Monday, July 29, 2013


The first thing I thought of when I booked the trip to Peru was the theme song from the Emperor's New Groove, the Disney movie which would not get out of my head well into the trip, especially when someone would mention it on the Trail. My friend Cassie and I watched that movie more times that I care to admit when we were in middle and early high school, spending many a drive to and from Minneapolis watching the movie on a car TV that plugged into the car lighter and played VHS tapes while it was propped carefully between the front seats of my parent's Ford Windstar. Naturally, Cuzco (the name of the unfortunately emperor who is turned into a llama and must regain his throne) came to my head a lot during my time in the city of Cuzco, and I'm sure to the annoyance of the locals.

Finally, we got out of the gloomy streets of Lima and made it to Cuzco, where we found ourselves opening our suitcases and pulling out hats and thermal layers immediately when out plane landed at 7am. We began wandering the streets of this high (11,000ft) Andean town as soon as we had dropped our luggage at the hotel and had a cut of coca tea to help with the altitude sickness, and soon the heat of the sun begged us to take off our thermals and fleece sweatshirts. 

My first cup of coca tea, and I ended up drinking it each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 
I can't say for sure if it helped with the altitude, but it tasted pretty good and was like a 
hot, black cup of coffee to the brain. Especially on the trail, the porters and locals chew and 
drink it for its caffeine and rush of adrenaline properties, which help you deal with the lack of 

Cuzco is a hub of tourist activity from all around Peru. Frankly, it seems most people skip Lima entirely and go straight here where they can enjoy the Inca ruins, Machu Picchu, get to the rain forest, lake Titicaca, mountain climbing or anywhere else in the country, really. This time of the year, when Lima is so bleak and cool, its not surprising, and in the summer when its beautiful in Lima its apparently a bit rainier and slower in Cuzco. Hotels are expensive, and locals selling hand-made alpaca goods abound. The old city center is still a quaint town with many small, winding, cobbled streets with a mix of Spanish and Quechua names, with mountains all around, filling up quickly with the shanty towns of the people from farther away who wish to cash in on the tourist capital of the area. The old center of town - which used to be Inca temples and palaces which were built directly over by Catholic churches and Spanish-style homes - was big enough to keep us busy all day, and to allow us to slowly adjust to the altitude. At this point in the trip I was altitude-sickness-free and loving it. 

Yes, this is a baby llama. We learned from our guide later that many of the children in the Andean region speak Quechua in the schools and only stay through the time they learn Spanish, which they at least need to participate in the tourist industry of the region. The outlying region around Cuzco is also majorly overrun by tourists, and nearly the entire economy of the community runs on tourism, whether it is through growing quinoia, making sweaters and table runners for the tourists or leading groups through the countryside, driving buses or acting as a porter on the Inca Trail.

Cuzco was absolutely the most beautiful city we visited, with many colonial touches, I imagine because it was the heart of the Inca Empire and the best way to ruin an empire is to replace their belief system with your own.

I could have spent many more days in the city, using it as a beginning ground for visiting local areas, wandering through more markets and really taking my time, but alas, we only had one full day at the beginning of the tour, and about 3 hours on the final morning before our flight back to Lima. There were plazas every few streets, beautiful buildings and an ancient vibe mixed with the new luxuries of places like Irish pubs and Starbucks. We sampled Alpaca meat and Guinea Pig, ate lots of qunioa and potatoes as well. You feel at the beginning and edge of something in Cuzco, like the best is yet to be found.

This is the central Plaza de Armas of Cuzco, highlighting a cathedral or two, as well as the most beautiful buildings of the city. It is one of the most photographed places in South America, so I won't dwell on the photos I took there. 

Quinoa soup

The mix of old and new, tourist and local in Cuzco. 

Cuzco from above, looking down upon the Plaza de Armas there from the hills above the city, which used to be the place of an Inca fortress, Saksaywaman, which the Inca Emperor took back from the Spanish after Cuzco was taken and from where he tried to fight back against the conquistadors. So many Incas were killed here in these battles, it was said the condors had a magnificent feast, and an image of eight condors on Cuzco's coat of arms to commemorate the dead here. After the defeat, the emperor retreated to Ollantaytampo, which I visited later.

Today, next to Saksaywaman (which is pronounced very similar to "sexy woman"), is Cuzco's version of the Cristo Blanco, not nearly as big as Rio, but lit up all night, and always overlooking the city.

From above, you can see how much Cuzco is growing as people leave the jungle the and countryside and come towards this city. In a perfect world I would have spent much more time there, but we had to move on, into the Sacred Valley where we began to find what remains of the Inca ruins and culture everywhere.

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