Monday, June 20, 2011

Peru – Cusco, Inca Capital and Tourist Mekka

Cusco is the gateway to the Inca world, the Peruvian Andean Mountains and of course the starting point to get to Machu Picchu – South America's ultimate tourist magnet. Not surprisingly, you are likely to see as many tourists as locals in the streets near Cusco's central square (Plaza de Armas) where the town revolves around tourists and establishments that cater to their every desire. Most places seem to focus on collecting as much tourist money as possible while they stay in Cusco. Yet, there is also a bright and charming side to Cusco that makes it a "must see" destination in Peru.
Cusco is rich in culture and ancient sites all woven together by stone alleyways along rolling hills.

But before we continue to Blog about our experience and impressions we need to vent some frustration: Cusco is a tourist trap with hundreds of establishments and street vendors that have only one purpose: to extract as much cash out of your wallet as possible. There is a feeling that a hand is constantly reaching into your pockets and it's not just the hand of the pick-pockets that one needs to be leery of.

Plaza de Armas: the tourist arena

Government endorsed monopolies also drive prices to dizzying heights – higher than the snow caped peaks of the surrounding Cusco! Some examples: 599 dollars for a train ride, 925 dollars for an ordinary (yet exlcusive) hotel room next to Machu Picchu (without views to the site), $45 entrance fee to Machu Picchu...
Exactly, this is simply a total rip off! Such artificially inflated prices just to see a bunch of stone walls in an abandoned mountain village?! More about that part in a future blog...

Everybody wants a chunk of the tourist dineros... Yes it is this bad, worse than any other place we've been to in the world. Seriously!

The "Llama photo Lady"
is heading home from work
But, there is also a completely different side to Cusco; it just takes a bit longer to find. Luckily we have time and ended up spending about 10 days exploring Cusco. Usually we clocked in about 12-15 kms per day with plenty of ups and downs so this was our training ground for our upcoming trek.

In the center, around Plaza de Armas, you mainly see Gringos and policemen. But just walk 500 meters away from the center toward San Blas area and you can find nice restaurants and guesthouses that are still a bit expensive but not in the ridiculous price range of Plaza de Armas.

How do we quantify expensive? Paying over $3 for an Espresso in a country where the average worker makes less than $10 a day, that's expensive! Now imagine how locals might think about a tourist that spends $599 for a train ride? Yes, they might be justified in perceiving Western tourists as walking ATM machines with unlimited funds. Of course not everyone spends this kind of money, but you can't blame the locals for generalizing (especially if you sip your caffeine booster in one of the expensive cafes near the plaza – every sip equaling the value of a full local meal).

Perfectly fitted stone Inca walls are still
used as foundations for new buildings
Walk 500 meters down the hill from Plaza de Armas and you find a Cusco that is completely different from the amusement park atmosphere at the Plaza. Busy streets, chaotic traffic, constant honking, black clouds of diesel exhaust, street vendors blocking sidewalks and homeless people begging for food and money... Cusco has definitely many faces and levels of wealth to it

Not that this is necessarily good but it certainly authentic. In this part of town you also find comedors that offer course menus including drinks for 2.50 Soles – that means that an Espresso at the Plaza is 4 times the cost of a full meal here.

Good thing that cameras
don't have a "scent mode"
Talking about contrasts: when walking in the many narrow streets that line Cusco, we keep noticing a strong stench... Urine! Regardless of which neighborhood we are in, the smell is equally as bad. Even the side streets right off Plaza de Armas smell worse than the urinals at a bus or train station. We noticed the urine stench before in Lima and Ica, but here in Cusco the "aroma" is particularly developed. Maybe it's all that Coca tea that locals drink ;-)
We notice that many men don't see anything wrong with urinating in the middle of the crowds... Inka men must be having a strong spiritual bond to the animal world that is marking their territory with their bodily fluids.
We wish that they would use just a tiny fraction of all the tourist money that they extract here to build public toilets and equip the many street sweepers with high pressure water cleaners... The stench is so prevalent and that we dub it the "scent of Peru".

"To talk to God you don't need
a Cell Phone" ....
We arrived in Cusco at a time when things were still somewhat slow, the tourist floodgates had not opened up yet. Many guesthouses had only few guests, restaurants had plenty of empty tables and tour agencies had no bookings! This unfortunately impacted us, we wanted to book a trek that is called "Salkantay" and were picky about the agency, as we wanted to go with someone that emphasizes sustainable tourism and has a good reputation regarding treatment of their guides and staff. We decided on a company called X-treme Tourbulencia. They highly impressed us when we visited their office. Especially Wilber, a former guide who now manages the office, who was very competent and gave us a sense that we were in good hands. Unfortunately, they only had two departures scheduled. June 16 and 23. The first being too early (as we had not sufficiently acclimatized to the altitude) and the other date being too late for us... more on the tour booking challenge later.

Christ is just above you
We settled in a nice 3 star guesthouse called Señorio Real, 10 minutes walk from the plaza. We were the only Gringos most of the time, and during the first week there were only a handful of guestrooms occupied so we had the top floor lounge all for ourselves once breakfast time ended. By the time we left, we felt it was a home for us. We were there longer than any other hotel in our travels and the place was so friendly and safe and clean. They even gave us a low season price/long term price of 70 sols ($25) for the entire length of our stay.

We arrived in Cusco after more than 5 years living and traveling at sea level, our lungs were not used to functioning at this altitude of 3400m (11154ft), and neither were our bodies used to the freezing temperature. The Salkantay trek would even go as high as 4670 meters above sea level (15322 ft), so we needed some time to acclimatize and before we mange to walk the 15min to our favorite restaurant without huffing and puffing we would definitely no be able to handle a 5day high altitude trek.

The delicate "Butcher's Guild"
ladies in full swing
Fortunately we were in Cusco during the annual festival month of June. There was a parade everyday. One day it was the various trade guilds showing oft their costumes. Another day it was pre-school kids dancing in traditional costumes. Other days teenagers, adults, again children... all dressed in colorful clothes dancing on the streets. Music and floats also were mixed into the whole shebang. It was a cacophony of color, noise, activity, food and entertainment...every sense was stimulated!

Daily parade at Plaza de Armas
We loved it! We had been longing for the colorful, traditional clothes of the locals in Guatemala and must admit that Cusco during festival time beats the best of Guatemala: the Solola market

Julane loved the festival scenery so much that she took over 600 pictures and 11 gigabytes of movies – living up to her memory hog nickname. It will take Patrick many hours to get them properly edited, tagged and backed up... That's the tough side to traveling.

here some of Julane's best shots... 
Whirling dervishes in Cusco
"Those we don't speak of"
(from the movie "The Village")

"Look at all the people
watching us"
"Which way to the Ranch,
Lil' Joe?"
Skippity doo dah

Cute as a porcelain doll.
Inca war call?
Peek a boo

Do these guys resemble
the Spaniards? ...
The young virgins dance
in front of the old hag.
or a white faced
mountain goat?

Applying makeup is an art.

"Hmm... what do we do now?"

Besides visiting the daily parades in the Plaza, we loved going to the Cusco market and watching the people and flurry of activity while sipping on a cup of cafe con leche (milk coffee)...
At the market:
too many potato choices
Actually it should be more called milk with a drop of coffee: sinfully rich, great for warming the body but bad for the waistline. Peru grows coffee but it isn't as much of a cultural drink here as it was in Central America and it's a lot milder in flavor. The Cusco market reminds us of an onion's outermost layer: dirty and a bit banged up... simply authentic and a piece of the real Peru. It's located well outside the 500 meter "exclusion" zone and the only foreigners to be seen in the walkways and between the stalls are fellow backpackers and travelers. Julane enjoyed a few meals there nestled on the benches hip to hip with the locals.
We think it's used for cow nose soup
Thankfully there are no parking spaces for tour buses outside the market ;-). This is probably a good thing, not many of the western tourist would be able to stomach the sight of the meat market section. We included a little "taster" photo to help you decide if you want to visit:-S.

Look what we found on
the menu!

Talking about food, we also had to try the local Cusco speciality called Cuy al horno.
Warning! the following sentences are rated "R", some people might find this offensive.
Cuy (or Guinea Pig) is a specialty in the Andes, but unlike your little pet Ginger they don't land in a big cage with straw but in a frying pan with herbs. Actually here in Cusco they are placed on a baking pan, all four legs spread out, and then backed for a couple hours.
A rodent!
We tried our Cuy at a popular local restaurant. The skin of the Guinea Pig is said to be the best part. Well our little Ginger had a skin as thick and tough as a leather sole. The skin could not be cut with a knife forcing us to tear it open. Then below the skin was just a tiny layer of meat on the bones. The meat actually didn't taste too bad – definitely not like chicken though. It was more like a very salty piece of pork ribs. The only part of the little piggy that had some meat on the bones was in the rump... are you getting hungry yet?
We ate the meat but left the skin and decided that Cuy al horno is not our thing, but we got to try the deep fried version once we are in Bolivia... sorry kids Ginger's brother Calypso will also end up in our stomachs.

Corn and beans, the Inca staples
 at the central market.
Julane normally likes to visit many museums, but in Cusco you can not visit selective Exhibitions or Sites. It's an all or nothing deal. Even to see just one site you need to buy the Cusco Tourist Pass, known as the Boleto Turístico This is another example of the well-oiled cash extraction machinery: 130Soles ($47) to visit a museum is just way over the top. Ok, ok, the Boleto is valid for 10 days and gives access to about a dozen museums and archeological sites in the sacred valley, but of course is not including the top choices such as Machu Picchu and the Cusco Cathedral, for which you need to dig deeper into your wallet. Sadly, even Peruvians need to buy the Boleto, although at half the price, which is a lot of money for the average person. Oh local people from the Cusco area are able to enter Machu Picchu for free on Sundays (Note: do not go there on a Sunday as a tourist!).

Responsible parent
training starts early in Peru
We were told by locals that the numbers of tourists this year is considerably lower... We don't feel any sympathy for their complaints, hopefully one day they will notice that tourists don't enjoy being treated as cash cows. But enough complaining about the "gimme more" mentality. It's time to get out of Cusco for a while until we can join a trekking group to Salkantay.

Since we had our mind set on the X-treme tour agency we kept frequently checking back with them in hope that someone else shows up to get to the 4 people minimum for the Salkantay trek, but no luck :-(

We didn't want to wait any longer to do the "Salkantay" trek and eventually signed up with another Agency called "Mely Tours." We got their name from our hotel and within hours we were signed up for the 5 day trek leaving on June 20th. Mely tours advertised the exact same route as X-treme (our preferred agency) and Julane was very happy that she could after all be on the Trek during her Birthday and the winter solstice.

"Salkantay" peeking out to tease
us for our upcoming trek
Having our trek booked we left Cusco for a two day trip to Pisac in the Sacred Valley (we will write about Pisac in a later Blog post) returning to Cusco only the night before our trek. When we met our guide, we were in for a big surprise. Instead of trekking in a small group with 4-5 other people we were "sold on" to an operator that runs "collectivo groups". We would be at least 12 people, maybe more. And worst of all, our guide had no information about the exact trekking route that we requested and booked. The trekking company to which we were collected into skipped the ancient Inca site of Llactapata which we had requested specifically. Some other things also didn't add up and we saw ourselves forced to make a tough decision: swallow the bitter pill and go on this "collectivo tour" or cancel completely and request a refund. We were all packed and ready to go and it was already only 7 hours before they were supposed to pick us up in the morning,

Mely Tours Peru:
Not recommended!
We took the difficult choice and insisted on our original itinerary and called "Mely Tours" to get an explanation. The short version is that they brought up several excuses including a statement that the hike to Llactapata was nothing nice anyway. Thankfully we had requested a printed and signed itinerary before we paid and reminded "Mely Tours" that they are not honoring their contract... Bang! As soon as we mentioned the signed itinerary we were offered a refund, which we gladly accepted and collected the next day (it took a bit more effort than that, but that's too much detail).

So now we are stuck in Cusco again without a tour booked, in the meantime the tourist floodgates have been opened and the Gringo to local ratio in the center was well above three to one...
We headed with our refund money straight to X-treme and signed up for their "Salkantay" trek on June 23 – something that we were contemplating with ever since we arrived in Cusco. We made X-treme confirm several times that we would trek via Llactapata before we paid and then left Cusco again for a side trip to the Sacred Valley, this time for two nights in Ollantayatambo (see next Blog post).

Cusco had turned over the course of two weeks from a touristy yet beautiful mountain city with many layers, into a Disneyland park for tour groups. Especially when we returned from Ollantayatambo, we could hardly believe the transformation... It was two days before the Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) on June 24th, THE number one event in Cusco, featuring a re-enactment of Saqsaywaman's Inca winter solstice. Cusco was packed from head to toe with tourists. Ironically, people come from all over Peru and the world for this, and all we wanted to do was NOT be there. Crowds are not our thing!

Our last night dinner in Cusco
typical... just not from Peru
While we ended up spending a total of 10 nights in Cusco, we did not like this transformation of Cusco that was so overrun by tourists that it's hard to find space walking the narrow streets and navigating around the tour groups that follow the color coded flags of their guides. Thankfully, we had been in Cusco for a full week before peak season – what a difference in atmosphere.

By the way, guess what type of food we had on our last night in Cusco... very authentic, just not from this area. Here a small hint: Hummus and Falafel. Right we had to take advantage of the many Israeli restaurants and enjoy something different for once. Yummy!

We highly recommend not visiting Cusco from mid June to the end of July. It's much better to avoid the peak mass tourism time!