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Across Andes by Frog I should explain the nonsensical title of my journal, 'Across Andes by Frog' - it is a sort of homage to an episode of the drolly funny 1970s British TV series "Ripping Yarns" by Michael Palin & Terry Jones.

Cusco on High: Footprints of Inka culture and Colonial dominance

PERU | Monday, 5 May 2014 | Views [699]

Despite the baggage stuff-up I still got to Puerto Maldonado Airport way early (why do tour operators always insist on getting you there Über-early?). The good news was that I didn't have to hang around the minimally-equipped outpost of an airport for long. At the check-in I found out there was a seat available on an earlier Cusco flight. It was a one hour flight to Cusco, time enough for LAN to outdo all their previous stellar catering efforts by generously providing passengers with a lolly (a single lolly) by way of a flight snack! Chimu were unaware of my flight switch and as I didn't have a phone number for the Cusco office, the reality of getting to Cusco Airport an hour and twenty minutes early was that I would have to wait round for the transfer driver who would front up only at the scheduled time of my original flight. Waiting around all that time was an uncomfortable experience because I arrived at the airport inadequately dressed (t-shirt and shorts). It had been very hot in the Amazonia airport but the elevated Cusco was a good 15 degrees cooler than Maldonado and very chilly indeed.

I hovered round the airport entrance, poking my head outside periodically to see if I could spot the Chimu sign. Every time I did I would be pestered by a small battalion of persistent taxi drivers touting for a fare. The hotel transfer drivers were lined up 20 metres away from the entrada behind a partition. It was hard to read some of the signs, many of the drivers were too distracted or bored to hold up their signs properly. One of the driver's name signs I noticed did no favours for an arriving passenger trying to spot him, he had scrawled the name in yellow highlighter against the white background of the sheet of paper! I passed the time chatting with a fellow Australian tourist, a young blond girl who was also waiting for her delayed pick-up, but somewhat more good-natured and patiently than I was. As it transpired my driver turned up 15 minutes after my scheduled flight.

My Cusco hotel, the Unaytambo, a building in the classic Americas colonial mould, was set splendidly on the site of an ancient Inca palace. The first thing I noticed was the footpath in the lane outside my lodge. It was made of very ancient-looking large, flat stoned in the centre, with a parallel strip on the outside comprising small round stones cemented together. This type of uneven walking surface, which I found replicated all over the Cusco town centre, was very easy to trip over. If that didn't get you, you had to also watch out for the very large unsymmetrical steps on the steeper streets.

Just across the road from the Unaytambo is the Incan Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun) which the Spanish 'respected' during La Conquista by building the Santo Domingo Cathedral over the top of it! After getting my vouchers and itinerary from my local Chimu contact, I went downtown to Historico Centro, explored the main drag, Avenida El Sol, and had a typical Peruvian meal in a drab and threadbare shack of a shop. Nothing aesthetic about the joint but you could have dos cursos (two courses) for eight sols. For the primero I chose a tortilla of sorts and pescado frito (heavily-salted fish) for the segunda, which was more quantity than quality. The unglamorous side of Cusco dining for sure, but it was a good, authentic experience.

Given that Cusco is 3,300 metres above sea level I had been forewarned about the risk of soroche (altitude sickness) and was advised to take the coca plant as an antidote, either by chewing the leaves or in tea. At the hotel I decided on the coca de mate (the coca tea method) and started drinking it night and morning. It was not immensely palatable but tolerable none the less because it had a fairly neutral taste. Once you got used to it, it tasted a bit like very weak green tea.

The next day I went on an organised Cusco city walking tour. My guide was a very personable mestizo local named Walter who took me first to Qorikancha, or what is left of the temple. Walter pointed out examples of Inca stonework, the outstanding feature of which is the perfect trapezoid form used by Incan architects on doorways and windows. The walking tour next took in the central Plaza Del Armas, El Catedral and Chapel. El Catedral's main interest to me was that the building took nearly 100 years to finish. Having seen numerous houses of religion in these very Catholic countries my interest in visiting them was starting to wane, the more I saw of them the more I was reminded of a tour guide in Spain's description of old city tours as being an exercise in looking at ABC's (ie, Another Bloody Church!). I found out later that an operator conducts free walking tours of Cusco daily from Plaza Regocijo. The same group, FWTPeru, also do pub crawls of the ciudad. This very English trait doesn't surprise given the large number of pubs and bar in the city (including as everywhere in the world an Irish pub or two).

Out on the street there is a real buzz, it's a constantly happening sort of city, tourists roving from shop to shop (many, many shops!), checking out the bars and cafés and museums. From Plaza Del Armas we headed down Tupac Amaru to San Pedro Mercado, the biggest markets in Cusco. At this market locals and visitors can purchase a vast array of produce, including dried potato, grains and spices, flowers, seaweed, quail eggs, and even more exotic items such as pickled snakes, frog soup, horrendous-looking donkey snouts and Amazonian tree sap remedies. The high visibility of slaughtered animal carcasses in the markets is not for the faint-hearted.

On the way back to Unaytambo, I spotted my first llama and got Walter to pose with it and its native camelid-herder. Before we parted Walter suggested a few museums that I could follow up by foot, viz the Museo Inka, the Pisco Museum and the Chocomuseum. The Incan Museum, contained in a grand colonial mansion, once you got past the Indian doormen in traditional Inca attire, had lots of interesting features including wooden drinking vessels, colonial paintings and murals, goldwork items, native artefacts and weapons, elongated skulls and mummies (unfortunately no photos were allowed and staff strictly enforced this rule). In the museum courtyard there were demonstrations of textile weaving. Despite the museum name there were also non-Incan exhibits on display, mainly relating to the Spanish Conquista era. The other two suggestions of Walter turned out to be faux museums! Both were museums in name only, in reality inside they were shops not even trying to effect the appearance of a museum! I did buy some Peruvian dark chocolate from the so-called Chocomuseum which did taste differently good.

That evening I returned to Plaza Del Armas to eat and decided on a restaurant opposite the Plaza that looked OK called Paititi. Decided to be a bit gastronomically adventurous and try the llama which was tender and tasted a little like lamb. As I purchased a mains dish the restaurant threw in a complimentary drink. What else? The perennial regional favourite aperitif, the Pisco Sour. When leaving, I was amused by the restaurant symbol sign on the entrance, thinking maybe the place should be renamed El Tenedor Dos, "The Two Forks"! How could they get something so blatantly obvious completely wrong!?!

Llama Corner

Llama Corner

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