The week in Cusco will most likely go down as one of the best on the trip. A key reason for that is that I, along with my travelling partners, didnÂ´t get the traditional Cusco tourist experience. After our full day bus ride from Puno aboard the Inca Express, we were greeted by Carmen, our incredibly nice and welcoming host for the week. Carmen lives in what you might call the suburbs of Cusco and works with a number of schools and communities in the Sacred Valley. She speaks fluent English and French (and Spanish of course) and gave us tons of insight into everyday life in Cusco.
Continuing on with the culinary experience that has been Peru, on our first night in Cusco we went to a traditional Peruvian restaurant and I had, first, pieces of beef heart on a skewer, and then more alpaca, this time stuffed with cheese and other wonderfully tasty ingredients, along with a Pisco Sour to drink. Pisco Sour is the specialty alcoholic drink of Peru…or Chile depending on who you ask. Its widely available in both countries, and both countries believe that the drink originated within their borders. Given that Peru actually has a town named Pisco in the heart of their pisco production valley, I would be tempted to give them the edge. For those that have never tried pisco, its an alcohol based on grapes, that drunk straight, has a taste along the same line as tequila. However, it is best drunk with either coke (known as a Piscola or Peru Libre) or with lime, egg and other ingredients (as a Pisco Sour). The other famous, and terrifically tasty, Peruvian drink that I forgot to mention in a previous post is Inca Cola. Inca Cola is a favorite among Peruvians, an extremely sweet soft drink that has hints of Mountain Dew but has more in common with the syrup they use to make convenience store slushies.
The next day, we got up early and went to CuscoÂ´s massive cathedral for the Palm Sunday mass. We happened to land in Cusco in combination with Semana Santa (Holy Week), which is the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Throughout the entire week, there were special celebrations and festivities, as Peruvians, and South Americans in general, are a very Christian people. The cathedral, which has no seating so that it can fit more people, was packed to the brim. I felt bad for the people standing behind me as I was easily one of the tallest people in the entire cathedral. South Americans, especially the Andeans are a very short race. After the mass, leaving the cathedral was like being in the middle of a mosh pit at a rock concert except I was being jostled by tiny old Peruvian women instead of spiky haired teenage boys. I didnÂ´t even have to move my legs, I basically just kind of floated out of the building in the flow of the crowd. After mass, we joined several members of CarmenÂ´s family for a daytrip to Urubamba, a town in the Sacred Valley. CarmenÂ´s mother had recently broken her arm, and they were taking her to Urubamba to visit a traditional medicine doctor. While they visited the doctor, the three of us and Carmen explored Urubamba, taking in the local food market and ruins, before stopping for lunch and devouring a terrific plate of trout. Later that night, we met with Edwin, a close friend of CarmenÂ´s and a local tour guide who often does the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu. He had come to give us an update on the status of the trains to Macchu Picchu and the news was not good. For those that donÂ´t know, the Sacred Valley (the area between Cusco and Macchu Picchu) was hit by massive rains in late January/early February, causing major flooding and landslides. Macchu Picchu itself was scheduled to reopen on April 1st, after major efforts were taken by the Peruvian government to put the railway and roads back together. So getting to Macchu Picchu was not a problem, but getting back to Cusco was as most travellers go to Macchu Picchu via the Inca Trail (instead of the train) and then take the train back to Cusco. The trains coming back to Cusco were booked solid for several weeks. The only other way to Aguas Calientes, the city at the base of Macchu Picchu was via a full-day hike, accessible only by a road that has not yet been approved for use by the government. So it seemed we were out of luck and we called it a night, making plans to move on without seeing Macchu Picchu.
The next day, we went on a tour of some of the Inca ruins near Cusco with Edwin as our guide. For those of you who read my blog post on the Colca Canyon a few days ago, Edwin put Marco to shame. He was incredibly knowledgeable about Inca history and the ruins, and had an amazing capability to communicate the information. The Inca (or Andean) religion is strongly linked to the concept of the trilogy. One of the trilogies is the condor, the puma and the snake. Each represents a different linkage to a part of our world. The condor represents the link to the gods who live above and watch over us. The puma represents the world of the living, while the snake represents the underworld, where we go when we die. Its important to recognize that the Andean religion has no concept of heaven or hell – everyone goes to the underworld when they die no matter what they do while their alive, except for highly important people like kings who are elevated to the status of god upon death. We learned all this and much, much more from Edwin over the course of the day.
Upon our return to CarmenÂ´s after the tour, we got some potentially terrific news – the Peruvian government had approved the operation of a number of additional trains to Macchu Picchu. So we ran to the PeruRail office, and after waiting for about an hour to talk to an agent, we had tickets in hand and the course of the week was drastically altered. The only catch was that we had to get ourselves to Ollantaytambo, about 2 hours by car from Cusco. Although the train normally runs right from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the only section of the train that was operational at this point was the segment from the start of the Inca Trail (near Ollantaytambo) to Aguas Calientes. Good news in hand, and after booking some flights out of Cusco at a travel agent (now that we had firm plans for the week), we headed up to the Cathedral to take in another of the Semana Santa festivities – the procession of the Black Christ.
The Black Christ normally hangs in the Cusco cathedral above the alter. It wasnÂ´t originally black, but turned black over the years from the fumes of the candles lit in the church because there is little to no ventiliation in the building. On this day, the Monday before Easter, the Black Christ is paraded all around town, culminating in a walk up to the Cathedral and a blessing of the crowd. And let me tell you, Cusco came out tonight to take this event in. The central plaza, one of the biggest IÂ´ve seen in South America so far, was packed inch by inch with people, all waiting for a glimpse of the Black Christ. Everyone came out for this, from the old and frail, to the youngest of the young. We found a spot in the crowd, and waited around with excited fervor for likely at least an hour before we got our first glimpse of the Black Christ coming down the road. As he marched along, people showered him with flower petals from the windows and roofs in adoration. At several points, the crowd around us got angry and on the verge of near riot as people clambered to get as close as possible to the idol making its way through the crowd. The whole event was a type of adoration that I have never witnessed before. The closest thing in Toronto that I can think of to relate this to would be the Santa Claus parade and that doesnÂ´t even come close. Once the Christ reached the Cathedral, the whole crowd put their hands in the air and we were blessed for another year. After the procession had finished, exiting the square was eerily reminiscent of mass the day before. Just put yourself in the crowd, and let the crowd carry you out. Before heading home, we capped off the night with some dinner at a nearby Pollo Broaster, PeruÂ´s equivalent to Swiss Chalet.
After the exhiliration of the night before, we decided to spend some of that energy the next day by heading out to Pisac, a small market town in the Sacred Valley with some Inca ruins, and the nearest town to several of the communities that Carmen works with. As a part of our day, we were going to deliver a large amount of supplies to one of the rural schools that she works with. But getting to the communities proved more difficult than we could have imagined. Because of the heavy rains that had been falling recently, the road had turned into a waterfall at about 5-6 different points, some more intense than others. We conquered all these waterfalls in a cab that hounded us for our business in Pisac. By the 2nd or 3rd waterfall, weÂ´re pretty sure he was seriously regretting going after us in Pisac, but he was a really good sport about the whole thing. Nevertheless, I think his car took quite a bit of damage, as it wasnÂ´t always possible to see the road under the water, and he hit a couple of bumps pretty hard. We finally arrived at the school and delivered the supplies to an eager group of about 50 children. The whole experience was certainly a bit emotional for me, but nevertheless immensely fun and exciting. Every time we took a picture, the kids ran after us and crowded around to catch a peek of what the picture looked like on the LCD. The kids have so little and yet they seem genuinely happy. It certainly makes you question the materialistic lifestyle that exists in North America.
On our last day in Cusco before heading off for Macchu Picchu, we took it pretty easy. First order of business though was to actually buy tickets to enter Macchu Picchu. This proved to be a little more time consuming than we could have ever imagined. All in all, we spent about 2 hours waiting in line to buy tickets, a process that took about 2 minutes. The problem was that along with all the individual tourists, the line consisted of hordes of tour operators buying tickets for their tour groups, either going straight to the site or going to the Inca Trail. Eventually, they started letting individual tourists skip ahead of the tour operators, but the whole process was a massive fail on the part of the Cusco Department of Culture.
On to Macchu Picchu, more headaches and great vistas!