We wound our way up through the same landscape we saw a few days before, but we were no less amazed by it than we were the first time. The sky is impossibly vivid against the pink hills. Women walk donkeys and pigs on leashes. Children cradle baby goats in well-worn slings. Old ladies in traditional native dress sit on the side of the road, shaded by anachronistic billboards for cell phones or cheap beer. Electrical transmission towers are the only real indication that life is any different in these small towns than it was a hundred years ago
Things are different in Cusco.
Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire. It's nearly a thousand years old, and almost half a million people live here. It's bigger in every way than its neighbors.
There are two things a typical traveler will notice right away:
1. There's not a whole lot of oxygen in the air. At an average altitude of about 11,000 feet, Cusco is not the highest city in the area, but it IS the highest one in which you're likely to sleep.
2. It's very hilly. Absolutely everything is uphill or downhill from where you are.
We saved Cusco for the end of our stay in the Sacred Valley area to give ourselves a chance to acclimatize. Melissa's been taking diamox to speed up the process-- a godsend since she gets an altitude headache in Santa Fe. Steve's allergic to sulfa drugs, so diamox was not even an option. Other than tiring out faster than we would at sea level, we've been blissfully unaffected by the headaches and nausea that sometimes plague visitors to Cusco.
We checked into El Balcon, a beautiful old home with a dachshund and weimaraner in matching sweaters, and a parrot who taunts them from the leafy apple tree that shades the inn's courtyard. Then we met the couple in the next room-- more Oregonians!
Our room is ten stairs up from the courtyard. A tiny Peruvian man hoisted our enormous suitcases up on his back, while we lumbered up behind him. Every step felt like twenty. Feeling completely pathetic, we ducked into the hotel dining room for a taste of local medicine-- coca tea.
Coca tea (mate de coca to the locals) is a simple preparation of dried, whole coca leaves soaked in near-boiling water. It's a stimulant, and (supposedly) increases oxygen absorption in the blood. It also (supposedly) aids digestion and reduces intestinal gas. Win-win-win! While there is a very small amount of cocaine in the tea, it won't get you stoned. It's illegal to bring the leaves into the U.S., so don't expect any herbal souvenirs.
After our tea, we set out to explore Cusco. We pointed ourselves downhill to the Plaza de Armas, and our legs mostly cooperated.
Everywhere in the Sacred Valley, someone wants to sell you something. In Cusco, it's unrelenting, and the density of street peddlers increases markedly with proximity to the Plaza de Armas. At almost every door, a young woman jumped out to offer "Señorita, manicure?" or "Señor, (wink) massage?" Artists approach with their portfolios. Old ladies in bright, new traditional clothing, and children with baby goats in newish, mass-produced slings offer to pose for a picture for a small "propina". They're caricatures of the people in the Sacred Valley-- Las Vegas Show Incas playing their parts.
We left the Plaza de Armas, and found a kinder, gentler square a few blocks from the madness. Plaza Regocio was also lined with cafes and souvenir shops, but there were very few tourists, and therefore, very few hawkers. We eventually made our way to Chez Maggy-- a highly recommended pizzeria, and one of the older restaurants in the area. Dinner was good, cheap, and a fun change of pace.
That was Saturday. Sunday in Cusco is all about the World Cup. We're hanging out at Mr. Beans, a small, charming bar that's attached to the brand spanking new Hotel Brituvian. Brituvian is a joint venture between Brit Cliff Morris and his Peruvian wife Mariela Rodriguez. Cliff wasn't the first expat we've met here.
Walking near the ruins alone near Ollantaytambo, Melissa met Winn. Steve was sipping a latte at... wait for it... Incabucks. Winn traveled from North Carolina to the Sacred Valley seven months ago. She met Wow, a Quechua-speaking native whose family traces their roots in Ollanta to the Incas. Winn opened an inn, Casa de Wow, just a few days ago. Wow is an artisan, and makes all the furniture and textiles for the guest rooms. And there were others. The hostess at a restaurant where we ate lunch was Canadian. The waiter with blondish dreadlocks at another restaurant was from Barcelona. As Winn explained, local businesses "love to hire gringos because they're trustworthy". As sensitive liberal-ish Pacific Northwesterners, we sort of hate that description, but it's impossible to ignore reality here. There's poverty, there's desperation, there's purse-snatching, and there's plenty of counterfeit cash passing around, even from established businesses who clearly know what they're handing you.
We saved our phony 10 soles note as a souvenir.
Location:Tambo De Montero,Cuzco,Peru