Killing time in Cusco... ruins, ruins, more ruins.

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

The day bus from Arequipa to Cusco sounded like a good idea... a chance to take in the scenery and not arrive absolutely exhausted after a fitful night´s sleep on a bus. But boy, it took AGES! We finally arrived in Cusco at about 8.30pm on Saturday 7 January, after an 11-hour ride (that was supposed to take 8 hours). Nevertheless, the scenery along the way was beautiful, all snow-capped mountains and plains of green beneath them, with grazing alpacas and little clusters of mud-brick huts.

We were too tired to really take in the beauty of Cusco that evening... headed straight to bed after a bite to eat. But the next day, after changing hostels (our first night´s hostel was too noisy) we explored the historic centre of town and soon decided that it was one of the most beautiful we´d seen. Two elegant stone cathedrals frame the Plaza de Armas; graceful colonial buildings with wooden balconies, shutters and terracotta roof tiles line the narrow cobbled streets. In several alleyways, fine Inca stone walls can be seen 'embedded' in later colonial buildings.

We spent the best part of that Sunday shopping around for an Inca Trail tour. There are literally hundreds of tour operators and agencies in Cusco offering the Trail; it is, after all, the main reason why folk come to Cusco. The very first place we spoke to offered us a price of US $175 each; throughout the rest of the day we came across prices ranging from $190 to an astonishing $300. We´d met other travellers in Ecuador and Peru who told us that they paid around $165, so that´s what we were looking for. After a hard day´s bargaining, we returned to our first stop, Xtreme Tourboulencia, and booked our places with them for $175 each.

The red tape surrounding the Inca Trail has proliferated in recent years, and it now takes three days for walkers´ permits to be processed. That meant that the soonest we could depart on the trail was Thursday the 12th. So, we were left with three days to kill. Not a problem, though, as there is a wealth of archeological sites around Cusco and in the nearby Sacred Valley. We decided to visit as many of these ruins as possible... call it a warm-up for Machu Picchu!

On Monday morning we made a fairly late start and walked to Sacsayhauman, an Inca ceremonial centre perched up on a hill above the city. The bastion walls around the base of the temple complex are built with huge stones, skillfully carved to interlock perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle, without the need for mortar. We marvelled at the perfection of these walls, and wondered how on earth the Inca masons had managed to shape and fit them together with such precision. Over the next few days, we´d see this sort of jigsaw stonework wherever an important building had stood - it was the hallmark of ceremonial Inca architecture.

Oh, and to our surpise we bumped into our Swiss friend Guillaume at Sacsayhauman. We spent the rest of the day with him, and visited three more Inca sites just outside Cusco. The most impressive of these three was Tambo Machay, a beautifully preserved water shrine. A network of delicately carved stone channels feeds a natural spring out of a stone wall, down a series of terraces and into a little pool. This fondness of water features was another hallmark of sacred Inca architecture we came to recognise.

We had bought a combined ticket for 16 archeological sites and attractions around Cusco and the Sacred Valley (70 Soles); one of the attractions was an evening folk dance performance. So on Monday evening, after our first day of ruin-watching, we headed to the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo. What an entertaining, amusing evening: dancers in colourful traditional costumes from various Andean regions twirling to the sound of a live band with panpipes etc.

Tuesday morning we were up early and on a public bus by 8.30am for a day in the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was Pisaq, a pretty little market town surrounded by terraced maize fields. After a hearty breakfast, we climbed the old Inca path up the mountainside to the Inca fortress perched high up above the village. The path took us through steep Inca terraces (no longer cultivated) to a group of temple buildings on a rocky outcrop. Again, the stonework and water features were magnificent, as were the views of the valley. And what better way to arrive at the top than by Inca trail (as opposed to bus/road access)... a warm-up for the big four-day walk!

From Pisaq we took a public bus to Ollantaytambo, another pretty little village with Inca ruins perched on the mountainside above it. Though impressive (esp. the water features and massive slabs of granite hewn into shape) it was nowhere near as dramatic as Pisaq. As the mellow light of late afternoon bathed the ruins, the large tour groups disappeared and we had the place all to ourselves. We caught a minivan back to Urubamba, from there hopped on a bus to Cusco and returned to the city at about 8.30pm. Exploring the Sacred Valley independently by public transport is definitely the way to go... it´s easy, much cheaper than a day tour, and you can take it at your own pace.

Wednesday was to be our final day of "killing time" before the Inca Trail. We made a later start than the previous day, and hopped on a bus to Tipon, about an hour´s drive away in the Southern Valley to the east of Cusco. From the road where the bus dropped us off, we walked for about 40 minutes or so through the village and up a valley behind it, from where we spotted a marked Inca path leading uphill to the ruins themselves. Again, a marvellous way to arrive at such an impressive ancient site... walking th exact same route as the Incas who built and worked at the complex 500 or more years ago.

The Tipon complex probably counts as the most impressive we´d seen in our three days of exploring. It´s very unusual: unlike the other sites, there is no temple at its heart; its chief feature is a steep amphitheatre of fine agricultural terraces with many irrigation channels and pretty water features. Archeologists have speculated that it might have been an agricultural laboratory of sorts.

After strolling back downhill and through the village, we stopped off at a simple eatery to sample the local speciality... guinea pig or ´cuy´. Of course, cuy is considered a delicacy throughout Peru, but we just hadn´t managed to get around to trying it. So when we spotted many little eateries around Tipon village advertising "Cuy al Horno" (baked in the oven), we just had to try it! Well, thankfully they served our cuy without its head (locals were being served the whole beast, complete with bared little rodent teeth). It´s somewhere between rabbit and chicken, with a slightly bitter hint and many fiddly little bones (like quail). Not something I´d order again (give me a nice roast chicken instead) but passable.

After our meal, we spent a pleasant afternoon sipping beer and playing a Peruvian coin-tossing game in the garden of the restaurant before heading back to Cusco, where we dropped by the Museo de Sitio Qorikancha, where artefects found during the excavation of the Santo Domingo Church (built on top of the Qorikancha Temple of the Sun) are displayed.

In the evening, we had a pleasant surprise back at our hotel - Ole, our German friend whom we´d walked the Colca Canyon with, dropped by after receiving our email. We went to dinner together, and afterwards the boys went in search of Guillaume... they tracked him down in his favourite bar! So a few more beers were consumed while I got myself packed and sorted out for the next day´s Inca Trail departure...
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