Five Days in Cusco, the “Ombligo del Mundo”
About a month ago, IFSA-Butler took everyone in my study abroad program on a trip to Cusco, the “bellybutton of the world,” and from the moment our flight landed in the Andes, it was a highlight of my study abroad experience. I’ve wanted to visit Machu Picchu and, by extension, Cusco for almost as long as I can remember, and, without a doubt, the trip surpassed my expectations.
Because of the dramatic change in altitude (Cusco is situated at about 3,400 meters or 11,200 feet above sea level), we had to spend our first couple hours in Cusco resting. We checked into our hostel, drank mate de coca, tea made from the raw leaves of the coca plant, and napped for an hour. After a light lunch, our guide picked us up, and we embarked on our tour of some of the ruins in the mountains just outside of Cusco. Our first stop was my favorite of the day: Sacsayhuaman. The site consists of a walled complex. Like many other sites, its enormous boulder walls are carved to fit together perfectly without any type of mortar. Following the Spanish conquest of Cusco in 1633, they destroyed much of the site, taking the boulders to use for the construction of their new buildings. We also visited Qenqo, a holy site where sacrifices are believed to have taken place, and Tambomachay, a series of Incan aqueducts, canals and waterfalls located in the mountains above Cusco.
The second day of the trip took us to Yanaoca, an indigenous community located above 14,000 feet in the Andes. We had breakfast, which included the best queso (cheese) and choclo (corn) I’ve ever eaten, with some of the locals, and we toured our guide’s house and garden to learn about his self-sustainable lifestyle. After climbing up to the peak that overlooked the town and lagoon and enjoying the breathtaking vista, we left for lunch in Yachay Wasi. Lunch was a buffet, and I had the opportunity to try cuy (guinea pig), which was on my Perú bucket list. It tasted okay and was a very sweet meat, but I couldn’t eat much of it on account of the many guinea pigs we had seen earlier that morning.
After lunch, we went to Casa Hogar de Nazareth, an orphanage for girls up to age 18. I had a lot of fun singing, dancing, playing volleyball, and, most of all, just talking with the girls. Like many of the kids I have had the opportunity to get to know while volunteering in Villa El Salvador (more about that later), these girls were some of the most positive and happy kids I have ever met even though many of them have had incredibly difficult lives. Even though we only spent a few hours at the orphanage, it was hard to say goodbye to many of the girls as we were leaving.
We spent the third day of the trip exploring el Valle Sagrado (the Sacred Valley). Our first stop was Aguana Cancha, an alpaca, vicuña and llama farm, located just outside of Cusco. We were able to feed the animals and (attempt to) pet them. Their fur and the products it is used to make really are very soft! Next, we briefly toured the ruins at Písac. These ruins sit atop a hill at the entrance to the valley and are well known for the many Inca agricultural terraces built around them. In Písac, we also went to a market, where I learned to barter. I picked up bartering pretty easily, and it’s come in handy more than a couple times since the trip. Our trip through el Valle Sagrado concluded with a tour of the ruins at Ollantaytambo. The urban complex likely served religious administrative, and, possibly, defense purposes, but I was most interested in its astrological history. Different carvings around the site align perfectly with the sun during the solstices. The day ended with the train ride to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu.
The fourth day of the trip was a free day to explore the ruins in the santuario de Machu Picchu! We woke up at 4:30 a.m. or so in order to take one of the first buses up the mountain to Machu Picchu so that we could watch the sun rise from the ruins. Even the bus ride up the mountain was spectacular. The bus travels on a winding road up the mountain. The sanctuary does not come into view until the last turn, and when it does, it takes everyone’s breath away instantly. Machu Picchu’s giant walls and terraces stand 2,430 meters or about 8,000 feet above sea level in the middle of a tropical mountain forest. The site dates back to the 1400s, was the last stronghold of the Incas and remained hidden until Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911. After exploring the main site, we climbed to the top of Huayna Picchu, the mountain that rises about 360 meters or 1,180 feet higher than Machu Picchu. Given the elevation-induced shortness of breath, our lack of water (visitors are only allowed to bring one bottle each into Machu Picchu) and the reoccurring pain in my ankle that started about halfway up the mountain, it was one of the most difficult physical feats I’ve ever accomplished. We made it to the top on “stairs” that for the most part consisted of piled and packed-down boulders with steep drop-offs on one side the whole way up. The view at the top of the mountain, however, is the closest I’ve ever felt to being on top of the world.
The last day of the trip was a free day in the city of Cusco. My friends and I wanted to spend the whole day walking so that we could see as much of the city as we could. We went to two markets and three museums along the way. My favorite museum was the Museo de Arte Popular, which displays award-winning art created in recent years by local artisans. The works all showed an immense appreciation for the Andean culture and history, and it was obvious that the artists had put a great amount of hard work, persistence and dedication into each piece. We also stopped at the Chocolate Museum, which was disappointing because the store was bigger than the “museum” poster and video collection, and the Museo Histórico Regional del Cusco (The Regional History Museum of Cusco). The food market was my favorite part of the day. I bought some of what I’ve decided was the world’s best chocolate because it was made in Perú and had coffee in it. Even after living in Perú for a couple months, I am still astonished at the lack of any sanitary and refrigeration regulations at many of the markets. They smell, flies swarm and products, like meat and dairy, sit out in the open.
The next day we boarded our flight and returned to Lima. And, of course, upon our arrival, it was time to study for “parciales,” midterms. That’s always fun, especially when I had just skipped a week of classes. But, I can say that as far as I know, they all went well!