Typical Cuzco street
Settling into my seat for the several hours to get from Copacabana to Puno, I entered into a conversation with an Italian from Bergamo. At first my Italian was peppered with Spanish, in fact, I’m certain it was more Spanish than Italian as I had to keep asking him for words, and correcting mistakes. But by the time we reached Cuzco much later that night it was all starting to come back to me. Alessandro is one of not many Italians that come to South America and he explained to me, as other Italians have before, that his country is not a traveling one. They really prefer to stay home and enjoy what they have there. I can say that he’s one of the only Italians I’ve met in my 10 months in Peru and Bolivia. But he was a great companion and we talked of many things as the bus steadily rolled past Lake Titicaca and then through the altiplano.
One of hundreds of boutiques
We stopped for a brief time in Juliaca
, which hands down qualifies as the ugliest city I have ever seen. My last glimpse of it was at night as the bus from Arequipa
sloshed through half-frozen muddy roads and past desolate streets and houses and shops. But I didn’t see the true extent of its ugliness until we drove through in daylight. Every house seemed to be shoddily constructed of bricks and mortar that was not finished or plastered and even worse, the plague of Peru, bare rods sticking up at every angle through the concrete walls on the top floors. This practice results from starting a building and then finishing it later when more money is available, but it seems that all of Juliaca, and a great deal of Peru, is afflicted with not having the means to finish their buildings.
Another typical San Blas street
Maybe they should scale back their plans and actually finish a construction and make it look presentable. Street after street revealed the same mangy stray dogs, rutted dirt roads, cracked concrete, sagging awnings, garbage strewn everywhere and just general desolation stretching on and on. When we finally got out into the country again I felt a relief and at the same time a sadness that so many people live their lives in such squalor. I feel sad at seeing poverty, but poverty with ugliness and filth I just cannot handle.
At different junctures, native women got on the bus and peddled their food, but the one that was most interesting was the lady who brought on an enormous sack wrapped in many layers of brown paper. As she pulled back the paper the parcel mushroomed out and I thought she was going to start pulling out presents for the entire bus.
Courtyard of the 5 star El Monasterio hotel
But what she was selling was just as much of a surprise. It was a huge carcass of a roasted pig and she pulled out a hatchet from her voluminous skirts and began to swing the ax as splinters of meat and bone began to chip and fly in the general vicinity. I just couldn’t pass up such an opportunity and I ordered some. She went to work and I got a few unidentifiable pieces of roasted meat along with a couple cold boiled potatoes. It wasn’t the best roast pork I’ve ever eaten but it was certainly the most adventurous. After that I was ready for some more conventional food when we got to Cuzco. A trio of Australians ahead of me were also having fun with the various wares on offer and one bought a big bag of puffed corn. He generously offered it to all the others but they asked first, “how is it?” His unprintable answer was enough to dissuade them and the local treat went uneaten.
Plaza de Armas
As we neared Cuzco, the villages appeared more charming than any I had seen before in Peru and a few times I mistook a small village for the outskirts of Cuzco itself. But as we approached the city, it was unmistakable that this was the real thing. The downtown lay nestled in the center with the suburbs climbing the hills in orderly fashion. It was hard to see anything at night and we didn’t get a good glimpse of the historic center until the taxi drove through the main plaza and up into the charming district of San Blas which rises on a gentle slope up above the Cathedral and the Plaza de Armas. The first hotel Alessandro and I tried had a price that was almost double the price listed in the Lonely Planet guide and so we walked a bit down the street and found something more reasonable.
After a hot shower (with gas heat and not the typical Bolivian electric one!) he and I struck off to explore a bit and have something to eat before going to bed.
The next day we set off together to get some information on trekking, Machu Picchu
, the Sacred Valley, and Cuzco itself. There was lots of information and I decided that I was going to do the five day Salkantay trek which ended at Machu Picchu. Alessandro didn’t have that much time and he opted for a two or three day tour of the Sacred Valley and then a bus or train to Machu Picchu. We split up after that since I wanted to see the churches and he wanted to go to the museums. I bought a ticket that let me into the cathedral, the Jesuit church, the art museum in the old archbishop’s palace, and the church of San Blas (St.
Colonial Style Balcony
Blaise). Some of them were closed for the mid afternoon so I got some lunch at a collection of food stalls near the main square. For a few soles I got a bowl of ceviche and I was the happiest person in Cuzco. I missed ceviche so much! Truly it’s the highlight of Peruvian cuisine. Some people develop an obsession for sushi but I’ll take ceviche any day. Even after I left I kept thinking, “I wonder if I should go back and have another bowl?”! Good sense prevailed and I just walked some of the streets and marveled at the order, the cleanliness, the large size of the historic center, the international touch, the boutiques, the vast array of artisenal handicrafts and art for sale, and the throngs of foreigners everywhere. After a pastry and coffee I was ready to see the colonial art and architectural treasures.
The art museum had a wealth of beautiful and interesting paintings but nary an explanation on anything. After a few rooms of this I was just too frustrated and I remarked to the man taking tickets about it. He told me that an expert was coming from Lima
the following week to label the paintings. So I went to the cathedral and spent quite some time in there taking in the various highly decorated altars and paintings, including a famous Last Supper by a local artist who placed a roasted chinchilla on the table in front of Christ. There were also many local fruits on the table and flora in the room which firmly placed the painting in that part of Peru. After visiting the cathedral I went to the Jesuit church.
The highlight there was the sacristy which had some very beautiful sculptures. I realized that St. Ignatius Loyola had some relatives in Peru but I didn’t realize how many were so highly placed and noble, and how many of them there were.
That evening I met up with Alessandro and we had a nice meal in which I tried alpaca meat for the first time (delicious, even if a bit lean). I was coughing a lot and had to go to the drugstore for some cough medicine, and even that didn’t help that much. We then walked over to the main square to Norton Rat’s Tavern and I met the owner who was from Cleveland. Over a year ago a guy walked into the wine bar I was managing and told me about his upcoming trip to Peru to see an old friend from school who had been living in Peru for many years.
He gave me a card with the information on it and here I was, a year later, meeting this guy Jeff Powers. We talked for several hours about all sorts of things and he mentioned that his best friend, and the only one he was still in contact with from back home was Greg Hurd. I was surprised and told him that I had cousins who were Hurds. Sure enough, they were the same. We said our farewells and I told him I’d come back after my trek.
The next day I spent at the South American Explorer’s Club in the morning getting information on trekking and just enjoying the friendly atmosphere. In the afternoon I went to get pricing and find a trek. They varied wildly from $180 to $420. The expensive agencies were hard-pressed to give me a good answer why they were more expensive.
“It’s our reputation,” or “the food is better,” was the standard response. Well, I don’t want to pay more than double for a reputation and I really don’t believe the food is all that different. It wasn’t my first trek and I know how things operate. Sure enough, once on the trail I found out that others in my same group and in the other group near us had paid a lot more than me for the same thing. I felt good for myself that I had tracked down a bargain but I also felt bad that there was such disparity in pricing and that some paid a lot more. The agency I used had a friendly guy in the office and I liked that he didn’t try to pressure me. That more than anything helped me choose them. They were very nice and helpful to me in explaining everything and I had a good feeling that the trek was going to be excellent, which in fact it turned out to be.
Heaps of Art
Confident I had gotten a good deal, I made my way back to the hostel and found a note that Alessandro had left me telling me that he was very hungry and couldn’t wait for me. We had changed hostels that day and everything was almost the same but at half the price. The mother and daughter running it were friendly and welcoming and we felt good there. I joined Alessandro at the restaurant which specializes in giving its proceeds to an organization for needy kids. At a nearby table we met some volunteers from the Netherlands and the US and the organizer and I talked for awhile about the project. The two American girls had just arrived in Cuzco and we all went out to a small club near the hostel for a drink. I had some pisco and tea but the smoke was getting to me and Alessandro was tired too and we had to get up for our treks the next day, I at 4:00 am and he at 7, so we had to call it a night.