The train finally pulls into Cusco station and the hiking adventure portion of our trip comes to a close. Time for a little rest and relaxation in the lovely city of Cusco. Cusco was the capital of the Incan Empire and was considered ¨the Navel of the World¨by the Incans. We have found it to be lively, beautiful and full of interesting things to see and do.
Evidence of the Incans is everywhere in Cusco. When the Spainards took over Cusco, they destroyed many of the original Incan buildings and built their own on top of the ruins. Many of the buildings in Cusco still have the original Incan walls in the infrastructure - banks, hostels, restaurants, churches alike. Earthquakes that have struck Cusco have destroyed newer architecture but the Incan walls remain.
Cusco is definitely a tourist city. So many shops selling t-shirts, alpaca clothing, Incan antiques and such, fill the streets of Cusco. There are also many, many people wandering the streets trying to sell you something - massages, finger puppets, postcards, ¨original¨works of art. You can´t buy it all! Luckily, the most simple of learned Spanish, ¨No, Gracias¨works to ward off the throng of vendors.
¨We´re going to Sexy Woman¨, huh?
Among the Incan ruins within a stone´s throw of Cusco is Saqsaywamán. The Quechua name for this ancient fortress sounds very much like ¨sexy woman¨ - talk about confusing. We were told it is one of THE Incan ruins to see.
We took a taxi up to Q’enqo, a sacred area used for rituals to foretell the prosperity of the coming year on the winter´s solstice. Q'enqo is another set of Incan ruins only 1km from the more well known Saqsaywamán. A few tour groups were there and we were eavesdropping on their guides to learn a little something about the site. We were approached by what we thought was just another street vendor, but ended up being a shaman-in-training/tour guide, named Uno (though we called him Crazy Eights). He showed us some of the symbols found within the rock formations, where llamas were sacrificed during rituals, and still even he tried to sell us a marble puma figurine at the end. No, gracias.
We then walked 15 minutes to the nearby Saqsaywamán site. Honestly, at this point, we were all Inca´ed out. The old fortress is quite impressive - three levels of immense stones cut so precisely that mortar was not needed for construction. We milled about for a bit, took the requiste photos and headed back to Cusco.
One of the troubles of touring on the advice of a guide book is that the only constant is change. There are plenty of people hawking massages on the street, but you want to know that it will be a good massage. So, we consulted the guide book, found a massage place that sounded like a good option, and headed out to find it. It wasn´t where it was supposed to be. Taking matters into our own hands, we visited one of the MANY other massage spas available just down the street. Within minutes we were enjoying hour-long massages (and for only about $23 each!). Ahhhhhh, why didn´t we do this sooner? (like RIGHT AFTER the Inca Trail?)
EVERYONE tells us that we have to try the Peruvian speciality, cuy. Yup, your childhood pet guinea pig is considered a delicacy down here. And travelers we met liked showing us their pictures of a whole roasted guinea pig skewered and looking shocked about it (both the guinea pig and the traveler). So, with only a few days left in Cusco, we needed to get our lips around some cuy!
We were slightly disappointed when the somewhat ¨fancy¨restaurant we went to brought the cuy to the table already quartered and sans head. I mean, if you're gonna go for something that most people cringe at, it ought to be truly cringe-worthy, with roasted head and all, no? It was surprisingly tasty - somewhere between pork and hmmmmm, gerbil? The tiny ribs made for interesting eating - it´s a hands-on eating experience.
Keep Your Head Down
One thing about Cusco, being such a tourist-oriented town, is that if you walk down a street with lots of restaurants you must deliberately keep your eyes focused down to avoid catching the interest of one of the energetic young Peruvians that lurk in every doorway, wielding a menu as their weapon. If you catch the eyes of one of these predators you are doomed. "Amigo, tourist menu, 10 soles!" is the innocent beginning. Even if you have the common sense to say "No, gracias," you are in trouble. They will follow you all the way down the street repeating their offer and demanding reasons for your lack of interest. The best thing you can usually do is to say "Mañana". Then they eagerly hand you a flier and (usually) let you go. If you make the mistake of stopping to look at the menu, you are truly doomed. At one place, we were attached simultaneously by two of these "pullers" - one of which was from the restaurant we actually wanted to go to - and they both leapt ahead of us up the stairs. There they both lurked, ready to pull us to the left or to the right, to their restaurant. We bulldozed our way to the right, and even after walking into one place the other guy kept trying to lure us back out and acrosst he hallway to his restaurant. Crazy.
Wine and Couches
One of our favorite places in Cusco was Los Perros Wine and Couch Bar. It's a really neat, cozy lounge/bar with artsy decor and funky music. It's only a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas, but you have to know where it is to find it. We visited Los Perros a couple of times while we were in Cusco. Their food was amazing, and they had a pretty good selection of wine. It kinda made us think of places back in San Francisco where we might head for a trendy and relaxed night on the town.