Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Cuzco.....at long last!

I started my last morning in the Amazon with a very light breakfast and a Diamox pill. At 7am, I met up with Simon and we walked back to the boat. The sun was just coming up over the horizon. Figures that it would be a sunny day on the day I was leaving. Though it was cold cloudy during my entire stay in the jungle, I was in way glad that it was because it kept the mosquitoes away and I didn´t need to use the sunblock.

It was nice to see the river in sunlight and the water was calm. Along the way, we passed a few families boating in their wooden skiffs which is the main form of transport for people living along the river. We retraced our "steps" back to Puerto Maldonado airport, Simon got me checked in and then left to meet up with the rest of the group who would be arriving in Puerto Maldonado about two hours later.





The flight to Cuzco took only 25 minutes and as we flew over the Andes, it was the first time I could see snow capped mountain tops. Simon was worried we would all succumb to altitude sickness so he tried to prep us in advance with all that we could do to acclimate - including breathing exercises, drinking the coca tea and if necessary, taking in oxygen. I didn´t know how my body was going to react to the altitude but was hoping that the Diamox would help. As I got of the plane, I felt fine and so I went and got my luggage and exited the airport. Simon had arranged for someone to meet me and I spotted him the moment I walked out the door. On the ride to the hotel, I got a bit of history and geographic orientation from the guide so I immediately began thinking of what I wanted to do while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive.

I checked into the hotel, unpacked a few things and headed out. The hotel is located about two blocks from the Plaza des Armas (main square) so I decided to head there. With no map in hand, it was basically "following my nose" to figure out how to get there and then making mental "breadcrumbs" in my head so I would find my way back to the hotel. I had about 1 1/2 hours to kill before the rest of the group would arrive. As I had expected, the Plaza was filled with ringed with stores, restaurants and other establishments all aimed at tourists. The place was jam packed with tourists and street vendors wanting to see you everything under the sun.

I got tired of all the commotion and decided to just head for the center of the square where it was much less crowded. From the vantage point of a park bench, I could finally enjoy the view that surrounded me which included the hills that ring the north side of Cuzco, the city´s main cathedral (built by the Spaniards in the 1500´s) and a smaller church.

At one point on my walk, I touched my face and noticed it was completely numb - as if someone had given me a shot of Novocaine in both cheeks. The numbness is apparently a side effect of the Diamox. My face pretty much stayed numb until the next day - a very wierd feeling!

I soon made my way back to the hotel and waited a few minutes for the rest of the group to arrive. I was updating my blog when I heard Susie´s voice and realized the rest of the group had finally arrived.

Everyone took their time to get settled in and we all met back in the lobby at around 5pm. Simon was already there - one thing for certain, he´s always on time! Simon took us on a walking tour to get us oriented and to give us the chance to get acquainted with Incan culture - he took us down a side street and showed us a famous Incan wall.



After a few minutes for a photo op, we headed down towards Plaza des Armas. Along the way, we passed Simon´s shop (named "Another Planet" - a travel agency that he and this twin brother started a few years back. At that moment, I thought it was a bit of shameless self promotion on Simon´s part but knowing where his shop was located proved to be useful information in the days to come.

Just around the corner from Simon´s shop is the Gatos Market where the Stelzers went to get some water and munchies to tie them over until we could have dinner. Right outside the market was a woman selling tamales - both sweet and salty kinds. With Simon translating, I bought a salty tamale for 50 centimos which is about 16 cents! The tamale was warm and the smell of the corn was intoxicating. It was like a corn muffin but much lighter in texture, filled with just a teeny bit of black olive, onion and small piece of meat. I enjoyed every single bite and over the days that I would be in Cuzco, I would find myself returning back to this woman to buy more tamales con sal.

Once we entered Plaze des Armas, Simon pointed out the Cathedral and church that I had seen earlier and gave a bit of history.




By this time, everyone was hungry and Simon took us to a nearby restaurant for and early dinner. Cuy (guinea pig) was on the menu so, for my colleagues at work, I ordered it - at 40 soles, it was the most expensive dish on the menu.

As we were waiting for the food to arrive, Simon, Carson and I walked to a nearby farmacia (pharmacy) to buy Diamox pills for the Stelzers, Andrea and Kim to take on their respective Lares and Inca trail hikes. Someone had told them that taking Diamox would help with breathing as they hiked at the higher altitudes on the Lares and Inca trails. It cost 57 soles for 30 tablets of 125mg Diamox (same dosage was what you would get in the US). We also made a quick stop to a handicrafts stall so that Simon could buy Andean crosses for everyone in the group.

Shortly after Simon, Carson, and I got back to the restaurant, the food was served. Simon handed out the Andean crosses to each person - telling us that it would keep us safe during our trip. Whether or not we believed Simon, we all went ahead and hung the crosses around our necks. There would be many an occasion in the days to come where I would find myself reaching up and clutching the cross.

Simon went his own way while the rest of us dined.

Okay, here´s my critique of cuy - the dish I ordered is pictured below (Kim - close your eyes).



There´s very little meat round the belly worth eating - mainly ribs. The fore and hind legs have meat that is reminiscent of a chicken thigh though the meat is much finer in texture. It did not have a gamey taste to it and there was not the sinew that you find with a chicken thigh. The skin was a bit chewy - probably would have been less so had the cuy been roasted over a higher flame. There was very little, if any fat, on the cuy. Overall, it wasn´t bad at all and in the days to come, I would understand why it is a source of meat protein for the Andeans.

Greg had ordered the alpaca which I had a bit of. According to what I´ve read, alpaca is very lean meat but despite the lack of fact, it was very tender.

Dinner was a very quick affair because Simon had arranged for us to see Sacsayhuaman - the plan was to be at the control point (i.e., entry gate) at around 5:30pm which is when the monument officially closes for the day. By entering the monument site after closing, Simon was effectively "sneaking" us in for free - something I didn´t really appreciate until the next day when I had to buy a tourist ticket. To see any of the sights in and around Cuzco, you need to buy what they call boleto touristo (tourist ticket). You can buy a single ticket that costs 70 soles (not sure what sights you can/cannot see with the full ticket) or else you can buy what they call a "partial" ticket. There are three categories of partial tickets and no single one covers all the sights that you would want to see in and about Cuzco - didn´t take much to figure out that that´s how they make money off of the tourists! Had we entered in before 5:30pm, we would have had to purchase a partial ticket that would have cost each of us 40 soles (about $13) so Simon did us a big favor. Thanks Simon!

The Incans laid out the city of Cuzco in the form of a megalithic puma. Sacsayhuaman forms the head of the puma and is located in the northwest hills above Cuzco. It was about a 10 minute bus ride from Plaza des Armas to Sacsayhuaman.

The first thing we saw were the stone walls, three tiers in zig zag formation, that characterize Sacsayhuaman. Somewhere I read that those walls face Cuzco and symbolize the teeth of the Puma. It was quite a site to see the walls and think how they were constructed. Simon mentioned that this is where the annual Inti Raymi (Incan Sun) festival is held.



The sun was beginning to set as we walked about Sacsayhuaman. It was an opportunity for us to see Cuzco all lit up.

With flashlights in hand, Simon led us through the grounds to see a few more sites (Incan tunnel, slide) before we made our way back to the motorcoach. It was getting a bit windy and I think everyone was ready to get back to the bus to warm up.

The motorcoach dropped us back off at Plaza des Armas. The others in the tour group needed to do a bit of shopping to get supplies - mainly warm clothes and hot water bottles - for their upcoming hikes so Simon took us to a nearby handicrafts markets where sweaters, scarves, gloves, etc. could be bought for a reasonable price. We then headed to find an ATM for Kim and Andrea to get cash and then to a pharmacy to buy hot water bottles. I was not in need of anything to buy so I just "soaked in the scenery" - watching Cusquenans and tourists, alike, enjoying the night in Cuzco.

After our quick shopping spree, we headed back to the hotel where two local guides briefed the Stelzers on the details of their Lares hike and Kim and Andrea on the details of their Inca trail hike. I headed up to my room to rest and to do what would become a nightly ritual for me - shower and do some basic laundry so I would have clean socks and underwear each day.

I had a bit of difficulty sleeping that night. I think that one of the side effects of Diamox is dehydration so I kept waking up during the night to drink water. Around 1am, I ran out of water so I filled my litre drink bottle up with tap water and popped in 2 purification tablets. I drank about half the bottle before I woke up the next morning. I eventually fell into a deep sleep and didn´t even hear the sound of the Stelzers, Andrea and Kim leaving for their hikes.