Monday, August 11, 2014

Adventures in Peru - Cusco and Sacsayhuaman

Adventures in Peru – 6/8/14 & 6/9/14 – Cusco and Sacsayhuaman

I have been on some incredible hiking adventures over the past several years, and on those trips we talk, talk, talk about future adventures.  If you’re sitting around the campfire or the dinner table at the right time, wondrous opportunities present themselves. 

Hey, whaddaya think about hiking to Machu Picchu?  You know, that place in Peru?  Sure, sign me up!

Our group of four – Andy, Chris, Cathy and myself - made plans for early June, flights, hotel reservations, booking a guided Inca Trek (you don’t just go there and start walking, it is all strictly regulated by the Peruvian government) and side trips for another week. The countdown began.

In May I got serious about training.  Running, walking, hiking, Stairmaster, etc.  Of course, nothing can train for high altitude lack of oxygen and I knew I wasn’t good at that (remember Colorado?)  Got the prescription for Diamox and all my immunizations were current.

Two days before departure it all slid sideways.  A serious health issue arose in a family member that took all my mental attention.  Then I developed diverticulitis (inflammation of the intestine), got antibiotics from my doctor, who didn’t think going to Peru was a good idea.  There was a problem with my smart phone and I couldn’t have global service, no phone calls to keep up with the situation at home.  Taken all together, karma did not want me going to Peru.  But I went anyway.

I began taking the Diamox the day before departure and all during the flight I felt as though strands of hair were brushing my cheeks, but it was a tingling side effect of the medication.  Other side effects I experienced were extreme dry mouth and loss of appetite.  All would get worse as the days went on.  The alternative was headache and nausea.  None of it was fun.

After 13 hours on 3 flights we arrived in Cusco, Peru in the early morning.  Passing over the sharp snow- covered peaks of the Andes felt surreal. 

One crazy cab ride later we rang the doorbell at Casa Elena, our accommo- dations for the next two days. Casa Elena is very conveniently located in the San Blas quarter known for its arts culture and is just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cusco.

 The owner served us coca tea upon arrival, the traditional drink to help acclimate to the altitude (Cusco is at 11,150 feet).

After a brief lie-down, we hit the streets in search of food and sight-seeing.  We had been warned what to eat during our acclimatization before our Inca Trek (bland food, potatoes) and what not to eat (guinea pig, a Peruvian favorite).  No problem with the guinea pig, but I would like to try it later in the trip.

Cusco is an intriguing small city, population about 450,000, modern and ancient cultures evident in architecture, food and clothing of people mingling in the streets.  Walking around the center city is fun if you have a little sense of direction yet are willing to get a little lost.  The Plaza de Armas is the happening heart of historic Cusco.

Iglesia de La Compañia de Jesús at the Plaza de Armas  

A big multi-day parade was going on in celebration of Corpus Christi.

After a meal in a safe-looking touristy hotel we admitted to our jet lag and went back to Casa Elena to crash for a couple of hours.  Later on we ventured out for another meal at Cicciolina, delicious food, elegant yet laid back atmosphere.  In Peruvian culture they do not bring you the bill for the meal unless you ask for it several times. 

After a hard night’s sleep under heavy blankets aided by Tylenol PM and ear plugs, we rose early and tackled the hotel breakfast:  liquidy yogurt, granola, fried eggs cooked to order, thick papaya juice, fresh pineapple juice, sweet coffee cake. 

Today’s plan:  climb the hills above Cusco to explore the Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman and get up close and personal with Cristo Blanco.  These are two independent and vastly different cultural icons of Peru.  [And before you critique my spelling of Sacsayhuaman, we saw it spelled a myriad of ways and I chose one I could remember, even if it doesn't match the signage here.]  For a much better history lesson than I can give, see here.  In the briefest summary, the Inca people or Quechuas were doing just fine in central South America until the conquering Spanish came across the water in the early 1500’s, decimating the native culture, razing their religious structures and introducing/ imposing Catholicism.  The capital of modern Peru is the city of Lima, but Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire.  Sacsayhuaman is an amazing remnant of that culture. 

The journey started right outside our door, of course going up many steps. 

The one time I paid for an “authentic” photo.  This lovely native Peruvian woman was less than five feet tall.  She charged one Peruvian Nuevo sol, which equals about 35 cents in American currency. 

Llamas roam freely around Inca ruins as part of the grounds- keeping staff.   Andy didn’t charge me for this photo.

First we hiked up to the Cristo Blanco (White Jesus) statue.  The story I found goes that it was erected as a display of gratitude by a group of Christian Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco in 1945.  The statue is 8 meters tall but seems much larger.  Its proximity to Sacsayhuaman and yet its position slightly higher and turning away – symbolic of what?

Cristo Blanco

Looking down at Cusco from the base of the statue

Looking over at Sacsayhuaman from the base of the statue

An example of dry stone wall Incan architecture.  The ancient builders did not have the concept of the wheel to help move the heavy stones and they did not use mortar to bind them in place.  They cut notches in corners and shaped stones to fit together so tightly that a blade of grass or piece of paper cannot slide between them.  During an earthquake the walls could shift and resettle without collapsing.

We spent several hours wandering around Sacsayhuaman, not really understanding the details of the history, but enjoying the sunshine and the energy and learning to breathe at 12,000 feet.

Looking across the great plaza, a gathering space for thousands of people for ceremonial activities


An intact building with a reconstructed thatched roof.  After the siege of Cusco in the 1530’s, the Spanish used the site as a quarry for stones for building Spanish Cusco, and within a few years Sacsayhuaman was largely demolished. 

A hint of steps to come

Llamas on the move

Looking at Cristo Blanco from Sacsayhuaman

Exploring tunnels

Nooks and crannies

Another wrong decision, easily corrected:  I had bought a new non-toxic, eco-friendly sun screen for the trip, and during our walkabout of Sacsayhuaman I got fried even with multiple applications.  Later in the day at a local pharmacy I found something better (friendly to me if not the environment) and had no more problems with the sun.  At such high elevation, don’t take any chances on sun exposure.

Walking back down to town was SO much easier!  Intricacies of red slate rooftops

We ran into some fellow Virginia Tech Hokies – boy, did I cheer up at that!  Turns out they were here to do the same four-day hike to Machu Picchu (different outfitter) and we saw them in the coming days on the Inca Trail.

Back in town, we ate a delicious lunch at Limo, recommended by friends – heavenly mint lemonade

We explored the Mercado de San Pedro that the locals use (not the touristy one), fascinated by the fresh food, meats, lack of refrigeration.  My photo taking was surreptitious because I didn't know if I would be asked to pay for them.

A juice bar like you’ve never seen

Beans and spices and herbs – oh my!

Local fruits

We wandered on a circuitous route through the city, following Cathy as she hunted for a good deal on an Alpaca jacket (she found one eventually), then back to Casa Elena to rest some more and meet with a representative for our trek to begin tomorrow.  For dinner we found a place nearby called Justina’s, tucked away in a courtyard, kitchen downstairs just large enough for a wood-fired pizza oven and five tables upstairs and – surprise - bluegrass music and Southern rock on the sound system.  One of many surreal moments in Peru, eating excellent pizza and listening to Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” and Ralph Stanley’s “Man Of Constant Sorrow.” 

Okay, now for the serious trip preparation. 

Part of our guided expedition included porters who would carry all the food, everything for food prep, and our tents for sleeping.  Each participant was responsible for his/her own sleeping bag and mat, clothing and personal items. [Note if you are planning a Machu Picchu trek:  the mats were provided by the outfitter, wished I had brought my own which is smaller and weighs less].  What will I need for 4 days, 3 nights, with highs in the 70’s and nighttime lows in the 30’s?  I had my 15-degree down sleeping bag and a silk liner, chose my heavier fleece jacket and Primaloft jacket, long underwear top and bottom, one pair of hiking pants, gloves, hat, a couple of short-sleeved hiking shirts, a new little inflatable pillow, a book, head lamp, toiletries, multiple medications, camera, bandana, a bathing suit for the hot springs at the end (more on that later).  Another wrong decision:  I chose to carry water bottles rather than my Camelback, thinking I would keep better track of my water intake if I could see it.  While that was true, it was a much bigger pain to use them and I probably underhydrated because of the aggravation factor.

Packing, repacking, taking things out, putting things back in, the normal chaos before an extended backpacking trip.  My pack was not as light as I wanted, probably 18 pounds with full water bottles.

I was able to text back and forth with Jim at the hotel, nervous and preoccupied about things back home.  Cathy kindly let me use her global ready phone for a couple of calls.  My normal pre-hike anxiety was increased exponentially and I went to bed with racing thoughts and waited for the alarm to go off at 4:30 a.m.

Are we having fun yet?

“Take a walk outside – it will serve you far more than pacing around in your mind.”  ~Rasheed Ogunlaru

1 comment:

Danny Bernstein said...

I know you made the trip but I'm enjoying the prehike description. A trip I'll probably never make but what great fun to read about it.