Monday, February 19, 2018

Cusco, Peru

Cusco is such a beautiful and cheery city in Peru that it's striking to think of how it holds within its heart a very dark and brutal past.  Built on Inca blood, sweat, and tears, it was then worshipped as the greatest citadel in the Inca empire for several centuries before it was completely ransacked by Spanish conquistadors.  Now, it is sustained primarily by tourism.  Indeed, we experienced Cusco as dutiful tourists would: we saw and appreciated how Inca roots, Spanish colonialism, and modern-day comforts intermix to form the hybrid culture that makes Cusco what it is today.  Cusco had so much to offer, and we tried to see as much of it as possible during our two days there before the start of the Salkantay Trek and the one day after we returned. Get ready for lots of photos of food (whole roasted guinea pig!), sexy women (okay, it's Sacsayhuaman), and TMI (when you travel to Peru, you'd better be prepared for lots of bodily dysfunction).

We came to Cusco simply because it was the starting point for the much-anticipated Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.  All the guidebooks say that tourists should spend a few days in Cusco adjust to the altitude (Cusco is at 11,152 feet elevation), and if you were at all sensible, you'd follow the rules and rest often and eat lightly.   In a city as culturally vibrant and as walkable as Cusco,  you can't follow those rules.  Of course, it was literally impossible to resist indulging in Peruvian food and we unwittingly booked two tours within the first hour of our arrival.  We probably paid for it on our third day, eating plain crackers and tea for the better half of the day due to food poisoning (ice!!) and traveller's diarrhea (well, that's a given) - but overall, no regrets.  In fact, getting sick made us appreciate the hospitality and care of everyone around us so much more.

It was surprisingly cold despite how brightly the sun was shining when we popped out of the terminal.  Squinting around, we finally spotted our name (Wong) written on a sign held up by this stout Peruvian man in a dress shirt and a brown leather jacket.  Our hostel offered to pick us up, so why not?  Turns out that they just wanted to get the leg up on selling us some tours - welcome to Cusco, the land of the tourists, we thought.  James turned out to be one of our greatest friends in Cusco, even though we weren't sure how much we could trust him right off the bat.  He was just doing his job, and in the end we were really glad that we booked through him because he did offer us a pretty sweet deal on two tours, with a really grand buffet included.   We weren't even planning on going to the Sacred Valley in the short span of time we were supposed to be spending on "acclimatizing" in Cusco!

We stayed at Samay Wasi Youth Hostel, and, true to all of its Tripadvisor reviews, it sure was a hike to get to it.  We purposefully chose to stay in the picturesque San Blas neighborhood, which is known for its charming crooked pathways and steep stairways...yeah, charming until you realize that you're huffing and puffing from thinner air than you're used to while carrying all of your baggage too. Neither of us had even eaten anything yet since our super-early wakeup call, but we weren't even thinking about food.  First, we needed to hit up the ATM and pay James for these freaking tours that we just randomly booked! ........and, the nearest ATM was back down all of the stairs in the city center.

It was really charming, though.  We creaked open the front gate at the top of tons of stairs and walked along a corridor, with shingled roofs exploding into a gorgeous view of the city to our right.  Then, through a small glass door was the front desk area.  There were some young European guys there doing some check-in stuff too, and everyone was really friendly right away.  The girl at the front gave us our key.  The hostel is really not very big, only 10 or so private rooms and a shared bunk area - we had one of the private rooms and loved everything about it.

We quickly dropped off our things and then met James in the common area, where there was no shortage of glass jars full of coca leaves.  James showed us how to steep our very first of many cups of coca tea.  Mate de coca is the world-famous antidote for soroche, the Peruvian slang term for altitude sickness. I'd always been curious about it, but it tasted pretty much like green tea and wasn't quite as magical as I thought it would be. Anyway, we willingly stuffed our cups full of these leaves and steeped them several times. James chatted with us while we sipped the elixir of altitude wellness and naturally, our conversations led to food.

Lomo saltado alpaca (yes, with alpaca meat! good stuff)

Trucha a la vasca (lightly breaded trout with vasca sauce)

Our first meal in Cusco was at a place that James likes, Qorisara. Oh man, it was so good. We just wanted to kick things off with some good old Peruvian traditional food, and we got what we wanted per James's recommendation.  We were probably the only tourists here, but we did NOT blend in at all since we ordered mountains of food while everyone else was there for the cheap lunch specials.  Coincidentally, we ran into the Salkantay Trekking manager and his wife there, and they were so excited to see us and talk to us about our upcoming trek.  They also eyed our food warningly, but we polished everything off, like the idiotic tourists that we were!

We quickly realized that we would be needing lots of cash...because...we kept getting suckered into buying things. Like these carved gourds. I mean, how could you say "no" to a lady with a kid on her back and another lady who offered to custom carve the date on the bottom for you? And those beautiful sweaters that everyone seemed to be wearing... they're only $15 each, so why not buy three of them? Oh boy, and there were many other temptations, and numerous, numerous vendors beckoning to any and all tourists, to the point where you simply have to put your foot down!

The omnipresent Inca Kola.  It wasn't my favorite.

Walking through the streets was really intriguing.  It is clear that these streets were built long before automobiles were invented - somehow, they make it work.

Stopped for an apricot pastry from a bakery run by nuns.

We didn't feel much altitude sickness, despite hiking up and down lots of stairs, but we were pretty ready for a nap by the time we essentially hiked back to our hostel.

We woke up as the sun was going down.  Watching the lights go on through the hills was so beautiful – our view from this hostel in San Blas was truly breathtaking and worth the daily uphill climb. We headed out again after that - we weren't super hungry because of those huge lunches, but the city center called to us, so we headed back down those crazy alleyways and somehow ended up eating burgers at Gaston Acurio's Americanized Peruvian burger joint, Papacho's.

Yes, odd that we would eat burgers in a different country, but we did the same thing in Iceland and it is always interesting to see others' take on American food.  We actually liked our food here a lot – best $10 burger ever, says Wes (which is expensive for Peruvian standards). I got a salad topped with a quinoa burger patty, because I hadn’t pooped, and immediately after I finished it, I went to the bathroom. Yes!

Overall, it was a really chill yet not-chill Day One.  We never were hit with altitude sickness, but it did get really dry and we were uncharacteristically breathless from walking up stairs and up the slopes back to our hostel. It was also much colder than I had anticipated, but very refreshing compared to Pasadena! Good thing I had multiple new sweaters to layer into...come on, just lemme justify those purchases this once.

Day Two was definitely a different story.  Maybe we were a bit overzealous with our planning thanks to James's expert salesmanship, but that morning, we somehow found ourselves on a tour bus headed on a winding road for the Sacred Valley, making stops in Pisac, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero.  We honestly don't have a lot of photos from this day because, well, 1.) too much was packed into this one day so our quick snapshots wouldn't have done justice to these places, and mostly 2.) Wes got really sick partway through it and essentially was a zombie for the rest of the day.  He actually hid it well and still tried to be as social as possible with the others in our group, doing all of the walks through temples and cliffs, and even tried to eat at a buffet in Urubamba despite puking right before going in.  I knew that things had to be really wrong when he refused a freshly made street churro and laid his head down on my lap in the bus and closed his eyes.

We couldn't figure out whether it was altitude sickness, or carsickness, or food poisoning... but we're pretty sure that it was the ice in his morning coffee that was the culprit :( Everyone on the tour was so nice and considerate, offering us coca candy and soroche pills and advice.  They assured us that each of them had to overcome some sort of sickness themselves, too.  I think that overall, this trip touched our hearts because of all the truly friendly people, tourists and locals alike.  We felt a genuine connection with everyone there, unlike anything we've felt at any other country before.  Not sure what it is about Peru, but it must have a magical effect on all people!

So after that tour, we returned to Cusco and Wes didn't end up eating any dinner (we tried juice but it didn't sit well with him either).  I had a quinoa soup from a soup place full of tourists near the city center and he went straight to bed while I chatted for a long time with James and a girl from Hong Kong who was staying at Samay Wasi too.  I was glad to have the company and camaraderie - everyone at the hostel was super open and easy to talk to, and all were deeply concerned about Wes!

So for Day 3 we had a tour of Cusco lined up for the afternoon but it looked like it was going to be difficult for Wes to make it.  It started in the afternoon, so we took it super easy that morning, sitting around at the hostel eating plain crackers, drinking gatorade, and popping pills, while the maids bustled in and out of our room changing sheets not once but twice, because.... yes, poor Wes.  Using my broken Spanish to announce apologetically and frantically that he had once again messed up the bed was one of the most aggravating things that I had to do this trip.  I hoped that my facial expressions made up for any language misinterpretations.

Again, the staff were so genuinely nice.  Not only were they gracious about all of the annoying cleanup (doing laundry is a major pain in the ass here in Cusco), but they even made Wes a special herbal tea (I think it was lemongrass tea) to help soothe his insides, and warned us not to drink any more coca tea because apparently that exacerbates diarrhea.  James was very supportive too.

We slept for a little and then Wes woke up and decided that he was well enough to join the tour.  So we met James in front of the cathedral and he took us to Aristotle, our smart and funny tour guide. I liked this tour more than yesterday's, it was less hassled and more detailed. Wes didn't feel bad at all during it either. I was still having some traveller's diarrhea, but nothing major. Btw diarrhea pills are so bitter and nasty!!!!

Coricancha, the famous temple where a Spanish church had been superimposed on Inca stonemasonry during the takeover.  Interesting to see a mix of arches and colonnades with limestone walls.

Sacsayhuamán (pronounced like "sexy woman") was a stone fortress built right on the outskirts of Cusco.  It must have been very imposing back in its days - all that remains now are its stone foundations, which is a testament to how strong the Inca made its base.  It is pretty amazing to see how each ancient stone fit together, corner to corner, edge to edge - the work of people's bare hands.

Tambomachay, a string of aqueducts, canals and waterfalls that run through its tiered stone.

Qenko is one of the largest huacas (holy places) in the Cusco Region.  Many huacas were based on naturally occurring rock formations. It was believed to be a place where sacrifices and mummification took place, like in that last photo.  It was a very mysterious place and a little creepy, especially since we arrived there after dark.

At 7 PM, we got back from the tour just in time to go to the Salkantay Trekking orientation and briefing. It was exciting and soothed my nerves. We could already tell that our guide, Edgar, was awesome.  We met the others who would be in our group too.  We had a glorious dinner of Kind bars and then we walked back to the hostel for the last time. Those stairs, man. But that view, man.

Packed our bags until 11 PM - wake up time would be at 3:15 AM.  Pickup at 4:30 - we were anxious and excited, and VERY glad that we had gotten sick and recovered by now!

After we returned from the AMAZING trek, we had one full day to enjoy Cusco before bidding farewell and moving on to the next leg of our trip.

But  We stumbled upon Monkey Coffee, a really hip place in the San Blas neighborhood around the corner from our hostel whose owner is a major coffee aficionado.  It felt like we were in a little corner of Los Angeles here.  We had a good time chatting with the owner about his experiences around the world, of which he has many photos hanging on the walls.  Some were from Lake Tahoe, California!  He says that upscale coffee is becoming more of a thing in Cusco, but is still pretty under-appreciated by the locals.  We told him of how we visited a coffee farm during our trek in the Andes and that it taught us a lot about how much work goes into producing a perfect cup of coffee.

Laundry was our second order of business (after seeking out some legit, iceless coffee) on this last day in Cusco.  We dropped off two loads of dirty trekking clothes a few doors down from the hostel at the laundromat, which was really just a lady's house, and walked through Cusco one last time, soaking in its quaint urban atmosphere while feeling rejuvenated from the past five days in nature. However, I did feel some slight altitude symptoms today as we were back in Cusco after being in a lower altitude in the tropical area for a while. Everything felt like it was happening in slow motion and I was having trouble focusing.

Our last meal in Cusco was at La Cusquenita (recommended by Edgar) and we made it a very good one, with whole roasted guinea pig, lamb rib stew, choclo, and a gigantic cup of chicha de jora while watching a traditional dance performance on a stage inside of the restaurant itself.

It was sort of hard to find at first; we walked there and got a little confused and had to ask some local shop owners to point us in the right direction.  Super excited when we got there!

They let us poke our heads into the back when we arrived.  Some women were making chicha in these huge vats!

Preparing strawberries for their strawberry flavored chicha.

Making chicha morada, the fermented purple corn drink of Peru!

Fermentation is under way.

We sat down and of course ordered some fresh chicha.  We opted for the white one.  The single portion size was shocking!

It tasted really good and smooth, sort of reminded me of horchata with the cinnamon flavor.

Decisions, decisions!! So many intriguing dishes.

(in English)

Here's what we got!

Roasted guinea pig (cuy al horno), stuffed with huacatay (a Peruvian mint plant) and sitting on top of two types of potatoes: papas doradas (golden potatoes) and moraya (freeze dried potato).

It also came with this interesting noodle casserole - a little bland but does hit the spot.  It always surprises me how there are so many similarities between Chinese food and Peruvian food!

We were kind of sad to eat it, but then we immediately forgot about that sentiment when we took our first bite.  This restaurant does it right.  The skin was crispy (like Peking duck would be), the flesh was few and far between but moist and juicy, and overall you couldn't tell that you were really eating a rodent.  But then we noticed that it did have a little bit of a funky aftertaste...

Lamb rib stew (caldo de costillar), with potatoes, yucca, and rice.  We were so in love with the tenderness of this whole lamb rib!!

Plump and juicy kernels!  Choclo - we wish there was corn like this in the U.S.!

Always with the green sauce.

Not sure if we really connected with their traditional dance style/music/costuming, but it was cool that they performed right there while we were eating lunch!

Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus

The perfectly cut stone walls known as the Hatun Rumiyoc, which makes up the outside of the Archbishop’s palace.  There is a famous twelve-angled stone here that Aristotle showed us during our tour.

A stop into the Choco Museo was fun!  We even got to sample a coca-infused chocolate.

Got the laundry!

It was a bittersweet goodbye to a city that had won our hearts - no matter how touristy.  We felt blessed by everyone who we met.  When I got into the car that James called for us, I remember feeling a little weird about letting go so soon and unsure if I was ready to leave Samay Wasi and go out of our comfort zone once again, into the unfamiliar.  But then we unexpectedly fell for Urubamba even harder than we had fallen for Cusco - that shall be the next blog post!

Good-bye, Cusco!

No comments:

Post a Comment