South America Diary: Day 12

Tuesday, 26 April, 2011. 22:45

Grand view of Sacsayhuamán We rose at 08:00. I hadn’t slept at all, tossing and turning all night and simply unable to fall asleep. I felt extremely tired, but the headache had gone. A breakfast of cereal with yoghurt, bread roll with ham and cheese, a couple of small croissants, and fresh mango, watermelon, honeydew melon, and a small banana made me feel better.

The first order of business was getting some laundry done so we could have clean clothes again. There were several places in the street where our hotel was located with signs advertising laundry service. With no real means to pick from them, we decided semi-randomly to skip the one closest to our hotel and go to the next one we found. It was a small, dark hole-in-the-wall, in which sat a man at a computer, who never once looked away from the screen and at us. Instead, a boy about 8 years old assessed in a pidgin of Spanish and English what we were after, hung our laundry bag from a hook scale to determine the weight, wrote out a receipt, and gave us a time to come back and pick it up this afternoon. There were a few other bags of laundry in there, but we didn’t see any washing machines. When we walked back to the hotel we poked our nose in the other laundry place, and saw a woman in there standing in front of a row of three machines.

Walls of Sacsayhuamán Then we readied ourselves for a day of exploring Inca ruins around Cusco, or “ancient Inca buildings” as Ale told us to refer to them, as the Inca descendents consider calling them “ruins” insulting. The group met at 09:30, with everyone present. Kim was looking a bit perkier, but still not 100%. Gary looked okay, and didn’t seem in any difficulty, but had been visited by a doctor and prescribed something. Phan looked a bit pale, but was cheerful and determined to have fun, despite still feeling a bit nauseous. Lyn seemed subdued and if not happy to follow Ale, at least doing so without comment.

We boarded a minibus for the ride about 15 minutes up the steep hill next to our hotel to the Inca site of Sacsayhuamán. Ale had given us our Cusco tourist tickets earlier, which provided entry into ten different sites in the area. We had to get this punched at the entry station to get into the site. But first, several people used the toilet outside; me because I’m drinking lots of water to fend off the altitude sickness.

Biggest Stone in Sacsayhuamán The Sacsayhuamán site is quite large, covering an area I estimated to be about 400 by 300 metres or so, with a central flat grass area flanked by stone walls. The most intact walls are on the southern side, rising in three terraced levels up the ridge. The walls are not straight, but zig-zag at close to right angles, with the zigs about 30 metres long and the lateral zags maybe 5 metres. The most famous stone here is the heaviest one, calculated to weigh about 14 tonnes. It towered some 5 metres high, filling the entire height of the first terrace level all by itself. Ale said the zig-zag shape of the walls represented lightning, and Sacsayhuamán was a temple dedicated to the Incan thunder god.

On the northern side of the field, the walls were in more disrepair, sacked by the Spanish for building stone to use in churches. But over this ridge was an amphitheatre: circles with three or four terraced levels around it. In the field area was a group of alpacas, ten or so including some young ones. They had ear tags and were apparently there for tourists to take photos of, which many were doing. The whole site lies on a ridge overlooking the valley and town of Cusco below from the north. The views of Cusco were spectacular.

Hidden Llama We wandered around the site at leisure after Ale’s introductory explanation. Lyn asked a lot of questions and listened attentively to Ale’s answers. We walked up the north side to see the amphitheatre. On the way back down we met Zaina and Zeeshan, who told us about the high priest’s chair, carved into a stone overlooking the field. They’d read about it in a guidebook they had. We found it and I sat in it to see the view the high priest of the Incas would have had over the site. From there we walked to the southern walls and walked up stairs between the terraced levels to get a good overview of the place.

We met together again after half an hour of free time, to get the bus to the next site of Qenqo, further up the mountains. This was much smaller than Sacsayhuamán, being essentially a big stone flanked by some smaller construction on each side. Two stones on either side were meant to represent the duality nature of the universe: sun and moon, earth and sky, light and dark, etc. Under the big central stone was a short tunnel through which the play of light with the shapes of the stones generated a profile of a llama’s head. Ale led us through and showed it to us, but we were rushed by groups of other tourists behind us, while in front of us people got in the way so we didn’t really get a good view.

Pukapukara Entrance That done, it was back on the bus for another short ride further up the mountain to Pukapukara. This used to be a military fortification manned by soldiers to protect the next site of Tambomachay, further up the mountain, the retreat of the royal family of the Inca city of Cusco. Pukapukara was better preserved than Qenqo, and you could still see most of the walls and how it commanded a good view of the valley below, and would have been well-fortified against invasion. We spent 15 minutes here wandering over the ruins.

Next stop was Tambomachay, walking distance form Pukapukara, although the bus drove us the 200 metres or so to get to the entry point. From here it was a 1 kilometre walk uphill – slowly in the high-altitude thin air – to the Tambomachay site. This was the royal retreat of the Inca rulers. It has a still functional two-stage fountain, with water pouring out of a spout in the side of the stone walls. Linteled doorways were visible here. A short climb up the opposite side of the valley from the main building was an observation post with a good view of Pukapukara further down the valley. The Inca used signal towers to communicate between the two sites.

Tambomachay Along the path from the entry to the site there were a dozen or so merchants selling souvenir stuff. On the way back down, one trailed Zaina all the way, bargaining the whole time.

The Inca sites done, we rode the bus downhill again to the Grupo Esmeralda shop and workshop. This is a local collective which makes alpaca products and silver and stone jewellery. A Signor Luigi gave us an informative talk in the workshop in English, that was half interesting technical info and half sales spiel. We saw the making methods for silver plate and silver wire, which were then hand formed into frames for stone inlay. There was raw stone of different types: serpentine local to Cusco, lapis lazuli, pink quartz, obsidian, and others, as well as mother of pearl and spondylus shell. The guy then showed us the difference between alpacita (year old alpaca), alpaca, vicuña, llama, and sheep’s wool, letting us feel samples.

Overlooking Cusco Then with the tour over, we browsed the shop looking at various jumpers, scarves, ponchos, plus the inlaid stone and silver jewellery. I considered an alpaca jumper, but didn’t find the right combination of size, design, and colours. We only had a limited amount of time before we had to leave for lunch, so I didn’t have time to do a thorough search of the stock. M. however found a silver cuff bracelet inlaid with stone, mostly turquoise. The ticket price was $US98, but we bargained down to $US85 if paying by cash. They would only go to US$90 paying by credit card. But we didn’t have enough cash, so they suggested leaving the money at our hotel reception and someone would come down with the jewellery later this evening. They converted the price to 255 soles and wrote it on an envelope for us. Then they actually gave M. the cuff anyway! I guess we didn’t understand quite what the arrangement was.

From the Grupo Esmeralda shop we drove back into Cusco and to a local restaurant called Quinta Eulalia, where we could try cuy, or guinea pig. Ale said it was a place locals went, not tourists, and the food and preparation methods were more authentic than in the tourist restaurants. This lunch was not included in the tour, so we were surprised that Lyn and Gary came along, especially since Gary didn’t try the cuy but had a chicken dish instead (and Lyn was vegetarian). Several of us ordered cuy al horno, a traditional preparation of a whole flattened guinea pig deep fried, served with a potato and a yellow chili pepper stuffed with a ground meat and spice filling. I wanted to try it, but didn’t want a whole one, a sentiment shared by Zaina who was sitting next to me, so we agreed to split one and order a second dish to share as well. We liked the sound of the lamb dish, but Ale recommended the Lechon, a pork dish served with tamales, so we ordered that instead.

Cuy al Horno The cuys arrived first, complete with head on! We had some fun taking photos before digging in. I bisected the one I was sharing with Zaina and pulled a leg off to start. It was a bit bony as you’d expect from a small animal, with not much meat on it. And honestly, it tasted just like fried chicken. The meat was white and juicy and pretty good. The stuffed pepper looked innocuous enough, but had a big kick of chili to it. The potato was unusual and exotic in appearance, but tasted pretty much like potato. The other dishes arrived a bit later. M. ordered the only vegetarian option on the menu, a starter of choclo y queso – corn and cheese. This turned out to be a bowl of the very large corn kernels with a slice of haloumi-like cheese on top. The corn was a bit crunchy still and not very tasty. This was also what Lyn had. M. had the sensible idea of also asking if they had bread, and Ale arranged for some to be brought to the table. It turned out to be a huge pie-shaped chunk of a slightly sweet bread, similar to the traditional Cusco Easter bread we’d tried in the market yesterday, but with a double domed shape that made it thicker.

Streets of Cusco Zaina’s and my second dish arrived: a huge chunk of pork meat with two tamales – corn meal, olives, and spices wrapped and served in corn husks. These were good and the pork was truly excellent, but we were both so full from the cuy dish that we didn’t eat much of the meat.

The only thing that went poorly at this lunch was my bottle of mineral water. It was sealed, but when I poured some and took a swig, I instantly noticed something was wrong. The taste was incredibly sour, like strong vinegar with some lemon juice in it. I spat the lot out, back into my glass, and had to have some water from M.’s glass to rinse my mouth out. Ale checked it and talked to the waiter, who said it must have been some sort of problem at the bottling factory. He brought a new bottle of water, which I tested carefully before drinking. It was fine, thankfully. I’m not sure I even want to think about what was really in the first bottle.

Lunch done, we had free time until an optional group dinner at 20:00. I still wanted to take it easy and rest, but M. wanted to check some shops. Ale led us from the restaurant to the Plaza de Armas, where we parted company and went for a walk around the square. M. stopped in a few shops on the way, and ended up buying a pair of silver and stone inlaid earrings for her sister Kylie. M. wanted to see more samples before choosing and the woman in the shop ran off up the street, leaving her jewellery shop completely unattended while we waited there. She came back about 5 minutes later with another woman who had a collection of earrings. Presumably she was a friend from another shop up the street. After some hard bargaining, M. got the earrings she wanted. The other lady tried to push a pendant that M. had looked at, bringing the price down from 120 soles to 80 soles before we finally managed to say no and leave. A few steps up the street, we realised we’d left M.’s jacket and hat in the shop! M. was too embarrassed to go back and get them after the extensive bargaining we’d just been through, so I did the deed.

Plaza de Armas and Iglesia La Compania de Jesus We walked back to the hotel, dropping in at the laundry place to pick up our clothes on the way. As we walked towards it, we saw the boy who had taken our order earlier come out of another door on the street with a large, full sack slung over his shoulder and carry it into the shop where we followed him to get our pickup. The clothes were ready and we paid the 24 soles bill for them. It had been just under 5 kilos of laundry, so the rate was 5 soles per kilo. We later found out that Andrew had gone to a different place and got charged 3.50 soles per kilo. We figured the kid must be taking the laundry to a 3.50 soles place, getting them to do the washing, and skimming 1.50 soles a kilo off the top! What a little entrepreneur! Discussing it later though, we figured he was actually probably carrying the laundry back to his parents’ house or something and doing it there, since there were no machines in the shop.

The path Then we stopped off at a small shop across the street to buy some bottles of water. While the woman behind the counter was serving us, an older woman – probably her mother – noticed that we were carrying a bag of laundry. She started offering to wash it for us! In a flurry of Spanish and gestures she indicated she would wash it really clean, and iron and fold it for us, for only 4 soles a kilo. I tried to explain that the clothes were actually clean, having just been picked up, but I’m not sure that message got through. Eventually we just had to say “no, gracias,” and leave.

We rested up a bit before dinner, allowing me to catch up on diary writing, though not to get fully up to date. Dinner was at a place called Ama Lur, where Ale took a group consisting of us, Andrew, Jian, Kim, Laura. Phan was resting, as were Lyn and Gary, and Zeeshan who had come down with something. I wanted to order something meat-free, so went for arroz a la cubana – rice with a fried egg and banana, which sounded moderately healthy. It turned out to come with chips on the side and a fried frankfurt of all things! There were also two eggs, making a smiley face with the banana. Ale said this was what was known as a “lazy woman’s” dish. If the woman of the house was too lazy to cook a proper meal, she’d make this! M. had an omelette con verduras – omelette with vegetables. It also came with rice, and both our meals came with salads of cucumber and tomato slices (both peeled) on a lettuce leaf. M.’s omelette had lots of red an green capsicum in it, and she declared it excellent.

After dinner, we walked the three blocks back to the hotel and crashed for the night.

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