Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Travels to Cuzco, Peru

Cuzco is a city in southeastern Peru, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range. Cuzco was the site of the historic capital of the Inca Empire and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1983 by UNESCO. Known as the "gateway to Machu Picchu", Cuzco is a major tourist destination and receives almost 2 million visitors a year.  We flew to Cuzco from Lima, and enjoyed the more mountain-aspect of the country.
The view during our flight from Lima.
Downtown Cuzco is a unique juxtaposition with ornate cathedrals squat over Inca temples, massage hawkers that ply the narrow cobblestone streets, women in traditional skirts and bowlers with baby pet llamas that will pose for a picture (for a fee of course), and the finest boutiques which sell alpaca knits for small fortunes.

Known as the "Square of the Warrior" in the Inca era, the Plaza des Armas has been the scene of several important events in the history of this city, such as the proclamation by Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Cuzco. The Spanish built stone arcades around the plaza which endure to this day.  The main cathedral and the Church of La Compañía or Church of the Society of Jesus both open directly onto the plaza.  Construction was initiated by the Jesuits in 1576 on the foundations of the Amarucancha or the palace of the Inca ruler Wayna Qhapaq, and is considered one of the best examples of colonial baroque style in the Americas. This great cathedral presents late-Gothic, Baroque, and plateresque interiors and has one of the most outstanding examples of colonial gold work. Its carved wooden altars are also important. Its façade is carved in stone and its main altar is made of carved wood covered with gold leaf. It was built over an underground chapel and has a valuable collection of colonial paintings of the Cuzco School.

Can you see the 12 corners?
Nearby, is a great spot for lunch called Café Morena that offers pizza and sandwiches in a casual setting.  Also, check out Cicciolina for dinner in an upscale local hangout, which serves international and Andean dishes.  Just up the road from the restaurant is the magnificent ruins of a building called Hatunrumiyoc. Built with huge polygonal stones, cut and fitted with exceptional precision, it is one of the most impressive structures of ancient Cuzco. Its imposing walls hide a number of surprises, from the famous 12-Angle Stone, to shapes of local animals built into the structure itself.

Balconies were a major feature of Lima's architecture during the colonial period, and were also prevalent in Cuzco.  The intricacy was amazing to see, and clearly show the high quality of the artisans of the period.

View of the colonnades and the courtyard of the Convent of Santo Domingo.
Qurikancha and Convent of Santo Domingo, also known as the "golden place", was the most important sanctuary dedicated to the Sun God (Inti) at the time of the Inca Empire. The walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold, and its adjacent courtyard was filled with golden statues. Spanish reports tell of its opulence that was "fabulous beyond belief". The Spanish colonists built the Church of Santo Domingo on the site, demolishing the temple and using its foundations for the cathedral. Construction took most of a century. This is one of numerous sites where the Spanish incorporated Inca stonework into the structure of a colonial building.

After visiting all the main sites of downtown Cuzco, head over to Kusikuy for local Peruvian fare, such as the infamous cuy (guinea pig).

From Cuzco, we hired a driver from KB Tours to take us to our hotel in the Sacred Valley.  We decided to make optional excursion stops along the way.  We drove by the small Andean mountain village of Chinchero.  There are beautiful views overlooking the Sacred Valley of the Incas, with the Cordillera Vilcabamba and the snow-capped peak of Salkantay dominating the western horizon. Chinchero is believed to be the mythical birthplace of the rainbow. The village mainly comprises of mud brick (adobe) houses, and locals still go about their business in traditional dress. The most striking remnant of this period is the massive stone wall in the main plaza which has ten trapezoidal niches. The construction of the wall and many other ruins and agricultural terraces (which are still in use) are attributed to Inca Tupac Yupanqui who possibly used Chinchero as a kind of country resort.

We also visited Salineras de Maras, which are salt evaporation ponds in use since Inca times. The salt has been obtained in Maras by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. The highly salty water emerges at a spring, a natural outlet of the underground stream. The flow is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto the several hundred ancient terraced ponds. Almost all the ponds are less than four meters square in area, and none exceeds thirty centimeters in depth. All are necessarily shaped into polygons with the flow of water carefully controlled and monitored by the workers. It was cool to walk along the ponds - just be sure to keep your balance!

Moray is an archaeological site approximately 31 miles northwest of Cuzco on a high plateau at about 11,500 feet and just west of the village of Maras. The site contains unusual Inca ruins, mostly consisting of several enormous terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is nearly 100 feet deep. As with many other Inca sites, it also has a sophisticated irrigation system. The purpose of these depressions is uncertain, but their depth, design, and orientation with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 27 °F between the top and the bottom. It is possible that this large temperature difference was used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops, sort of like an Inca agricultural experiment station.

Head to nearby Pisac, a picturesque Andean village with a vibrant marketplace. Pick up a few locally made ponchos and ceramics before continuing to Ollantaytambo.  We also tried some street food, such as chicken empanadas and the national beverage Chicha Morada, made of purple corn.

A wild alpaca.  Look at all that hair!
Ollantaytambo rests at the foot of the ruins that once protected the lower Urubamba Valley, known by natives as the Sacred Valley. We chose to skip staying our first nights in Cuzco, since the city sits at 11,000 feet, which can cause altitude sickness, especially if you're flying in from sea level. The base of Machu Picchu is only 8,000 feet, so it was better for us to stay in the valley in order to acclimate.  Located in our hotel in the Sacred Valley, we dined at Alma Restorante where Keith tried grilled alpaca.

Machu Picchu, the most recognizable symbol of the Incan Empire, is open year-round, but there are two things you can't count on: dry weather and thin crowds. It can rain anytime, though officially, October to April is the rainy season. And while peak season is July/August, you should always expect crowds. The Incas built the estate around 1450, but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since then, Machu Picchu has become the largest tourist attraction in South America.

Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of what the structures originally looked like. Believed to have served as a posh country retreat for Inca nobility, the complex consists of giant walls, terraces, and ramps constructed from precisely cut rock formations.  We then spent about three hours exploring the historic site, and it was so cool to be so high up with the clouds.  It was crazy to imagine that people actually lived up here "in the heavens."

Our VistaDome train.
View of the river through the valley from our VistaDome train window.
Locals selling flowers along the train tracks.
Now for the logistics:  We drove from our hotel to the Ollanta railroad station. Here, we took the VistaDome train through the lush Urubamba Valley to the foot of Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes. There are different trains (at different price points) to choose from - This post describes the different trains available to Machu Picchu.  Our biggest tip is to book as far in advance as possible on the PeruRail site. Tickets sell out weeks ahead in some months.

Unless you want to do the steep, 90-minute walk from Aguas Calientes to the citadel, buses are your only option to get to the main entrance of Machu Picchu. They operate every few minutes starting at 5:30 a.m., and people start lining up well before that. The line to catch the bus back will be long and packed with tour groups, so be patient.

Be sure to bring water, snacks, and a rain jacket, even if it looks like a beautiful day. We explored Machu Picchu ourselves with just a detailed guidebook, but there are many local guides for hire at the entrance which may be able to add extra local perspective, as well as all the historical, architectural, and biological info.

Here is a map of all the stops we made in Cuzco - feel free to use it to build your own itinerary:

For more Cuzco eats check out my restaurant reviews. Staying in the Sacred Valley was jaw dropping and climbing Machu Picchu was an amazing experience.  Have you visited Cuzco before? What are some of your favorites things to do and places to eat? Please share in the comments below!

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