Perú–¡qué chévere!–Part 1

¡Hola todos! Look, look, I went to Machu Picchu! :D

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I hope all has been well! It’s been a while since my last post and I often feel that when a significant amount of time has passed–and with it a significant amount of things–it’s much easier to lay it out all in bullets (’cause I’m lazy). Here goes!

  • The semester has finally ended! I still have one more final exam to turn in, but since my professor hasn’t emailed me the questions I’m supposed to answer (that’s Chile for you…) I decided to start my vacation early by…
  • …going to Perú! I spent a few days in Cusco and another few days hiking the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu. This bullet obviously warrants more details which are forthcoming.
  • I celebrated my birthday in Chile! It’s the first time I’ve had a birthday without my family being with me, but as my parents and brother are coming to visit me (they get here tomorrow!) I’m sure we’ll officially celebrate soon :)
  • I have 21 days left in South America!
  • And I think that sums up my life about now. Hmm, I thought there would be more exciting bullets but I guess not…

Anyway, the primary reason for the trip to Perú was to visit Machu Picchu (pronounced MA-choo PIK-choo), which is something I’ve been wanting to see ever since I started reading Tintin comics :) Rather than just see the ancient city, though, I wanted to have my own Tintin adventure; hence I chose to hike the Inka Trail with a few friends.

(I don’t want this post to get too long so I’m going to break down this story into two parts. This first part will be about my stay in Cusco and the next installment will be all about the hike to Machu Picchu. Sorry to be such a tease!)

I planned to stay in Cusco for a few days before starting the trek because I wanted my body to acclimatize to the altitude. Cusco is around 3,400 meters (11,200 feet) above sea level (looking down on the city you can’t really tell it’s so high up since there’s nothing shorter to compare it to–it’s built on a plateau nestled between mountains). Although Machu Picchu is at a lower altitude than Cusco–2,430 meters (7,972 feet)–the Inka Trail goes as high as 4,200 meters (13,800 feet) and hikers are recommended to get used to the high altitude before doing any trekking. I also wanted to explore Cusco and the surrounding area (filled with culturally significant Inka sites), so I figured that I might as well do that while adjusting to the elevation, the whole two-birds-with-one-stone thing.

I spent a total of three days in Cusco before the start of the Inka Trail and what I saw was just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Cusco is an incredibly interesting city. It’s a bustling place filled with life and lots (and lots) of color! Seriously, Peruvians are one of the most vibrant people I’ve met. I’m not just talking about their clothes here–their personalities are just as electrifying: they’re extremely curious, friendly and always eager to help (as long as you don’t tell them you’re from Chile…). Just take a look at their flag:

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I mean, it’s a rainbow for crying out loud! You can’t get much more colorful than that. The rainbow was a very important symbol for the Inka, whose livelihood was based almost exclusively on agriculture. What do plants and rainbows have to do with one another? Well, think about when we see rainbows: it has to be raining and sunny at the same time. What else does the combination of light and water mean? New plants! For the Inka the rainbow symbolized fertility and thus was highly valued (you’ll see rainbows depicted almost everywhere).

But back to Cusco. The common understanding about the origins of the name is that the word “Cusco” means “el ombligo del mundo“, “the navel of the world”, in Quechua since it was the capital and the physical center of the empire. According to the tour guide that took us around Cusco that definition is incorrect. He argues that the word “Cusco”, originally “Qosqo”, means “pecho” or (a person’s) “chest” because it was the strongest part of the empire.

Being the capital, it’s not surprising that Cusco was one of the first cities to be conquered by early Spanish conquistadores. The buildings you see in present-day Cusco reflect the clash of these two cultures: colonial architecture sits atop ancient Inka stone foundations.

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Cusco streets.
Cusco streets.
So. Many. Stairs.
So. Many. Stairs.

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Partial view of Cusco.
Partial view of Cusco.

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Plaza de Armas (the main plaza) in the daytime.
Plaza de Armas (the main plaza) in the daytime.
Plaza de Armas at night.
Plaza de Armas at night.

Plaza de Armas at night.

It wasn’t until a massive earthquake struck the city in 1950 that archaeologists even realized that the colonial buildings were constructed on top of ancient Inka architecture. The earthquake caused the colonial framework to collapse exposing a ridiculously strong stone interior underneath.

Okay, so before you keep reading, here’s a short disclaimer: I will be gushing about rocks for the next few paragraphs. Like, seriously, straight up rocks. Feel free to skip it but you’ll be missing out on some awesomeness. Just sayin’. You have been warned.

So the 1950 earthquake resulted in a monumental discovery: the Inka had developed antisesimic architecture (most of South America is subject to frequent earthquakes) centuries before the Europeans arrived, and that this architecture was so advanced that it was able to withstand what colonial architecture couldn’t. Granted, Europeans didn’t have a need for antiseismic architecture before coming to South America, but it’s not like they didn’t encounter a single earthquake while taking over the Inka empire. Whatever. My point is that the Inka were smart and they rocked (pun intended).

Here’s what the architecture in question looks like:

The coolest rocks I've ever seen in my entire life.
The coolest rocks I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

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The black spot is a tiny stone.
The black spot is a tiny stone.
Every space needed to be filled!
Every space needed to be filled!

Oh, you think I’m done gushing about boulders and rocky stuff? That’s cute. I’m just getting started ;)

There are three basic types of Inka architecture: clásico (classic), ciclópeo (cyclopean/colossal) and rústico (rustic). The photos above are examples of arquitectura ciclópea (the first picture) and clásica (the remaining four). Arquitectura clásica is by far my favorite type (yeah, I actually have a favorite). If you look closely, you’ll notice that the stones have been deftly cut and fitted together without the use of mortar. In almost all cases, except where earthquakes have dislodged something, you can’t even fit a piece of paper in between two adjacent stones, they fit that perfectly. Isn’t that crazy?!

To make sure the stones wouldn’t slip during earthquakes, the Inka came up with an ingenious solution: they turned their stones into 3D puzzle pieces, making them fit into one another to prevent them from shifting. It’s hard to explain without a visual aid, so here are some more pictures:

Stone puzzle pieces!
Stone puzzle pieces!

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Another stone would be placed on top this one that would fit into the formed crevice.
Another stone would be placed on top of this one that would fit into the formed crevice.

See what I mean? THE INKA INVENTED 3D PUZZLES! So awesome. And the coolest part is that all this is hidden from view, it’s “backstage” niftiness, you’d never know you were looking at 15th century legos unless you took the entire wall apart (good luck with that).

So this classic architecture was reserved for important buildings, like palaces and temples. Rustic architecture was used primarily for urban buildings like houses, while cyclopean/colossal architecture was saved for ceremonial places. Here are more pictures of rocks. You’re welcome.

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Some cyclopean and some rustic architecture.
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More rustic architecture.

Okay, now I’m done with all the rock tok. For now hehe :)

Besides admiring all the Inkan masonry there are tons of other things to do in the immediate city. Our our second day in Cusco my friend and I decided to explore the local market as we were on the lookout for plátano con leche, or banana milkshakes. I know it doesn’t sound like anything special but oh my goodness was it delicious! My friend actually had the plátano and I ordered mango.

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$2 for three huge glasses (each!). It was omnom yummy :)

After hanging around the market for a while we made our way to a food and art fair in a nearby plaza. Tourists don’t usually frequent this part of Cusco which was awesome because we were surrounded by cusqueños. We had lunch in the food market–an entire plate of rice, chicken, potato curry, salad and a hard-boiled egg–for 8 soles ($3) and then made our way back to the hostel to meet up with friends who were to be joining us from Chile that day.

Our final day in Cusco was spent buying last-minute supplies for the Inka Trail (waterproof pants, sunblock and insect repellent,  ponchos, etc) and taking a tour of the city and the surrounding area. The closest intact ruin is at a site about 15 minutes away from the main plaza by car. Called Sacsayhuamán, it sits about 300 meters higher than Cusco and served a ceremonial purpose for the Inka.

Sacsayhuamán.
Sacsayhuamán
Notice the zig-zag placement of the stones.
Notice the zig-zag organization of the stones? The bigger ones are on located on the corners.
More cyclopean architecture.
More cyclopean architecture.
Standing in front of the largest stone!
Standing in front of the largest stone!

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At Sacsayhuamán.

Gorgeous view of Cusco!
Gorgeous view of Cusco!

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Group picture!
Group picture!
Twins? :)
Twins? :)

According to the guide about 40% of the site remains buried under the ground. During the dry months local archaeologists come up to continue working to uncover the rest of Sacsayhuamán. You can see that the architecture here is cyclopean/colossal and the stones are arranged in a zig-zag pattern with the largest stones being placed in the corner spots. Our guide paused long enough to comment that although Machu Picchu is the most famous Inkan ruin, Sacsayhuamán is architecturally superior. What Machu Picchu has in its favor has more to do with where it’s located rather than what it actually contains.

When I post the next part of my Perú update you guys can be the judges and decide which site you find most impressive. Until then, take care (those of you in CA: stay warm and dry!) and have a very happy holidays :) ¡Chao for now!

P.S. Here is some general information for travels to Perú/Cusco:

  • I did not need to pay a reciprocity fee for a tourist visa; I didn’t need to fill out any forms or paperwork for a visa either.
  • A taxi from the airport to downtown Cusco should cost between 8-12 soles ($3-5).
  • If you remember the posts about my trip to the Atacama Desert you’ll remember that mate de coca helps alleviate symptoms of soroche, or altitude sickness. Drink lots of mate de coca tea but don’t overdo it as it can have mild adverse effects. Although I didn’t like the taste when I first tried it, it has since grown on me and now I find it incredibly soothing.
  • Check the weather and make sure you have the right clothing/gear. I knew we were going during the wet season so I made sure to bring things that would keep me warm.
  • You can get by without spending a lot of money in Cusco but you might have to work a little for it. We had heard that food was ridiculously cheap but all the restaurants near our hostel were expensive. We reasoned that anything close to the center would cost a lot more since these places were supposed to be convenient for tourists. The moment we walked away from the main plaza food became super cheap (like the $3 huge lunch I had at the local food fair).
  • Peruvians generally speak Spanish very clearly, so if you have a basic grasp of the language communication shouldn’t be a problem. Something my friends and I found interesting was how easy it was to understand Peruvian Spanish. After spending six months in Chile, where spoken Spanish is difficult to understand at best, we all felt like we had been transported back to a Spanish 1 class. It made me so very glad I chose to study abroad in Chile; what they told us was true: if you can understand Chilean Spanish you can understand any Spanish. It was also in Perú that I realized I had accomplished one of my language goals. When talking to locals I was often asked whether I was Chilean because my accent and the idioms/expressions/phrase I used were distinctively Chilean. Wooooo! :)

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