Cuzco reminds me a lot of Boulder, CO. It's high up in the mountains, caters to tourists, and is nevertheless a beautiful place to be.
We spent our first day in Cuzco touring Cuzco's many famous churches, and if there were one institution that clearly permeates Latin America, it would be the Roman Catholic Church.
Ravi and I first visited the Church of Saint Blaise. Catholics have a blessing for anything, and one of our stranger blessings stems from a scene depicted in a series of oil paintings that display St. Blaise's life. Apparently, Saint Blaise saved a kid from choking on a fish bone, and now is not only the patron saint of ear, nose, and throat ailments, but also gives Catholics a chance to have their throats blessed in early February. In Cuzco, however, this simple blessing turns into a gigantic procession throughout the whole neighborhood around the church.
Next, we visited the main Cathedral. Like most religious building in Cuzco, it's covered with Cuzcan Baroque masterpieces, but one of the highlights for me was seeing a picture of the Virgen Mary standing on a clump of Coca leaves. It's not surprising that Andean artists incorporated coca into their understanding of Catholicism, but I can imagine the scandal that would ensue if the Pope were to commission a statue of Jesus holding a marijuana leaf.
Another interesting work of art is a depiction of the Last Supper. Like most Last Supper paintings, Jesus sits at table with his disciples, Judas looks like he's up to no good, and there's bread and wine. Andean peoples didn't really share bread and wine on special occasions; they were more likely to share a roasted guinea pig. Thus, in this Andean depiction of the Last Supper, there's bread, wine, and a juicy guinea pig on a platter looking up at Jesus with his cute *but dead* eyes.
Finally, we visited The Church of the Compania and the Museum of Religious Art. The Church of the Compania was much like the rest, but they let us climb up into the loft to get some great shots of the main Plaza. It's definitely worth a peek if you've already bought the tickets to all the other sites anyway.
While Cuzco itself is a great place to explore, the main reason we came to this part of the world was the famous Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu.
The main trail, while some would argue is passé now, only allows a handful of people to hike through on any given day. In fact, we had to book our tour in the middle of July to guarantee our spot!
While expensive, it was definitely worth it, as we travelled with well-organized SAS. Our guides, Carlos and Valentin, were great, informative, and attentive. There were 15 travellers on our tour, including a group of 7 others from Chicago -- many living down the street from us -- which was fun, along with a couple from Seattle and four more from Nuremburg, Germany. Nineteen-or-so porters, half our size but carrying much more than any of us, wearing sandals, and rushing past us to the next campsite, carried our food, cooking supplies, and tenting equipment.
During Day One, we took a bus a few hours to Ollantaytambo to stop for breakfast and catch the start of our trail. Unfortunately, the road was out at one point and we joined the locals in a bridge-building (literally) exercise.
Finally hitting the trail, the first day wasn´t too tough, mostly level, with a little up and down, but full of amazing views of the valleys and mountains surrounding us. Our porters easily beat us to the first lunch site and already had everything ready for us when we arrived. The same for dinner (and our final camp site for the night).
Our first day on the Inca Trail was a great warmup for the second and most difficult day of hiking. On day two, we hiked up to 4200 meters above sea level (13780 feet) to Dead Woman's Pass. The pass is so named because the silhouette of the mountains looks like a dead woman lying down, plus another peak looks like a breast from a distance. Now, the rest of the group hired porters to carry their belonging up the high-altitude hill, but since Ravi and I are on a budget, we huffed and puffed our way up steep inclines and impossible stone steps until we finally made it to the top! Honestly, I was very proud of us once we both got to the top carrying all that weight, but the day wasn't over yet.
Next we hiked an hour and a half straight downhill to our lunch station. We rested there for a bit, and then we set out to hike up yet another hill. When we finally made it to our dinner stop, our porters (carrying twice my pack's weight and arriving hours ahead of the group) took our bags, made us eat, served us some coca tea, and then promptly put us to bed. Day Two was probably the toughest and most physically demanding outdoor experience I've ever had, but I went to bed content and strangely satisfied with the whole experience.
Day Three was fairly uneventful. Easier than day two, we did end up doing more climbing up and down narrow jungle trails, through ancient ruins and past butterflies and various jungle-esque plants. We arrived at our final campsite early in the afternoon. This is where all the tour groups camp for the final night, and there is a large restaurant and other facilities (including showers!!!) set up. After a welcomed shower, we headed to the nearby Wayna Picchu ruins where the Inca ran agricultural terracing experiments and housed its rainbow temple. Quite a nice stop.
That night was Halloween night, and the restaurant was decked out in various decorations (and kept on repeating ¨Thriller¨ and one or two other Halloween-type songs they had).
If we hadn´t learned our lesson waking up before the sunrise to see NO condors in the Colca Canyon, we (hopefully) did so on Day Four of the Inca Trail. We arose at 4am to get ready and hike a few hours to the Sun Gate, one of the entry points of Machu Picchu, and the home to all the postcard pictures of the monument.
Unfortunately, we´re entering rainy season, and the clouds were thick and dense all around us, and we couldn´t see more than a few meters.
Instead, we continued all the way to Machu Picchu itself, our guide Carlos discussing the history and relevance of many of the structures throughout the ancient ruins, one of the most important in the Inca Empire. Only 500 or so people lived there permanently, but it was the site of royal and religious pilgrimages for decades, and lost until rediscovered in the early 1900s.
As the guided tour continued, during the late morning, the clouds finally moved away for us to get some great shots of the majestic ruins. The pictures speak for themselves in terms of the magnificance Machu Picchu still holds today. Definitely worth the four days trekking through the Peruvian mountains to reach!
That afternoon, we hung out in the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of the Machu Picchu monument, until our train back to Cuzco that evening.
Suffice it to say, we slept well that night back in Cuzco, and did little the next day besides relax, get some laundry done, and rest our weary muscles.
While we hoped to spend some more time in the region to explore other ancient Inca sites around the Sacred Valley, threats of protests and road blocks later in the week changed our plans and we headed off to Puno sooner than expected.