Cusco

Well last night I fell asleep somewhere in the sky above NYC and this morning I woke up in LIMA! I say that with a little too much excitement because I unfortunately will not be spending any time in Lima this trip BUT not only is it my first trip to Peru, it is my first time in South America. That’s right folks, just hit my SIXTH continent! After a short flight to Cusco, and my first Coca Tea, I  was beyond excited to get out of the airport and hit the streets. Cusco was the historic capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th century until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century and in 1983 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cusco is located in the Urubamba Valley of the Andes and is 11,000 feet above sea level. For a little perspective, NYC is located 0 feet above sea level and Mount Everest is 29,029 feet above sea level. So we are pretty high up there right now, and to get my body prepared for the change I have been taking these fabulous altitude pills for the last couple of days. However, when you get to Cusco you will learn that there are a few remedies the Peruvians recommend for adjusting to the altitude  but they all essentially revolve around drinking, chewing, eating Coca leaves, flooding your body with water and putting Muña with agua Florida on your scalp and in your hair- I learned about this last remedy a little too late in the game but I highly recommend it!

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Cheers to our first Coca Tea!
We started our morning by visiting the vibrant Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cusco city, filled with  stone streets and colorful gardens, the Plaza houses the Cusco Cathedral and the Church La Compania de Jesus.                                                                IMG_2786IMG_2793We then made our way to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. While driving through Cusco you will notice that almost every house looks unfinished – windows missing, scaffolding, incompleted roofing – we learned that the reason for this is because in Peru citizens only have to start paying taxes on their home once their home is completed, so most of them homes never actually end up getting finished!
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The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu lies in the Sacred Valley but today we were just getting our first introduction to the Valley, starting off in Pisaq Market where we spent the good majority of the afternoon shopping and eating. As soon as we arrived we visited a local baker making fresh empandas! They were delicious, and while it might not sound like the perfect breakfast – it really was!

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Then we walked a few vendor stands over and visited a small jewelry shop that showed us how they make their jewelry and taught us how to recognize the difference between real silver jewelry and silver mixed with alpaca. I bought myself a Serpentine ring, Serpentine is a jewel only found in Machu Picchu and brings spiritual healing, awakening and good luck – and I am going to need some of that to make it through this hike!

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After we had wrapped up our shopping we began making our way to Ollantaytambo – with two quick pit stops prior to arriving. The first was to a vendor on the side of the road to try Corn with Cheese and another to a different vendor a ways up to try Guinea Pig!! The corn was very different from any corn I had ever tasted, the kernels were larger, denser and almost had a wheat consistency. It was very good but after a few bites I was full!
IMG_3046Clearly that didn’t stop us from pulling over to try a Guinea Pig  moments later. Listen, was it worth it to try? Absolutely. Would I order it again? No. Aside from the obvious that Guinea Pigs are small, they are also very bony and while the meat was delicious there was not a lot of it. Guinea Pig is a delicacy in Peru, and I’ll get more into more Guinea Pig talk in a few minutes.
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Once we finished up, we finally got to Ollantaytambo, now an Inca archaeological site but was built to be the royal estate of the Emperor Pachacuti. We hiked through the ruins and learned about the different rock formations, architecture and construction styles that will be present throughout the rest of our time hiking.

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Can you spot the face in the mountain? That is the Face of Wiracocha – the Creator Deity in pre-Inca and Inca mythology.

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As we made our way back down we visited a family’s house to see how families keep their Guinea Pigs. Guinea Pigs are not seen as pets in Peruvian culture they are seen as food – a very special and rare delicacy.  However, Guinea Pig is expensive – it costs 20 soles to buy a baby Guinea Pig and when you order it in a restaurant a half of Guinea Pig is 40 soles. For this reason, families buy Guinea Pigs when they are young and raise them, as we – well not me, but similar to how farmers in America would raise chickens. The baby Guinea Pigs are kept and grown in the kitchen of the home and are usually eaten 2 times a year by families on special occasions. Fun fact – Guinea Pigs must be eaten before they are 2 years old or their meat begins to turn tough.
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It eventually became time to head back to Cusco, 2.5 hours from Ollantaytambo and on the way back we pulled over on the road in front of the Skylodge to check it out. The Skylodge is 4 room hotel nestled in the mountains overlooking the Sacred Valley. To get to the hotel, visitors must climb to their rooms and can zip-line down in the morning.

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See those Four Rooms way up in the mountain?
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How amazing does this look? Photo Courtesy: Naturavive.com

Just before we were about to pack it into the car we got to watch the sunset, a perfect ending to a first day, we thought…

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Alexandra, our tour guide had another idea in mind. She wanted us to make a quick stop by a local bar to try Chicha, a Peruvian favorite. Chicha is a fermented beverage derived from grains, maize or fruit. We watched the homeowner/bartender show us how to make Chicha and then tried a little of her original and strawberry recipes.
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We arrived back at Cusco and to the JW Marriott at 7:30, perfect timing to meet Fabricio, who will be our guide on the Inca Trail. We collected our new duffel bags for the week and with an allowance of only 6kg left to pack we were all a little nervous about the logistics of packing for 3 seasons, and 4 days of hiking and camping in one small bag, but that will be a challenge for after dinner. Around 9 we went to dinner in the Plaza de Armes, to a restaurant LIMO. Not exactly the authentic Purvian cuisine we were seeking, instead we enjoyed Purvian Japanese fusion, I didn’t even know there was such a thing! I was far too exhausted to actually savor my meal but the ambiance was fabulous and the restaurant looked right over the Plaza de Armas! Anyway, it is now off to bed because we have packing and only a few short hours of sleep before the real journey begins.
Side note: The JW Marriott was an incredible hotel in Cusco, it may just be one of the nicest JW Marriotts I have stayed at. However, for those hiking the Inca Trail, I would follow the same itinerary above but would recommend sleeping in Ollantaytambo the night before the hike to avoid the 2.5 hour drive back to Cusco and the 2.5 hour drive we have ahead of us tomorrow.
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