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By Rachel
Cuzco: June 22 – 25, 2012

Our journey to South America began very tamely with a day of rest in Lima. After bouncing around the States for three weeks, and a last minute packing day (we were WAY less prepared for South America than for Asia!), by the time we got to Lima, we just wanted to pass out and relax. So we literally only saw Lima for the couple hours that we walked around to get dinner. But, it was fun trying to remember our Spanish as we tried getting around.

The only thing we planned before going to South America was our trip to Machu Picchu as we heard that tickets could be a problem. It just so happened that a huge annual festival was taking place in Cuzco (where you pretty much have to go to get to Machu Picchu) on June 24, Inti Raymi, so we planned our visit to Machu Picchu around this as well.

Cuzco is a beautiful city (the capital of the departamento, similar to a state or province, of Cuzco) that is an interesting blend of the Spanish colonial times and its deep-rooted history as the capital of the Incan empire. It’s also has an altitude of 3,400 meters making it super hard to breathe at times while walking uphill! Luckily, mate de coca (herbal tea made of coca leaves) was readily available at our hostel when we checked in and pretty much everywhere thereafter. The coca tea (coca leaves contain just a smidge of what is eventually refined into cocaine) supposedly helps calm the symptoms of altitude sickness.

There are a few things that stand out in my mind as I think about Cuzco. First, the beautiful architecture – the colonial style buildings, in some places built over the old Incan stone-laid walls, the wide cobblestone alleys and of course the charming plazas in various parts of the city. Second, all the cute cafes and restaurants that line the streets – one of our faves was Mama Oli’s in Plaza San Blas – a little café with five tables, cheap drinks and yummy chicha morada (a juice made from purple corn).  And finally, the view. The city is nestled in the Andes Mountains that provide dramatic, awe-inspiring bulging landscapes. And the sky… I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sky so perfectly, so pristinely blue. It’s the first thing I noticed every day that I walked around – how vividly beautifully blue the sky is, with almost cliché puffy white clouds dotting its expanse.

As I mentioned before, we were in Cuzco a couple days before Inti Raymi, a huge annual festival honoring the Sun god, Inti. The days leading up to Inti Raymi are very celebratory and we were able to see a huge parade in which the different departamentos of Peru and institutions (like the police) of Cuzco came out to honor and celebrate the festival. I loved seeing all the different signs, costumes and dances of the various groups of people that paraded up Avenida El Sol and into the main Plaza del Armas.

The second day we were in Cuzco, we arranged to go on a city tour to see some of the attractions around Cuzco, mainly Incan ruins. Side note: pretty much the only way to see the attractions is to buy the tourist ticket (boleto turistico) that costs a whopping 130 soles and is valid for ten days. It gives entrance to most of the attractions around the city of Cuzco and the nearby Sacred Valley. Our city tour (15-20 soles per person) included a visit to Qoricancha (Qoricancha is not included in the tourist ticket but the museum at Qoricancha is), Saqsayhuaman, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara and Tambomachay. Qoricancha, or Temple of the Sun, was somewhat interesting – it used to be the most important temple in Cuzco for the Incan empire and was supposedly covered in sheets of gold until it was basically looted by the invading Spaniards (this was pretty much a recurring theme – i.e., such and such place was built or being built until the Spanish invasion and then the Incans heard the Spanish were coming and ran off to the jungle for protection). The Spanish built Church Santo Domingo on top of the Incan temple, though over time, the site has experienced at least three major earthquakes, resulting in much of the cathedrals’ demolishment but the old, original Incan stonework remains due to its solid infrastructure of tightly locked stones. Although we visited a few different temples within the Qoricancha (dedicated to other important gods like rainbows, thunder, lightning and the moon), they now just look like rooms with huge stone walls since pretty much everything has been looted, rebuilt or destroyed.  Qoricancha was also the main astronomical observatory for the Incas. We were told in a later tour that the astronomer was one of the most respected people in the community as he was responsible for reading the weather patterns and determining when it may rain, an essential for the agrarian based Incas.

The other memorable stop on the tour was Saqsayhuaman (though now the only way I can even remotely remember how to say this is our tour guide jokingly saying it shouldn’t be confused with a “sexy woman”). Saqsayhuaman is one of the important Incan ruins, and is a series of walls built with huge interlocking stone pieces without the use of mortar. Cuzco is supposedly in the shape of a puma with Saqsayhuaman representing the head. It is used today to celebrate the annual Inti Raymi festival. Sawsayhuaman is about 300 m above Cuzco and offers a gorgeous view of the city, including the Cristo Blanco (White Christ) statue that lords over the city. Unfortunately, the rest of the places on the tour were far less interesting /memorable.

We ended the evening by going to the Qosqo (the Quechua word for Cuzco) de Arte Nativo, which puts on traditional musical dance performances (LOVED!).

Finally, the days in Cuzco during June are gorgeous, sunny and in the 70s during the day. At night, however, it got rather cold and since the hostels and buildings are generally made from cement, there is no real insulation so our rooms got pretty frigid. At least we had a portable heater on the second night at our hostel, Quechua Hostel (nice place, really friendly staff – a few minutes walk from the Plaza del Armas – request a heater!) and nice hot water! But it made it hard for these Texans to want to get out of the room to do stuff at night!