We arrived in Cusco around 6am very groggy from our sleepless night at the Lima airport. It was about 35 degrees outside! Quite a difference from Costa Rica. Immediately we were rushed by men yelling “Taxi?” “Taxi?” but we didn’t need a taxi because our Airbnb arranged a ride for us. We stayed on the lookout for someone who’s only photo reference was a black and white photo from when he was probably about 11 years old. Fortunately we sent him a current photo of us, so he knew who to look out for. Rodolpho located us and pulled a very bold, illegal U-turn in front of angry morning traffic in order to pick us up, but traffic police were waving and whistling at him and not letting him pull over. He continued to drive forward and finally was able to pull over to pick us up. Not exactly sure why, but Cusco is full of police! They’re lined up in places with large guard shields and helmets as if they’re waiting for some big attack. It’s not very inviting, but I guess they’re just there to protect and serve…..?
As we made our way through the streets of Cusco for the first time, my first impressions were of the smelly diesel cars, stray dogs running around everywhere, and of the narrow, one way, cobblestone roads. 20 minutes later we arrived at our Airbnb. Since it was barely even 7am, the host was not answering the door. After a couple phone calls, Heidy came down to let us in, clearly having just woken up. Once inside, she kindly made us hot cups of coca tea to help acclimilate to the high elevation. Her home had no central heating and instead relies on a portable propane heater that sits in the middle of the dining/living room. Since we arrived so early, our room still had a guest in it, so although all we wanted to do was sleep, we still couldn’t. After a little while, Heidy tidied and generously offered us her daughter’s room in the meantime. We ended up sleeping for about 2 hours in there. We came out of hiding and Heidy made us some breakfast. She didn’t speak more than a word of English, but our hearts were all we needed to communicate, oh and some of Andre’s college Spanish. Alas we were able to check into our room, where we slept more until about 3pm.
We just happened to be in town in time for Cusco’s major June celebrations, including their New Year known as Inti Raymi - Festival of the Sun. Literally all day and all night, some kind of fireworks or marching bands could be heard off in the distance, along with car alarms and barking dogs. Eventually we decided to see what the hubbub was about and we made our way toward the main plaza. It was a 15 minute walk downtown from our Airbnb, emphasis on the “down.” Cusco is built into the mountain sides so the streets and walkways are either uphill or downhill. We walked to the town center, Plaza de Armas where probably a thousand people were gathered - families hanging out together, kids running around chasing toys, locals in traditional garb, vendors left and right coming up to you asking you to buy whatever they’re selling, some women in brightly colored outfits toting lambs and tugging pompom wearing alpacas around asking if you want a photo, tourists wandering aimlessly (us included), stray, but happy dogs playing in the grass, - it was beautiful, poetic chaos. I feel like I could spend hours trying to describe the sights of this city, but nothing would ever come close to actually experiencing it.
Since Cusco rests at around 11,000 ft, we spent our first 4 days acclimatizing before our Salkantay trek. Each day after breakfast, we’d make our way downtown to explore things like the San Pedro market - a large square where permanent vendors sell their goods and food stalls line the perimeter. On the 2nd day there were actually 2 festivals happening adjacent to one another. Around the main square was Corpus Christi - a parade of decorative floats accompanied by marching bands all dedicated to some kind of Catholic Saint or Virgin. A couple streets over it was Chiriuchu - some other type of festival celebrated by eating a traditional and symbolic dish known by the same name. It consists of a bowl first lined with toasted maize, then topped with a fried Spanish omelet made out of corn, potato, and onion. Next it’s layered with a type of sausage, cured lamb meat, a type of potato hash, rehydrated seaweed, dried fish roe, and the main event, roasted guinea pig. Is your brain saying, “What the f***?!” Then you’re probably not from Peru. We decided, “when in Rome,” and out of the hundred stalls all serving the same version of this dish, we walked into one and ordered “uno Chiriuchu por favor.” It was a family run stall with 3 generations operating the small production. Grandma was chopping up the guinea pig, etc., mom was serving and seating customers, and little 2 year old daughter was around our table marveling at our cameras. She was the cutest thing you’d ever seen. She wouldn’t leave our sides and at one point reached up for me to hug and kiss her, climbed on my lap, and told her mom that I’m her new mom now. Toward the end of our meal, we asked mom what her daughter’s name was…..Ciera! After all that, this little girl and I had the same name, just different spelling. I digress though because I know you’re dying to know what the dish tasted like! Well, the dish is meant to be eaten with your hands and a little piece of each element all in one bite. I wasn’t quite that comfortable so I went at my own, picky pace. The fried Spanish omelet seemed like a safe place to start, and was my favorite. The seaweed was fairly bland, and the dried fish roe was extremely odd. It was stringy and sticky, crunchy and salty. I didn’t eat the sausage, and I had a bite of the cured meat before knowing it was lamb. It wasn’t that great and was very salty. Eventually, I got over my willies and was peer pressured by Andre to try the guinea pig. It was actually really flavorful! It was stuffed full of an herb mixture that infused the meat with a unique, hard to pinpoint flavor. However, I say meat lightly because the poor little guinea pigs don’t really have that much meat on them to begin with. We washed it all down with a large, room temperature Cusqueña cerveza.
The last day in Cusco before leaving for our big trek was Inti Raymi, the New Year festival. The day long showcase commenced at 9am. We left the house at 8 and by the time we got to the first location, it was packed! People were selling plastic stools not to sit on, but to stand on so you could see over the crowds of people. The festivities traveled to 3 different locations across the city over the course of the day. Hundreds of actors and dancers cloaked in ornate costumes danced in formations choreographed to symbolize the honoring of the sun during the Winter Solstice. We followed the traveling show from location to location, ending up on top of this hill at a historical site called Saksaywaman (almost pronounced like ‘sexy woman’). We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we followed the masses up the never-ending hillside. At one point it split and some people went left, some went right. We were already on the left side so we just continued up that way which wound up and around to an area that we realized was actually across the road from the main action. We climbed the hillside like everyone else and found a place to sit down. Our view was slightly obscured by some trees, but actually, we had a pretty darn good viewing spot. I think the locals come out to this show more for the social, family gathering aspect of it (and to eat guinea pig) than the actual performance. We were over an hour and a half early, but it was so necessary in order to secure the spot we got. The finale of the performance sadly ends in the live sacrifice of a llama. We ended up leaving before that though. As much as we don’t wish the sacrifice of any animal, nor do we condone things like that, there was a part of us that was intrigued by it. “Would they really cut a llama’s heart out on stage in front of all these people?!” “Then what?” Uhhuhh, I shudder at the thought, but my human nature is still curious.
That night we had our trekking orientation where we met our guide, our group, and learned what we’d be up to for the following 5 days. The guide referred to us all as family. He said, “This is your family now.” Our family consisted of 1 couple from New Jersey, a newlywed couple on their honeymoon from the Netherlands, a mom with her 2 daughters from Massachusetts, and 1 more couple from Colorado. They informed us that we’d be getting started the next day at 4am! Andre and I were the first ones to be picked up the next morning at 4am sharp! #notfun The street we stayed on was too small and narrow for the van, so we had to hike down at least a 1/4 mile with all of our stuff, still half asleep. One by one the van continued to pick up everyone else, and then we drove for 2 hours outside of the city to a tiny town called Mollepata. Around 6:30am we had a family breakfast where we started to get to know each other. After breakfast we drove a little further to the starting point our trek. They saddled up the horses with our duffle bags while we got acquainted with our trekking poles, and off we went! To be continued..