Sunday, May 11, 2014

Cusco and the Sacred Valley, Peru 9/24 - 9/27 2013

Laure and I spent a few days in Cusco after Puno and before the Inca Trail.

During our visit, Laure explored the San Pedro market where locals buy and sell exotic foods and spices. She was scoping it out for the two of us and she was also looking for snacks to bring on the trek. She definitely found some stuff we would not typically find in Switzerland and lots that she didn't think was snack food.
Peruvian spices.
Cow noses?

Cow noses aside, we also checked out some of the cafes and restaurants. Some of these were small and traditional, and others were modern and international. I learned that quinoa was first cultivated in the region's Andes mountains thousands of years ago -- way before it was cool internationally among nutritionists and Whole Foods shoppers. On our trip, we had quinoa soup, snack bars, ice cream, and beer.
Bakery at the main square.
Quinoa beer and Peru's national soft drink -- Inca Kola.
As Lonely Planet accurately reports, Inca Kola is the soft drink that looks like radioactive yellow and tastes like bubble gum.

Restaurant with cool artwork.
Visiting a modern sushi restaurant during a free Cusco walking tour.
Laure felt that we over paid for the tour.
Cusco at night.
We didn't eat there.
The Incas conquered and annexed the areas around it and learned construction techniques from various tribes in South America. In its heyday as the former capital of the Inca empire, Cusco had many impressive and important buildings. These structures were especially strong against earthquakes due to their shapes and how tightly the stones were placed without any mortar in between. After the Spaniards toppled the Inca empire, they built new structures with the European technique of brick and mortar. Today--many earthquakes later--the Inca buildings have obviously outlasted the Spanish ones.
Cusco still has parts of important Inca buildings.
Tightly packed stones of an Incan wall.
Across the alley is a Spanish wall with mortar between stones.

A short hike up from Cusco is Sacsayhuamán during the city strike, where some Incas took one of their last stands against the Spaniards.
Laure in front of a wall shaped as a puma's teeth in Sacsayhuamán.
Across Sacsayhuamán, we found Cristo Blanco.
Laure did not want to take this photo but she did it because she loves me.
And here is Cristo after getting a tan at Ipanema beach.

In somewhat of a spur of the moment, I had an urge to go mountain biking. But what I had learned from my last-minute mountain biking in the Indian Himalayas was to never again rent a mountain bike from a random shop last minute. Well, that didn't stop me. We looked around a little bit and I decided to book a guided mountain bike tour of the Sacred Valley from a small tour shop nearby.
We came across many animals in the Sacred valley.
Share the road, you animals!
He's in charge here.
Moray -- a historical site built by the Incas.
The top of a grueling climb at altitude is rewarded with awesome views.
We visited the production of salt at Salineras near Urubamba.
We came across another mountain bike group.
They brought some presents to the kids of the local community.
We took public buses between Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
We sat alongside the locals from the many villages along the way.

The mountain biking experience was awesome, although the tour company was a complete joke. They sold different packages but then just put everyone together in one big group. One client had paid a private tour but was placed in our group anyway. Our guide was pretty clueless and did not know how to mountain bike properly. Maybe next time I'll listen to Laure and research ahead of time.

Laure did not want to go with me on the bike tour -- besides having a bad feeling about the tour company, she does not mountain bike. Instead, she decided to be thrifty and get stuff done in Peru at a fraction of the price of Switzerland. Hair cut: CHF 50 savings, new hiking hat: CHF 20 savings, sunglasses: CHF 15 savings. She even found electrolyte tablets here that she could not find in Switzerland - this was her biggest win.

During our visit, the residents of Cusco went on a protest that shut down commerce and transport. I believe they were demanding higher wages for public workers and lower gas prices. We heard from an expat that these strikes are pretty common. Almost any commerce or taxi driver that dared to work during the protest ran the risk of being vandalized by the protesters without help from the police. Travelers who needed to get to the airport would need a good pair of walking shoes. Our plans to visit the Sacred Valley using public transportation were canceled and the back up plan for Laure to show me the Central Market was a wash.
Protesters in Cusco.

A few commerces were exempt from this strangely enforced strike. Some such exemptions were hotels and street vendors. Some locals realized they could capitalize on the protest by selling food and drinks to hungry and dehydrated protesters.
I bought Chicha (a Peruvian drink made from blue corn) from an opportunist vendor during the protest.
The Chicha tasted good, but I couldn't stop thinking about how they "washed" the cups in a plastic bucket of water without any soap.

In Cusco, we had to visit the office of Peru Treks and pay the remainder of our trek -- our guiding company for the Inca Trail. There we had a mini orientation that got us excited about our next few days.
Those statues are naked!

In preparation for our trek, we found a super hippie store named Natural Factory that sells natural snacks and ingredients with absolutely no processed ingredients such as refined sugars. That was where we bought the snacks for our trek.
Quinoa bars, 100% cacao bars, cocoa leaves, and any other hippie desire can be found at Natural Factory.

After three days in the relatively hectic and touristy town center of Cusco, we were ready for the calmness and solitude awaiting us in the Inca trail.