Crashing Corpus Christi in Cusco

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On our final day in Cusco – May 26, 2016 – Taylor and I wanted to see some of the attractions around town: Sacsayhuaman, Qorikancha and the Inca History Museum. Since our AirBnb was just a block away from Mercado de San Pedro, we decided to start our morning at the market. Maybe we could snag a fresh snack for breakfast.

As we got to the end of our street, we saw the market in full swing – and do I mean full. The narrow sidewalks were packed shoulder to shoulder with shoppers and merchants. Well, for me, mostly elbow to shoulder with short, unstoppable Peruvian grandmas. All around sellers yelled to passers-by, holding out pomegranates, trays of chica, buckets of indistinguishable fish parts, and laminated posters of Jean Claude van Damme(???). Holy cow, I thought, this is a hoppin’ market!

But as we shoved our way through the crowd to the next plaza, we saw an even more expansive sea of Cusquenos, this time surrounded by booths, speakers blaring dance music, and street performers. Clearly this wasn’t a regular day at the market.

We continued to push our way through the throngs until we arrived at the southwestern corner of Plaza de Armas. When we arrived, we found the streets crammed with people, parade floats and stages set up outside the two churches, complete choirs and marching bands.

“I don’t think we’re going to make it to the tourist sites,” I said to my wife.

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Machu Picchu

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After a day in Cusco, a day hiking the Inca Trail, and a night in Aguas Calientes at the bottom of the Sacred Valley, my wife and I reached the culmination of our Peruvian expedition with a visit to Machu Picchu.

We took one of the first buses up to Machu Picchu, which helped us avoid the massive crowds that come later in the day as the train arrives from Ollantaytambo. As previously mentioned in my post about our Inca Trail hike, we contracted with the Llamapath touring company, so our guide Hever continued on with us for a second day, giving us a two-hour tour of the archaeological site. Frankly, this turned out to be totally not enough time – Machu Picchu is a huge site, and I feel like we barely saw half of it on the tour. Fortunately, we could stay as long as we wanted, and Taylor and I explored the site on our own for about three hours after the tour ended.

Here’s a short (and very amateur) video of our stay in Cusco, or hike on the Inca Trail and our visit to Machu Picchu. All of our footage was shot on our phones and a Canon point-and-shoot – no need for bulky cameras:

The site itself is overwhelming, both in the size and in the history and design. So much of it was built around astronomy. The main temple has two windows – one that aligns with the summer solstice and one for the winter solstice. There’s also a reflecting pool where certain constellations are reflected at specific times of the year. I can’t imagine how many years the city must have taken to build, especially since absolutely everything was made from massive white granite stones.

At the top stands a huge pyramid, on all three sides are gigantic agricultural terraces, and in between all different kinds of two-story houses, store rooms, aqueducts (that are still running, by the way), chambers for nobility and priests, sacred stones and much more. It’s amazing that the side remained hidden until 1911 given its size, and it’s also incredible that a city home to roughly 700 Inca people nearly 500 years ago fell abandoned so quickly. Only one mummy was ever found at the site, and the rest of the human remains found were the very old or very young. No one’s really sure what happened, or even what Machu Picchu is. Three theories exist currently: it was a summer home of Inca emperor Pachacuti, it was an Incan university, or it was some kind of religious site like a monastery or abbey.

However, what really enhanced the experience for me was our guide Hever’s accounts of history that directly challenged many things I had read about Machu Picchu and the Inca.

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On the Inca Trail

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Five hundred years ago, the Inca controlled one of the largest empires in the world, ruling 10 million South American people in a political network that stretched from Quito to Lake Titicaca. Such a massive kingdom required prompt communication and supply lines, and over hundreds of years, the people of South America developed white-knuckle routes through the Andes upon which runners could deliver a message from the north to the south in a matter of days.

Today thousands retrace Inca footsteps along these routes, the most well-known of which begins near the Inca capital of Cusco and snakes through the Andes, ending at the world-famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

My wife Taylor and I decided to see the Inca Trail for ourselves in May 2016. The following recounts some of the highlights and suggestions from our hike. Regardless of what route you take, it’s a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

The full Inca Trail is a four-day, 26-mile hike that passes through nearly a dozen historical Inca sites. The path starts at 9,000 ft., climbs to 13,700 ft., and includes about 10 miles of hiking above 11,000 ft. and three nights sleeping atop the frigid, airless Andes.

While I am certainly up for adventures, I was in no shape for such a trek, and we only had three days in Peru anyway, so we opted for the shorter two-day hike, which is a 10-mile hike that starts around 7,400 ft., climbs to 9,000 and then drops quickly into Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, the small touristy town at the bottom of the valley (6,000 ft.). This trail still goes through three of the major Inca sites, with about three more visible from the trail.

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On the first day, we hiked from the site of Chachabamba – at the bottom of the Sacred Valley near the banks of an Amazonian tributary – to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate. From there, you walk down to Aguas Calientes, passing Machu Picchu, to rest and stay the night. The next morning, we caught one of the first buses up to the Machu Picchu site, went on a guided tour for about two hours, then had the rest of our day to explore the ruins and the surrounding area for ourselves. For average hikers like ourselves, this itinerary hit the sweet spot.

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Dining in Cusco

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Does this look appetizing? I turned a corner one afternoon in Cusco and this mouthwatering basket was sitting outside a local restaurant smiling right back at me. It’s one of Peru’s finest delicacies and the crown jewel of fine Cusco dining: roasted Guinea pig. Well, I was hungry.

Guinea pig is prepared for special occasions (like the Corpus Christi festival we stumbled into) and is the Peruvian equivalent of a nice lobster. One of our tour guides was bewlidered to hear that Americans keep Guinea pigs as pets, and when asked what it tastes like, he suggested it tasted most like “cat.” I’m still not sure if he was screwing with us.

Regrettably (?), I did not sample the Guinea pig. For starters, I don’t eat red meat. Also, not sure I’m ready to get into roasted rodents (if I am, the squirrels that keep knocking over my porch plants will be first). But we were fortunate to try many other Peruvian dishes, all of which were fresh, light, delicious and weren’t staring back at me.

Cusco is an incredible place. Our stays in Cusco bookended our trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Therefore, we only had opportunity to visit a few of the local restaurants, so I wanted to make the most of our nights and decided to try new or local foods wherever we went. There were a few places we had hoped to visit but didn’t make, thanks to the Corpus Christi festival. Nevertheless, if you ever find yourself in central Cusco, I recommend trying the following. These might not be the best restaurants in town, but they’re the ones we tried!

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Three days in Cusco

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Tired, hungry and agitated, I stepped out of our plane into the high valley in the Andes mountains and immediately felt the crisp, thin air in my lungs. My flight weariness disappeared – I was now literally on top of the world. Welcome to Peru – welcome to Cusco.

Yes, obviously I did also start singing the opening number from “The Emperor’s New Groove” to my wife. Cuscooooooo…

At an elevation of 11,300 feet and surrounded by rolling hills of the Andes mountains, Cusco is unique among places I’ve visited. Its history is unique – the former capital of the Inca empire still features structures, roads and walls built centuries ago, some now capped by the architecture of the former Spanish Empire.

Historic sites

One of the more scenic sites include Plaza de Armas (pictured above), with its two Spanish cathedrals and central fountain dedicated to the greatest Inca emperor, Pachacuti. Nearby, you can walk down the narrow Hatun Rumiyoc, an original Inca street lined with an example of their mindblowing masonry – massive white granite cut to fit together so tightly, to paraphrase on of Pizarro’s conquistadors, you can’t fit a pin between the cracks. It’s a cool sight, but be forewarned, the street has been something of a tourist trap.

Other sites near the city center include Qorikancha, site of the Inca empires most sacred temple, razed by the Spanish and now the site of a Spanish mission. Sacsayhuaman sits atop a hill to the north of the city square, overlooking the entire valley. This site was the most important fortress of the Inca empire and saw the apex of a desperate skirmish between Inca and Spanish forces in 1536. Also, the name is Quechua for “the fortress of the satisfied falcon,” which is awesome. Due to unforeseen circumstances, however, we didn’t get to see either of these sites up close.

Instead, we found ourselves surrounded by 40,000 Peruvians celebrating the annual Corpus Christi festival, one of the most extravagant annual fiestas in all of Peru. We had no idea when we booked the trip that we would be in town during the annual Catholic festival, which comes complete with marching bands, elaborate processions, fanciful idols and revelers of all stripes. What a sight to see! The fortuitous turn more than made up for missing some of the historic sites.

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