Arrived in Cuzco after 11 hours on the bus from Copacabana! We got a cheaper bus ticket which meant lots of stops along the way, fellow passengers traveling with tons of cargo, babies, and bleating lambs, and dozens of vendors boarding the bus to sell us roasted meat, plastic bags of chicken soup, steamed corn with cheese, empanadas, cups of jello, and to play love songs for us in hopes of donations. We arrived exhausted and checked into a hostel near the main square (Plaza de Armas), on a quaint alley they call “Gringo Alley.” Really, all of Cuzco is so tourist-ready, it feels kind of unreal. But it’s really beautiful and filled with interesting history and museums. Cuzco is the oldest continually-inhabited city in the Americas, with Spanish colonial architecture layered over Incan ruins and skinny cobblestone streets bounded by high Incan-built stone walls. Similar to Bolivia, there’s a lot of interesting indigenous culture and handicrafts here, sometimes it feels like it’s contrived for tourist consumption, like the children dressed up in traditional costumes carrying cute little lambs in their arms and asking tourists to pay for photos with them, but I think to some extent it’s genuine and really reflects the way people live outside of the city. And I can’t complain about finding gringo staples like comfy restaurants with lots of vegetables on the menu, good beer, curries, etc! I think if Cuzco was our first stop, I would probably be itching to get away from all this highly-mediated, contrived stuff, but after a few weeks of roughing it in Bolivia, Cuzco feels like a welcome little taste of luxury. The downside is that everything seems crazy expensive, and it’s impossible to walk two steps without being swarmed by people trying to sell souvenirs, massages, dinners, photo ops, etc etc etc.
We had worried a little about getting into Cuzco because of a Peruvian transportation strike, supposedly all of the trucks and buses were going to stop service, but it turned out that was all over before we arrived. Instead, we encountered epic rains and floods. Driving towards Cuzco we passed a few flooded towns, and saw bottom third of all the houses submerged in flood waters that covered all the streets and yards. It looked bad, the houses are all made of adobe mud bricks so I imagine they don’t hold up well. January is always a rainy month in Cuzco but this year is the most rain in at least 20 years. So we arrived in Cuzco to find that Machu Picchu is closed down, thousands of tourists were trapped there by floods and had to be evacuated in helicopters, and tens of thousands of Cuzqueños have lost everything in the rains. Every day we hear helicopters overhead constantly, I assume they’re evacuating tourists to Cuzco, which is safe and sound. We’ve had torrential rains every evening that turn the steep streets into waterfalls and I’ve noticed that many of the buildings and the walls lining the steep streets are made of adobe mud bricks, in some spots they are literally melting and crumbling in the rain, but otherwise the city seems to be holding up fine and we’ve enjoyed some sunny afternoons. We had originally planned to skip Machu Picchu and instead do a four-day trek to the Incan ruins at Choquequirao, but after our illness and delay in La Paz, we lost too many days and realized we couldn’t fit in the trek. As it turns out, I guess we wouldn’t have been able to do it anyway, because of the floods, mudslides and rains. Anyway, we’ve still had plenty of adventures and we’ll fit in more, so it’s fine for us but we feel terrible about all the people who’ve been affected by the rains. Planning to drop off extra clothing and money donations with the Peruvian Red Cross tomorrow, and wish there was something more we could do.
Anyway, we’ve passed a few pleasant days walking around and admiring the city. Today we walked out to visit the two Incan ruins just north of the city, Saqsayhuamán and Q’enqo.
Saqsayhuamán is a collection of impressive stone walls and foundations, supposedly built by the pre-Incan Killke culture and later taken over by the Incas, then plundered by the Spanish colonists, who took lots of the stones to build churches in Cuzco.
Q’enqo, on a hilltop a few more kilometers to the north, is another Incan ruin, supposedly a religious site, with a few impressive walls and some interesting caves with stairs and altars carved into the rock. Mostly it was fun to hike and scramble all around the steep hilltop and look out at the spectacular views of the city below. We were visiting on a Sunday, so the fields outside the city were filled with families playing football and picnicking, and there were lots of people out enjoying the countryside and the ruins. While clambering around Q’enqo we wandered past an ancient old woman sitting in the grass atop a hill, spinning wool into yarn with a drop spindle, with three dogs sleeping beside her. What a beautiful spot to work.
Tomorrow we’ll hopefully see a few more museums, and then in the evening we catch an overnight bus to Arequipa…