Flying into Cusco was surreal. From so high up, it’s so small amongst the Andes, which dwarf the town. Or should I say city? It’s home to over 340,000 people after all. After spending a few days acclimatising to the altitude in Ollyantaytambo and Aguas, we returned to Cusco, and I’m so glad we did. It has the hustle and bustle of a city, complete with endless markets and noisy taxis, with the quaint qualities of a small town. The main square is full of cobble stone streets, small taxis zipping around, gardens and fountains, and little alleyways off to the sides of large, looming church facades.
After negotiating with our taxi driver to get us to the right part of town, and of course because we always stayed with people in their homes, we always found ourselves miles from the centre of town, we arrived at Carlos’ place. He runs somewhat of a hostel situation – a large building with a central open courtyard and rooms all around. We stayed on the second floor, in a dark but cosy room, complete with heavy blankets piled high on our comfy bed, and white, fluffy dressing gowns. What appeared to be little luxuries quickly turned into necessities come nightfall. Cusco sits at an even higher altitude of 3400m above sea level, and night time is freezing, especially due to the lack of heaters. I’m still unsure if we got sick because of the altitude, but it sure felt like a cold. The ever stoic Josh never gets sick, but the next few days were spent in bed, surfing the web, reading, and consuming lots of coca (an Andean plant that helps with altitude sickness) in the form of tea and honey flavoured lollies for the sore throats we were sporting.
We had to get really creative with cooking, as the local supermarket had nothing – mouldy fruit and veggies were of course in abundance, and even canned goods were hard to find. After eating endless puffed quinoa, chia and ancient grain cereal mixes (which I now miss terribly), I did some extensive research and was determined to find Orion Supermarket, of which there are two in Cusco. It took us half a day, a few blisters on the feet, and a few squabbles to find it, but it was like heaven on earth once we had. Finally we could find pesto, cheese and fruit without the bruises again. It seems such a small thing, but when your only job is feeding yourself, you become quite consumed with it.
Once we had a decent amount of food in the cupboard and in our bellies, and were on the mend, Cusco soon became a sensory overload and ended up being our shopping destination. We were able to buy some special pieces for our loved ones, and the endless shops and markets, holes in the walls that led to inner courtyards, and stairs that led to beautiful shops full of colour could keep anyone busy for months. The down side to this is that everyone has something to sell, but we found Cusco to be far less pushy than other tourist destinations we’d been to. The desperation to sell wasn’t there anymore and it felt much more easy going. We spent our days wandering the streets, eating traditional baked goods from little bakeries and taking in the colours, sights and llamas of Cusco.
We used Cusco as a base to explore the Sacred Valley; the heart of the Incan Empire, and we tossed up renting a motor bike or jumping on a tour bus to experience it all. We ended up on a bus full of Spanish speakers, which kind of made the trip feel a little less touristy, and the English speakers amongst the group were very keen to take photos with us, and practise their English. The tour guide always chucked on a condensed, poorly articulated version of the elaborate story he told everyone else in Spanish, which we found highly entertaining. He told us just enough, and we let the scenery do the rest, and truly, we found it the best way to get all the information about the area, and sights into one trip.
Our first stop on our two day trip was a small market place at the foot of Písac; an ancient farming ruin, established to protect Cusco from possible attacks. We didn’t have much time there, but through the twists and turns of the busy market stalls, we found a smaller inner courtyard with a large clay oven, and a little caged castle full of squeaking guinea pigs. One of the many reasons we choose not to eat meat anymore. When you’ve seen too much… you know? We bought some spinach and ricotta, and pineapple empanadas (pastries) and piled back on the bus, while the tour guide unsympathetically left the stragglers in the dust. To be fair, he had warned everyone to be prompt.
The Inca constructed agricultural terraces all over the Sacred Valley, always on steep hillsides, some of which are still in use. These terraces enabled the organised production of food and allowed for the crops to survive in all weather patterns. We visited the pear shaped ruin, Moray, which contains unusual Inca ruins. The ruins are set on a backdrop of snow capped mountains, smoke billowing on the horizon, the smells of burning palo santo on the wind, and flora that is reminiscent of Dr Seuss illustrations. The ruins consist of several terraced circular depressions, created with a sophisticated irrigation system in mind. The depth, design, and orientation creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C between the top and the bottom of the ruins. Such large temperature differences allowed the Incas to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops.
Our last stop was Maras; a series of salt evaporation ponds set into the side of a steep hill, in use since Inca times. A subterranean stream bubbles up from the hill, and as the highly salty water emerges, it is diverted, split and directed into an intricate system of tiny channels. It’s been constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto several hundred terraced ponds. Almost all the ponds are less than four meters square, and as water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated, and salt precipitates as various sized crystals onto the surfaces of the ponds.
The altitude was brutal throughout our two days, and I struggled to “stroll” around the ruins, many times resting while Josh jogged off. I found altitude sickness to be a strange thing – not what I expected at all. It’s the pressure on your sinuses and in your bones, the sore muscles, light headedness and general flu feeling that hangs around. It would increase as we drove up and decrease almost immediately upon decent. It certainly is a fickle sickness.