Cusco: Ancient Capital of the Incas

Trip Start Oct 03, 2008
Trip End Oct 11, 2008

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Saturday, October 4, 2008
Cusco, Peru

One hour after taking off from Lima, my plane, LAN Peru Flight #23 landed around 12:25PM at Aeropuerto Velasco Astete in Cusco, 11,000 feet above sea level. Excitement filled me, as I saw the majestic Andes Mountains enveloping this city of 400,000 people with grace and charm. Even the thin air felt drier and cooler than in Lima. Inside the airport, there were oxygen canisters on sale for people with respiratory distress. So far, I did not have any complications thanks to my Acetazolamide.


Acetazolamide works by inhibiting an enzyme called Carbonic Anhydrase, an enzyme responsible for catalyzing the production of HCO3 (bicarbonate) from CO2 (carbon dioxide) and H2O (water):

                    carbonic anhydrase
CO2 + H20 ----------------------------> HCO3 + H

By preventing the production of bicarbonate (a base), this medicine would make my blood more acidic. The excess CO2 is a potent stimulus in the respiratory center of the brain, naturally stimulating respiration and causing one to breathe faster, so that the body could metabolize more oxygen, thus minimizing the symptoms of altitude sickness. That is why I went to the pharmacy to get a few days' supply of this medicine before my body would acclimatize.


Departing the airport, I took a taxi to the hotel. On the way, I sat in front and started chatting in Spanish with a very nice indigenous Peruvian taxi driver. We were talking about the Incan history as well as the language called Quechua, an agglutinative language derived from a dialect spoken by the Incans. An aggutinative language had a grammatical structure, in which the verb came at the end of the sentence (eg. Latin, Japanese, Korean). Quechua is now spoken by 10 million people in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina. He informed me that in Cusco and neighboring areas, it had a status comparable to Spanish and was taught in school. Due to my specialized interest and research in Comparative Linguistic Etymology (or the study of word origin across different languages), I got excited and asked him to teach me various phrases in Quechua. Neither the words nor pronunciation sounded like Spanish or any of the other 20 languages I had studied. It was extremely interesting, and I knew I had to find a book to teach me conversational Quechua before my departure...


REI Adventures did a wonderful job selecting my accommodation in Cusco. Just two to three blocks from the main square, Plaza de Armas (Weapons' Square), my hotel was situated in the historic heart of Cusco, and it was constructed around the frame of a charming 16th century palace occupied by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro himself. There was a garden-side restaurant serving delectable Peruvian and European cuisine, and the bar had a cozy fireplace for the usually chilly evenings in Cusco.The ancient interior stone walls and stunning atrium formed the dreamy backdrop to my stay in Cusco. At the entrance, guests were encouraged to soak the coca leaves, which naturally contained cocaine alkaloids, a basis for the drug cocaine, in hot water to form coca tea. Since there were no instructions concerning the quantity of coca leaves used, I ended up accidentally filling my cup to the brim with these leaves. My body was probably seeing an equivalent amount of crack cocaine legally imbibed in the form of tea, and this did have some effect on me. I was walking around the Main Square taking pictures when I suddenly felt some palpitations (pounding in the chest) and dizziness. I immediately looked around for a pharmacy to try to get some beta-blocker medicine to slow down my heart rate. But the symptoms became a little bit more intense. Since I could not find a pharmacy in the vicinity, I tried some deep breathing maneuvers as well as massaging the carotid node in my neck to stimulate some natural chemicals to try to neutralize the stimulatory effect of the coca leaves. I knew I also had to quickly hydrate myself quickly since the duiretic effect of the tea and coffee, which I had drunk earlier in the day, was probably making my blood pressure low. After all these maneuvers, I began to feel better and went back to the hotel. No more coca leaves for me, please....


Before the arrival of the rest of the group, I was decompressing with a drink in the courtyard while listening to the relaxing bubbling sound of the central fountain. It was there that I met a group of senior travelers from Vienna, who were having a difficult time conveying themselves in English or Spanish with the hotel staff. I jumped in, briefly introduced myself, and helped translate between German and Spanish for them. We then sat down and conversed some more in German, and they were telling me how strenuous their flight to Peru was. They flew on KLM from Vienna-Amsterdam-Panama City-Lima, then connected on LAN Peru to Cusco. And wow, they did not lose their luggage! They were on a one month tour of Lima, Machu Picchu, the Amazons, Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands. I then told them that around this time three years ago, I was vacationing in a rental apartment in a beautiful corner of their country, in the Lake District of western Austria, known as Hallstatt-Salzkammergut. The autumn colors were vividly beautiful, and the history around that region was very interesting. They mentioned that although Europe was very charming with its history, it was the US that they admired for the its future-oriented mindset. I also met an Australian traveler who flew from Sydney-Auckland (New Zealand)-Mexico City-Lima-Cusco. And I thought my flight was long....


At around 2PM, the rest of the group arrived. I had never met so many medical professionals together on one trip before. It felt more like the American Medical Association convetion. I met Joel, an Internist from Colordado, and his wife, Jan; Sean, a Pediatric Ophthalmologist, and his wife, Karen, a Neurologist from the Los Angeles area; Pam, an Obstetrics Nurse, and her Anesthetist husband, David, from South Carolina, and Kevin, a Radiologis from Boston. Also, Dana, a dentist from Grass Valley, California, and his good friend, Barry, the Vice President of a software company, were also part of the group. Almost all the major specialties were covered. Our guide, Rosa, a native of Peru with a good command of English, came in and introduced herself. She then mentioned that our itinerary was going to be slightly changed due to a nationwide strike next week, which would severly limit the trains to Machu Picchu. I told Rosa that I was surprised that the Peruvians were trying to copy the Italian way of life. I would have accepted this kind of incident in Italy and France without further questioning, but not in Peru?!

Because today was a slow day for us to acclimatize to the high altitude, no strenuous exertion was on the schedule. We reconvened around 3PM and did the tour of the city of Cusco. Filled with charming cobblestone alleys and church towers, I was very impressed with the city layout. We visited the Church of Santo Domingo and the main Cathedral in Plaza de Armas.


Cusco was said to have been founded in the 11th century by the Inca Supreme Leader Pachacuti, and it became the capital of the Inca Empire (1200s-1532), which stretched from southern Colombia to Chile and encompassed a population of 30 million people. Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro entered Cusco on March 23, 1534 and defeated the Incans to take over the city. He demolished the precious temples and palaces, and using their stones, he built grandiose cathedrals and churches in order to convert the Incas to Christianity. Now, 85% of the Cusqueños are Roman Catholic while 15% still practice traditional Incan theology.

Walking around this delicate city, I felt like I was walking around a small town in northern Spain. The European architecture and ancient streets murmured a history of unmistakable colonial hardship and bloody defeat of the Incas. I could sense the tears and blood on the stones of the demolished ruins of the Incan buildings, now used to hold up the Spanish religious buildings. The indigenous people of Peru, wrapped in colorful shawls and sweaters and walking their llamas down the street, were also the offspring of the citizens belonging to a once powerful empire. Now, some of them were reduced to sitting on the street corner with outstretched, sun-dried hands begging for money. Once covered in gold and silver, the people of this region during the Inca Empire probably lived a completely different life than their offspring today.

After the tour, everybody went back to the hotel to rest before dinner while I walked around the city, guided by my questioning the locals in Spanish for directions, and ended up passing by a bike shop. I went inside to get some information about mountain biking around Cusco for later. And since there was a really nice bike jersey of Team Peru, I couldn't leave the store without finalizing the transaction.

Our evening was topped off with a welcome dinner in the hotel, where I tried some local cuisine: Lomo Saltado (a traditional Peruvian dish of beef sautéed with onions, tomatoes, chili peppers, served with white rice and French fries. No guinea pigs for today, but the week was still young. Tomorrow, we would start hiking near Pisac, 32 km NE of Cusco.

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