It’s a 7 hour drive on good roads from Puno to Cusco, but like most travelers we chose the 10 hour tourist bus to break up the trip and pick up some sites along the way. cruising steadily at 12,500′ across the Altiplano we stopped at the pre-Inca ruins of Aymara de Pucara and the imposing Temple Inka de Raqchi. The verdure increases as we roll down the Ande’s eastern shoulders into the Rio Urubamba drainage. One more stop at relaxing stop at Andahuaylillas and at dusk we are on time in Cusco, or Cuzco as you please.
There our AirBnB host readily whisked us 20 minutes through town to our apartment at Recoleta 3. The curb appeal curbed any appeal… no one curbed the feral dogs digging through trash bags. The neighborhood looked plenty rough around the edges, and Sue and the boys each furrowed worried looks at me as we walked down the long, low-ceilinged, yellowed halide-lit path. But the crisp white stairs behind the sleek glass door to our building gave us hope, and with relief we found our 2nd floor 2BR apartment was just fine – well lit and reasonably well equipped. After a brief counsel with our host we unpacked then ventured into Cusco’s night.
The neighborhood still seemed rough, and between us and the inevitable Plaza de Armas goal was a narrow Incan alley with two-way pedestrian traffic passing on half-width sidewalks in between a gauntlet of cars. A zigzag of stone lanes later, we were in the grand Plaza, bordered by colonial arcades, the imposing cathedral (built using Inca stones from the ruined Sacsaywamán), the churches of Jesús María and El Triunfo, and ornate church of La Compañía de Jesús.
Travel begets touts: here they hawk meals & massages, tours and trinkets, and “almost free paintings by Picasso’s son.” The badgering degrades the ambiance, but it’s nothing that an off-hour visit can’t solve. We work our way up one gringo alley and settle for mediocre tourist fare to stave off the traveler’s hanger, then head home.
With 5 days in Cusco we have time for Spanish lessons. Our school is 100 paces from our apartment – or 66 of Max’ longest strides – we measured – so I jump in on the lessons. Sue secretly encourages me to join so she can have testosterone-free mornings… it’s gotta be hard raising a house full of boys. Our teacher Diego is excellent – patient and creative, he uses dice, flashcards, spanish music lyrics and recordings, and a mix of interactive vehicles to get the lessons across, and he did a fine job of tailoring it to our our needs and balancing our abilities.
After lessons we gather and brave The Gauntlet (that narrow alley) back to the Plaza to commence a proper walking tour, starting with lunch of course. Pinballing between busy restaurants we finally drain into Monastery Deli – a good choice as it has ready-made breads and sandwiches that satisfy with a quick warming… and a quiet back terrace with a view the TV’s futbol game. Everyone wins. Bellies full, I weave our family along some stony paths for vistas and visits, confirming our Machu Picchu train and buying entry tickets, and of course passing through the local market for a Sue photo shoot. This is a good one – large, open, fruity and friendly: we kick it off with a smoothie, one each from each of 4 virtually identical vendors, all adjacently located of course. The latin model of competitive vendor adjacency strikes me as charming but inefficient.
Our last stop is at a local bank that sells the bus tickets needed to ascend to Machu Picchu. Every morning there’s a race to the ruins for low morning sunlight free of the hordes, so we figure it’s worth buying in advance. But Latin logic applies – I have to stand in five lines to buy bus tickets from a bank! First, I register my name and get the price on a ticket. Next I enter my name into a computer so it shows up on the queue displayed on the overhead queue. Then I have to go to the ATM to get cash, because the bank does not accept credit card payment… apparently that transaction is too hard for a bank? Then I wait 20 minutes for my name to come up so I can pay. Finally I go back to the desk I started at to pick up my tickets. This bureaucracy is so byzantine can’t be accidental… if the goal is full employment, the cost must be low productivity and wages.
I took the long way home, exploring the barrio via twisting pedestrian alleys. Thoroughly walled and cobblestoned Cusco might be the world’s stone structure capital; as the Inca Empire’s epicenter it retains claim to the archaeological capital of this hemisphere. The Inca’s weren’t particularly good at writing, but they built to last, so most of what we know of them is inferred through structures that might hardly be deemed “ruins”. Those nasty conquistadores dismantled most Incan structures to build their churches and palaces, but they left the foundations and built on top of them. Check this photo and guess which wall is Inca vs Colonial:
Back at the apartment Sue and I fed the boys then slipped out for a date night. I dragged Sue up the hill thru the trendy, car-free San Blas neighborhood; we found a rooftop terrace and enjoyed a boy-battle-free night with vertical cuisine under the stars… Cusco can be romantic.
Thursday we repeated the itinerary, slogging through Spanish lessons and enjoying a lunch backpacker’s burger at Jack’s before ticking off a few other tour sites including Loreto alley, the 12-angles stone, and finally the Inca stonemaster site, Qorikancha. Here massive blocks are so finely fit it sometimes seems seams don’t exist… once coated with gold, they enclosed the West’s richest treasures. But cultures clashed; conquistadors ransomed for the gold and jenga’d the jigsaws into cookie-cutter colonial churches.