Into Thin Air
Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
127Trip End Aug 01, 2007
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We've had a pretty brutal travel schedule, jet lag issues, and luggage problems over the last week. Since our last real update from Boracay in the Philippines we spent a lot of time in the air! To get to where we are now in Cusco, Peru we had a flight from Boracay to Manila then next day flew from Manila to Seoul, Seoul to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles to Portland. After a 30-hour stopover in Portland to visit family, drop-off bags and winterize our wardrobe, we flew from Portland to Phoenix, Phoenix to Houston, and Houston to Lima, arriving there at 3:00am. After spending a day in Lima doing nothing but catching up on sleep and eating, we caught a flight early the next morning to Cusco. Just a little aside, in the ten months of this trip prior to rechecking our baggage in Los Angeles International Airport, we had taken over 45 flights on over 25 airlines and had not lost our luggage even once
Anyway, that's enough tales of woe. Yesterday morning headed to the high altitude city (11,000 feet above sea level) and former ancient Incan capital of Cusco. We've been breathing really heavy trying to adjust to the thin air. A short trip up a flight of stairs or even just having slight nasal congestion is enough to make me start gasping for breath! Sleeping is a fitful experience to say the least and every few hours I seem to wake up wheezing for oxygen. Some of the really swanky hotels in Cusco actually pump supplementary oxygen into their rooms! Hopefully we'll be a bit more acclimatized by the time we head out for our four-day trek.
Cusco itself is a really cute colonial town with an amazingly well preserved center. Most of the action centers on the Plaza de Armas (town square) that is flanked by historic buildings and two large cathedrals built on the foundations of Inca temples. Quaint restaurants, souvenir shops and local stores fill the narrow alleys. Despite the fact that for decades the town has been inundated with tourists on their way to or from Machu Picchu, the place holds tenaciously to a lot of local flavor. Cusco is still a REAL Peruvian city with most of the inhabitants going about their business completely unaffected by tourism
So, of course I now have to add the history blurb just in case you forgot all that stuff you learned about the Incas back in middle school. According to Inca myth, around AD 1200 Manco Capac and his sister both rose out of Lake Titicaca after being created by the Sun. They then went on to found the capital of the new Inca Empire in the city of Cusco. It grew and flourished for the next 300 years and at its height, the empire controlled and area about half the size of Europe, stretching from modern day Colombia to Chile. In the early 1500's, while the empire was in the midst of a civil war between two brothers with competing claims on the throne, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro came upon the society and through a series of bold military and political moves, assassinations, and greatly assisted by the effects of previously unknown European diseases being introduced into the Inca population, was able to bring the society to its knees. Most of the Inca society was wiped off the map except for a few very remote settlements (such as Machu Picchu), which the Spanish never discovered. Like so many other South American nations, the region became a Spanish colony and began assimilating its religion and language. Inca temples were looked at as bastions of paganism and were systematically disassembled or converted into other uses. Ironically, almost 500 years after the conquest, many locals still practice some of the Inca rites and have blended them with Catholicism to create a very unique fusion.
Wow, all this flying around can make a person crazy
Lima is a foggy blur, since we slept most of the time, and the only "tourist" thing we did was to eat ceviche. Other than that, we really could have been anywhere. From what I could see however (from the taxi window), the Miraflores area of Lima was really cute and looked like a fun place to hang around for a day or two. Overall, Lima was much more civilized, organized, and clean than I was expecting...but everything is if you compare it to India!
Upon arriving in Cusco, we finally felt like we were in Peru. Women and men dressed in traditional clothing all around, cobblestone streets and sidewalks, bamboo flute music, and buildings built on top of impressive Inca foundations and... no American chain fast food!! As soon as a place gets inundated with KFC, McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts, it seems to lose a bit of its charm. Cusco is the "jumping off point" for Machu Picchu, but really has enough sights and atmosphere to occupy you for several days. Which, by the way, if you are planning on doing the 4 day Inca Trail trek, I would highly recommend that you stay in Cusco for three full days to acclimatize to the high altitude. We rented a cute little apartment for two nights in a traditional house (one with an interior courtyard made out of mud brick), and tried to get used to the idea of using blankets to stay warm instead of modern heating (or any type of heating for that matter). Why is it that when you finally get warm and cozy in a very cold room, you almost always discover that you have an undying urge to pee?
We loved Cusco, and will certainly take another trip in the future back here, but next time stay longer...and maybe in one of those rooms with the extra oxygen!