The heart of the Inca Empire

Rolling into Cusco after 10:00 p.m., I noticed the sleepy town I once visited was bustling with young twenty-somethings hanging around night clubs blaring hip-hop. They were circulating the streets and sidewalks as if buzzing around a bee hive. The dogs were socializing in a different manner. Packs of them scavenging on garbage piles scattered along the sides of streets and in empty lots.

“Damn, I don’t recall Cusco being this crowded or dirty,” I thought verbally.

hotel cuscoOur hotel was the complete opposite of the litter we had just driven through. With a Spanish castle motif, the Palacio Del Inka, was five-star luxury. It also held almost 500 years of history with some original Inca walls once home to the virgins of the sun. Part of the current structure was built for the Spanish Conquistador, Pizarro and his men. The open-air courtyard below our suite, offered a zen atmosphere where my husband and I could relax with a drink and cigarette.  I kept passing through the courtyard and various other rooms over the next 24 hours, getting lost each time, yet discovering a new maze back to our room.

cuzcoI wanted to run outside the next morning, but the hotel staff strongly suggested I use the treadmill due to pedestrian and car traffic. That combined with our altitude of 11,000 feet, I acquiesced.  A handful of North Americans from our travel group did an optional tour, but we decided to take a leisurely day to explore the city. The historic Qoricancha, or Temple of the Sun, with the omnipresent church of Santo Domingo sat across from our hotel. We agreed to explore the church later in the day and then headed to the main square, passing a original Inca wall along the way. The Plaza de Armas is one of the most beautiful colonial style squares in all of South America. Two enormous churches flanked two sides of the square, La Cathedral and Templo de la Compania de Jesus. I recalled the first time I saw La Cathedral twenty years ago during Easter break. I witnessed the traditional Inca procession of the saints in front of the church. My friend and I were the only tourists then, and it was sublime. Equally rewarding now we just hung out around the plaza. Wooden balconies surrounded the square, most of them part of the numerous restaurants. We had a few drinks with lunch followed by shopping, people watching and a brief visit to the underfunded Inca museum. A visible police presence caught our attention and we later learned that some workers were on strike due to unfair labor laws. They were throwing rocks, wavering on unrest. The police were in full riot gear complete with plastic shields.

We ended our afternoon with a tour through the church adjacent to our hotel, Santo Domingo. With a rich Spanish and Inca history, our local guide only covered the Inca story and she did it well, although I felt like the beautiful Spanish church we were walking through was being ignored. But then again the Spanish did sack and destroy all known Inca monuments, replacing them with their own. Once the Temple of the Sun dominated Cusco, housing more than 4,000 high-ranking Inca priests. Some of the walls, windows and niches are still visible inside of the church and this was the story we followed during our tour.

high pointWe were on the road again by 8:00 a.m. for the last leg of our trip, Lake Titicaca.  I was especially excited about visiting this southern region since I’d hadn’t been there,  although I studied the archaeology found around the lake as a student at UCLA under one of my professors.  Driving through the Andes I noticed mustard colored hills mottled with blackish brown soil, beet-purple mountains, valleys with pools of water, corn fields, a lonely railroad track paralleling the road, wheat-colored sheep matching the grass they grazed,  and simple shacks.  We stopped by an elementary school to meet the children and bring them much-needed school supplies, and then continued to our highest point of 14,500 to breathe the thin windy air and take a picture. Seven hours later after cruising through a town known as the cocaine capital we pulled into our headquarters for the next two nights just in time for a lightning storm over the lake.

I had some time for a light jog proceeding of our morning boat journey.  At 12,500 I was a little winded but after ten minutes I was doing fine.  I kept my jog short and turned around becoming annoyed at the minivans speeding by, men howling and dogs barking.  Although a short run, I was still proud of my highest run ever, gloating by my fellow travelers with several of them suffering from altitude sickness.

“You ran.  I can barely walk,” one of them breathed.

“It was just a short run,” I humbly said.

urosA boat ride brought us to a different world, a floating spongy one known as the Uros Islands.  They are floating reeds housing an average of three to five native Uros families per island.  We visited one and sat down for a demonstration. The reeds only last 30 years then they have to build a new island.  If there’s a fight among them they pick up their hut and turn it around, unless the disagreement is more serious, in that case they cut the island in half.  After the demonstration and a few laughs we were free to roam the tiny island.  The huts were modest with just the basics: a bed, roof with a blue tarp under the reeds to keep rain out, blankets, a four-inch black and white tv attached to a golf cart size battery, and clothes tossed in the corners of the room, just like my husband bundles his dirty clothes.  They had no bathroom, you had to jump into the lake for that, they shared a clay oven in the open area for cooking and they got around by reed boats and a paddle.

My husband went to the side of the island and lit a cigarette.

I gave him a sideways glance then looked at our guide standing next to him.”Honey, don’t catch their island on fire.  I don’t think you should smoke with all of this hay, it looks very flammable.”

He pointed to our guide, “Leo says it’s O.K.”

I grunted then climbed aboard the two-story reed boat for a ten minute ride with the rest of our group.

me flat mtAfter an excellent lunch of fresh pizza in Puno half of the group went to the hotel and the rest of us went to the Sillustani Tombs, an archaeological site full of pre-Inca and Inca funeral towers.  It started pouring just as we arrived.  Up the wheat hills, whitherward through the cold rain and mud we listened to our local guide’s brief description.  He offered to take my picture with a beautiful view of a lake and a mysteriously flat-topped hill that some think is a UFO landing site. I tripped lightly and then turned around for a picture, prior to looking down over a deadly cliff.  That could have been disastrous, I realized as I imagined my umbrella whisking me through the air like Mary Poppins.

If I had more time during this brief jaunt to Peru, I would have taken a few more days to explore some archaeological ruins dating to the pre-Inca Tiwanaku on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca.

As the locals like to say, “The titi part of the lake belongs to Peru, the caca part belongs to Bolivia.”

I’m sure Bolivians would disagree and it gives me an excuse to come back to the region.

Our last night in Lima we spent together as a group. Our guide Leo had us all pick a piece of paper from a bag.  Of the twenty-four pieces, only two had “yes” scribbled on them. I received one of these.  Throughout our tour various people carried two small Inca dolls that Leo said we had to treat like our baby, but they would change hands every few days. My husband even kidnapped one for a few hours.  I got to take the female Inca as a reminder of our special trip in the Andes.

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