Tour guides and busses full of English speaking people aren't really my style when it comes to traveling, and if I was to continue with my style I would probably be driving down the coast of Peru with Alberto and his friends looking for surf (which he offered). While this sounds totally awesome and like a potential surf trip for another lifetime, I would have missed out on the stunning beauty and cultural intrigue of the Cuzco and the Andes.
Yes, I went inland. And up. Cuzco sits nestled in the Andes mountain range at 11,000 feet above sea level, which is really freaking high. Fortunately, a big basket of coca leaves greets visitors as they walk off the plane so people like me who live at sea level don't die immediately. Coca leave are said to relieve altitude sickness as well as put a little pep in your step and make you think that everything is awesome. Which Cuzco is, probably with or without coca leaves but I wouldn't really know.
Back in Lima I had met up with my tour group the previous night and made fast friends with a bunch of girls around my age. One of the best things about traveling is meeting like minded people that tend to be unattached and ready for adventure. That's also a perk of traveling solo - I'm either forced to make friends or will eat a lot of meals alone - which I'm not totally opposed to but drinking alone is no fun, so my new friends and I went out for dinner and drinks for our first and last night in Lima together. We hopped on a plane to Cuzco the next day and have been exploring this unique part of the world since.
Cuzco was the center of the Inca Empire from the 1300's-ish til the Spanish, led by Francisco Pizarro came through and fucked everything up. South American history isn't my forte, but the combination of an ancient native history mixed with European conquest makes for some pretty interesting and gruesome stories. Cuzco brings this to light in a subtle way - you can find the ancient and perfect walls of the sun temple still standing, with a massive Jesuit cathedral built right on top, and a Starbucks next door just in case the coca leaves aren't quite enough.
I would have loved to explore Cuzco more, but after one pisco sour I was feeling like death -- which I blame the altitude for, although it could have been the ocean water in Lima, the side affects of the vaccination, the seafood I ate the previous night or the sick kids I played with right before I left -- in any case I called it a night early and contemplated asking the hotel if I could take a hit of their emergency oxygen tank that every hotel in the area has for kooks like me that never go above, say, sea level.
Nevertheless I woke up in the morning ready to rock and was only slightly late (and the last person on the tour bus but whatevs). We were supposed to have packed the night before for our Inca Trail expedition but I was in no condition to contemplate hiking and camping at a higher altitude than Cuzco so I saved it for the morning when I promptly threw warm clothes and rain gear in my bag and left the rest at the hotel. Our itinerary said we would drive through the Sacred Valley, stop at a traditional weaving village, eat lunch at a restaurant our travel agency developed and finish in Ollayantaytambo. I don't particularly care for weaving, think tour groups are hokey and had no idea who or what Ollayantaytambo is, but in reality it was an epic day.
The Sacred Valley in the Andes is stunning. The Incas built terraced farmlands into the sheer, green mountainsides that locals still tend to today. Our first stop was a weaving village where we learned about how wool is made and dyed which I found absolutely fascinating, but they also served us coca tea so that could have influenced my attention span. We all bought hand made scarfs and mittens and funny hats with alpacas on them and I couldn't help but laugh at my hilarious alpaca puns - alpaca bag when I get back on the bus... but you probably had to be there. Either way it was cool to buy textiles directly from the ladies who made them.
Then, back on the bus. Next stop: Pisac. Awesome place. More terraces, ruins and insight into Inca life. It would be cool if like the Incas, in 500 years there are relics of our culture still standing that we can be proud of, and not just a giant garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, but I suppose that remains to be seen.
After that we were herded back into the bus (willingly because we were going to get lunch) and headed to a restaurant that G Adventures (our tour group) started, which made me instantly skeptical (because I'm cynical). It turned out to be a beautiful restaurant owned and operated by the villagers of a small town nestled in the valley surrounded by snow capped peaks, that served all local food grown organically by the villagers themselves, and the food was delicious. That shut me up real quick. Like I said before, tour groups and guides aren't my style, but this was a case and point for why I don't always know where and what is best.
We ended the day in the small town of Ollayantaytambo where I never, ever would have gone to on my own. It is a town steeped in the history of treachery of Inca warriors and Spanish conquistadors that has living proof in the form of terraces and ancient stone ruins that sit above the city as a reminder of their badass history and ancestry. I could barely make it up the thousand stone steps (blame the altitude) let alone fathom pushing 100 ton blocks of stone up the mountainside, but if there's one stereotype of the Inca people it is that they were incredibly hard workers. Inspirational, really. And by this point I had stopped my intake of coca leaves because I want to sleep tonight, so it really was legitimately cool.
Tomorrow we begin our trek on the Inca Trail, a four day hike through the Andes that ends at Machu Picchu. There are a few of us that are a bit nervous about the strenuous level of the hike, but we have guides and porters that will make sure we get there (first and foremost by waking us up with a cup of coca tea in the mornings, no joke). The adventure continues.