Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spring Break Part Two: First Events in Cusco

Because our flight from Lima to Cusco wasn’t extremely early in the morning, we had a nice and relaxing breakfast (consisting of bread, butter, and jam along with an amazing freshly squeezed papaya juice and tea) and packed up our belongings. The flight itself was mesmerizing. I had my face literally glued to the window from the moment we took off until we landed about an hour later. The views, “Oh the Joy!”, were out of this world: tall mountains and glaciers, high grassy plateaus dotted with villages and crossed by roads that looked treacherous on a good weather day. Unbelievable! The views from that flight were worth the trip already and we had just gotten to Cusco…we still had about a week of fun, filled, action-packed adventure awaiting us!
We met our drivers who would take us to our hostel with a little less difficulty than we had in Lima (thank goodness). Along the way to the vans, we were immediately and constantly approached and asked if we wanted to buy things, most notably coca leaves and coca candy. The leaves of the coca plant have been used for an extremely long time (even dating back to the days of the Incas or earlier) for medicinal purposes and for help in high-altitudes. It is suggested that you chew or drink the tea upon arriving in Cusco, since the city itself sits at 12,000 feet. (Can you imagine that as well: we flew into an airport at 12,000 ft. No wonder we got a good view of the mountains we were flying over, they were right underneath us!)

We got to our hostel and were immediately served coca tea which I might say is very good. The view from the upstairs balcony was incredible. You could look out and see the whole valley of the city of Cusco since our hostel was situated on the side of a hill. I’ve already mentioned some of this view before so I won’t go into too much detail. The rest of that day we spent walking around the city, acclimatizing, and setting up tours and adventures for the beginning of the week.
That night, we ate at a little grill down the street from the hostel and I was able to add some more items to my “strange food” list. Everyone ordered a joint cuy so we could all try it. Cuy is a Peruvian specialty and is roasted guinea pig. It didn’t look appetizing at all when it came out, but I didn’t think it was all that bad. I do believe that I am alone in those sentiments however… As my main dish I ordered grilled alpaca, very similar to a llama. It was very tasty, similar in taste and texture to venison. After dinner we had to run back down to the main plaza to talk to the travel agent lady we had found earlier that day and sit through a frustrating session of bargaining with them about prices. They had said one price in the afternoon and had upped it now that we had our money there to pay. It all ended up worth the haggling and the frustrations of the night quickly faded as we climbed back up the hostel (breathing like an asthmatic the whole way) and could see the lights of the city below us. Incredible!
The next day, Sunday, we boarded a bus that took us out to Action Valley, a company specializing in adrenaline sports. They claim to have the highest paintball arena on the planet and offer “sling-shot” rides. However, we had come for the bungee jumping… It is the highest commercial bungee jump platform in the western hemisphere sitting at 122 meters high. When you jump, you free fall a total of 105 meters with a 3 second, un-abated freefall. There were six of us that dared to jump and all six enjoyed ourselves immensely. It’s very difficult to describe the feeling that you have when you jump off a platform at over 400 feet in the air. Lot’s of things go through your mind at once including, “What have you just done?” or “What a cool view.” or “That ground is coming really fast and the wind is bugging my ears.” or “Man, I wish my mom could be here, wait on second thought…” After the first fall though, all your fears are gone and you can enjoy the rest of the ride. Four others in our group also did a really long zip-line and zoomed over our heads at a pretty good clip. The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to more Cusco exploration and souvenir shopping. That night, several of us went in together and cooked our own pasta with red, meat sauce. Very delicious after a hard day acclimatizing. (The daring 6 of us who bungee jumped)
Mondy, we went on a raft trip. Hardly any of our group had every gone rafting before, and what a way to start out rafting through the Andes! Just the drive to get to the put-in was amazing: huge mountains, corn fields, sheep, people spinning yarn in the fields while watching their sheep. The rafting itself very enjoyable and we were blessed to have very good, and fun, guides. They even pulled us over at one point and had us play some “rafting games.” However, right at the beginning we had an accident: on of the rafts didn’t make a corner in the river and got broached, or pinned on a rock. Several fell out and our raft pulled one of them in but the rest were able to remain calm and eventually work themselves off the rock. Our guide also let me take the helm towards the end of the ride and I treated my pals in my boat to some good ol’ fashioned Middle Fork piracy… Back at the rafting headquarters, we had a sauna and a good, hot lunch. Then it was another incredible ride back into town for dinner, some more souvenir shopping, and sleep.

One thing worth mentioning is the Parade of Senor de los Tremblores, or Lord of the Earthquakes. During one of Cusco’s major earthquakes, a crucifix was paraded around the city and as a result the earthquake stopped. Thus, they continue the tradition every Monday of Holy Week in order to protect the city from future earthquakes. The main square was packed with thousands of people standing shoulder to shoulder watching the procession. We couldn’t get through and had to walk a long way around to our hostel after dark. Looking back toward the square at one point, you could see just how big the throng of people was. This is a good illustration of the mix of religions that resulted from forcing Catholicism on the people of South America. You usually got a mix of Catholicism and pagan rituals.
The next day we were on our way to the Lost City of the Incas…

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