Altitude 11,000 Feet

Trip Start May 04, 2007
Trip End May 25, 2007

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Flag of Peru  , Cusco,
Monday, May 7, 2007

After less than 24 hours in Lima, I joined my tour-mates for a very early flight to Cuzco yesterday morning. This is the first test of a prospective Machu Picchu climber´s altitude tolerance, since the city´s elevation is around 11,000 feet. At first I felt very little effect, but after a full day of walking around the city centre and touring Inca ruins on the outskirts, I developed a pretty wicked headache, likely exacerbated by the 3 previous nights of scant sleep and ignoring all of the advice about taking it very easy on the first day at altitude. However, a combination of ibuprofen, a quick nap, and a hot mug of coca tea, and I was good as gold. Coca tea (or anything else made from coca leaves) is the local remedy for altitude and digestion-related ailments, and it's made from the same plant that is the source of cocaine. But no, you can´t get high from it! Well, maybe a bit of a caffeine-like buzz at best, but only if you wad a whole whack of leaves into your cheek and suck on them like chewing tobacco for a good long time.

The tour group is a very eclectic mix.  I´m the only Canadian travelling with 4 Americans, 1 Brit, 2 Irish, 2 Aussies, 2 Danish, and 3 Norwegians.  Some very nice folks all around, although the young Danish and Norwegian girls are quite shy.  

Cuzco is quite lovely, with cobbled streets and views of the Andes in every direction. There is a Catholic church built on top of the very solid foundation of a former Inca Sun Temple. It previously housed what must have been an amazing garden of gold and silver sculptures representing many different animals, trees, and plants found in the Andes.  The animals were all life-sized, and the wall surrounding it was topped with a layer of golden bricks. I can just imagine the stunning brilliance of it. Sadly, Spanish conquerors dismantled the whole thing, melted it down, and sent the gold and silver back to Spain. 

The Andeans managed to keep many of their religious and cultural traditions while being converted to Catholicism by the Spaniards back in the 1600´s, weaving aspects of the two faiths together for their own unique blend that would surely make the Pope squirm. One example is a painting of the Last Supper in the Cathedral in Cuzco. There sits Jesus sharing a meal with the apostles, only instead of bread, they are enjoying a platter of potatoes and roast guinea pig (a quite popular meat around here). Jesus is also shown in crucifixion paintings and sculptures wearing a rather feminine looking skirt - apparently reminiscent of a female Andean religious deity.

A few of us thought we were extremely lucky to happen upon a festival in the Plaza das Aramas on Sunday morning. There were many different military units parading, playing marching band tunes, chanting, and showing off various maneuvers, although their marching style was definitely lackadaisical compared to what we´re used to seeing in North America. Then there were a few groups of school children singing and bearing their school flags.  An old Indian woman tried to pin the little pins she was selling on us, saying "Festival de los Bebes". Later our guide told us that this is actually a weekly event.  It happens every Sunday morning, with the military units being a constant, and the "guest groups" changing each week.  Some weeks may be a harvest theme or holiday theme, etc.  This week happened to be the school groups, thus the "Bebes" theme quoted by the pin lady.

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