Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Days 259 to 262: Wandering Around Cusco

We arrived in Cusco on Friday morning after a considerable amount of flying and waiting. Madrid to Atlanta at ten hours went surprisingly smoothly, aided in no small way by Delta Airline's excellent selection of films. I watched three: Pacific Rim (giant robots vs giant monsters: excellent, 4.5 stars), 500 Days of Summer (two annoying people kind of have a relationship: 3 stars), and The Campaign (Will Ferrell on form, punches a baby: 4 stars). Danielle also watched three, but I think they were all chick-flicks rated about 2 stars.

We had a few hours in Atlanta, mostly taken up by an endless series of queues and security, and then a seven hour flight to Lima, arriving just after midnight, by which time we were both rather tired. The journey wasn't quite at an end however - we had over eight hours to wait for our final flight to Cusco. This we spent in a state of semi collapse, although one of our wedding presents saved us, that being VIP lounge passes given to us by my cousins and aunt.

It was small, but the seats were very comfortable, and the free food and drink was very welcome.

The final flight from Lima to Cusco was incredibly scenic, with high mountains poking through the cloud, and Cusco itself sprawled out in a basin surrounded by peaks. A city of around 400,000, it was the Inca capital until the Spanish came in, killed a bunch of people and nicked all the gold. They built on top of the old Inca city, creating a blend of colonial architecture on top of Inca ruins. That's the historic centre - the rest of the city is a dusty, decrepit sprawl that fills the basin and climbs up the surrounding mountains.

But none of that was important to us as we arrived at our shabby but charming guesthouse and collapsed in an exhausted deep sleep for several hours.

Our guesthouse (Casa de Mama 2) rather well represents the overall feel of Cusco, in fact. Shabby, dusty, compact but sprawling, eminently charming and likeable, and really rather fun. After our rest we took a wander into Cusco, and found ourselves very taken with the place.

The heart of the city is the central square, the Plaza de Armas, faced by two worn-down but handsome church facades, and numerous other colonial buildings invariably all converted into restaurants and travel agents. Yes, it's very touristy, and anything off the square is all geared to tourism also, but Cusco is confident enough in its own heritage and style to soak up the tourists and still retain its identity.

Cusco also has a myriad of tiny side streets, many very steep. Medieval Europe with an unintentional traditional China are evoked quite heavily, but again with Cusco's own Incan influence is felt strongly, especially with the huge boulder walls that form the base of many buildings. Whenever possible, cars will try to squeeze up the streets, but mercifully many are too small even for Peruvian drivers. As well as the obvious appeal of wandering round the historic centre, Danielle and I have explored this network of lanes and paths, becoming rather out of breath in the process.

In fairness, the lack of breath isn't just due to our poor levels of fitness (although let's be honest, if we were cuts of meat neither of us would be prime steaks) but due to the altitude: Cusco is around 3400 metres above sea level - that's over twice the height of Scotland's highest mountain, Ben Nevis. And at that height, the air is thinner. Altitude sickness can be a real problem for those arriving at this height suddenly, as we've done so, and fortunately we've got away pretty lightly, with just a slight lack of breath, mild lethargy, and some mild headaches in the morning for Danielle. It's partly due to this that we've deliberately taken it very easy so far in Cusco. We've done lots of walking, but have also rested a lot. Today we hoped to go further afield and explore some Incan ruins a few miles from the city, but this morning began with heavy rain and progressed to foggy drizzle, and we didn't fancy walking for hours in these conditions. Instead, we went and saw this.

A crap Jesus. He's obviously copied off the Rio one, and overlooks Cusco. Sure, it's pretty tacky, but I actually quite like it. At night, he's lit up brightly. We walked up some very steep paths, dodging barking dogs on the way, and I got very muddy. Was it worth it? Um.

So. One more full day in Cusco, which weather dependent may be spent exploring various ruins. Because on Wednesday, at around 4am, we leave Cusco. To begin the Inca Trail. Culminating at Machu Picchu.

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