Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Cusco & The Sacred Valley

We are finally on the last leg of our South American journey and we are both feeling relieved, and sad. Relieved, because we have done and experienced so much and feel we got a real flavour of the must do places in such a beautiful and impoverished continent and were ready to remember what it was like to feel clean again and not to have pack up our stuff every day or so. And sad because our epic experience in south America was coming to an end and we knew what we have done was a once in a life time type event. All that said, we still had 11 days to go, 5 of those to be spent in and around Cusco, followed by the 5 day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, and finally one day in Lima, so we settled in to make the most of it.

And didn't we just...by ticking off every tick box there is for Cusco in record time...and we mean record time. So much so, that if you didn't have a pen ready to mark off our boxes, you'd have missed us! This was not of our choosing, as once again, we found ourselves on two blasted tours, aarrrrrgh! This time, it was kind of unavoidable because we had decided to have a dabble in an “ayahuasca” experience which then dictated the rest of our timings in Cusco because it had to be done on a Wednesday, right smack bang in the middle of our week.

We arrived very early Sunday morning and not wanting to wake our host up, we jumped in a taxi for the 1km ride to our air bnb house for the next week. We could have walked that ffs! [RD - suddenly what happens later when we arrive Lima makes a lot more sense now..] Carlos, our host is up and ready to greet us, showing us to our room in what was once a private house but is now definitely a lodging house. The room is ok, the lodging is ok, the kitchen is filthy (oh no, my bad, we had used Carlos' aunts kitchen by mistake, the one for guests is downstairs and much cleaner!). But the shower… oh my god, the shower – it’s not only freakin freezing but had almost no pressure and what pressure it does have ceases when a plastic cap pops off every time after about 1 minute. Due to the rather cold temperatures in Cusco, we didn't shower much – which seems to be becoming a trend with us. [so basically… it's like staying in a hostel, but without any of the good bits?]

A short sleep later, a not so short chat with Carlos and we are off to explore Cusco and get ourselves sorted for the next week. Of course, it being a Sunday, everything is closed, but the sun is shining and we embark on the rather long walk into town. On the way, we found a monument to climb (Pachacuteq, a giant statue of an Incan warrior), salteƱas (not as good as Bolivias, but still a decent breakfast for us), popcorn, ice cream, cooked bananas, a water feature to play in, markets to explore, shopping (shopping and more shopping...as now was the time we could finally buy things... Rich was not so excited about the prospect, me on the other hand was in heaven!), the cheapest market lunch we've had and cobbled streets to walk on. We treated ourselves to pizza for dinner and flopped exhausted into bed after a rather enjoyable day of sightseeing and soaking up Cusco.

All the guide books emphasis not to catch the unofficial taxis in Cusco. However, they are everywhere! Essentially anyone who owns a car is a taxi driver, constantly beeping at you on the pavement, wanting your business. In the whole time in Cusco, we didn't catch one official taxi, preferring the beat up Daihatsus with friendly but poor local drivers. Given the location of our lodging, we had to catch a lot of taxi's and were quite proud of our efforts supporting the unofficial taxi drivers by the end of it!

Monday morning was spent dropping off our washing, organising ourselves for the next 10 days, which was no small feat given the number of tour operators we had to deal with and attempting to meet Todd and David for a coffee (which not only were we late for but we later discovered I got the meeting place wrong... sorry!) and so which failed dismally, we registered for the free walking tour kicking off at 10.30am. Oh my hat. We should have learnt. Walking tours in South and Central America are not good. Particularly when they are free. Especially when they are free. And true to expectations, the Cusco free walking tour was no different. In fact, it was so bad that we skirted off after about 45 minutes, together with most of the group, such that only 5 people of the 30 odd were left by the end! Before we took off, we did get to taste a local potato and egg dish that was only half eaten, so I'd held onto it and gave it to a particularly hungry looking homeless old man, who seemed to devour it with relish!

We spent the next few hours exploring Cusco by ourselves until it was time for our first guided tour of the week at 2pm. We quickly grabbed a bite to eat before the tour, opting for a real local experience with the usual soup for starters and then trout for the mains in a busy diner that catered not in the slightest for tourists! Our lunch was less than £1 and it was one of the best we've had out here! 

We felt obliged to take a photo of these 3 girls taking 800 selfies of each other after each checking their hair, doing a little flick, no, that one won't do, try again...

Before shoving them out the way to take our photos in one take, get it done, get out, thanks!

This tour had been recommended and organised by Carlos for us. It was intended to allow us to see four of the classic archaeological sites in the city of Cusco and was called the "city tour" (yes, really). After duly buying our $25 “boleta turistico” (the required “tourist ticket” – that was to be used for both our city tour today and our sacred valley tour tomorrow - it's not cheap, but inevitably Cusco is cashing in on the tourist route which almost insists on travellers going through it to get to Machu Picchu), we paid about $8 for our tour, negotiating the price down by $1 and feeling like we'd "won".

What we'd won was in fact the most fast paced, tourist filled, Spanish dominated, tick boxing experience we have ever been privileged to be a part of. We raced through ruins that are apparently even more important to the Incas than Machu Pichu, in 15 minutes. In fact, we touched an ancient Inca sacrificial table and gravesite, we spent over an hour in the busiest ancient church you've ever seen, and we sprinted along an Inca walkway to sacred springs just as the sun set. We did, of course have time to stop off at a shop selling (fake?) Alpaca merchandise on the way back and waste half so hour there, but why would anyone want to spend half an hour in a shop instead of exploring ancient ruins?! Anyway, it was a long afternoon... made worse by the average Peruvian “local” tourist being about as rude as can be, but made bearable by our amazing guide who did everything in Spanish for everyone else and English just for us and who was exceptionally knowledgeable, funny and entertaining. We hoped that we'd be lucky enough to get him the morning for our next tour...

In just 4 hours, we visited the Cathedral, Qoricancha, Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “Sexy Woman”… almost), Qenko, Tambomachay, and Puca Pucara.

The first two sights are within Cusco itself, and come complete with roughly 2 billion tourists. After a brief argument with a guy who thought the queue didn’t apply to him, we’re into the Cathedral and shuffling round in an attempt to find room for our group to stand which our guide explains stuff about it.

Then on to the gardens outside, where we quickly get used to the Peruvian custom of barging through people to bundle on to our bus. Our bus, in the middle of 50 other buses, all about to embark on the same tour.

The big rush to get in, get out, and get to the next place meant that we had 10 minutes to race around Sacsayhuaman, which left no time to go look at the giant status of Christ that was a gift from the Palestinians after many of them took refuge in Peru/Cusco during WW2. No time for this, but time to sit on the bus for 15 minutes waiting for 2 passengers who presumably didn’t have a functioning watch.

We could easily have spent an hour meandering around here, and we were pretty tempted to sack off the rest of the tour with the Peruvian heretics in favour of doing just that. It’s pretty incredible to see, and there are different theories about how the Incans would have managed to mine, cut, and move any stones of this size, let alone the hundreds that are used here, the largest of which is 180 tonnes. Then there’s the issue of how they manage to get these massive stones to fit together perfectly without the use of any cement or mortar. My head hurts, better just enjoy the view!

Then on to Qenko, which after Sacsayhuaman is a bit “meh” but features some giant monoliths, and our guide explains how the theory is that this is where sacrifices and mummifications took place, as well as where the Incans would perform a bit of brain surgery... with varying degrees of success.

Puca Pucara (the “Red Fort”) is next on the list. Since it was getting late at this point (!), we were able to see the reason it got this name, as the stones appear to reflect a red hue as the sun sets. Lots of argument about what purpose this area would have served in Incan times, but the popular theory is that it was a defensive military post for the protection of Cusco and the whole Incan empire. The stones are not set in quite the same perfect way as other Incan sites, which is supposed to support the theory that the construction here was rushed in response to some urgent need for a military headquarters...

Final stop, Tambomachay. By now it’s basically dark, but we rush in (with torches!) to see a series of aqueducts, cancals, and waterfalls that run through the rock terraces. As with the other sites, no one really agrees on it’s purpose, and theories range from a military outpost to a spa resort for the Incan elite – or both??

As we leave, there’s the usual collection of ladies selling coca tea and the like from thermos flasks, and CP decides that yes, we do need a cup of tea. We’re still sipping on this when we stop off at a shop selling “genuine” (yeah yeah!) Alpaca jumpers and the like, where as part of the group sales pitch (“touch this one… fake, see. Touch this one… ohhhhhhhhh!”), we get a nice cup of… coca tea. 

Dinner that night was sushi at some beautiful Japanese place rich had found on wiki travel. It felt like a bit of an extravagance, but still came in at less than £15 for an amazing meal of our favourite food!!!

Tuesday involved the Sacred Valley tour and kicked off at 9am. Oh my hat. Another tick box day awaited us, only this time with more driving! We got the same guide though, thanks Lucho! And today more than yesterday he acknowledged that most of the tourists he had been lumbered with were dicks, so opted to do the explanation first in English for us (as we would actually listen to him) which allowed us to hustle off and make the most of our time in each place, before he would then do his tour guide bit in Spanish to the rest of the group who would barely listen anyway.

Todays tour (a solid 11 hours in total!) took us to Pisac Markets, Pisac archaeological site, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. Really, if we hadn’t already signed up for this, I probably wouldn’t have done another tour, but it’s (supposedly) a must do activity so here we are.

We stop off on the way to these world famous Pisac Markets, to look at… some other markets. They would probably be quite nice to have a mooch round if the desperation of the stallholders wasn’t so intense. CP struggled with this as there was no possibility to pause for more than a second at any stall without immediately being accosted by someone telling you every item they have for sale, and the usual “good price, very good price” sales rhetoric. The standard policy became to move on as soon as the stallholder spoke. It’s a good chance for Rich to stretch his Spanish learning skills back into the “taking the piss” territory, and we successfully bargain for a few small items before CP is dragged back to the bus.

Having spent too long there (of course), the group is then under pressure once we arrive at the real Pisac Markets. These are apparently “world famous”, but perhaps more accurately they were world famous several years ago because people would travel from far and wide to buy & sell traditional handicrafts, but now it seems people mostly travel from Cusco to sell their mass manufactured wares at twice the price…

Back on the bus, and as usual we’re waiting for 2 people who finally appear after our guide despatches 2 local children to go find them. Everyone has sat there waiting for what seems like longer than we had at the markets themselves, so naturally they jump on the bus without any hint of shame or apology. Not to worry though, they're shamed by Lucho who announces that as "the group" has spent to long here we now have to rush to make it through the rest of the tour...

Public shaming aside, there’s also a visit to an archeological site at Pisac, but by now it’s all a bit samey, but there's still a decent view down the valley.

And so on to Ollantaytambo. During Incan times this huge area of stone terraces and buildings was an Emperors royal estate, but now it’s just another mass tourist site where everyone searches for that perfect shot without any other tourists in the background. Selfie? No, missed it. Try again? Nope, wasn’t smiling. One more? MOVE FFS! Anyway, we managed a few shots which weren't filled with tourists.

And the obligatory selfie shot ourselves.

Last stop, Chinchero, a small town which would be pretty nice to spend an hour of so, as it's somehow achieved a suitable level of touristy-ness without going all out (I think this means... there's a nice cafe there but you won't be badgered by people selling junk, unless you acknowledge them in which case they will chase you until you submit). We're here for the ruins though, which consists of a series of nested terraces rising up to a plateau with a church on the top, built in the early 1600's.

All those people climbing all those steps? Yeah, we're going up there.

On the way back to Cusco we of course stop off for a lovely cup of tea at a local cooperative and took about an hour to "shop" the local wares. Isn't it nice that we pay for a tour and are treated to an intense sales pitch? To be fair, we were also given a pretty cool demonstration of alpaca wool dying and jumper making by three entertaining indigenous ladies, so cool that CP was compelled to buy what she thought was a genuine alpaca jumper...yeah right! We should have known this wasn't a worthy purchase after Rich managed to incur the wrath of the ladies but daring to ask how much a "genuine" Alpaca scarf was worth, then being hounded for explaining that he didn't want to buy it anyway.

We needed to be back by 7pm so we could embark on the first part of our ayahuasca experience. We didn't get back until 8:30pm and were a little less than relaxed particularly as the reason for our delay was shopping by others in the cooperative and a detoured bus ride back to Cusco again. 

The events that followed that evening and the next day were quite special, a story that will possibly never be committed to print...

Thursday was spent SHOPPING [ffs!] sight seeing and exploring art galleries, where we purchased this awesome piece of work from an 84 year old gent – no haggling here, this guy had spent 4 days chiselling this awesome piece of art from a piece of wood, and we weren’t about to beat him down for the sake of a couple of dollars!

We also purchased two other wall arts, one was a beautiful oil painting of Inca faces (seriously out of this world!), and one was a canvas painting of owl eyes (again, seriously individual and a little eerie). We now have about 6 pieces of canvas which we need to hang when we get back... once we get a house to hang them in of course! Possibly we'll need a wall as big as this?

After an amazing hour long massage (amazing for me, average for Rich apparently), a briefing session with Salkantay Trekking where we meet our companions for the next 5 days, and dinner at a dim sum restaurant we'd stumbled across earlier in the day, it's home to pack everything up (again) for the trek to Machu Picchu!

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