Monday, 25 April 2016

Return to Cusco

Leaving already?
It wasn't real, I checked...
The (tourist) town of Agua Calientes.
I'm not the sort of person who throws around the phrase 'bucket list' and things you have to do before you die, but I guess I just 'crossed off' one of those. Some people also talk about places and countries as 'done,' so when you ask them "where have you been in Asia?" they would reply "I've done Vietnam, Thailand... and oh yeah, we DID Cambodia last year." What is 'doing' a country supposed to mean? It annoys me, and so do people that always say "it was amaaaaaazing!" about everything. Machu Picchu was special though - nothing really anything else like it in the world, and I did enjoy the experience as it's hard not too. Looking back on it now, and seeing the photos again, the whole thing is really sinking in - I've been (done?) Machu Picchu, one of the New Seven Wonders Of The World. A few things take away from the experience, like the price or crowds, the fact that you only get 1 shot for good weather, and it's remoteness - but I guess this adds to it's uniqueness too. Some other places that I have been to have also disappointed a little, or just didn't live up to my high expectations. On the other hand, places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Rome (ah Roma!), and of course The Pyramids, just blew me away. Machu Picchu is somewhere in the middle I guess - I had very high expectations, as it was somewhere I wanted to visit ever since I first heard about it 20 years ago, and nothing can really compare to a 15 year old's expectations about something so strange and foreign when he'd never left his own State, let alone country, before.

A dog and his restaurant on the road to Agua Calientes.
Peruvian Hairless dogs... yuck!
Beauty everywhere, even on railroads.
Trying not to grumble about the weather the day after Machu Picchu - as it was warm and sunny, perfect for photos - Laurel and I sat down for some breakfast before doing the hike back to the bus. Some people say they are 'dog' or 'cat people,' which I don't agree with as I love both, but at the same time I don't like all dogs and cats - some can be downright assholes. There is also the thing of looks - which I think are important regarding animals that you touch on a daily basis. Well, the Peruvian Hairless dog is the ugliest thing I've ever seen, and there was no way I wanted to touch it at all, and I had a hard time keeping my scrambled eggs down. There were a few in the town, running around and barking at everyone. They are a dark grey colour, leathery with tuffs of white hair sticking up from their head and a spot here or there on their bodies. Some of them were wearing knitted jumpers made by their owners, although this did little to hide their hideousness. Maybe I shouldn't be so harsh, as this breed is very old, dating back to Pre-Inca times, and I'm not usually this superficial (I'm sure they have a lovely personality), but a dog is supposed to be fluffy and cute and make you want to touch it. These dogs have failed in my opinion. After managing to not look at them too much while eating breakfast, we headed off into the sunshine back to Cusco. The rid back was not as pleasant as the one in - our transport was delayed by 3 Chileans who got lost or were just very slow getting back from Machu Picchu, and so the driver was upset and driving like a maniac to make up for time. We nearly died twice, once from nearly reversing off a cliff and the other time a truck nearly hit us head on (as we were on the wrong side of the road of course...). Safely back in Cusco and still shaking, straight to bed was the only think I wanted to do.

I'm (not) sexy and I know it!
Piece of art.
"Sexy Woman" ruins in Cusco.
With a few days to explore and enjoy the city before jumping on another bus, we decided to walk up the hill behind Cusco to see the ruins of Sacsayhuaman. There are so many ruins and archaeological sites in the area that you could spend at least a week seeing them, but they aren't cheap. It costs 70 soles ($27) for the entrance to one site, or you could buy a ticket for 130 soles ($52) for all of them. I didn't want to spent the $27 to be honest, as I think that is a bit steep considering you can eat a huge meal in the city for less than $5 and have a bed for $15, but this was the main sight here so pay I did. Pronounced 'Sexywoman' but most people, including the local tour guides, is a fortress which sits in the hills above Cusco. It was built in around 1100 AD by the Killke culture (one of many cultures and peoples in the area before the Incas) and added to by the Incas, it uses the same Inca-typical building style of dry stone walls using huge hand-cut blocks with no mortar between them. Outside the fortress there are women selling all kinds of things from stone llamas to wrist braids, and I ended up talking to one women and haggled her down from 30 soles to 12 ($12 to $5) for a stone statue of Pachamama. I was happy!

Where there's a will, there's a way.
The streets of Cusco.
The ruins of  Sacsayhuaman.
There was very little information about the ruins, so I Just enjoyed taking photos and walking around at hill that the Sexy Woman ruins sat on, overlooking the city. Some people don't think that the Incas could've built such things with the tools they had - the stones were too large, too hard to cut. How did they do it? Some people suggest alien intervention. Although I believe that there are other (more) intelligent beings in the universe, I don't believe they came all the way here to muck around with a few stones walls and pyramids then disappear without getting any acknowledgement for it. A BBC TV Series I watched a few years back, called Building Wonders, showed modern engineers re-constructing famous buildings around Britain, including the Stonehenge, using only the tools they had at the time. Ok, they had modern knowledge of physics and construction techniques, but they did it. Manpower and ingenuity are the keys here, and the Incas has bucket-loads of both. The common people worked for the Emperor on 'public works' projects (called a 'mita' system), and in return they would be fed and given alcohol, and music would be played while they worked - not a bad deal.

Mountains around the Sacred Valley of Cusco.
The fortress of Sacsayhuaman.
Salt from the Maras.
There are so many things to see and do in this city, and one of those things I also did was the Inca Museum just behind the main plaza. This place is packed with treasures from the Inca Empire, describes all the people and cultures that came before the Incas, how people lived and used the land as well as telling the story of the Spanish Invasion and their never-ending quest for gold and silver. Something I noticed walking around the streets away from the centre were the roofs of houses - they had small decorations on them. When a house is finished in Peru, you put a small ornament on the roof for luck, the practise is called Torito de Pucara. It dates back before the Spanish, and the idols used to be llamas but have since been changed to bulls. There are so many churches in this city that they all start to blur together - huge, brown-stone Spanish Colonial structures to God and used to awe the local populace and convert them to Catholicism. Today they draw tourists as well as god-fearing Peruvians and South Americans, but the trouble is that you have to pay to get into all of them, and even then you can't take photos. I understand that some chuched don't want hordes of foreigners with cameras coming in and making a place of quiet worship into a circus event, but at the same time if you are going to charge tourists (locals don't get charged) then let them take photos - every other country does it. Long story short, I didn't go into any of the paid churches - I preferred to find small ones that weren't a tourist destination.

The Maras of Cusco.
Maras, 40kms North of Cusco.
Salt ponds of Maras.
By this time, my Machu Picchu buddy had left the city for another destination, and maybe we would meet back up somewhere along the track - the good part about travelling is sometimes this happens and it's great! I decided to do a short day tour before leaving myself. I'd seen the Maras on television many, many years before coming to Peru and had always wanted to see them in person, so today I did. I took a bus tour 40kms north of Cusco, driving through beautiful landscapes along the way, and ending up in a gorge just outside the small town of Maras. People have been mining or havesting salt for thousands of years, even tens of thousands, mining it from the ground or gathering it from evaporated sea water. The same is done here with salt water, but with a difference - a natural spring of highly salty water fills hundred of ponds, flowing through intricately dug channels that run down the side of the mountain. People work these 'fields' of salt and water, the system dating back to before the Incas where anyone can work and gather the salt as long as they are part of the community and it is all cooperative. The water flows down into the ponds, the water level slowly goes down, and yada yada yada, you have salt! There are different types of salt, colour and taste, and all of it is available for sale at the shops at the top - where you have to walk through to see the mines of course, and walk through again to get back to your bus. 

Hand-crafted clothes... for a price.
Selfie time!
Some of the colours and designs of the clothes made here.
The last thing on the list of things to do here before heading off was a small town just outside of Cusco. At the local workshop a group of ladies make the colourful and traditional clothes that you see all around the country. All made my hand, they use natural dyes from local ingredients. The woman who was doing the demonstration had great English, and explained how they made it and how the whole community was involved and that the money goes back to the town. Llama wool is used for these clothes - first it's washed in natural soap, then dyed and hung out to dry. We were served 'munya' tea while we watched and listened, but most people were too interesting in watching a little 7 year old girl, all dressed up like the adults, making clothes. Aftegr the demonstration people wandered around and took photos, but very few people bought anything as everything was quite expensive - a long shawl cost 300 soles ($120). Beautiful but far too much for my limited budget. If only I could buy all the beautiful things that I've seen along this trip - fistly I wouldn't have the room in my bag, even if I bought a new one, nor would I have any money left. I will have to make a special round-the-World trip just to go back to these places to shop! A good day out, and a good farewell to Cusco too - I felt that I'd done a fair bit here, and not just Machu Picchu.

Thanks for visiting, come back soon!

Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Road To Machu Picchu

The mountains and valleys around Cusco.
A llama in Cusco.
This is my city!
I felt quite at home in Cusco, as much as you can in a foreign city full of tourists and locals peddling souvenirs and other trash. The city is beautiful in the centre, and interesting on the outskirts, where you can wander and see the real city, the locals going about their normal business, eating at local restaurants and just being Peruvian and their lives not centred around tourist dollars. I was lucky enough to enjoy some of this, eating cuy (guinea pig) at a local restaurant, walking around the cemetery, which I always enjoy in South American cities, and also seeing parts of the city that most people don't see. Although my plan is to finish my trip and head onto Europe to work and live for 2016, I was actually tempted to stay here in Cusco. It happens sometimes, where you find a city that you love and feel comfortable immediately - Bariloche in Argentina is one example, and Sucre in Bolivia was just like that too. I knew this didn't make sense - I was on a tourist visa, I had many places to see and visit on my list here, as well as people waiting for me in Europe. Sometimes it's nice to dream though, and you never know, maybe one day I will come back and run a photography workshop and do a bit of teaching as well.

The winding river and the even windier road.
Yes, we crossed that in the van.
The bridge over the river leading to Agua Calientes.
The trip to Machu Picchu had been booked, and my friend Laurel was doing it with me. Although the tour operator who sold me the tickets was confident, I was slightly worried about the roads. February is still the wet season here in Peru, and it had rained in Cusco nearly every day this week, and some other travel agencies weren't selling the car part of the trip due to the condition of the roads. People in the hostel that had recently returned were recounting their 'terror stories' to anyone that would listen - the roads are completely destroyed, we had to change vans several times and pay more and we didn't think we were going to make it, blah blah blah. Nothing about the city that is on everyone's bucket list. You can't worry about what you can't control, so I walked away from the complainers and got my last bit of the city before leaving the next day. The bus picked us up early and we packed in with loads of other people - the van was full and headed out into the mountains towards Machu Picchu. About 4 hours of driving through beautiful mountain passes and gorges, we arrived at our destination - with one problem. The road that normally takes you to the Hydro Station and on to the town of Agua Calientes, had been wiped out by the river. All along the drive we could see this river raging, dragging logs and everything else with it, nearly breaking it's banks. Several roads were slightly damaged, and the workers were doing their best to keep them open, but this was too much. We jumped out of our van and crossed a slightly wobbly wire bridge to get in another car to take us the next 18kms to the power station. Some people complained about this, the change and also having to pay another 5 sole ($2) for the other driver (as our company couldn't go over the river, and this company was stuck on this side... a pain to pay again but it's nobody's fault!), but it's one of those things so I paid and got there ok. Some of the people who got angry about the whole thing got out... not sure if they walked or argued with another driver, but you're better off without these people anyway.

Bromeliads growing everywhere.
From the power station, there was a 2 hour hike along the train lines to the town at the bottom of Machu Picchu. I'd seen pictures of the town, and I knew I wasn't going to be impressed. The walk was pleasant though, apart from the fact that there was no path, and so we had to walk along the stones around the rails, or on the rails themselves. You can see the tops of some of the building in MP from here if you know what you're looking for, but like most people I didn't notice but saw it on the way back. All along the steep and very, very high cliffs that soar above the railway line and river, bromeliads are growing, covering nearly every square inch of the 90 degree cliff face with their spiky leaves and red flowers.  We arrived in Agua Calientes a little hot and tired, but before sunset. I immediately took a dislike to this town - it's sole purpose is to feed tourists with crappy expensive food, sell them souvenirs that they don't need and to give them a lousy bed for the night. It looked faked and felt fake - locals touting for restaurants and massages and then some. With our booking we had our first dinner and both night's accommodation included, so at least we weren't hassled too much or didn't have to worry about finding anything. The meal was average as expected (and a set menu with no choice) and the hotel was unfinished and smelt like paint still. It didn't really matter, tomorrow was Machu Picchu day - something I'd been waiting for for nearly 20 years! Bed early as it had been decided that we would start the hike at 4:15 in the morning to get to the top of the mountain and in the city by 6:30am. I was praying to Pachamama that it wouldn't rain!

The train to Agua Calientes.
A guy and 'his dog' on the hike.
The river (really) wild.
Maybe she only listens to locals during Carnival, as it was raining when we woke up and didn't stop till about 11am. The hike wasn't fun - 2 hours of steps leading up through the humid and wet jungle to reach the entrance gate. Some people took the bus, but we decided not to due to the price (can't remember exactly but somewhere near $15) as well as the fact that I felt I had to do some kind of exertion to get there - some people did the Inca Trail hike, which costs and arm and a leg and needs to be booked months and months in advance, and there is that sense of accomplishment. I was only doing 2 hours, but it did the trick - getting to the top and sitting down to admire the view and what you've just climbed was worth it. We amongst the fiest groups to enter, but already the place was packed - plastic ponchos and brightly coloured umbrellas everywhere. My photos weren't really ruined by these those, more by the weather. There were people everywhere, standing around in the rain, taking pictures (and loads of selfies), trying not to think about the rain, and only somewhat listening to the guide rattle off facts and figures like a machine-gun with unlimited ammo.

The beautiful and mysterious Machu Picchu.
A few clouds for effect.
Water channels in the city.
We we able to leave our tour guide after an hour as we had tickets to hike up the bigger peak just behind the city called Huayna Picchu (meaning "young mountain"), which would offer a view over the whole city. An hour of hard climbing and buckets of sweat later, we were again surrounded by people and yet weren't about to see what we can to see. I was starting to feel a little disappointed. You have high hopes for something, a place that has been on your Top 5 list of places to visit for so many years, everyone says it's amazing, and then when you get there it lets you down a little because of the weather and lack of visibility. If it were a city or something more accessible, I wouldn't have worried so much - come back when the sun is shining in a day or two - but I would only have one crack at this. Climbing back down a little under the (cloudy) weather, We found a spot a little lower but with an even better view - and the clouds were starting to pass over. Things were looking up. I was happy to sit there for a good hour, watching, taking pictures, and enjoying the moment - the only chance most likely of seeing this wonderful place in my lifetime.

The housing area of Machu Picchu.
Selfies all round!
I was one of thousands of tourist here on the day.
The city of Machu Picchu is full of mysteries and one can only guess at some of them. Built in 1450, the city was abandoned 100 years later due to the Spanish invasion - but the invaders never found this place, and it was 'lost' until Hiram Bingham, an American historian, wrote about it in 1911. Machu Picchu means "old mountain" in Quechua, and sits 2,430 metres about sea level with a commanding view of it's surroundings, including the river and the path that I walked along to get here. As I walked in along this path, I didn't see the city even though I knew it was there - no wonder it stayed hidden for so long. It was declared a UNESCO in 1983 and was voted one of the New Seven Wonders Of The World in 2007. Today is is visited by around 5,000 people A DAY in the low season, and a whopping 9,000 in the peak season. This has caused problems with the site - in the 80s a helicopter knocked a stone from it's original position, in the 90s a cable car to the top and a luxurious hotel was going to be built, but thankfully due to protests the plan was abandoned. Even deaths due to altitude sickness, falling floods have been issues, as well as "naked tourism." For some reason people see the need to get starkers at great sites around the world. Our guide said due to the sheer amount of people coming here daily, the city was sinking, and thus the Peruvian Government are putting restrictions on the amount of people visiting and time spent on the site - glad I got in when I did, as I spent nearly all day there, free to wander. Something to note about how much money the site brings in for Peru - minus the train, town revenue, entrance fee and food and drinks sold, the WCs cost 1 sole, which is nothing, but multiply that by 5,000 a day and you have nearly $2000 ($3500 in high season) just for people taking a wiz at a historical site.

Those stones fit so well that a blade of grass cannot fit between them.
Beautiful stone windows.
The view down the valley.
There are so many parts of the city to describe and talk about - where to start! The Inti Watana Stone is very interesting - it is part of the Sun Temple and has windows which are used to show the Winter and Summer Solstice. Through these windows, perfectly lined up, the sun on these two days shines through exactly, hitting this stone. The sun also shines on the 12-sided half "Inca Cross," with the shadow forming the other half along the ground. There are approximately 200 buildings here, some just houses for the 800 permanent residents that lived here, others to bring water into and around the city, and some for religous purposes, like the Sun Temple. At the bottom of the Sun Temple there are two small, round stone "bowls," which, when filled with water, are used to view the reflection of the start - beats straining your neck all night. Not all of the city has those perfect walls that everyone is used to seeing - this kind of craftmanship is saved for the important buildings, not Tom Dick and Harry's house down the road. It is kind of like the Romans - not all of Rome was built in marble, as that is just too damn expensive, so they built the city in brick and used marble as a façade over the top for beauty. Brilliant and cost effective! The Inca style is still very impressive - a technique called "Ashlar," is used to make the walls, where large stone blocks are cut and fit together without mortar. These joins between the walls are not always logical or straight, small curves and 'L' shapes are cut into them for some reason, but the joins are so neat that you can't fit a blade of grass between the two blocks. There was also an earthquake here, and very little of the city was damaged. 
The Sun Temple with Huayna Picchu in the background.
The Sun Temple - windows for the Winter and Summer Solstice sun.
After most of the day up here, and nearly all the photos my camera could take, I was about ready to head back down. I did walk around the site extensively, but had to follow a set path, and several times had the guards blow their little whistle and tell me that this path is a 'one way' path. Stupid, but good exercise. At around 3, the rain also came in and it was definitely time to leave. Last few selfies and photos done, we headed back down, via the expensive bus this time so we didn't have to walk back in the rain as well. Overall the experience was a little less amazing than I expected, but then again I'm not one of these people who say "that was soooo amazing!" all the time - I can be honest and grade things slightly, not everything has to be 'the best experience of my life.' In saying that, it was cool and definitely worth it. The weather the following day was perfect though - blue skies, a few clouds to help make photos more interesting, but you take what you get in life and be thankful that you did what you wanted to in the first place!

The beautiful views around the Machu Picchu area.

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. February 2016.

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Golden City of Cusco

The symbol of the Inca Empire.
Even the Peruvians love this city!
Looking out onto Santa Catalina.
By now, the long over-night bus trips are just part and parcel of travelling in South America. I have only caught one plane, from El Calafate to Buenos Aires to save me 3 days on a bus (for the same price), and have done nearly from top to bottom (in the other order) of this continent on buses. There are various grades and sizes of buses, some with 2 decks and some without toilets (or some with toilets that state "liquid only"), cama and semi-cama (basically business class and cattle class), and now I have discovered that in Colombia the long distance buses have WiFi on board and USB chargers for your phone and devices. The bus from Copacabana to Cusco was an overnight trip, and nothing special to be honest. The guy that got left behind managed to catch up to his bus (a $5 phone call from our bus driver to his), and I got my stamp into the country after the mess-up after getting into Bolivia, and so all was right in the world. I arrived in Cusco at 5am, and although I usually walk to my hostel, a chance to stretch my feet and save some cash, I figured that this time of day is not the best time to be wandering around searching for a bed (not I didn't book one this time, as the internet in Copacabana was very limited!), and the centre was about 7kms away. 6 Soles ($3) later (I'm glad I changed it at the border) and I was in the Plaza de Armas.

The fountain in the Plaza de Armas.
The Santa Catalina Convent on the Plaza.
The gold 'face' of the Incas - now on street signs.
I stepped/fell out of the taxi in the main square of the city, my legs not quite working normally after the long trip and my bags are just damn heavy too. It was early, the sun was just getting up, and I was blown away by Cusco. With a population of just under 500,000 people and sitting at a pretty 3,400m, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and visited by more than 2 million people a year. This city was the capital of the Inca Empire between the 13th and 16th Centuries, this ending when the Spaniards arrived in 1533 and conquered the city and took it's leader, Emperor Atahualpa, as a captive and eventually executed him. The whole account of how the Spanish conquered many parts of South America are long and sometimes doubtful in my opinion, as they were written by the people who did the conquering (unlike Caesar's accounts in Gaul and Britain that are said to be very accurate and honest), but some tales and stories are interesting and probably mostly true - the Spanish did come for gold and silver, and the Incan Empire was granted to Francisco Pizzaro in the name of the Spaniards. When the Incan leader was captured, he offered to buy his freedom by offering 2 rooms full of treasure - 1 full of gold and the other with silver, up to the reach of his arms. The 'gold' room measured 22 feet by 17 feet and 9 feet tall (6.7m x 5.1m x 2.7m) and the other one slightly smaller, but the gold alone was worth more than $15M. Long story short - he was executed, originally to be burnt at the stake but later changed to garotting if he got baptised (which he did to Juan de Atahualpa). A very sad story, one of greed and betrayal, signifying the end of the Inca Empire and the start of Latin America.

Women in tradition Peruvian clothes in a festival to start the new school year.
The beautiful clothes (and women) of Peru.
Free chocolate samples!
The city itself is beautiful, and you can see why the Conquistidores were impressed. The city was called Qusqu or Qosqo in Quechua (the language of the Incas and now a French clothing brand), but couldn't be pronounced by the lispy invaders, and made Cusco. Although the city is no longer filled with gold (which was not used as currency or seen as important by the Incas), the square is huge and the building that hug it's sides are really something. Stone buildings and clay-tiled roofs, colourful balconies, small streets that wind up the surrounding hills - it all adds to a magical city. Nowadays, the city retained 30% of the original stonework and buildings and 70% is what the Spanish built - most of this is the base of buildings built my the Incas, the iconic, huge stones that fit together perfectly, and then the white-washed structures above that which the Spanish built. If it weren't for the bloody and horrible history of how this city became so beautiful, it would be perfect! Sitting the plaza, or walking slowly around snapping pictures, I like to dream of what it would have looked like the day before Pizzaro and his men arrived - towering stone temples and block-paved streets, colourful marketplaces and people walking in the streets wearing their traditional clothing and speaking Quechua still. We'll never know and must accept the past, learn from it, and enjoy it as things are and keep them for history. The historical centre is what everyone sees and visits, but the modern, urban sprawl is the real city - streets climbing to hills, small buses chugging round corners billowing smoke on everyone that is in it's path, and the noise of people all living, working and trying to enjoy themselves along with half a million others. Although you get harassed for massages, tours, sunglasses and just about everything else, the people hawking these things are polite and don't really hassle you.

The streets of Cusco's Historical Old Town.
Photos for money - unless you're quick!
Two women in traditional outfits.
Like most South American cities, the Municipal or Main Market is a great place to start. Firstly, there you can find all the local handicrafts (yes I bought a few things), as well as fruit and veg, and of course cheap eats! My first day in the city I headed straight for the market for lunch, and I just love the feeling of these places. Like Sucre, there is a vibe here - the ladies making fresh fruit juice wave their menus at you and call out, each trying to out-do their neighbour in friendly (or not so friendly) competition. It's the same with the soup ladies here, and I decided to go with a "sopa de pollo," filled with real chicken on the bone, noodles and veg, and a bargain too - 5 Sole ($2). It really filled me up and tasted great too, and I came back day after day, but choosing a different food stand each day to spread the love. Walking the streets, saying a polite 'no gracias' to all the offers, you find some really interesting things when you get off the main road. I found the local markets, a block away from the more touristy one, and here it is the real deal - whole pigs on benches ready to be cut up and bought, goats heads and feet and a variety of other things that I wasn't quite sure of. The smell here is also not for the feint-hearted, but you can eat here with the locals if you can take it. Nobody here really looked at me like I didn't belong - they thought it was amusing that I was here and not on a tour somewhere, but everyone was very polite and just accepted me. I also found a shop that sold Guinea Pigs - this and only this. They are layed out on little trays, all naked but whole - I was told later by a local tour guide (and now friend) that they are popular to eat in Peru, and some restaurants run out after lunch.

Just some of the interesting things found in the markets.
Hello Llama!
The extend of the Inca Trail.
My new Peruvian tour guide (and friend!) Paul took me for an afternoon around the countryside just outside the city, an area called Ureos. I got to see a real traditional town, where the women wear different clothes and hats, and don't ask everyone for money. Just outside of the town we watched a funeral service at a church - not something you usually do, but the priest was singing in Quechua and I couldn't just walk away. We continued on to see some ruins - a huge gateway that the Incas built, mainly to collect tax from people walking along what is now known as the Inca Trail. People think that it is just a 5 day walk on the way to Machu Picchu, but this road rain from Southern Colombia right down to Santiago de Chile - part of a huge road network the Incas built. The gate and wall was also used to control people moving around the Empire, which was strictly controlled - the people didn't really have much power. On the other hand, homosexuality was not illegal or frowned upon at all, and gay people were usually sent into the medical profession; women were treated as equals in society, virginity was not the 'be all and end all' of holiness and being faithful to your partner was far more important, and you could leave them as long as you did so with notice and reason. Money was non-existent, and gold was not seen as a sign of wealth, and people worked to give back to the State, adding labour to big projects and getting things done together - all these reasons were why the Spaniards hard such a hard time dealing with the local people as it went against everything they believed - one reason why they tried to convert them as quickly as possible. I'm sorry but everything comes back to the Spaniards here in Peru - on the brightside though, the people, although very Catholic, kept their language and customs and beliefs (such as Pachamama) to the present day.

Cuye - Guinea Pigs - ready to be sold. The name "cuye" comes from the sound they make as you try and catch them!
Mary and her Little Lamb.
Mmmmm chocolate and coffee!
The city is just too chock-full of history and culture to do in a week even, not enough time to look at and explore all the little doorways that lead to courtyards that sell coffee and chocolate and other tasty (but expensive) things. My favourite store was the Cafe Y Chocolate store just off the Plaza de Armas. The chocolate was too expensive to buy and justify it, but they gave out free trials of every flavour, which was wide and varied. The woman was very nice and had no problem with me eating all the offerings and commenting on how this one was incredible and better than the last... but by the third day she wasn't as pleasant and so I felt terribly guilty and never showed my face in the store again. This didn't stop me from walking past and sniffing.

'Pollo' is very popular here, but fresh is best!
Goat's everything for sale at the markets.
My half of the guinea pig for lunch!
With my partner in crime in Cusco (and chocolate shops with free samples) Laurel, we went to eat Cuye at one of the top restaurants - by 'top' I mean the top of the city with a wonderful view. From the window you get to see the whole city and mountains that tuck it all in neatly, and it doesn't seem so noisy or busy from up here. Our Guinea Pig was served on a plate with potatoes and spaghetti and laid on a bed of herbs (which are actually marijuana, but the variety used for cooking and not getting high), and although it was tasty, I don't think I could eat a whole one, as the meal is quite filling and the flavour rich and possible an acquired one. Laurel and I shared one, cut right down the middle, so we both got a front leg, back leg and half a head to chew on too. The feet, and the little claws, are just like a crunchy chicken wing, and I devoured mine and Laurel's. Inside the head, or more specificity the ear, you can find a bone that resembles a little fox - it is used in a drinking game here in Peru where you place it in a shot of alcohol, if you can down the shot and the bone, then it's good luck. Usually it takes a while, people get drunk and soon the 'fox' is forgotten. I didn't think it was fair, but Laurel downed the bone first go, but had a slight upset stomach afterwards, so fair is fair in the end I guess.

The view of the city from San Cristobal Church.
A church doorway.
A straight and well-paved road in Cusco.
After 5 days in Cusco, I was already in love. I could stay here, live here, teach and take photos. I really wanted to - some cities do that to you. But, I had come to the city, not to live and stay, but to enjoy it while I could. Part of that enjoyment would be Machu Picchu - a place that some people find hard to pronounce or spell, but a place that is on most people's Bucket List. I spent a bit of time walking around trying to find a good deal - this time of year wasn't easy as some places don't offer the van option due to it being the rainy season. I looked at the train, but at $100US, it would cost more than the whole MP trip! We didn't have the time for a full 5 day hike there either, and again it was quite costly. I found a good deal, 2 nights accomodation, transport, 1 lunch and 1 dinner as well as the entry to Machu Picchu and Hujayapicchu for 440 Sole, or $173 Australian. My travel buddy Laurel that I just keep running into would do it together before heading off on our separate ways for a bit. But that will have to wait for another entry.

Cusco sitting in the Sacred Valley.

Christmas and Covid

It's Christmas! Christmas decorations in the city. I’m sitting at home writing this blog post about December, reflecting on all that has...