<< 2009 Journeys: Peru | Day 3: Machu Picchu >>
Traveling to Cusco, through Lima
Our trip to Peru can be divided into two separate portions—our visit to Machu Picchu, and our motorcycle journey into the northern area of the country.
Machu Picchu is in the southeastern portion of Peru, which has many beautiful places that attract hordes of tourists. On our motorcycles, however, we wanted to experience an area of Peru that was a few steps removed from the tourist path. We were drawn to northern Peru—with small villages scattered among the high peaks of the Andes Mountains, and along the rivers that flowed through the western edges of the Amazon jungle. We wanted to see places that you can only reach by traveling miles and miles on “bad” dirt roads (which means “fun” roads when you’re on a dirt bike).
The staging point for both legs of our trip would be Lima, the capital city, which is located in the central area of the country.
Our flight from San Francisco to Lima went smoothly. We changed planes in Houston and had the pleasure of sitting next to a Peruvian woman named Yolanda.
Ben and Yolanda:
Yolanda, like most of the Peruvians we met, was extremely patient (and complimentary) as we struggled with our Spanish. She was born in the town of Moyobomba, which we would be visiting during our trip, and she was now living in Lima. She worked in the banking industry and was returning to Peru after spending six months in Washington state, where her son and three grandchildren live.
Yolanda was exceptionally kind and gracious, as well as soft-spoken. This was a refreshing change from our seatmate on the San Francisco to Houston flight—he was a U.S. travel agent from Florida and had talked incessantly about all of his travels, providing exhaustive details about the latest jumbo cruise ships, never asking a single question about us, and ignoring the few comments that we managed to slip in when he paused to take a breath.
We arrived in Lima and smoothly sailed through customs. The money-changing booth was conveniently located next to the baggage claim. Ben went over to the baggage carousel while I watched the money-changing clerk carefully count out our nuevos soles (the Peruvian currency). We were exchanging quite a bit of money. Half-way through the process, I felt a presence at my left shoulder and looked behind me. There was an older man standing there holding a $100 bill; he was the only person in line, and he looked quite impatient. I am always careful when traveling, aware that there are many creative scams when it comes to separating people from their money; and this man was standing way too close for my comfort. I inched away from him, but he was still too close. I finally turned to him and said (in English, since he looked American), “I’m sorry sir, but would you mind stepping back a little? I’m exchanging money, and I don’t feel comfortable with you being so close.” He shouted at me, “Oh, for Christ’s sake!!” But he did step back a few feet. (Is this the “ugly American” that we have read about?)
In the mass of bodies waiting at the exit doors, we found our hotel taxi driver, Juan, holding a sign with our names.
Here are Ben and I at the airport, waiting for Juan to bring the taxi van around:
It was almost midnight during our drive to the hotel, and the streets were practically deserted. Juan was a good driver (something that we took for granted, and of which we are much more appreciative in hindsight). He asked us if we knew much about Peruvian food, and told us about some of his favorites. We had never heard the term “chifa” before—a type of Chinese food, with Peruvian influence. We were to discover chifa restaurants all over Peru.
Our hotel was located in a quiet, residential community a few blocks from the ocean. We were checked in around midnight by a reserved, older man—his manner was not very welcoming, but we thought that maybe it was just the late hour.
I had to pry my eyelids apart three hours later when the alarm went off. We had an early flight to Cusco (the nearest big city to Machu Picchu), and Juan would be driving us to the airport in half an hour.
Last night the desk clerk had asked if we wanted breakfast this morning; because of the early hour, we had said we would pass on breakfast but that we would love some coffee. Ben said that some orange juice would be nice too. When we arrived in the lobby, however, there was no coffee, no orange juice--nada. The clerk was there, however, maintaining his reserved air.
We were greeted warmly by Juan, who drove us to the airport along with a Dutch woman who worked in Cusco. She had arrived in Peru 3 ½ years ago to work in an orphanage for 3 months. After she returned home, the orphanage director had called her and offered her a full-time job. She now is running her own program, which finds scholarships for children.
In the airport, we spied a Starbucks—just what we needed!
Ahhh, the lattes were delicious.
The city of Lima was enshrouded by a thick blanket of clouds. As the plane rose higher, we emerged over the Andes mountains—I immediately dubbed them “the chocolate mountains” because of their soft brown color.
From the air, I could see roads that wriggled from one small town to the next.
I felt a rush of anticipation, knowing that we would be riding bikes on similar roads in two days.
South America has opposite seasons from those in the United States. Autumn was just starting in the United States, and spring was starting in Peru. Some of the mountains still had a lot of snow on them.
Cusco is high in the Andes, at 10,800 feet. Snow covered some of the surrounding hills.
Our pre-arranged hotel taxi was late, so we waited outside the airport. Other taxi drivers were hanging out, hoping for a fare.
The taxi drivers were all very courteous, asking if we needed a ride but not pressing their services after we declined.
We waited some more. Ben finally called the hotel and was told “soon, soon!” Another fifteen minutes and our taxi arrived.
Here are some homes/apartments that we passed during our ten minute ride to the hotel. The tall cinder block building on the left has an unfinished top floor, which was very common.
The day was still early, and many people were on their way to work and school.
Cusco has about 400,000 people, and there was very little traffic on the road. Many intersections had traffic circles, and we encountered a mild back-up at this one:
The center of the circle had two statues:
Another statue, which appeared to be an Inca warrior, looked down at us from a nearby hillside:
In the middle of another traffic circle was the stone tower of the Monumento al Inca Pachacutec.
Pachacutec is one of the most revered Inca’s. In the 1400’s, he created a large united empire that spread out from Cusco, stretching southward to Chile, and reaching Columbia in the north.
We passed a children’s park, Parque Urpicha, which was built after the 1986 earthquake; it was part of a project by the Mayor to revitalize the city, and it includes a number of custom slides and other structures for children.
The Paqcha de Pumaqchupan, a sculptural fountain that marks an important water source, usually has water cascading down the front, as well as spouting across the top. Today it was dry:
Our hotel hosts welcomed us with smiles, and immediately gave us cups of coca tea to sip while filling out the registration paperwork. We would be staying here two nights. The plan was to spend today in Cusco, acclimatizing to the high altitude, and then catch a train to Machu Picchu early tomorrow morning. We would return to Cusco tomorrow evening, and fly back to Lima the next day to start our motorcycle adventure.
Our room overlooked the back courtyard, which had a huge sculptural snake wrapped around a palm tree:
Views looking out over the neighboring rooftops:
We were exhausted from lack of sleep, so we napped for a few hours before setting out to explore Cusco on foot.
The front of our hotel:
We were only a few blocks from the Santo Domingo Church, so we headed there first. Down a side-street, we passed these small dwellings that were built against a larger wall.
A steady stream of children and parents was flowing from the elementary school located at the back of the Santo Domingo Church. Ben and I looked at each other and smiled as we passed several parents carefully balancing school art projects while listening to their children's excited chatter—we have done the exact same thing!
Some school girls:
Me, in the narrow alley next to the church:
The front of the church:
The Santo Domingo Church was built in the 17th century on top of the walls of the Inca’s sacred temple of the sun, Coricancha. The Spanish conquistadors had already stripped Coricancha of the sheets of gold that had covered the interior and exterior walls, and melted down all of the hundreds of solid gold objects that were inside the temple. Much of the temple was destroyed, but the solid foundation walls were used as the base of the Catholic church. The Inca walls were hidden under the church for several centuries; then a 1950 earthquake damaged a large section of the church and revealed the high-quality stonework underneath.
One remarkable feature of the Inca walls is how each large block of stone fits perfectly against its neighbors. Here is Ben in front of the long eastern wall:
The curved wall under the front outer portion of the church is considered one of the greatest examples of skilled Inca stonework. These stones have remained solid, without budging, throughout Cusco’s many earthquakes.
Another view of the exterior, showing the curved wall (the dark wall that runs along the middle):
Many local people were lingering or passing through the church plaza.
I wanted to get some photos of the women in their colorful clothing, but I also wanted to be respectful, as I know many of the locals do not want their photo taken.
I was so relieved when we were approached by women dressed in traditional clothing, who wanted to pose for a photo in exchange for money. I had read some travelers’ reports, generally negative, complaining about having to pay for a photo, but I didn’t have any problem with it. I thought it was a win-win situation: I end up with a photo that I didn’t have to take on the sly, and the Peruvians who are posing make some money for their efforts.
We first encountered these two Peruvian women with animals, which they said were an alpaca and a young llama (two different animals). The animals looked very similar. I kept getting them confused, and the women would patiently correct me--I think the alpaca is on my right.
The women were very nice, and we took several photos. They insisted that Ben get his photo taken too.
The women did not state a price, but we gave them what we thought was fair—10 soles (about $3) each.
We then had the second (and last!) of our pay-for-photo sessions. A girl came up to me carrying a baby lamb. Before I knew it, she had transferred the lamb into my arms—it was very cute and cuddly. Of course we wanted a photo of this! Then, seconds before Ben snapped the photo, a woman with a baby on her back zipped into the photo too. Click!
The girl and the woman started talking to each other. I paid the woman with the baby, thinking that she and the lamb girl were working together. Not so. Silly me, for not asking first! As soon as I handed the money over, she rushed off, and then the lamb girl adamantly said that she needed to be paid too. I paid her, of course. But the novelty had worn off, and we declined all the others who approached us for a photo.
Near the church were several kids that were laughing and playing, and we laughed with them. One boy had a toy motorcycle that he was zooming up and down, just as our son Sebastian does.
We continued walking toward the main square, Plaza de Armas, which was a few blocks away. The bottom of these walls looked very unsettled to me, as if they were starting to disintegrate from the weight above them:
We entered a long narrow alley that led to the Plaza.
The stones in the wall had some interesting shapes. Here is a snake:
I called this one “the ta-ta’s” (both knobs looked like they had been rubbed a lot, too):
The Plaza de Armas:
On the right side of the Plaza was the imposing Cathedral, which sits on the foundation of what was once the palace of Inca Viracocha. Construction of the Cathedral began in 1550 and was completed in the mid-1600’s.
To our left was the La Compania de Jesus church, which was completed in 1668. It sits on the site of Inca Huayna Capac’s palace, which was considered to have been the most beautiful of all the Inca palaces.
A smaller, ornate building was next to the church:
From the plaza, we looked up at some residences on a nearby hill.
We did a double-take at the McDonald’s restaurant, which was located in the corner of the plaza, near the Cathedral. The familiar "golden arches" were attached to the outer stone wall and were painted a tasteful black, so the restaurant blended in with the surroundings.
At the top end of the plaza was a narrow street, which had many restaurants and tourist shops advertising Inca trail treks.
After wandering through a small maze of streets, we discovered the Two Nations café, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch.
We were the only customers, but the place should have been crowded—the food was fresh, the portions were generous, and the service was good. The cafe is a few blocks off of the main plaza, but well worth the short walk. I had a dish that Juan (our Lima taxi driver) had recommended—lomo saltado. It consists of marinated steak, vegetables and fries, served with rice. This dish was so savory that I tried it two more times throughout Peru; however, the lomo saltado at Two Nations was by far the best.
After lunch, we set off to find the Museo de Arte Precolombino (Museum of Pre-Columbian Art). Our walk led us up a hill, where we had a grand view of the red tiled roofs spread out over the city.
On the distant hill, someone had carved “Viva El Peru Glorioso”:
We passed by a large cement schoolyard, with girls in blue and white track suits:
We were completely charmed by the narrow cobblestone streets of Cusco:
And there were plenty of old doors, full of character and history—my heart was all aflutter.
A fascinating feature (found in the doors below, as well as the set above) was the existence of a small door inside of the larger right-side door.
This carved balcony belonged to a renovated hotel:
We followed some girls as they swarmed out of school, heading home:
We zig-zagged our way to the museum entrance:
The museum building sits on the ruins of an Inca ceremonial court. In 1580, the home of conquistador Alonso Diaz was built here. It was renovated and turned into the museum, which opened in 2003.
We slowly browsed through all of the exhibits, which had a wonderful collection of Peruvian artworks dating from 1250 B.C. to 1532 A.D. Each exhibit had explanations in English, Spanish and French. We saw some exquisite pottery, with painted designs that looked “contemporary,” even though they were over 1000 years old. We are also astounded at the artistic creativity reflected in the shapes of the pottery vessels. Jewelry, stone-carvings and weavings were also displayed.
A small area of the museum was devoted to a contemporary art exhibit, with three-dimensional wall hangings. Here is one of my favorites:
Near the museum was this beautiful small church.
(Note the affectionate couple on the park bench above. Apparently PDA’s are okay in Peru—very similar to what we saw in Mexican parks this past spring).
On the way back to the hotel, we passed a small square that was being renovated. The centerpiece celebrated the founders of Cusco—the Incas.
All over Peru, women carried their small children on their back in colorful shawls. This little kid was asleep, and we followed behind, watching her bobbing head.
This window covering depicted a map of central Cusco, set into the shape of a puma (which was a sacred animal for the Incas). We had to look at the design a while to understand that it was the city within an animal form. And, even then, we initially thought the animal was a lizard.
Back at the hotel, we took a short nap—both of us were tired from getting so little sleep last night. I think that the high altitude may also have played a part in our fatigue, although we were never short of breath or nauseous.
We then headed back out, to explore more of Cuzco.
The top of the bell tower on the Santo Domingo church was softly glowing.
We laughed at the hundreds of birds that were sleeping cozily on top of, and all around, the small statues that decorated the façade of the church at the Plaza de Armas.
We walked and walked, soaking in the sights. We turned back at this archway:
This massive building looked more like a fortress than a church:
At one end of a large park, a group of people were practicing a graceful dance, accompanied by music from a flute.
Ben wanted to eat at a restaurant with a lively atmosphere. We found La Tunupa, right on the Plaza de Armas.
We chose a table in the small narrow outer section of the second floor so that we could look out over the Plaza.
The restaurant catered to tourists, and the prices were at least twice as much as those at Two Nations. However, we were very pleased with our choice. The food was excellent, and we could hear the music from the traditional dance performances in the main portion of the restaurant. I tried a new dish called “chupa de camerones”—chicken broth with shrimp, rice, lima beans, peas, and other vegetables, with an egg on top. Yum.
On our walk back to the hotel, we could see the white statue of Christ (Christo Blanco) that watches over the city. In the blackness of the night, it looked like a hovering angel.
We paused to watch another small group of dancers, practicing in a courtyard. They were very good. I applauded when they finished, which caused them to laugh and duck their heads.
Back at the hotel, I relished the silence. The two large dogs that had been barking throughout the afternoon in the adjacent back yard had disappeared. Ahhh, sweet dreams . . . of pointed peaks . . . and ruins that stretched into the sky . . . . Tomorrow we would be experiencing Machu Picchu.
<< 2009 Journeys: Peru | Day 3: Machu Picchu >>
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