Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sexy woman and the navel of the world

¡Hola amigos! Sorry it´s been so long since we´ve written anything here, but we truly have been busy over the past few weeks. I´ll try to start more or less from when we arrived in Cusco and show some of the mundane aspects of life here before moving on to some of the gems of Cusco.

First of all, just so you all know we are in good hands, here are some pictures of where we are living. As I mentioned in the last post, we´re staying with Maike, the director of the Academia where we are studing. We have a very nice, clean, and modern room:
Here´s the view from outside the room. You can see that most of the yards are surrounded by walls and gates for security and privacy:
Then there´s our spanish school, Academia Latinoamerica de Español. Like most buildings in Cusco and in any of the colonial cities, the buildings have inner plazas that offer respite from the traffic, noise, and smell of the streets. This is our sunny plaza where we hang out during our half hour break. That´s Kate with the wide brimmed hat:

Although the patio is hot in the late morning sun, the classrooms are cold all day long (there is no heating anywhere, and recall we are at about 11,000 feet elevation or so). Here´s my classroom with my classmate Natalia, from Brazil, and our teacher Jose. The class and teacher changes each week, but this week it´s just me and Natalia in the class, which makes for a pretty nice teacher-student ratio. Last week we had four students in the class. I think five is the max here. Jose is laughing about the spanish slang book I brought to class. We´ve been learning a lot of conversational spanish and slang for the first couple hours of class, which is really helpful for everyday situations.

On our walk home, all the students in the secondary schools are getting out for lunch (which is usually a 2 hour break for everyone). They all pack onto little minibuses and we have to squeeze through the people traffic and dodge crazy taxi drivers on our walk back home from school:
A couple days ago there were protests in the Cusco district of Peru. Some people are upset about the taxes and policies of gas processing and exporting here. There is a big gas industry from reserves in the amazon forest part of the district. The march shut down our street on the way back home from school one day. Other travelers in other cities had troubles getting to their destinations, but it didn´t affect us here:

We also went out to the disco last friday night. It started as salsa dancing but after 10 it turned into a big gringo party that lasted all night. I think we got home at the reasonable time of maybe 2am:

On Saturday, we had an afternoon tour of some of the important parts of Cusco and the nearby archeological ruins. Here´s the downtown part of the city from the top of one of the adjacent hills--you can also see how they write and draw on the hillsides:
And a close up view of the main plaza in the city center:

Here´s the jesuit church in the plaza that was built in competition with the catholic cathederal on the other side of the plaza. We had a wonderful tour of the inside of the cathederal as well, but you are not allowed to photograph the inside of the churches here, so all I can do is describe it. The churches here definitely rival the best of the european churches that I have seen. The stonework and architecture is beautiful, and all the altars fill the entire wall with detailed carvings plated in gold and decked out with virgins and saints encrusted in jewels.
Cusco was basically built on top of the ancient capitol of the incan empire. The name roughly translates to the center of the world, or the navel of the world, depending on whom you ask. You can see the foundations of many of the buildings in town are ancient incan walls. Unfortunately, I don´t have pictures of those walls yet. The first thing we saw on our tour this weekend that was truly unique to this area, however, was Qoricancha, which is a spanish colonial buildign that was built on and around an Incan temple, and in this case, the temple was preserved or rebuilt within the spanish building. It was one of the more important Incan temples in the area, evident through the extremely careful stonework, which was saved for the most important buildings. Here you can see the Spanish arches around one of the incan buildings:

And from the inside of the incan building you can see how careful the stonework was. There are absolutely no gaps between the stones, no mortar, just perfectly fitting stones. This was all made with hand tools of bronze and stone. As our guides always pointed out to us, this work would be extremely difficult to make with modern tools. Most of the Incan temples have the niches that you see in this picture, in which offerings were placed:

This is the view of Qoricancha from the main street in Cusco. You can also see the different architecture styles here too. In addition to the later spanish buildings built over and around the incan buildings, you can see a few different types or eras of incan stonework:

Next, we went on the hill above town to see some other important incan ruins. We started in Q´enqo, in which there was an underground temple that was basically carved into solid stone. Our guide showed us an altar that was used for ceremonies and sacrifices:
The next site was Pukapukara, which had some beautiful landscapes:

On our way to the incan springs of Tambomachay, the pathway and ruins were lined with people selling weavings and artwork. This is a really common site here. Around Cusco, they are especially persistent with us gringos (this is one of the most visited cities in south america, so the locals know where the money is). You really learn to not make eye contact when they run up to you with items they´re selling, otherwise they will not ever leave you alone:

The last site we visited was one of the most famous in the Cusco area, Saqsayhuaman. It is not just famous for being mispronounced by gringos as "sexy woman;" it also has a magical air about it. It was my first taste of really experiencing something overwhelming and otherworldly here. The size of this ancient city, the size and the precision of the stones, and just the beauty and the layout of everything was hard to grasp in the hour or so we had there.

The picture above may not do the site justice, as it´s hard to see how big those stones are. So Kate and I posed with our friends from the school, Sarah and Bas. The stones were also warm from the sun, and when the sun sets here, it gets really cold really fast. I don´t know if you can see it well in this picture, as I currently have a computer screen that doesn´t work very well, but those are 50 ton stones that all fit together as if they grew together there. You could hardly fit a piece of paper between the stones, and to think, they were all carved with stone and bronze-age tools. Not to mention the fact that the stones were transported up to 30 miles from their quarry. Nobody knows exactly how the incans were able to carve the stones to fit together they way they do. Each one is individually carved, some have multiple sides and inside corners fitting around other rocks. I could just stare at them all day and wonder how they were built, and why anyone would put so much energy into such precision.

Our next tour was all day of Sunday, a tour of the Sacred Valley. The first stop was an overlook of the valley with the requisite ladies with alpacas and llamas hanging around and selling artwork:

On the way to the incan site above the city and market of Pisac, there were a lot of landslides and boulders in the road, but there was always at least one functioning lane:

I was not expecting the size, extent, and development of the ruins we saw that day. I think in my mind there was Machu Piccu, and then there would be a bunch of other ruins and things hardly recognizable as incan cities. Each place we went to, however, was more or less like what I had been expecting of Machu Piccu and I was truly overwhelmed. The site above Pisac had this city adjacent to a major burial site, which is not shown. The burial site was basically hundreds or thousands of caves carved into an adjacent cliff. We didn´t even get to visit the part of the city shown because of time limitations and a very talkative and repetetive guide:

Below the ruins of the city were extensive terraces built into the steep hillsides. You can see some of the buildings built into the hills between the terraces for scale, but the terraces were much bigger than I would have imagined--perhaps 10-15 feet high on each level--in any case, you could easily break a leg falling off one:

The next site, Ollantaytambo, was even more impressive. It was built into a very scenic canyon with dizzyingly steep terraces and a dizzying amount of people visiting it:

There were trails cut into the cliff faces connecting different buildings and different parts of the city. And did I mention there were lots of tourists? At least they are useful to show off the scale of the place:

One of the more impressive parts of Ollantaytambo was what was known as the temple of the sun. You can´t see the face of it in this picture very well, but it was made of these 15-20 foot high monoliths of stone that, once again, fit together tighter than a jigsaw puzzle. There were patterns carved into the front of the temples, although they were weathered from time.

The upper terraces around the temple were made of those famous fitted stones again. I just couldn´t stop taking pictures of them:

On the way to the next site, we drove out of the valley and back up into one of the high plains. You could see the villages in the valley below, surrounded by snow capped peaks:

The last site of our Sunday trip was the incan city of Chinchero, which now houses a big artisan community. They put on a demonstration for us of dying alpaca wool with different natural dyes from native plants and bugs:

Afterwards, we went to the ruins around the city right after sunset. In the fields around the ruins there were kids flying kites. I think they were showing off for us, because they kept running in front of me while I was taking pictures, a feature that I took advantage of:

That sums up the pictures for now, but rest assured: we have thousands more stored in our cameras. Kate has to write a paper for her spanish class because she is taking a university class for credits. Since I´m not working for credits and I´m pretty much done at noon, I signed up for private lessons in the afternoon this week. So our daily schedule this week has been school from 8:30-12:40, a long lunch at home until about 3:00 that includes long conversations with Maike and Sarah (in spanish, of course), and then we head out for studying and private lessons until 6:30, after which we meet with some students for dinner and drinks, and then head to bed. That´s why I haven´t had time to do much updating here lately. I purposefully left one afternoon free of lessons--right now--which I´m using to get updated and Kate´s using to work on her paper, which will be on the geology of Peru (and has to be written in spanish). We were actually going to go salsa dancing tonight, but we´re so tired and so behind on the blog and her paper, that we´re skipping the dance class, which starts right now. It´s just a free beginner lesson at the school, but we did it last week and it was fun, but tiring.
Our next plans are to visit Machu Piccu this weekend, which basically takes the whole weekend since it´s quite a few hours from Cusco. We also want some quality time to hike up to and see the ancient city. We know to expect thousands upon thousands of people there, but I think we got a taste of what´s to come at Ollantaytambo this weekend. It was a bit of a zoo, but the site was so amazing that it was worth every second of the visit and every inconvenience of the tourist traffic. After all, there´s a reason why there are thousands of people from all over the world here. However, we are still hoping to do a trek to Choquequirao after the following weekend, which will be during our last week here. Choquequirao is similar to Machu Piccu, but much harder to get to (a 3 day hike round trip minimum, no roads), so there are significantly fewer tourists. We´re still figuring out the details of booking the trip, since we need a guide and usually you get a cook and a horse or mule or two to carry the whole kitchen and tents and stuff, so we need to plan carefully. It´s hard to believe that we only have one more week here in Cusco after this weekend. Three weeks (plus a week for travel afterwards) in Cusco sounded like such a long time when we planned our trip, but now it seems like hardly enough time to even scratch the surface here.
Ok, I think that just about sums it up for us now. We hope to be able to share Machu Piccu stories next week, cross your fingers for us that everything works more or less as planned!


  1. Oh, you two are SO lucky having all these fantastic adventures. Just imagine, your own trek with guide, cook, mule for carrying and all! It sounds like a dream trip come true. Thanks so much for taking time out of your day to show us pictures and write about your experiences so we at home can sit here and drool over our computers. I love you both so much. Mom

  2. Fantastic photos you two- you're really selling Peru for me! Perhaps my hubby and I will make a trip north once I'm done my research in Chile. Safe travels!