An Ancient City - Cuzco, Peru
Where I stayed
What I did
The night bus from Nazca to Cuzco was 15 hours of windy roads climbing in altitude from sea level to 3326 meters. We left Nazca at 9:30 pm, drove through the night and into the morning with spectacular scenery in the morning once the sun came shining into the bus windows. Our excitement dimmed, however, as the sky became suddenly dark, and upon arrival to Cuzco at 12:30 pm, we were in a full blown hail storm. We grabbed our bags from under the bus and maneuvered through the terminal's crowds to find a taxi to Central Cuzco where we had reserved a room.
If the hail storm hadn't already put a damper on our moods, the dark rooms and dank, musty smell of Hospidaje Familiar Munay Wasi did. The owner, Luis, could not have been nicer, but there was not much he could do about the smell of his 400 year old ramshackle adobe building. The shared kitchen was too small for two people to use at the same time, and further, was unavailable for the morning hours while the owners were using it. We figured we could adjust to the circumstances by covering the unpleasant smell with the scent of burning our stick of Palo Santo wood. That did wonders for our mood until the toilet clogged every single time it was used. Nonetheless, we were situated in the historical center of Cuzco with incredible, breathtaking views of the entire Cuszo valley right from our bedroom window. We spent the rest of our first day here looking for another place to stay with a kitchen, properly working toilets and with a neutral smell. Being that it was the week between Christmas and New Year’s, we found nothing available until the third, four days away. We spent the rest of that afternoon sussing out the town, shopping for dinner, eating and calling it a day.
The following morning, Jonathan and I headed back out for an early morning walk and found a hotel with a kitchen and space for us on the first of the year. These new digs, located on the other side of the Plaza de Armas, (the town square), are closer to the massive, colorful San Pedro market where we could buy all of our fresh produce and anything else we could possibly need. It was New Year’s Eve, and after a late sleep in, still making up for lost sleep on the night bus, we joined a free walking tour of the highlights of Cuzco’s historical center. This included yet ANOTHER chocolate museum, with lots of tastings. We stopped for lunch at one of the many Israeli owned restaurants for the best falafel any of us had eaten in ages, and ended the afternoon with some savvy shopping. I say savvy due to the fact that we traded Ari’s hiking boots he’d grown out of for another pair at a gear rental shop, "even Steven," at no cost to us. Next, we did the same with his rain jacket that had been purchased in Otavalo, Ecuador, guaranteed to be waterproof, but wasn’t at all. We traded that, “even Steven” as well, for a fake North Face jacket that actually, since then, has shown itself to be waterproof, despite the Velcro on one sleeve beginning to fall off by the end of its first day in action. All told, we spent nothing on this very productive shopping outing.
Before the sun set, all three kids were breaking down, feeling very sad and homesick. Lots of tears on their parts and my heart was just about broken. They were tired from the rigors of traveling, craving solitude and missing their bedrooms where they can close their doors when they choose to be alone. Jonathan and I were exhausted from the efforts of trying to convince the kids and ourselves that we were exactly where we needed to be, that these difficulties will make us all stronger and that we should be feeling so grateful to have “stolen” this year for all of this family time to be together. Nothing helped the situation much, even as we wandered down to the central plaza to check out the New Year’s Eve festivities. It was 8 pm by the time we arrived at the plaza. Things were heating up, with more and more people dressed in yellow crowding the huge square, a band setting up, yellow confetti, yellow glasses, all things yellow all around us, but no real action yet. We opted to head back up to the hostel to make a late dinner, and hopefully catch some of the fireworks display afterwards.
Well, the fireworks started around 11 pm and literally went on for days. We stood outside of our hostel on the hillside and watched the most incredible display of fire coming from every direction throughout the valley. All of our jaws were dropped throughout, in disbelief at the magnitude of the show; while I must admit that I was brought to tears, realizing, during those moments with my family, leaning over the ancient stone wall, with people from all over the world, that we were exactly where we were meant to be, doing exactly what we were meant to be doing, sharing an unforgettable experience of the wildest display of fireworks any of us had ever witnessed. The New Year literally started with a bang and a feeling of renewal and togetherness that we all needed, desperately at that moment.
Wednesday, we woke up late and spent the entire morning hanging out in the hostel with three thirty-something folks we had met the day we arrived. They were one Jewish comedian/anthropologist, Brad, his best friend, Ana, a cranial-sacral trained massage therapist living in Lima with her half Peruvian husband, Dante, all originally from Detroit. After playing Jewish geography, we found out that Matt had not only gone to the same Jewish summer camp in Canada where I had grown up, but that he also played Macabee (Jewish competitive) basketball and had, at one time, been hosted by a family in Squirrel Hill! We could have sat there all day chatting, but we needed to head across town, backpacks and all, to our new spot, Ukukus Hostel. Speaking of this small world, on our walk across town, we ran into folks I had done yoga with when I randomly ended up teaching the class in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. We also ran into another South Korean woman here at our new hostel whom we had met in Mindo, Ecuador. She was a 62 year old chain smoker, retired teacher, Kimchee sharing friendly woman on a four year around the world voyage. Where else do we get to hang with the likes of her, but Cuzco, with its “anything goes” attitude attracting all sorts?
Upon arrival to Ukukus, the kids, especially Eli, who we now refer to as “The Cat Whisperer,” were immediately pleased with the permanent feline resident here. Another playmate is always welcome to all three, but cats seem to especially take to Eli, always nestling next to him given the opportunity. For the first few months of our journey, until he lost it, Eli carried a blue string around his neck for two reasons: to play the game of Cat’s Cradle with us, and to play with any random cat with whom he had the chance to play. Once we settled in to the new place, we walked around this new area, checking out the scene, and ended our day at an all you can eat Indian buffet just blocks from our hostel. While eating, we half watched a Bollywood flick in Hindi, with Spanish subtitles. We spent most of the evening, however, eating and chatting with the Indian running the place. He had just moved to Cuzco from Rajasthan two months earlier. We learned from him that he, along with the restaurant owners, a family of three, are currently the only Indians in all of Cuzco with a population of more than 350,000.
Thursday, Noa woke up early with me to go for a two hour walk around town. We wandered the streets and ended up at the Starbucks in the main plaza. The prices are equal to American coffee prices, but I refuse to spend s/15 (Peruvian Soles) on a cup of coffee when this is the price of my bed for the night! So, I promised the kids one Starbucks Frappaccino in any city we find one, and opt for instant or Nescafé for my morning coffee. Additionally, walking around with a Starbucks cup in a city where the poverty is palpable, where Cusqueñian little girls, younger than my children, are out on the streets working so that they can eat nutritional meals, forget about enjoying a frothy Frappaccino treat!
The rest of the day was spent trying to organize the complex series of events that need to occur in order to visit Manchu Picchu. Between reserving hotels along the way within the Sacred Valley, organizing train tickets to Aguas Calientes, the final stop before Machu Picchu, buying tourist tickets that will allow us access to all of the historic sites and ancient ruins along the way, I can truly appreciate the value of a tourist agent, but still enjoy the process and the flexibility of organizing it ourselves. We did try to find two museums within the city that day, but both had apparently changed locations, and after what felt like a wild goose chase, never finding either, we gave up. We ended the evening with another falafel feast at the same Israeli restaurant at which we’d eaten lunch on New Year’s Eve, Sueño Azul. This time, since we had changed hotels, we had to walk 25 minutes each way. Since the day had been such a bust, wandering around, but not seeing much, I was highly motivated to get us all up and out early the next morning to hike to the numerous ruins in the area.
Jonathan and I woke up early Friday to take a walk before the kids woke up. We climbed higher and higher along a road that provided excellent views of Cuzco, but also took us through a neighborhood with groups of dogs that seemed to increase in aggression as we climbed. After a pack of five or six aggressive dogs appeared to want us out of their neighborhood, we took heed, and with my legs shaking, took a short cut down one of the many flights of steps that lead to the neighborhoods in the hills around here. On our way down, the rains came. It is the rainy season here, so we are always prepared, but it was coming down hard and even our raincoats weren’t doing the trick. Without many options for clothes to change into, we were trying not to soak our hiking clothes that we would need for the day, so we flagged down a taxi to bring us, for s/3 or $1, to the San Pedro market to stalk up on breakfast food, snacks and lunch to pack with us for the day. We found loads of fresh rolls, mangos, little sweet plantains and yogurt, and headed back to the hostel to start the day.
Late that morning, the five of us walked across town and up the steep flights of steps leading to a winding road into the hills overlooking the city. Although we had been here for nearly a week, with time to adjust to the altitude, climbing at this elevation continues to be quite difficult, so taking our time to rest and breathe was key. We stopped at the first set of ruins, nearest to Cuzco, Saqsayhuamán, an immense ruin of both religious and military significance and the most impressive in Cuzco’s immediate vicinity. After wandering the ruins with the lamas, frisky alpacas (photos speak for themselves), and Argentinian priests, we continued on our journey to a small but fascinating ruin, Q’enqo, a large limestone rock riddled with niches, steps, symbolic carvings and zigzagging channels, two kilometers down a path. We stopped only to buy rain ponchos to wear over our rain jackets that weren’t quite doing the trick. Our next stop, Pukapukara, was too far to walk, so we hopped on a minibus to reach it. This commanding structure was likely apparently a hunting lodge, a guard post as well as a stopping point for travelers. Finally, we walked one kilometer from Pukapukara to Tambomachay (El Baño del Inca) to check out this ceremonial stone bath channeling spring water through fountains that still function today. Theories connect this site to an Inca water cult.
All of us exhausted from the hiking, the altitude and the rain, we jumped on a bus back to town, caught a taxi to San Pedro Market, bought groceries for dinner and headed back to the hostel for hot soup, bread, salad and bed. We had hoped to visit the local synagogue here in Cuzco for Friday evening Shabbat services, but when I contacted the rabbi, I was informed that this synagogue closes for the rainy season.
Sunday, after a very late breakfast, we finally emerged from our hostel by noon and walked into town with a goal (mine!) to hit all of the free museums, and we did it! We spent all day, dodging the rain, going from museum to museum, stopping only for hot chocolate to warm up, for veggie sushi rolls Ari and Noa have been dying for and to buy umbrellas to use in addition to our new ponchos which not quite doing their jobs as they were being blown off of our legs in the wind. We made it to the Museo de Arte Popular, Museo de Sitio Del Qoricancha, Museo Histórico Regional and to the Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo. We covered, in one day, thousands of years of art and history from the pre-Incan cultures to the merging of the Incan Culture with its predecessors and finally that of the merging of the Incan culture with the Spaniards from the time of their arrival in the 1500s.
We did not finish our day of museums until close to 7 pm, partially due to all of the random and fascinating people we met along the way, and to a great extent, I attribute to Eli’s interest and fascination with nearly every piece of art in each of the museums. He was better than any tour guide for me, making sure we stood back far enough away from each painting to appreciate its depth from more than one position, noticing how the colors blend into each other in patterns that I had not realized. He pointed out the various materials being used, asked poignant questions of the works that really made me think and took note of similarities between the paintings we were studying and those he had seen before in his life. The rest of the family were thankfully rather patient as Eli helped me explore each individual piece with him. As I said, we were also slowed down by long and in depth conversations we had with a 25 year old Peruvian woman from the jungle who ditched her profession in dentistry to work in her family business as an international coffee and chocolate taster and rater. Later, we were slowed down while talking to a group of International street artists, one Irishman living in London, one Canadian woman working in Cuzco and one woman based in Los Angeles. All people have a story, but everyone in Cuzco, it seems, has a fascinating tale ready to be shared.
As we were cooking our dinner last night, into the hostel’s kitchen walked a French family with two kids, a 10 year old boy and a 7 year old girl, who were 6 months into a yearlong round the world trip. We chatted for hours, as we cooked and ate, and communicated just fine with their minimal English and even more minimal Spanish, combined with our Spanish and minimal French (rather unsuccessfully trying to access from my middle and high school brain archives).
This morning, we are leaving Cuzco, heading through the Sacred Valley, eventually to Machu Picchu. We are comfortable here but ready to leave this big, busy, dirty, however fascinating ancient city.
On Sunday evening, we took a 15 hour night bus from Nazca to Cusco, a very big city 350,000 people with a high elevation of 3,326 meters. Cusco is not my favorite city on our trip so far. It is very dirty with garbage all over the ground and smells like urine. We were in Cusco for New Years. Our hostel, which was high above the main square, allowed us to have an amazing view of the fireworks. In Perú, yellow is a sign of good luck to the new year. For the new year, people sold everything yellow from yellow underwear to yellow balloons.
We ate very diversely in Cusco. There are lots of Israelis in Cusco with their own restaurants. We ate at an Israeli restaurant and had the best falafel and hummus I have ever had. On Saturday, we went to a Japanese restaurant and ate sushi. We also ate at a delicious Indian restaurant. We learned there that the family and employees, altogether four people, are the only Indians in the city of Cusco.
People from all over the world use Cusco as a starting point to travel to Machu Pichu. Pizac is the first city on the passageway from Cusco to Machu Pichu. I am excited today to go to Pizac and to Machu Pichu in the next week.
We have been in Cusco for the past six days. We arrived here on a night bus from Nazca on Monday the 30th. The next afternoon, we went on a free walking tour that was crowded because it was New Year's Eve and a lot of people were in Cusco for the holidays. That night, we watched the amazing fireworks coming from every part of the city. We also eventually had to switch hostels because we did not like the first one.
On the first morning of the new year, my mom and I went on a two hour walk and at the end, I had a huge carmel frappachino from Starbucks. The next day, we walked to four archaeological ruins. I thought it was interesting because the ruins have been standing for hundreds of years. On our last day in Cusco, we went to a few museums. At one of the museums, a couple kept hugging me and asking me all sorts of questions. I am not sure where they are from but I think Spain. One thing I didn't like about Cusco was that I was constantly holding my nose when walking down streets because of the smells but Cusco, all together, was super fun and exciting.
For the past six days we've been in Cusco. Some strange things I've seen in Cusco are a man peeing in the sewer facing us and a poor girl putting a hose in the dirty fountain so she could drink the water. Also, other strange things that happened in Cusco that we saw are people putting fireworks right in front of the central market on a bamboo stand that goes round and round. We also witnessed alpacas having sex. Cusco is disgusting because there is garbage everywhere and the town smells like urine. Never go to Cusco. I'm excited to go to Pisac.