The Inca Trail
Cusco Tourism Sites
This is the chronicle of my first trip to South America, to the nation of Peru. I visited the ancient Inca town of Cusco, as well as the lost city of Machu Picchu, then north to the isolated jungle town of Iquitos to visit the Amazon rainforest for five days.
Peru - May 13 - 30, 2005
I had been preparing for this trip for a while, both physically and mentally. Iíd been going to the gym and pushing myself to build up my endurance. I had also diligently brushed up on my Spanish using the Pimsleur audio course Iíd first used to learn Spanish. Itís a very effective method and I highly recommend it.
Speaking Spanish was one of the most beneficial skills I could have taken with me. I was surprised at how few people spoke English. Itís been my experience before that in tourist areas, most people will speak a decent amount of English. Peru was different. I rarely encounted anyone who spoke more than a few rudimentary words of English. Certainly my Spanish could be better, but it was far and away better than the English of anyone I encountered.
Being able to speak the language really opens you up to a richer, deeper, and more profound experience. I was able to converse and connect with the people who live there. Some of them I feel I got to be good friends with and have kept in touch with over the internet. In my first few hours there, I befriended a group of high school boys I met in the plaza de armas; Freddy, Hiroshi, Yuri, and Hans. I would end up spending the next few days with them while they showed me around many of the Inca sites surrounding Cusco. I had hoped to meet someone locally who could be my guide, but I hadnít expected it to come so quickly, nor to form a friendship like we did.
My local amigos
I met these four amigos at the Plaza de Armas just an hour or so after Iíd arrived in Cusco. There was a huge festival going on involving a graduation of sorts for all the private academy students. They all gathered in the square with their colorful uniforms and banners. What a boon for a photographer. I went out to get as many photos of it as I could. While I was near the church, I noticed a group of boys doing some acrobatic dancing. Itís a Brazilian style of dance called Capoeira that mixes dance moves with martial arts. I tried to get some shots of this inconspicuously. However, no such luck. The boys noticed me right away. But instead of shy away as Iíd expected, they actually enjoyed being in front of the camera and started asking me to take photos of them performing their stunts.
|L to R: Yuri, Hans, Hiroshi, Freddy, me
After taking lots of shots at the plaza, I was ready to set off and see the sites around town. However, I didnít really know where to start. I had just arrived in Cusco and was sort of winging it. The amigos suggested we - yes, we, they intended to be my guides from then on - go visit the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, which, amuzingly, are pronounced pretty close to "Sexy woman".
One thing I learned right away about this part of the world is that the sun really is intense, much more than I expected. I assume itís because of the elevation. I learned the hard way that just a couple of hours in the midday sun can leave you burnt. I had a nice bright red face, contrasted by an equally bright pale spot where Iíd been wearing a head scarf.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed walking around the amazing ruins. Itís fascinating to me to see these enormous boulders all stacked together in a perfect fit - not a tiny sheet of paper would fit between them - and speculate at how the ancient Incan people accomplished this. And speculate is all anyone can really do. The Incas had no written language so there is very little that can be known for sure about their history.
Dealing with the Altitude
Coming to Cusco, where the elevation is more than twice that of Denver, I was curious to see if the altitude would affect me. I had been to Colorado a couple of times, but only to elevations a little above 11,000 feet. At that height, I didnít feel any different than I normally do, so I expect the altitude in the Andes wouldnít bother me too much. Cusco sits at over 13,000 feet. At first I didnít think it was affecting me at all. However, when I started making the climb up to Sacsayhuaman, I felt what is probably the most common symptom of high altitude - shortness of breath.
It didnít feel like I was suffocating, or that I couldnít catch my breath. Nothing that bad. But I did notice, and it was almost amuzing, that climbing up stairs left me having to stop and take deep breaths quite frequently. But sure enough, I acclimatized and this feeling went away in just a couple of days.
After spening most of the afternoon at Sacsayhuaman, and taking countless photos of the amigos doing their Capoeira, I decided it was time to head back to the room and get a little siesta. I was really starting to feel the affects of the long flight, the sun, and the altitude.
Before saying goodbye to the amigos, we agreed to meet up again the next morning. They were going to take me around to some of the more distant ruins and make a day of it.
After enjoying a good long nap, I started working on the first incarnation of this travelogue page and then headed out to find some good, overpriced, Americanized dinner at the Plaza.
The temples of Qenko, Pukapukara, and Tambomachay
Hiroshi, Yuri, and Freddy met me outside my hostel at 8 am., just as weíd agreed to the day before. They took me on a real insider's tour of some of the Inca ruins. We started off having to retrace our steps through Sacsayhuaman on our way to Quenko, Pukapukara, and then Tambomachay. We took a route that went through fields and over the hills. This was a part of the Cusco area that very few tourists have likely ever seen. We barely saw a road the whole time.
Before coming here, Iíd heard from other photographers that the expectation of a tip, or propina in Spanish, for photos is very much the norm. In between Sacsayhuaman and Quenko, I took a photo of a boy with a llama. No sooner than the shutter clicked, he demanded (in a voice that almost questioned me), "Una propina?!", as if to say, "Come on Mister, where's my tip." I told him of course he was getting a propina and handed him one sole. I'm torn on the idea of tips for photos, but it's the system that exists here so I'm probably not going to be the one to change it. But I did learn one thing during my time here. You don't have to hand out one sole to everyone you take a photo of. Most little kids are happy with any coin. Later in Tipon, I gave two boys 10 centimos each (about 3 cents) and they were happy as could be. Only once, in Ollontaytambo, did one boy seem to grumble when I gave him 20 centimos.
Just past Sacsayhuaman, I stopped at a vendorís cart to buy some water for me and the amigos. After setting off through a field and walking about 200 meters, I looked back and noticed the vendor running up behind us. "What could this be about? Did we leave something behind?", I wondered. When the man finally reached us, he told one of the guys that the coin Iíd given him, five soles or about $1.60, was counterfeit. I was bewildered that anyone would think it was worth the trouble to counterfeit a coin worth so little. It couldnít be that easy to make a coin that looks every bit like the real thing. The amigos had a few words with him and, in essense, told him to get lost. He grumbled a bit as he walked away. I was still bewildered and amuzed at the scene. But apparently people have a nearly constant fear of receiving counterfeit money in Peru. Nearly every place I bought something, they inspected the money I handed them.
Continuing on, the first ruin we came to was Qenko. This was also the first place where I saw how most of the ruins were turned into makeshift marketplaces, with women (almost always women) displaying wares on a spread out blanket. Donít be tempted to think everything they sell is just junk. Some of it is, but there are also some quality items - especially woolen wear - for ridiculously cheap prices. If you come across one of these ladies and see something you like, do something good for the local economy and buy it.
Qenko was really interesting and very different from any other ruin I saw. Rather than stones that were cut into blocks and stacked to make a structure, Qenko looks as if it was entirely carved from a massive area of rock, about a hundred meters long or more. It has stairs and different levels going all over the place. It sort of reminded me of the M.C. Escher print "Relativity", the one with stairs going in endless circles. I could be wrong, but Qenko seemed to be one of the oldest of the ruins, and in the worst state of disrepair.
After Qenko, we again headed off into farmland, me trusting the amigos to get me to the next ruins on the itinerary, Pukapukara. This was one of my favorites. Pukapukara is a semi-circular fortress that sits on a hill. It looked impressive from a distance also, sitting on a ledge perched over a terraced valley. On the way to Tambomachay, we passed through a very poor village with adobe homes. Here, I got a picture of two little girls in the native dress holding a puppy. His name was Pancho, they were quick to tell me. They were ready to pose and even more ready to ask for a propina.
Seeing this had me pondering. Something we just donít see in the USA is little kids, maybe only six or seven years old, sent out to work or beg from tourists. I asked Freddy what he thought about this. His reply, matter of factly, was, "Theyíre poor. Thatís their job." What could I say?
Just after this, we reached the last site weíd visit for that day, Tambomachay. I have to say, of all the ruins Iíd seen so far, this one was a bit of a letdown. It was an OK site, but certainly not on any "must see" list. It was little more than some fountains set along a terraced wall. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the walk out there and enjoyed the amigosí company.
The Sacred Valley
After getting back into town from the second dayís excursion, I booked a tour to the Sacred Valley. I was a bit concered that I wasn't going to be able to get there, but this town definitely caters to the tourists and my Inca trail agency, Andean Life, had a tour going the very next morning, Sunday. I paid $15 and signed up. It most definitely did not disappoint. The Sacred Valley is simply enchanting.
We first went to Pisac, to see the Sunday market, which was everything it was cracked up to be. There were little shops set up as far as the eye could see, each one selling pretty much the same things - pan flutes, any kind of alpaca clothes imaginable, stone carvings, ceramics, hats, you name it. The most fascinating part for me, though, were the food stalls. This is where I came across the most quintessential Peruvian/Incan scenes I'd yet seen. All the women in their sweaters, bowler caps, and long braided hair. There were also stalls in every direction where women were selling vegetables, coca leaves, and raw meat. I took a picture of one woman's corn and she stuck her hand out asking for a propina. Yes, they certainly have become accustomed to the propina for photos here.
Next to Calca, lunch in Yucay, a place very unlikely to have such a nice little Inca buffet, then we passed through Urubamaba. Our next stop was in Ollontaytambo. I briefly went to visit the historical site, but there was a festival going on in the plaza that was far more interesting for me. I stayed there most of the time and tooks lots of pictures of the parades and costumes. That was so much more worthwhile for me. I got some shots I'm going to really treasure.
On the way home we passed through Chinchero, which I found to look quite modern. It also had a huge market going on in the lawn area. One woman offered me an alpaca blanket for 40 soles (about $12). If I didn't have to carry the thing on the rest of my trip, I would have bought three or four. There's no arguing it was beautiful, incredibly soft, and very warm. The price she quoted me left me bewildered. I told her that I didn't need it and couldn't carry it, but that she should ask for at least 100 soles. It was certainly worth it.
Pikillacta, Lake Huacarpay, and Tipon
The next morning, Monday, I hadnít really made plans to do anything other than eat breakfast. As I stepped out of the hostel, I found Hiroshi there by the door, waiting for me. I didn't really expect him, but I think I had mentioned something to him about stopping by if he wanted to. I didn't mention a time, but he must have assumed from the time before that 8 was a good time. I left the hostel just a few minutes after 8 and he said he'd been there since 7:45. I was happy to see him again. It freed me from having to plan the day. He already had some excursions in mind. But first, we made a stop for some breakfast at the little shop on Calle Procuradoras that was becoming my regular breakfast place.
He and I went out to see Pikillacta, Lake Huacarpay, and the village of Tipon, a cluster of sites a few kilometers east of Cusco. We took the bus, which cost all of one sole (30 cents). I enjoyed Pikillacta, but it was starting to look like every other ruin Iíd seen so far. Plus it had started to rain a bit, so our enthusiasm for touring the site was a bit dampened (forgive the pun). After the rain let up, we walked down to Lake Huacarpay, just a few meters down the hill from Pikillacta. Itís a tranquil and relaxing little lake. There was a shelter there and I decided it was a good place to stop and take a break for a while.
I snapped a couple of photos here. The scene was very inviting, with mountains in the back contrasting with the blue of the lake and the yellow of dried grass along the rim of the lake. Hiroshi showed some curiosity about my camera, so I handed it to him and invited him to take some photos of his own. I was impressed with what he shot. Heís actually got a pretty good eye, and I noticed he was very carefully framing his shot, waiting for the right light, and timing it to capture the fisherman on the lake in just the right position.
After this brief pause, we set off to see Tipon. I had intended to visit the historical site, but had to settle for just walking through the village. I had a meeting to get to back in Cusco at 6:30, a briefing for my Inca trail trip the next day. I asked one of the villagers how much further the site was. She said it was about another hour's walk. I couldn't do that. It was already getting to be late afternoon. I had to get back to Cusco.
Even without seeing the ruins though, the village of Tipon was visually fascinating. Itís a very poor village, heartbeakingly so. The people I came across displayed a mix of curious suspicion at this foreigner and cautious friendliness. I came across one scene that looked straight out of National Geographic, a young boy about ten with tattered clothes and dirty face, saddling up his horse in front of the familyís adobe home. He had the hardest face Iíd ever seen on such a young person. I often feel conflicted about taking pictures of such things. It definitely feels like exploitation. But on the other hand, what can I do to help? Nothing really. And this is something I want to remember and to have others see. I asked if I could take his picture. I could, for a propina, of course.
Cuy is on the lunch menu
After spending most of the morning and afternoon looking at the sites, I was starving. We hadnít eaten since breakfast. I become a very cranky person if I get this hungry, so I told Hiroshi we had to find a place to eat here. Oddly, Tipon seems to be the Cuy (pronounced "kwee") Capitol of Peru. If you donít know what cuy is, you certainly know it by itís English name - guinea pig. Yes, strangely enough, guinea pig seems to be a very popular dish here. Itís especially praised by restaurant proprietors who like selling it to novelty seeking tourists in Cusco for 50 soles a plate ($15).
I have to admit, I was curious enough that I wanted to try it, but not for that price. Luckily I hadnít tried it yet, and here in Tipon, it was selling for a much more reasonable 13 soles. That I couldnít object to. Am I ever so thankful I didnít waste 50 soles trying it in Cusco. I wasn't impressed at all. On this whole animal there was only about a tablespoon full of meat. And the taste was nothing special. As cliche as it sounds, it really does taste like chicken. If you come to Peru and absolutely canít leave without saying youíve tried the cuy, at least come to Tipon and try it. Even at 13 soles, I felt like it was a bit of a ripoff.
At the restaurant, Hiroshi asked if he could have my leftovers. He wanted to take them home to his little brother. I said of course, but it struck me as a bit odd. I asked him why. He explained that his family didn't have much. His parents were divorced and his mom didn't earn a good living. This surprised me a bit. I sort of assumed all of these guys were on the more well off side. They all seemed to have nice, stylish clothes, sunglasses, and backpacks. I didn't take any of them as being in want. Nonetheless, Hiroshi confided that he only owns three shirts and two pairs of pants. I felt bad for assuming they were doing well.
While waiting for the bus to Cusco to come by, we started walking on the road. He showed me his shoes that were split down the side, saying he shouldn't be wearing them out. They were the only pair he owned. I decided I was going to buy him a pair of shoes when we got back to town. It was nothing to me. But to him it was not only a lot of money, but very significant also. Along one road in Cusco, we found many shops selling shoes. He found some he liked. He got a price of 35 soles (from the original quote of 38) and I bought them for him. He was very reluctant to get them. I had to insist. He said it was a lot of money. Actually, it was only about $10. I didn't want to be insufferable and tell him how little this is to most people in the U.S., but I told him it was nothing and not to think anything of it.
Walking through this part of Cusco with him was a bit eye-opening. It was much different from the Plaza de Armas. It was dirty, crowded, busy, with lots of cramped little stores and people scampering in and out. I got the distinct feeling that Plaza de Armas was the isolated little part that they sanitize for tourists. This part, however, was far more authentic and for me, more interesting. The contrast was striking.
We got back to Plaza de Armas just in time for my 6:30 meeting. Patiently, Hiroshi waited for me during the meeting, which took about 40 minutes. We then went back to the hostel so I could burn a CD for him of the photos I took of him and the other guys. It took a bit longer than I expected and it was getting late. He told me about 8:20 that he had to go. He was taking the bus back home and couldn't miss the last bus. So as soon as the CD finished, we headed out and went to find an internet shop. One last thing I told him was that I'd set him up with a Yahoo account so that we could keep in touch by instant messenger. We got to the shop, but he said he didn't have time. He had to go immediately. He asked me again when I would be back from the Inca Trail. I told him Saturday. At the briefing I was told my return train would have me arriving in Cusco around 8pm. Only at that moment did it dawn on me that I wouldn't be back in time to spend any time with him on Saturday. I apologized and told him I thought this was probably the last time we'd spend time together while I was here. Understandably, he looked disappointed. I was too. I didn't want to say goodbye like that. Not so abruptly. Not so unexpectedly. But nonetheless, I said goodbye, hugged him, and he was gone. I didn't see which direction he went and I didn't catch sight of him again. I walked back to the hostel a bit dejected. We had gotten close in the few days I'd known him.
More to come...