com

She said that the most important one is the llama. The Incas believed that the llama came at night and drank from the rivers and streams on earth to keep them from overflowing. When it rains, it’s star llama pee. Who knows? Maybe she was just messing with us, but that’s what she said. I like it though, so I’m going to call it fact.

Moray and Maras Salt Mines

My train left Aguas Calientes the morning after Machu Picchu Day at 5:30AM. UGH for early morning wake ups. I forced myself to stay awake for the ride though because this time, I had a window seat! Easy to do when there are only about 10 people on the train. I tried to take some pictures of the ride, but between the glass in the way and the fact that I’d need an IMAX screen for you to really understand it, they’re not great.

I took better pictures on the train ride this time! Hooray for window seats! Of course, there’s still a window in the way, but this at least gives you a much better idea of what much of the train ride is like.

I decided to plan an adventure for the day, so I signed up for a mountain biking excursion that left from Ollantaytambo. It was just me and the guide, and I learned that mountain biking maybe isn’t my thing… No, that’s not true. I learned that I have plenty of room for improvement. I could totally do it. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

One of the “labs”

We drove from Ollantaytambo to Moray, another Incan ruin. This was one of the coolest ones though! First of all, it’s in great condition. Second of all, it’s super nerdy and shows how smart the Incas were. There are three different areas with circular, terraced depressions, and archaeologists think they were used to breed and genetically engineer their plants. Each different layer is at a different altitude and temperature, and this site allowed them to work with plants with varying environmental requirements all in one place. The deepest one has an almost 30-degree F difference between the top and the bottom terraces! They brought soil with the plants and had an irrigation system and a way to drain water out so that the depressions didn’t just turn into lakes.

This is the biggest one (the one with the 30-degree temperature difference between bottom and top)

The Incas managed to develop some amazingly strong plants. They needed to, if they wanted them to survive in places like Machu Picchu where the weather is constantly changing and the altitude is so high. It’s a shame that so much was lost when the Spanish conquered them. Most of the Incas were killed, either through war or through new diseases that the Spanish brought like smallpox and measles… I think I read somewhere that only 5% survived (though I potentially just made that up, so don’t quote me). That makes it much harder to pass on knowledge and scientific advances!

Check out the perfection of those curves. Amazing!

From there, we got onto our bikes and started making our way to the salt mines at Maras. It only took me about 2 seconds of biking uphill to realize that maybe I didn’t plan things so well. What idiot goes on a hike that’s ALL STAIRS and then goes biking the next day? This idiot. Those two things use a lot of the same muscles, and my quads were burning. Besides that, the air was still thinner than I’m used to. Between my burning leg muscles and struggling lungs, we made some slow progress. I just kept thinking how easy it would be to do the ride if we were at sea level, but instead, I looked like some biking amateur (how embarrassing).

I love these mountains!!! This whole long valley (stretching for more than 60 miles) is called the Sacred Valley and was an important area for the Incas.

At some point, I got a flat tire. I don’t know how long it took me to realize that I had a flat, but in hindsight, I think the answer to that is “too long”. We stopped, and the guide checked out the damage. If it was me, I would have just replaced the tube, but I don’t know if he didn’t have the right size replacement for my bike or what because he ended up patching it. I see patches as a temporary solution that doesn’t work very well. They especially don’t work well when your tube has more than a couple holes in it. Especially more than 5. Or 10. Or 15. I think there were something like 17 holes in my one tube, and even after all of those were patched, air was still leaking out… just slightly more slowly. I couldn’t even guess how long it took to apply all of those patches, but I have a sunburn on my shoulders to commemorate the eternity spent on that shadeless stretch of trail.

Pre-falls, moments post-tire patching. You know what? I think I need to blame both falls on my tire. Makes sense!

I’m going to blame my couple of spills on the tire, just because I can. Also because I’m not convinced that they aren’t at least part to blame. One thing I learned about myself on the ride is that I REALLY don’t like tight corner turns, especially when the trail is covered with rocks that can shift and slide. The first corner I got to that I felt like I wasn’t going to make, I brought my bike to a stop and tried to put my foot down… but the seat was high, and I was on a hill, so I ended up just falling over from a complete stop with my bike on top of me. It’s a good thing that I’m past the point of getting embarrassed by things like that. I wasn’t hurt at all, but I did need a little help to get the bike off of me.

Fall number two was slightly more dramatic. I was coming around another questionable corner. The terrifying thing about these corners is that if you don’t make the turn, you literally ride off a cliff. So you’re dead. So just know that I wasn’t being completely crazy. This time, I’m not completely sure what happened. I think that I got freaked out at the last second when I didn’t think I was going to make it, braked too hard, and got thrown. I was incredibly calm through the whole thing, though. I remember flying through the air thinking, “whoops… okay hopefully this impact doesn’t hurt too much”, hitting the ground thinking, “well nothing is broken, so now I just have to hope the rocks don’t tear me up too badly”, and laying there afterwards thinking, “hm that wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. I could use a hand though.” Sure enough, I was fine. I had a couple of scrapes and cuts that were bleeding way more than they needed to, but no question it ended as well as it could have (the fall, that is. The ride could have ended better, for example, with me NOT falling).

The salt mines are that light brown strip in the valley

Our second official stop (as in, not including the million flat tire stops and multiple Lara fall stops) was at the Maras salt mines. This is where most Peruvian salt is harvested. It’s been running since the time of the Incas, and the process they use currently is mostly unchanged from those days. Different families own the approximately 3,000 different pools, and they’re responsible for maintaining and harvesting the salt in their pools. Since this is the rainy season, there isn’t a lot of salt in production because the rain makes it harder to make quality, white salt.

I have no idea how the water flow works here, but it’s crazy awesome!

Luckily, there was still enough going on for me to see how it all works. There’s a spring that feeds a salty stream that runs to the area, and that stream is routed into all of these different pools. When a pool is filled, the flow of water is stopped, it evaporates, and the salt is scraped off the bottom of the pool. It’s given a rating of quality, the best stuff is exported, and the rest is sold in Peru.

You can see a little salt production happening, but they said that in the dry season, way more of the pools will be operating and will look white from the salt.

After the ride, I wanted nothing more than to get back to my hostel, take a shower, and lay in bed for a bit. The guide helped me clean my cuts, put me into a colectivo, and sent me back to Cusco, bruised and battered but feeling accomplished (mostly just for not dying). I think I’m going to take a short break from mountain biking experiences. Just for now.

Ollantaytambo

After my day of visiting ruins, I decided to spend the next day… visiting ruins. I had a train to catch to the town at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu is located (Aguas Calientes), but the train didn’t leave from Cusco. I had to find my way to Ollantaytambo, a town about two hours away, and get the train from there. At this point, I was a colectivo expert, so I wasn’t worried about it. I asked at the hostel where to find colectivos to Ollantaytambo, and off I went! If you even manage to get close, you’re golden. Once you find the right street, there are a bunch of people calling out to you, trying to get you to get in their van. You just pick one, confirm a million times that they’re going to the place you want, and then decide to trust them and get on.

I just thought this was funny… This person is unloading crates of eggs from this truck – and is standing on a layer of them! I never really think of eggs as something you can stand on.

The ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo is beautiful but also somewhat vomit inducing if you have any issues with carsickness. The road winds up and down, back and forth through the mountains and valley, and view after view was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I was trying to play it cool so that I wouldn’t give myself away as a tourist, but on the inside, I wanted nothing more than to press my face up against the window, unblinking for the entire 2-hour ride so that I didn’t miss a second.

You can see Cusco to the southeast of Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu to the northwest.

Some views from the drive

I got to Ollantaytambo about 2 hours before my train left, so I decided to check out the ruins in town. There are, of course, a million different ruins that you can visit in and around town, but I went to the biggest one that used to be an Inca fortress/temple. It’s one of the only sites where the Incas actually won a battle against the Spanish invaders.

Terraces!

My first thought when I got inside was, “UGH… stairs.” The whole thing is just terrace after terrace, leading up the mountain to where there used to be enclosed structures. The roofs were all thatch, so there’s obviously nothing remaining of those. They’ve been restored in some locations, but for the most part, you’re left to imagine the ruins in their former glory for yourself. There are also some giant stones (I read somewhere that they’re 50 tons, but I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that) that were used in the unfinished temple construction. They were brought over from a “nearby” (6km away…) quarry, and the trip to the site includes a river crossing. You can use your imagination to try to figure out how they managed to move them on dry ground, but to cross the river, the stones were brought to the edge and then the water was diverted around them! That’s crazy!

Those big rocks in the distance behind me are the (maybe?) 50-ton ones that had to get moved here somehow from the quarry.

It only took a couple ruin visits for me to realize that the Incas were masters of beautiful and hard-to-reach sites. This fortress is no exception. When I finally managed to wheeze my way up the stairs (remember that this is at high altitude! I’m not just completely pathetic), I was treated to an incredible view of the town, the valley, and the surrounding mountains. The best way to view the mountains is from another mountain!

I’m sure I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again… but I love the Inca stonework! I think it’s so pretty

Looking over the town

I had plenty of time to check out the main part of the ruins, even with my “stop and take the same picture 100 times” breaks. I still wish I’d had longer though. From the fort, there’s a hike you can do to a temple nestled up higher in the mountain, and I’m sure that it would have been worth the extra climb (if you consider another pile of rocks, another view of the same mountains, and some solitude worth it… which I totally do). Plus, it would have been cool to have a time to see some of the other ruins around town.

This is the view at the beginning of the hike up to the temple that I didn’t have time to do. Looks like it would have been a pretty awesome view, huh?

Some formerly roofed structures

Not bad…

Casual stroll along a path that wraps around the mountain

This is a good view of the terracing

Here’s a building with a recreated roof, so keep this in mind when visualizing how the rest of the ruins must have looked

Oh well, I had a train to catch, and there was no way that I was going to miss it. There are a few different ways that you can get to Machu Picchu with the most common being either trekking (aka walking A LOT through the mountains) or taking the train. I think a trek would be awesome, but with my limited time in Cusco, I decided to spend it doing other things. Despite requiring far less effort, the train ride was still incredible. It was like something straight out of the movie “Avatar”. I’ve said that about other places in my life, but I’ve never meant it more than I do right now.

Let me try to set the scene. There are cloud-topped mountains towering over the train on either side, plus a river running beside the tracks (the water is very brown but no matter). Everywhere you look is green and full of life. You pass from the low highlands ecosystem at the beginning of the ride into the cloud forest ecosystem. I didn’t even know that was a thing, but can you think of a more mystical name than “cloud forest”? In reality, it was just as mystical as in theory. I’ve never been on a shorter 2-hour train ride. Seriously I could have stayed on that train for another 10 hours and been totally okay with it.

Serious train situation

Cloud forest… mystical, right?

I want to know who you have to bribe to get assigned the front seats!

But alas, we arrived in Aguas Calientes, and I set off to find my hostel. It’s the off-season at Machu Picchu right now, so I lucked out and got my own room, complete with all-natural “raging water” white noise from the river outside. Perfect for getting lots of sleep!

Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Qenko, and Saqsayhuaman

After visiting Qorikancha, my adventure really began. I wanted to see the four major ruins outside of the city. They’re all within about 16 km of the city center (road distance, not direct distance), so it’s not crazy far but definitely enough to not want to walk it both ways (plus it’s uphill). I heard through the grapevine that it’s possible to take a bus there, even though the ruins aren’t an official stop. (I don’t even know why they bother having official stops because you can usually get off wherever you want.)

I considered this my first true Spanish test, and I was determined to pass. The girl at the desk in my hostel said I should just rent a cab for the day, but why should I when there’s another perfectly good way of getting there? Plus I would feel rushed if I knew a cab was waiting for me, and I like to take my sweet time wandering around.

I found my way to what looked like a bus stop after a taxi man tried to convince me to hire him and I told him I was fine taking the bus. I tried to look like I knew what I was doing, but apparently the bus stop isn’t at the little hut with a bench and is actually like 50 feet away. Silly me. The taxi man sassily filled me in while trying to use that as proof that I should really just take a cab. Thankfully, after about 8 minutes of waiting at the random piece of sidewalk he pointed me to, a woman asked me if I was going to Pisac (the bus I needed to get to the first ruin), I nodded, and she directed me onto a bus that didn’t say Pisac anywhere on it. How is anyone supposed to figure these things out??

Well, luckily for me, it all worked out. I told the driver as I got on that I wanted to get off at Tambomachay and headed to the front of the bus when we got close. He let me off right in front, and I only had to pay 2 soles (about 60 cents)!

Tambomachay

Let me start off by saying that when it comes to Incan ruins, everything is pure speculation. 95% of the time, no one knows for certain what something is, why it’s there, what it was used for, etc. For example, Tambomachay. All that’s certain is that there are aqueducts and canals that feed water into a pile of rocks that looks like a fountain. Maybe it’s an ancient bath, maybe it’s a water temple. The name is Quechua and means “resting place”.

Cool trees on the way up to the fountains

The fountains. You can see water still running in the bottom left of the picture

The full extent of the ruins

The ruins were fine, but I was more interested in the scenery. I’m a fan of taking random paths and seeing where they lead. There was one that went up behind the fountain, and I followed it up into some terraced gardens and around the mountain (hill?) to a secret view of the valley. I say secret because I didn’t see another person ANYWHERE, and at a tourist-filled site, that’s an extra special treat. For a few moments, it was just me, peaceful green-ness, and a herd of alpacas grazing in the far distance.

My secret valley

Looking towards Puka Pukara

Once I managed to drag myself away from the view, I headed across the street to ruin #2…

Puka Pukara

Puka Pukara is in the upper right

One guess is that this was a military base, but maybe it was a hunting lodge, guard post, and stop for travelers. The name means “red fort” because the stones look red in some lighting. It’s another “the ruins are kind of cool but the thing that makes the stop worth it is the view” situation. Some people had guides who I assume told them more information than that, but like I said, it’s probably 95% made up. I’m more than happy to just embrace the mystery and be impressed by the Incas’ site selection skills. They sure know how to pick a site with a view.

View from the “fort”

There’s an almost 5 km walk between Puka Pukara and the next ruin, and I was not interested in walking if it could be avoided. Lucky me, a colectivo (mini-bus) was driving by right as I left the site, and I flagged it down and hopped in for a 1 sol ride to…
Qenqo (ken-koh)

Qenqo means “labyrinth”, and they think (“they” being whoever it is that comes up with these theories) that it was a religious something. It’s a huge rock with passageways and channels carved into it.  I wish I could have gotten a bird’s eye view because it’s way more interesting from the top.

Qenqo is that giant rock in the upper right with the rounded top

One of the passageways through the rock

Qenqo from the outside

I used my same “follow whatever random path you see” strategy and ended up on a huge rock overlooking the town of Qenqo. I could also see Cusco in the distance, and no matter how many times I do, I still am amazed by the view. This and my other detour were probably my two favorite parts of the day. Hooray for exploration!

View from my favorite perch

The town of Qenqo

I walked from Qenqo to the next ruin, passing through “Qenqo Chico” (small Qenqo), which I didn’t even know existed. This was my third favorite part of the day… another unplanned detour. There’s another overlook of the city and plenty of big rocks to sit on. I stopped for a minute to eat a snack and soak in the view.

Qenqo Chico

How cool are these rocks?!

Saqsayhuaman

Saqsayhuaman from a distance

The pronunciation guide for this ruin is that it sounds a bit like “sexy woman” (sack-sai-WHA-man). It means “satisfied falcon” and was a big military fort. It was one of the last Incan strongholds during the Spanish invasions. After the Spaniards conquered the fort, they took many of the stones build houses for themselves. The biggest stones are still left.

There are alpacas grazing all over the place

View from Saqsayhuaman

A wall. Check out that awesome Inca stonework

Fun fact: there’s a big zig-zag wall on the fort because the ninth Inca ruler saw Cusco as having the shape of a puma with the zig-zag walls as its teeth. Also, there’s a rock slide there. As in, smooth rock that can function as a slide… and people are allowed to slide down it. I think it’s hilarious. I also apparently have very good slide pants because I flew down with literally no way of slowing myself. My hands did nothing and my sneakers were worthless.

Good view of the zig zag wall

Rock slide!

After wandering Saqsayhuaman for a couple hours, I was wiped and ready to get back to my hostel. I walked down the path to Cusco (which they say that you can walk up to the ruins if you want… only if you’re crazy, in my opinion) and felt like I teleported into the middle of a forest. The walk was beautiful, but if I was going up, my thoughts would have been focused on not passing out.

The path back to Cusco

By the time I reached the bottom, my head was pounding. I’m not sure if it was an altitude-related problem or just a dehydration problem, but I downed some electrolytes and painkillers and flopped on my bed until I felt functional again. Altitude sickness can be a big problem for people going to Cusco from lower altitudes. Cusco is at 11,152 feet of elevation. For comparison’s sake, Denver is at 5,690 feet. People all react to the altitude differently and can range from no symptoms to headaches, dizziness, and vomiting. I thought I was superhuman because I felt fine on my first day. I guess this means there’s a chance that I am only human.

Qorikancha

My plan for Cusco day #2 was ambitious, to say the least. I always make a massive list of things that I’m going to do and then manage to get through MAYBE half of them. I don’t like to rush though. I take as much time as I feel like I need to get a good sense of the place I’m visiting, and if that means I go to less things, so be it.

I was behind schedule from the very beginning, leaving around 9:30AM instead of the 8AM I had planned for. I’ve decided that sticking to morning departure times is the hardest discipline of solo travel. I don’t think I’ve managed to do so successfully yet. If you’re with someone else, at least there’s some motivation to get a move on.

Here’s a bonus… Some Inca skulls. Notice their elongated shape. This resulted from a long process of head binding and shaping that started very young, before the skull was fully developed. It was an indicator of class/social standing.

Anyway, I wanted to visit the ruins outside of Cusco. There are four different ruin areas that are all within like 10 km of the city, but there’s not a well-advertised easy way to get to them. My guidebook mentioned that you could take a bus to the farthest one and then walk back, but that’s still a ton of walking. I decided to give that a try, with the hope that I’d be able to flag down a bus on my way back as well. When I asked at the front desk, the girl seemed skeptical about my plan. That’s fine. I was determined to prove her wrong.

Qorikancha

On my way to the bus stop, I detoured at Qorikancha (kohr-ee-KAHN-cha), a former Inca temple that was converted into a colonial church and convent. Oh yeah, a note about all of these names… they’re all Quechua names, which in my opinion means that they’re even harder to pronounce than Spanish names, plus there are far too many letters. There are also about 500 different spellings that you’ll find, depending on the intended audience of whatever you’re looking at.

A view of the grounds that used to be filled with golden animals and golden corn. Yes, corn stalks

In the old days, the entire temple was covered in gold! There were hundreds of gold sheets covering the walls, and those were all taken and melted down during the Spanish conquests. The temple includes rooms dedicated to the moon, stars, thunder, and rainbows. They had straw roofs originally, so those are obviously gone, but the whole area has been enclosed to make it a building within a building.

The rainbow and thunder temples

The stonework here was amazing as well. Forget the 12-sided stone outside the religious art museum, here there’s a 14-angled stone! It wraps around a couple corners, into a double door jamb, and out on the other side as part of the wall. I should have taken a picture, but honestly it’s impossible to capture in 2-dimensions. Just remember, we have this gigantic stone that’s been cut every which way and then it fits in PERFECTLY with all of the other stones. How did they do it???

Check out those joints!!! No mortar!

The building is a weird mix of architectural styles, with the Inca foundation, the church add-on, and the glass-walled, metal-roofed enclosure over the temple area. There’s also a beautiful garden outside that is, predictably, terraced. The Incas were experts in terracing because so much of their land was in the mountains which means very little level ground for farming. There are terraces EVERYWHERE. The gardens have been kept beautifully, complete with grass so green it might not be real, flowers everywhere, and a bird etched into the grass.

The interior courtyard. I. Love. Interior. Courtyards.

A view of some of the terracing


Bird!


The view isn’t so bad either…


This just screams “secret garden” to me. How pretty!


From the second floor, looking into the courtyard


It’s cool how they put the walkways in, and you can see the metal roof addition too


Inside the church


Okay, that’s all for part 1 of day 2… I’m currently in the town at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu is located, and I’m going there tomorrow! I’ve obviously planned far too much to accomplish in one day, which means I need to get some good sleep tonight. Luckily, my hostel is right next to a raging river that results in some aggressive all-natural white noise. It sounds like a combination of pouring rain, an air conditioning system running, and wind that might blow the building over.
To be continued!

Bienvenidos a Cuzco!

I know I’ve been silent over the last few days, but no need to worry! I didn’t fall off a cliff or anything. The problem is with the way that I do “vacation”. If I’m somewhere new and am only going to be there for a short time, I jam in as much as possible. It doesn’t matter if I completely wear myself out… I can recover once I’m home, but I can only see these things while I’m here. As you might imagine, that has resulted in two days of run, run, running and then collapse, collapse, collapsing into bed at night.

Last time we talked, it was Thursday night, and I was attempting to stay awake in the Lima airport. I… mostly succeeded. By the time my flight started boarding, I was trying to force my eyes to stay open. I only realized that I fell asleep when I opened my eyes from a “blink” and my kindle was on my lap instead of in my hand. And then that happened about five times.

I don’t even know what happened once we got on the plane because I was asleep the instant I sat down until about 1 minute before landing. I think the flight ended up being longer than scheduled, but for once that was a blessing because it gave me more time to sleep. Total night’s sleep for Thursday-Friday = 2 hours of plane sleep.

You can see Lima to the north on the coast. You can drive from Lima to Cusco, but it takes about a day!

I had some time to collect myself once I got to my hostel, but I knew that I had to keep moving if I wanted to stay awake until a reasonable hour (goal: 7PM). I headed out with the plan of doing a self-guided walking tour to get my bearings. That lasted about 3 blocks until I was persuaded into an inexpensive group tour that was covering a bunch of the places I wanted to go anyway. I figured that it couldn’t hurt to have someone else leading me around for a few hours.

The interior courtyard of the religious museum

Oh yeah… another thing. The tour was in Spanish. Luckily, the guide spoke clearly, and since he knew I wasn’t fluent, he translated some words into English when it was clear that I didn’t know them. I’m generally not a tour person, but the people on the tour were a lot of fun. There were a couple Chileans, a guy from Mexico, one from El Salvador, and a few others. I felt like I was in a cool Spanish-speaking club, and they welcomed me with open arms and extra-slow speaking so that I could understand better.
The whole thing was a whirlwind, so I don’t even know that I can remember everything we did. We went to a religious art museum first which was probably the lowlight of the trip, besides the building itself which was originally “the palace of the sixth inca, Roca” (literally the sixth ruler of the Incas). There were a lot of paintings of the Virgin Mary shaped like a mountain because mountains were important to the indigenous people, so it was like a fusion of Christianity and things that the local people were already familiar with. At least I think that’s what the guide said. Keep in mind that you can maybe only 70% trust any of the information I got from this tour.

Check out those 12 sides! Actually super cool though if you think about trying to fit all of those stones together so precisely

Outside of the museum, there’s a famous 12-sided stone. One of the big things that the Incas are famous for is building structures with huge stones that are perfectly fitted together and have no mortar between them. There are plenty of stories of earthquakes that destroyed tons of buildings in Cusco, but the Incan buildings remained standing because of how the stones are fitted together and the fact that there’s some resistance to horizontal forces, plus they can shift around and just settle back into place afterwards because they’re so perfectly shaped.

Doesn’t it look like something out of a storybook?

The places we visited during the rest of the tour are irrelevant because the view is all I remember. We drove to a church that’s perched up above Cusco and then kept driving past some ruins until we reached Cristo Blanco, a huge Jesus statue that overlooks the city. For the entire drive, we were winding around and around, up and up and getting incredible views of the city and the ruins and the mountains along the way.

Me at the church overlook

We also stopped at an alpaca store where they sell everything from fake hamsters covered in alpaca fur to scarves and rugs. The lady taught us about the differences in how synthetic alpaca, grown up alpaca, and baby alpaca fur feel, so now I’m practically an expert in alpaca-wares. Baby alpaca is the softest and hence the most expensive. Shopkeepers beware… I can’t be fooled into thinking that grown-up alpaca sweater dress is baby alpaca. Ha!

Mystical!

Cristo Blanco was our last stop. I’m beginning to think that every big South American city has a giant, white statue of Jesus overlooking the city, and he’s doing approximately the same pose. This observation is based on 1.) Cristo Blanco in Cusco, 2.) Cristo del Pacífico in Lima, and 3.) Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. BUT if there are three, there must be more. I will now add to my bucket list a goal to visit as many giant Jesus statues as possible.

Speaks for itself

The view from Cristo Blanco

Cristo Blanco, Cusco edition

The courtyard at the Inca museum. I am all about interior courtyards.

After the tour, I forced myself to go to one museum on my list (an Inca museum… interesting, but probably not the best choice for keeping myself awake) before allowing myself to return to the hostel, take a hot shower, and collapse into bed at 7PM. The end, Cusco day 1.