After a 3 week hiatus from our blog we are back to writing again. We’ve been back in South America for about two weeks, after a brief visit to Florida.
We had a couple days in Lima before heading to Southern Peru and spent our time wandering around the chaotic yet beautiful neighborhood of Miraflores, gathering last minute necessities for our 21 hour bus ride to Cuzco. These necessities included a few apples, bananas, nuts, books, movies, along with charged iPods and computers for entertainment. In actuality the bus ride went by really fast and with Ben’s friendly request that they not play Adam Sandler’s “Jack & Jill” (as they usually do on all bus trips) it was really enjoyable.
We spent the next couple days in Cuzco laying low, waiting for Ben’s sister Emily and college amigo Chad to arrive. We wanted to experience the city for the first time with them. As soon as they arrived we set out to see what Cuzco was all about. At first glance it is evident why Cuzco is the “Gringo capital of South America”. Cuzco is beautiful. The cobblestone streets and colonial architecture are very well preserved and the Plaza de Armas is always filled with groups both old and young dancing and parading in traditional Peruvian dress.
However, the huge influx of tourist over the years, has created a kind of retail monster on the streets. Walking around the city entails a constant refusal to buy handmade knits, jewelry, alpaca trinkets, massage sessions, knock-off Ray Bans and anything else thrown into your path from locals.
There is kind of a desperation in their voices that makes it hard to be annoyed by their aggressive approach. And at times, I feel a little guilty in my semi-assertive response of “no gracias”. From my first day here, the obvious societal disparity in Cusco was staring me in the face. The streets are lined with fancy restaurants and lounges catering to tourists who are willing to splurge during their annual vacations, but you have to pass through the beggars, demoralized street vendors, and homeless (who have seen no fruits of this booming tourism industry) to get to these places. Traveling through South America, we’ve seen inequality, of course, but no place as blatant as Cuzco.
Now that I’ve properly described this city, I’ll get back to the past few days. Our first night we went out to dinner and tried the famous Pisco Sours- fresh strawberries, passionfruit, pisco, and mint leaves. Amazing! We went out dancing the rest of the night, but not before booking a white water rafting trip early the next morning.
The last time (and only time) I went rafting was in Banos, Ecuador and was terrified because I couldn’t understand the safety rules or rafting orders. This time I was much more confident. I felt totally at ease out on the water until the very moment I realized that our guide had no idea what he was doing. As we slammed into rock after rock, my confidence quickly escaped me and I was counting the rapids until it was over. I just don’t think rafting is for me. But as you can see from the pictures, I think I’m the only one who feels that way.
The next day we took a train to “Aguas Calientes” (Hot Waters), an unusual town resting at the base of Machu Picchu.
We woke up at 4:40 am to catch the hour bus up to Machu Picchu. Of all days, Emily got food poisoning the night before and was feeling really weak. We asked if she wanted to wait a couple hours and rest before going up but she wouldn’t consider it and found enough strength to walk up to the main lookout point of the ruins.
Staring at that infamous view, it seemed like a mirage. It was hard to actually believe we were there.
After a quick photoshoot, we left the lookout point for Waynapicchu (that really tall mountain overlooking the ruins) We were scheduled to hike to the top quickly after we arrived. After giving the hike her best, Emily turned around about a quarter of the way up to relax somewhere in the ruins. We continued up the mountain and the last 20 minutes were practically on our hands and knees, clawing our way to the top. The ruins started a bit lower than the top. After a few pictures I was satisfied with my achievement and resigned to sitting at the base of the Waynapicchu ruins while Ben and Chad climbed to the very top. But Chad and Ben wouldn’t hear of it and convinced me to continue climbing. I’m so glad they did because the views from the very top of Waynapicchu were amazing and we felt like we were on top of the world.
After descending Waynapicchu, Ben and Chad wanted to hike an hour outside the ruins to the Sun Gate. I was tired and found a grassy area looking high over the whole of Machu Picchu where I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, listening to music and having photoshoots with random lamas passing by.
That night we slept in Ollaytaytamba, a small town half way back to Cuzco. The next day we took a van to a small indigenous village outside of Ollaytaytamba. We wanted to visit a women’s commune that makes handicrafts. Along the way three kids on the side of the road stopped the van. The driver asked if we didn’t mind taking them to the village. We, of course said yes and as we kept riding, our driver told us these kids usually have to walk an hour to their school in Ollaytaytamba and back every day. The school in their village only teaches the Quichua language and if they want a job outside of being a laborer, they needed to attend a school that teaches Spanish. So these three kids that walk an hour to school and back along a thin, windy and steep road are the privileged few from the village.
The village was by far the poorest we’ve seen on our trip. The kids standing around, after realizing this was a rare chance to interact with gringos, came running towards us, grabbing our hands and clothes.
There were only a couple women present at their communal store. The room where the women sold their hand-made textiles was freezing, I have no idea how they work there all day in their sandals and skirts (it would go against their tradition to wear pants). After buying a few items we left to head back to Cuzco. Supporting places like these are important because it provides impoverished and most the time uneducated women a chance to create an alternative income for their families. Also, we can provide a positive impression of foreigners, which they are usually skeptical.
Meanwhile, Cusco was preparing for Corpus Christi, a Catholic holiday to honor some of their favorite saints. When we got back all the streets were lined with food stalls and port-a-potties in preparation for the mob that would ensue the next day.
The next day we headed to the Plaza de Armas to see what this whole Corpus Christi thing was about. I’ve never seen so many people in one place before. The local people go absolutely crazy for Corpus Christi in Cuzco. The main focus was a huge parade around the Plaza (as well as massive amounts food and alcohol). After making our way through the mob we found a balcony overlooking the madness to take refuge and watch the show.
After lunch and watching people struggle to carry huge, (real) gold floats around the Plaza we hopped around the many restaurants and bars in town until dark and ended the night with Salsa lessons at a nightclub near the Plaza.
The next day we were all feeling a little rough. Chad had made it clear from the beginning of the trip that he wanted a full on adventure-packed 10 days. After realizing today was his only chance to bungy the tallest bungy jump in South America, we took a cab out to Adventure Park.
Ben, Emily and I sat safely below with our cameras ready as Chad jumped 153 meters (or 34 stories) into the air.
The next day we did a mini tour of the Sacred Valley. Back in Inca days this huge valley outside of Cuzco was used to farm and mine salt. After visiting another women’s handicraft commune, we went to the Inca Maras Salt mines and Moray.
The Moray is comprised of huge circular depressions that look like something out of the movie Signs, but were designed to create warmer temperature the farther down you went. The Inca did this to test the effect different temperatures and soils had of their variety of corn and potato crop.
The next morning Chad and Emily left for the States. And Ben and I are left to do what we initially came down here to do which is to volunteer.