August 16, 2018
Today was the day of lucky timing. I waltzed into Cusco’s Plaza de Armas just in time to poke around the main cathedral. It’s only open during services, and I caught the last ten minutes of one. I had just enough time to look at the artwork and architecture, watch the priest leave, and dart out before they locked the doors. Pictures were not permitted on the inside, so you’ll just have to visit it yourself, but it was pretty amazing–on par with some of the better churches in Italy, even.
I went for another walking tour–gotta do one in every city, right?–and though the guide was a little hard to understand, we got to see some wicked cool things–including more llamas and alpacas. One of the things that amazes me the most about Perú is how ancient ruins are incorporated into everyday life. For example, in colonial times, second floors were built on top of Inca walls. Now, one of those half-c0lonial, half-Inca buildings houses a Starbucks. Next to the beautiful old cathedral is a KFC, and people walk on top of an old Inca compass carved set in the ground every day. Crazy, right?
We poked around some ruins that weren’t reconfigured for modern life and, in a courtyard tucked behind the main square, we saw a display of traditional garb. There were llamas, alpacas, dogs, and even a demonstration of native music. We looked at more walls made from massive stone blocks I wouldn’t want to have to move with a crane, let alone by hand. A dog followed us around for the entirety of the tour, so I named him Pache. At one point he urinated on a rack of bracelets that were for sale on a street corner. Pro tip: if there are stray animals about, don’t ever buy anything kept lower than waist height.
The tour ended about 1/3 of the way up a mountainside, at the top of which perched a giant white statue of Jesus (a miniature compared to the one in Rio, but still pretty big). Everyone else in the group went back down. I made the decision to skip lunch, got directions from the guide, and continued ascending.
The view was beautiful but the directions sucked. None of the locals knew where I was going, either, so I basically kept choosing streets that led up and cutting across the mountain to the left. The problem was when I got close enough that I could no longer see the top, I wasn’t sure if it was this mountain ridge or the next one over or one back. I was just about to despair when I stumbled out on a plateau, next to a street, a gate with a ticket booth, and more locals trying sell their wares to tourists.
A man just on this side of the gate tried to convince me that I either had to pay for a ticket, ride in his taxi, or walk all the way back to la Plaza de Armas and come up a different path if I wanted to see el Christo Blanco. But white Jesus is free Jesus, so I double checked with the woman in the ticket booth. She said I could go straight up the mountain. I hiked up with three women from Vancouver who were great company and were glad to have someone along who could speak at least a little Spanish and run ahead to check the trail signs.
At the very top of the mountain, just a little way past mini giant Jesus, there were more ruins. They didn’t look too terribly spectacular from the path, but I do love old things, and it looked like tourists might be able to wander right around the bases of the rock structures. There was another ticket booth, though, and they were charging S/70. The ticket was for three sights, including the one right there, but the two others could only be reached by taxi–meaning there’d be another charge to get there. There was no student discount. I tried playing the I’m-a-stupid-tourist-who-doesn’t-understand-Spanish card and strolling up the hill past the booth with a crowd of people, but they called me back. They weren’t really upset–actually, they seemed kind of amused–but they definitely weren’t going to let me waltz past.
The ruins turned out to be huge, and we were allowed to walk just about everywhere. Climbing the ancient stairs was my favorite part, and the vistas were incredible. Even if I hadn’t been able to go to the other sites, it was probably worth the S/70. I stopped a random man and asked him to take my picture. He turned out to be from Cincinnati, Ohio (where I was born) and he studied at Cornell University (where I want to go for graduate school). We were both solo travelers, and we ended up wandering the ruins together and walking all the way back down the mountain, chatting amiably. He spent the last three months traveling the US, hiking up and down to the highest and lowest places in each state, and was in Peru to make the Salkantay Trek (an alternative to the Inca Trail). I spent ten months in-between high school and college traveling the US in an RV and will be hiking the Salkantay Trail with my mom at the end of my stay in Perú. As you might be able to guess, we had a lot in common.
Back in la Plaza, we went our separate ways. I used 50 soles to buy myself cuy for dinner. It kind of grosses me out because it still looks like a guinea pig, but when in Perú… It’s something you have to try if you’re in the country, and try it I did. It was very good, except for the head. Pro tip: don’t try to eat the head. It’s better if you just stick with deboning the body and munching on the crisp, juicy skin.
I poked around another church before going back to my hostel. I read for a while, then headed to la Plaza to meet up with Steve (the guy from Cinci) again. We had some trouble finding each other in the crowd; there was a celebration to honor some saint or other. The parade was fun to watch. I was standing next to a girl from Iquitos and she was able to explain some of it to me. Her boyfriend was too busy trying to breathe oxygen from a tank through a face mask to participate in the conversation–the altitude wasn’t treating him kindly. I have been very lucky in that regard; I don’t have any of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
I spent the early evening wandering the downtown and talking with Steve. Then I went back to the hostel to try to get some sleep. I had to be up early the next morning–did someone say Sacred Valley? Alpaca my backpack! 😉