Peru Part 2:"You want fries with that guinea pig?"
Trip Start Aug 31, 2012
17Trip End Apr 30, 2013
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We based ourselves in Cusco, one of the most beautiful cities we’ve ever set foot in, and spent a day or two exploring for information; gathering maps like squirrels gather nuts. A few circuits of a town centre can usually put one in good standing of where things are. We soon discovered the gem of Cusco, its main plaza (generally, the gem of any town here is its plaza – they always exude an unbelievable amount of pride, whether artistic, religious or nationalistic - a town’s plaza is always a shining example of the best and most beautiful that can be achieved)
Two great cathedrals dominate the north and east sides of Cusco’s square, each vying for the eyes’ attention, and each succeeding equally. The centerpiece of the plaza is a golden statue of an Inca warrior proudly standing atop a gushing fountain, holding his spear in one hand, and with the other pointing indignantly into the distance, possibly towards the city’s nearby Inca ruins of Saqsayhuaman (sounds a little like "sexy woman"), of which much of Cusco’s beauty has to offer its thanks. Many of the rocks that built Cusco were looted from the nearby Inca fortress when the Spanish arrived and started their fisticuffing back in the year doodah hundred and whatnot. Having fiercely seen the locals off, the conquistadors then proceeded to dismantle the hefty walls and lug the rocks down into the valley to construct more Mediterranean – and therefore less heathen – structures.
A trip up the hill to the agelessly solid looking and still very much intact and undisturbed “ruins” of Saqsayhuaman is a breathtaking testament to the abilities of that ancient, vanquished civilization: that there are so many of these giant boulders still in place (some weighing up to one hundred and twenty five tons – we overheard someone else’s guide telling them) - carried, carved and laid so accurately together by the Inca - that are almost un-pull-down able
We wandered around these ruins for ages, marveling at the sheer damn size of the rocks, and the craftsmanship and mathematical genius it must have taken to assemble the place; and taking in the views of Cusco, spread out like a blanket below us. There are three other sets of ruins in the same direct vicinity of Cusco, none of which had quite the same staggering effect of Saqsayhuaman , so I shan’t go into any details about them. Though we did have a lovely picnic in the shade of one of them’s walls. It was a hot, hot day, and shady picnics are lovely on hot, hot days.
Another trip we took from Cusco was to a town called Pisac, sitting in the heart of the famous Sacred Valley, and below an amazingly well preserved set of ruins (known simply as Inca Pisac) perched atop an overlooking hill. We took a taxi up to the starting point of the ruins, and took a couple of hours to walk along the top of the cliff (and at one point even through it, down a dark, narrow and blessedly cool tunnel), passing more and more impressive parts of the ancient city as we went, and eventually ending up heading back down into the valley, and the town from which we started. At the point where our trail overlooked the town itself, the sky quickly clouded. The rain that came was merely an aperitif to the hail which promptly followed
So, our next item on the agenda was to get to Machu Picchu. We bought the thirty-three quid tickets in Cusco, and found that the cheapest way to get there (without paying the extortionate train fair) was to catch a local bus to the small town of Santa Maria, another bus to the equally small town of Santa Teresa; stay the night there; hike to the town at the foot of Machu Picchu mountain, Aguas Calientes (or Machu Picchu Town, as it now calls itself); stay the night there and then get up the hill and see all those famous walls early the next morning. And so we left the bulk portion of our possessions in Cusco, and set off early on a Friday.
The bus ride to Santa Maria was a stunning spectacle; our bus pulled wheelies around hairpin bends as we looked down over the edge at the far below valley floor, carpeted with trees in rich shades of green
Santa Teresa – once we had finally made it and I had peeled my fingers off the seat in front of me - was a very nice, very small town with about as many hostels as residents, and a great place to start our hike to Machu Picchu
Anyway, to conclude this walk, the last hour or so of it turned out to be circling around those very ruins, somewhere high above us, that we’d come so far to see, although the citadel was (and is) practically unapparent from below. By the next morning, when we had arrived at and explored Machu Picchu itself, we felt very confident in our orientation of the surrounding area, and would excitedly point out below us the paths we had been on
Machu Picchu, as we found early the next morning, is like a Disneyland of history and mystery. It is not without its share of popularity, wouldn’t you know. We arrived before 6am, jostling for position in a queue, as we waited for the gates to open. Normally, this would be my nightmare of choice. Queues of pushy people do nothing for my patience; but once inside, what greets is worth all the elbows and smelly armpits. Everyone knows what Machu Picchu looks like, and being there is like stepping into that famous image. What you imagine it to be like is what it’s like. I’m not taking anything away from the experience; it actually kind of felt like I would imagine Disneyland might feel; the energy and that buzz in the air. And there’s enough of the actual site - and surrounding terraces and paths - to be able to explore for hours, climbing to a (reasonably) empty spot to sit on a rock and soak up the ambience. I nearly can’t be bothered to describe it without the usual clichés: The discovery of a lost world, and all that; guessing the meanings and fathoming the methods of such sacred, secret empires that have risen and fallen through the sands of time, from dust to dust; the futility of man’s greatest endeavours, and the fickle nature of his power, and even existence… and so forth
You might have guessed already that, whilst in Cusco (we made it back the next day, via some other ruins in The Sacred Valley called Ollantaytambo – but you’ve heard enough about ruins), we finally managed another of the things I have personally been looking forward to; the sampling of the tempting national dish: Guinea Pig. At about three times the price of any other dish on the menu, it’s not been easy choosing a time and place for this delicacy, but we decided to just bite the bullet and get it done. When he/she arrived on my plate, I looked at her/him for a while. That toothy, bared snarl on that wrinkled brown face wasn’t the most tempting of sights; and the shriveled-up body with four dinky, clawed paws jutting out of the side were a long way from the plump and juicy crouching morsel I’d imagined straddling my chips, but at that price (about twelve quid, or one hundred and fifty rand– expensive here) I tucked straight in. The skin was pretty stretchy, and the majority of the meat much like chicken but with its own pleasant flavour; but there was a delicious area between the throat and belly with lots of black-pudding-like goodness. I guess I was eating some vital organs or something, but it was definitely the most delicious part (the brain – usually the tastiest part of an animal - was too hard to get to encased in that solid little skull). Kez opted for the Alpaca steak, which turned out to be a slightly tougher version of beef, with a hint of some venison-like flavor.
So, lots of walls this week. Walls have the power to keep us out, or keep others in; they may be tall, short, or papered with your favourite cartoon characters; they might stand the changes of the ages, filling future civilisations with wonder, or fall in an instant and take everything we own with them. Who knows? For more information on the walls near you, consult your local library, or ask a policeman; they’ll always be happy to help. Enjoy walls!