I didn't think we were going to see the bicycle rickshaws again. But there they were, all over Peru. Even in the steep side roads of Cusco, these guys are using pedal power to shuffle folks around town. It's really strange how these types of things catch on in some countries and are absent in others. It was explained to us that taxi company affiliation here costs the drivers a lot, so many prefer to go it alone "unlicensed" so they don't have to give to companies a cut. The police don't seem to mind. And in Cusco, there are so many tourists, that there is enough work to go around for everyone.
We decided to take the bus up from Puno instead of the train (which was the original plan) based on the advice of the guy at our hostel. He sold us a couple of tickets on a bus that stops all the way along at various Inca and colonial sites, so we would be able to turn what would otherwise be just a regular travel day into something with a few interesting stops. I suppose it was OK. The church we stopped at was crumbling but beautiful, and one of the Inca sites in particular really showed how the people built residential homes. But the best of the Inca was still to come in Cusco and of course Machu Picchu. The most interesting stop to me was the pass between Puno and Cusco which represents the very northern tip of the Bolivian altiplano, and the end of the (really) high ground. At this point between the two cities, the coastal and inland Andean ranges meet, and there are several high mountains and glaciers. It is here that the mighty Urubamba River is born, and we were able to see it in it's infancy, starting it's endless journey to the Atlantic in what will eventually become the world's greatest river - the Amazon. It can be argued that since this is probably the longest tributary of the Amazon, that the start of the Amazon is in fact this point - the start of the Urubamba. It's strange because when you look at a map, the mouth of the Amazon is so far from this point, and the Pacific is so close; it is very deceiving as one would assume that any river here would naturally just spill into the Pacific. However, when you see a relief map, you realize how high the altiplano really is; what a wall the Andes are, and how immense the Amazonian jungles really are. Amazing geography.
And there is a sure sense that you are leaving somewhere very very high. As you drop from the altiplano, slowly the earth begins to sprout small trees here and there, and the colour green becomes the dominant one, covering the slopes all the way to the tops of the mountains. The valleys steepen, and the temperature slowly rises until finally, you reach the small city bowl that contains Cusco, at about 3400 m. I know, that still sounds very high, but when you compare to Bolivia and the rest of the area around Lake Titicaca, Cusco is altitudinal (is that a word?) child's play.
The day after arriving, we were supposed to head out to the Sacred Valley, but I woke up violently ill, probably from the food that we had on the bus trip the day before. We had to cancel, and I spent the whole day praying to the porcelain gods and popping Cipro like candies! Fortunately, that blast of antibiotics effectively eliminated all forms of life inside me (except for my own!) and I was up and going the next day. We went to get our train tickets for Machu Picchu, and then did a half day trip to the local ruins around town and the magnificent cathedral. Cusco has a beautiful central square, but it is hopelessly over touristed. In fact, I might just apply that analysis to Peru. The government has figured out the draw card that Machu Picchu is, and the prices are very high accordingly. The place is full of package tourists rubbing shoulders with all the backpackers, most of which are here to do the Inca trail.
We opted not to hike the trail. I'm not a 100% sure why - maybe we are just trekked out. Maybe it has something to do with the fact you have to book it about 3 months in advance. But somehow (and I know this might upset a lot of you folks who have done it but...) the Inca trek doesn't seem like a "real" trek to me. I know it is hard, and there are three passes of around 4000 m to make in the four days of the trek. But is it really a trek if you can drive most of the way to the "cherry" (which is Machu Picchu) or just take the train up? There is even a massive bus service from Aguas Calientes that shuttles thousands up to the ruins each day. Imagine rounding that last bend after your four days of exertion and then seeing a thousand tourists in bermudas with $2000 cameras around their necks, Don Johnson Miami vice hats, and tonnes of women who put too much make up on for the outing. Imagine seeing me, the flashporker that I am. Is that a trek? I don't know. Somehow standing at the top of Thorung La. Or walking a 3 km ridge in New Zealand seems more rewarding. Maybe it's just me. Or am I just plain lazy 'cause we did take the train, and we also took that bus! The world may never know...
Anyway, that day trip had a few interesting Inca sites where we could begin to see the way they put buildings together and some of their hydraulic engineering works. One has to remember that the Inca are not that old. They were around until the Spanish conquered them in 1532 or so. That's not that long ago. Which is probably what makes their culture a bit interesting compared to other distant cultures that were extinguished long ago. This one is recent. But the Spanish were really pricks. They were genuine bastards. Not only did they slaughter thousands while conquering the area, but the systematically went about dismantling most of the structures in the existing society and they used the very same bricks and stones to build their own buildings. Almost all the churches you visit are built right on top of old Inca temples using the stones the Incas used. All the gold and silver is long gone, back to Spain of course, and these same places are now crumbling under the weight of colonial abandonment as in so many other places in the world. The Spaniards were incredibly successful though, at least in terms of religion. The conversion to Catholicism was and still is nearly 100% complete, and it is so strange to see indigenously dressed people worshiping statues that have nothing to do with their history. It's a joke. Religion as a cultural assimilation tool. Not an uncommon story. The Spanish wielded that tool well.
Interestingly, the Peruvians today don't put a lot of money into preservation and refurbishment of these churches, the Spanish do. I like that. It's sort of a way for the Peruvians to say to the Spanish, "Hey, they're not ours, they're yours - you take care of them". Strange but true. That is what is happening in a lot of places. Spanish companies are funding the restoration projects. And I suppose that fits right in with all that catholic guilt they must be feeling - they need to come and clean up the mass they made, at least in part! (Ha, ha, couldn't resist that one!)
But Cusco is still a very pretty looking town - easy on the eyes. And Peru is indeed a beautiful country; you just have to push apart all the tourists so you can get a view of it.