Our vacation started as a pipe dream months before our actual trip. As avid readers of National Geographic (thanks, Grandpa!) and history buffs, we knew we wanted to see Machu Picchu. After all, we doubt we will ever live so close again. And Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu.
Welcome to Cusco, Peru!
Cusco was the ancient seat of power for the Incan Empire and mythology says the first Incan leader, Manco Cápac, settled here after he was gifted a golden staff by the Sun God and commanded to build a temple at the place where it sank deeply into the ground. Today, the Quechua people still refer to that place as Qosco, instead of the Spanish Cuzco or the English Cusco.
Even though we flew, it took us two days of travel to reach this part of South America from Buenos Aires. There are no direct flights so we elected to stay the night in La Paz, Bolivia so that we could save money. Most people travel via Lima and can make the connections in a single day. By the time we arrived, we were ready to be finished with airport layovers. We had the initial scare of not finding our driver to take us to our hotel. This is no small thing in South America where you are literally bombarded by taxi drivers begging to take you to the hotel of their choice as soon as you walk out of customs. Luckily, after walking outside, we saw our name on a placard and were saved!
As we drove into the city of Cusco, I realized we were not in Buenos Aires anymore… in many ways, we felt like we had arrived in the ‘real’ South America, where local faces are less European and our own pale skin and blue eyes were much less likely to blend in. Not that we exactly fit in Buenos Aires, mind you, but we don’t stick out like sore thumbs either.
Almost immediately, we drove past the most wonderful farmer’s market. Even though it was Sunday morning, people were shopping. That is pretty unusual in Buenos Aires where most markets are all closed from 1pm on Saturday until Monday morning. Though the people in their bright clothes were interesting, I was most struck by images of food. I saw chickens complete with heads, beaks, and claws, whole young suckling pigs, and slabs of whole dried fish. I saw corn on the cob with fat, plump kernels, pale yellow and freshly shucked, ripe pineapples, strawberries so under ripe that they were more green than red, piled high in baskets, peppers of every warm hue and all sizes, and the tiniest crab apples I have ever seen. I saw beef hanging from the butcher’s stall, dark, red, and so fresh it was dripping with blood the color of beet juice. The strangest sight of all – fresh guinea pigs, skinned and whole, lined up on a table like surgeons scalpels. All of this I saw in the space of two, maybe three minutes, as our car drove by, not even time to take a picture.
The buildings soon changed from modern cinder block construction to Spanish colonial. Every corner we turned I saw a new facade: an old church, a plaza with a fountain, a second story balcony made of carved wood, heavy double doors. The streets were cobblestone, the alleys narrow, sometimes not wide enough for a car, clearly built for a time when vehicles were more mundane and pulled by horses or loads were carried by back alone. The historical district of Cusco reminded me of old villages in Spain or even Italy.
I was falling in love with Cusco and I hadn’t stepped foot out of the vehicle.
Unfortunately, the altitude sickness struck my husband immediately and he had the headache from hell and the stomach to accompany it so our well laid plans were put aside and our formal sightseeing pushed off to the following day.
My boys and I left him tucked in bed and well-medicated with hopes that he would feel better by dinner and headed out to walk around the city. I really wanted to go back and see that gorgeous market but I knew my boys were less interested in food that needed to be cooked and more interested in eating a real lunch. We were here for culture but I knew my limits.
The Plaza de Armas was a short walk from the Hotel Anden Inca where we were staying. We were told that the best restaurants would be found there. What we weren’t told is that we would be bombarded by hawkers from each and every restaurant as we walked around the Plaza.
“¡Senorita, por favor, mira la carta, senorita!, Please, look at the menu! ¡Comé aca, buena vista, buena comida! Eat here! Great view, good food!”, they yelled as they held open menus with pictures that looked like typical tourist food. You could eat American and get hamburgers or pizza or European and eat soups and pastas. Almost all offered some Peruvian dishes but always as an after thought as if most tourists weren’t really looking for anything local.
After a block of this, we headed for the center of the Plaza, near the fountain, so that we could look at the variety of restaurants from afar. All restaurants were on the second floor and all had tables overlooking the Plaza with views of the historic buildings, and the mountains behind them. In the end, we figured they all had the same food and similar views and we chose a place because we liked its blue windows and its small size. As we headed that direction, the waiter out front saw us and immediately handed us an open menu, before we had even finished crossing the street. We smiled and nodded and said show us the way!
We climbed over a couple of children playing on the stairs in the hall and said a few words in Spanish as we went by. The children giggled and smiled. I felt good we had chosen this place. It felt family owned and family run. The owner took good care of us and we ate a decent if not memorable Peruvian meal – a quinoa soup for me and potato dishes for my boys. We were eating light to counter the affects of altitude. There is a definite recommended diet – soup on day one, light meal on day two, regular food by day three. Begin each day with coca tea and drink it liberally until mid-afternoon. The owner also sent us on our way with Dieta de Pollo for my husband, a soup of chicken, vegetables, and rice and a guaranteed cure for altitude sickness. I bet it would cure the common cold as well.
My boys and I spent the afternoon trying to get lost. It’s our favorite way of seeing a new place! Instead of following a map to where we are supposed to go, we follow the road or the path that looks most interesting. Our first hint that we went the right way was a tall, steep, set of stairs. I love steps, though in high altitude these were not pleasant to climb, because they take you to places where you can see vistas. And these did not disappoint.
As we saw more of Cusco, it was clear that the Spanish had built directly on top of an Incan city. We learned that many of the churches and the government buildings were built with stones taken from Incan sites or directly on top of sites that were dismantled and the stones recut and refit to build in the Spanish style. It is common to see a building with an Incan base and a Spanish top or with Incan columns and Spanish arches. Today, of course, the city takes great pride in both styles of building and is doing what it can to preserve them. Ironically, the older Incan walls are stronger and more earthquake resistant because of the methods used by the ancient builders. Stones were cut to fit tightly together and walls were not built straight up but slanted inward. Nor were stones all cut the same size or shape. Most walls were built with no mortar.
We also discovered the Peruvian vendor. They are ubiquitous to Cusco and can spot a mark a mile a way. I was the mark. And my boys thought it was funny at first but then they quickly realized that if I didn’t develop a method to escape the sales community of Cusco, that we would never get to see anything but souvenirs.After I had purchased three beautiful water color paintings from Julio and two hand carved gourds from the mother of a sweet three year old girl named Sophia, who was playing with her mother’s hair as her mother tried to convince me to buy more, we decided that I could no longer be polite. I had to learn how to walk away. If I said No, gracias to those who asked me simply to look, it was seen as an invitation ask me for help because they are poor or to ask me to buy something so that they can buy food or to tell me that I am being rude because I refuse to look their way.And it wasn’t just souvenirs. We saw children, sometimes alone, sometimes with relatives, standing on street corners in traditional dress, usually with a small animal at hand, waiting for their picture to be taken for a small donation. Questions echoed in my head, Is it right to take their picture? Do we exploit them when we do so? Isn’t this better than begging? My level of discomfort was a direct result of my lack of answers to these questions.I was snapping pictures of locals in the street, partly to document the culture for my diaries and partly because I was amazed that in today’s shrinking world that people could retain their culture at all. But should those people receive something in exchange? During a tour the next day, the irony of the situation became even more apparent when a man with an obviously non-functioning camera started snapping pictures of the tourists. How many people understood his theatrics as an attempt to get us to see ourselves, snapping pictures of locals? He was obviously unhappy with the status quo and he made me think of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.It brings into question How much tourism is a good thing for a community? The city of Cusco is a World Heritage site and attracts tourists from all over the world, the majority from Europe and North America. How can a community get maximum benefit from the tourism industry and still manage to retain true to itself and its people? I don’t have any good answers yet but maybe I will find some as I write more diaries about this trip.One of the reasons my family loves to travel is that we love to immerse ourselves in the culture of the regions we visit. Later that evening, we went to a restaurant that specialized in Peruvian food, located on a side street off the main plaza. Our waiter, Richard, was more than pleased to help teach us about local food and actually recommended a different restaurant for the following night, one which specialized in food from Cusco, Deva. We hadn’t realized that there would be large regional differences, but we probably should have. Some of the typical food we had the pleasure to try were:Cancha – Toasted corn kernels that had been toasted to a perfect crunchy consistency, then salted. The flavor reminded me of corn chips like Fritos, but fresher. Imagine getting all the duds in the bottom of the popcorn bowl but the duds aren’t rock hard, instead they have a hollow crunch when you bite them and they are full of flavor, not burnt. You can make your own with this recipe from whats4eats.Chicha – corn beer that has been fermented for only a couple of days. It is not high in alcohol but the taste is present. The liquid is creamy yellow and a glass of it came with a head of white foam the consistency of softly beaten egg whites. The flavor reminded me of mead – must be the fermentation process; maybe the wild yeasts are similar.Chicha Morada – this is also a drink made from corn, but blue, and it is not alcoholic. The color is deep purple, like the grape juice I grew up drinking as a child. The flavor is very, very sweet and fruity; a typical Chicha Morada uses pineapple, quince, apples, lime juice, cloves, and cinnamon. If you’d like to try some for yourself, The Splendid Table offers a recipe and a link to buy the blue corn.Cuy – This is the guinea pig you have heard me refer to. My husband bravely gave this one a try and determined that it tasted like… meat. When we asked him to clarify, he said rabbit. That makes sense since guinea pigs and rabbits are raised in very similar ways – hutches and vegetarian diets. Most Peruvians seem to like these guys whole and roasted though my husband tried a half one that had been pan fried and served with a sauce. It was the little bones that got to me… can’t go there.Alpaca – both of my boys and I tried Alpaca. Mine came in a stew and was served with Tarwi, which I will describe below. The boys went with steaks. Alpaca is a red meat and reminiscent of bison.Quinoa – Quinoa is a very common grain in South America. It is becoming more common in the United States and can be found at health food markets and stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes. I bet even Safeway has it though the military commissary probably does not. We found this most often served in soups, like the one I had for lunch, but it is also served as a side dish, like rice. The grains are round in shape and the texture can be crunchy if lightly cooked and fluffy if cooked completely through.Tarwi – Although almost all menus in Cusco included English translations, this one was hard to figure out. They translated it as Lupin, the large blue, purple flower that grows on sunny mountainsides and I couldn’t figure out why you would eat what I thought was a poisonous plant. I learned that I was misinformed and that lupin is edible and the people in the Andes have been eating it since ancient times. I had it served in a dish that was similar to Middle Eastern Hummus. The flavor was slightly bitter and bean-like and the consistency was creamy and smooth.Our day had been long and tomorrow morning would come early, so we headed back to the hotel to get in a good night’s sleep and prepare ourselves for a full day of sight seeing. It seems best to save that day for a different diary – otherwise I might lose readers to cultural overload!
Three years ago, my family was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We took the time to travel and managed to see a good part of Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Bolivia. This is one post of many from that time period that originally appeared at Daily Kos. FYI – a diary is the same as a blog post in that forum.