We woke up super early to catch an early flight to Cusco. The rules about how early you need to be at the airport for a flight are different in Peru, and I'm very glad the Posada del Parque people made sure we knew this. The line gets very long and sometimes they won't let you check bags if you get to the front too late. There was a fee to exit the airport, which I thought they should just put in your ticket price, but whatever. We paid it and flew to Cusco. Even though I feel like a giant compared to everybody there (even the men), there was drastically more leg room on my South American flights than there were on my flights internal to the US. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to spread out. We got to Cusco and the first thing I noticed was how clean the air was. Especially compared to Lima, the air felt very fresh. It didn't hurt that the air was crisp with the cold of morning either. The driver drove us through the streets of Cusco and stopped next to some stairs. Not all of the streets in Cusco are designed for cars. Some of them, like the one our hostel was on, had stairs, or were mostly stairs- so we had to climb them to get to our hostel. In the morning, it was no big deal. After we dropped off our bags, we headed into town. At one of the plazas, we ran into some guys selling art on the street. One of the gave me the story about how he painted this stuff himself. Sorry, I'm not that dumb. I know that somewhere there's some factory where these painters paint the same thing over and over and then the English speaking guys take the paintings and sell them. I looked, but wasn't really interested in what the first guy had because the colors weren't bright enough for me. While he was peddling and trying to negotiate with me, an old woman was waiting with her fully grown llama (or alpaca, or vicuna, I'm not really sure). She asked if we wanted to take pictures with her and the llama. We did, figuring on giving her a couple of sols, but didn't negotiate ahead of time. We took pics and she wanted 10 sols apiece. I think we ended up giving her 8 total, which is much higher than the 1 sol that was the going rate. However, I don't really feel that bad as I didn't see her around town the rest of the day. Maybe we gave he enough that she was able to go home and rest. The rest of the day, all these young ladies with their babies in a blanket on their back and a baby llama in their arms wanted to get paid to take a picture with us. To be honest, I was happy we got the old lady and fully grown llama instead. On the way to the Inca museum, we did a little price checking so that we could negotiate later for better souvenir prices. The Inca museum had some neat artifacts- pots, tweezers, arrow/spear heads, etc. The permanent exhibit that stands out though is the mummy exhibit. Somebody found some Incan mummies and placed them in the museum behind some darkened glass. You can peek through the clear parts and see the mummies staring back at you. These aren't wrapped mummies like the stereotypical Egyptian ones, these are mostly just bones that have been preserved in clothes or a pot. The other exhibit that stood out was a temporary one (I think). Some lady was running a "tapestry learning center." On display were several exquisite tapestries that had been hand woven. According to the guide (Spanish only), the tapestries took 2-3 months each to make. She explained the symbolism of each item in the tapestries and helped us to find the pictures. (Imagine if Picasso drew a condor and then somebody wove it into a big rug. The body parts were all over the place, but it was gorgeous.) As the weather warmed up a bit, we headed over to meet our Machu Picchu tour people. I was really glad that we did an organized tour, but we'll get to that later. We foraged for food and ended up going to the first place that had vegetarian food and accepted credit cards. I was excited that they had plenty of "typical" Peruvian food that was also vegetarian. We split potatoes with huancaina sauce as an appetizer. Apparently the bitter curry-type sauce I got last night in Lima was huancaina sauce, the national sauce. It has yellow peppers, cumin (that's where I was getting the curry flavor from), and who knows what else in it. The potatoes were good once the sauce was wiped off, but that was a little difficult to do. I got choclo con queso as my main dish. Choclo is corn on the cob. However, this isn't sweet corn. The corn has the flavor of potatoes, the dryness of potatoes, and the chewiness of overcooked corn. I was trying really hard to eat it, but after a while my jaw hurt. The cheese it came with had the flavor of the cheap feta from the dairy aisle of the grocery store, but the texture of thick jello. I was trying so hard to like Peruvian food, but at some point I just gave up on my lunch. I shared some of Jen's pizza that, according to the menu, had "special sauce." That "special sauce" was ketchup. What was actually a little more annoying than not-so-great tasting, hard-to-chew food was the constant stream of vendors. This restaurant was on a plaza. As we ate outside, tons of street vendors came passing through, trying to sell us hats, bags, flutes, CDs, postcards, pins and other souvenir crap. I really didn't want to be bothered during lunch. There was this one guy selling postcards who I had bought from earlier in the morning and he just kept asking me to buy more. By the end of the day, I must have told him no a dozen times. We made our way over to the Cathedral, which is on the main plaza (as it is in most Spanish towns). This was a pretty interesting cathedral. In addition to the requisite gold and silver all over the place, it contained the cross first brought in by Pizarro and his men. It has a statue of a black Jesus, and a painting that showed Judas as moorish. (Clearly this was designed to teach a political lesson.) The last supper painting in the cathedral is humorous as the meal being served is guinea pig (cuy), a Peruvian staple for festive meals. The cathedral had a lot of similar examples of how the Catholics attempted to convert the indigenous people by reconciling the religions and trying to convince the people that it was all the same. My favorite reconciliation is a statue of "Jesus the earthquake god" and a shrine to "Jesus the river god". On the one hand, the bible does refer to Gd as having many faces: Creator, King, Judge, etc. On the other hand, most of those are metaphorical roles related to people's souls as opposed to nature gods. But I digress. In any case, the cathedral is worth going to.
After that, we entered Coricancha (also spelled about a dozen other ways). This used to be a gold-laden temple of the Incas, but a lot of the gold was used to ransom an Incan king and then the Spanish converted it to a catholic building anyway. We saw examples of how the Incan workers built the temple with stones that fit so tightly together and no mortar (you couldn't slip a piece of paper in between them). They used a "lego" method where one stone would have a peg and the other a hole, then they would stack. Coricancha also had some beautiful gardens.
We stopped in a free art exhibit that was much more interesting than the old Spanish art, in my opinion. One of the works was a barbie wearing Incan silver. Another was a statue of a street vendor selling all the souvenir crap. I also stopped in an art store and negotiated to get two paintings for a reasonable price (S/200 for the pair with a paper showing who the artist was). However, the girl running the store didn't know how to work the credit card machine and really really wanted me to pay cash (which I didn't have). I agreed to come back later when she had the machine up and running and she'd waive the 10% extra. After our failure to eat a decent lunch, we were desperate for dinner and stopped in at Witches Brew. The decor was nice and the food (I had spring rolls and eggplant parmesan) was decent too. I was pretty excited about being able to have real veggies. I really wanted to go for the Peruvian food, but knew that I had to make sure to eat something, so I played it safe. The food was different than it would be in the US, so I was somewhat gratified that it wasn't a complete cop out. We had been traipsing all over town, up and down hills, without really realizing it. The plazas were beautiful and we did plenty of sitting in them. We people watched, rejected street vendors (BTW, some of the street vendors with carts sell TP, which I found amusing), and took pictures of birds, but maybe not enough. They encourage you to rest your first day at altitude for a reason. I had been given sorroche (altitude sickness) pills to start taking a few days ahead of time, had been drinking plenty of water, and had a small headache. I had also been slightly nauseous since I started taking them, but nothing worth worrying about. Jen didn't have pills. She was doing much worse than me from a headache standpoint and also from a stomach standpoint.
After dinner, we went back to the art store to pick up my pieces, and the credit card machine still wasn't working. The girl had to run to a different store to get another sales person to teach her how to use it. As she finished the sale and started packing up my art, we were talking and Jen was trying to rest and make the sorroche go away. The girl was asking me about being from the US and do I see any stars? I explained that in DC our "stars" are people like Obama and senators more than actors and singers. Plus, I don't shop at the same grocery stores as they do. It was interesting to hear her opinion of how many stars were in the US. We talked about Michael Jackson, quite the hot topic, and she asked me about my boyfriend, which also seems to be a recurring theme that people there want to talk about. I told her I was single and she was amazed. "In Peru," she said in Spanish with all seriousness "you wouldn't be. The boys here are wolves." I'm pretty sure that was the funniest thing I heard the whole trip.
We headed back to our hostel to get a good night's sleep as we had to get up very early in the morning. The stairs sucked late at night, with a headache, after having walked around all day and not having taken my asthma meds. I was very glad to eventually reach the top and get into bed. My crazy family called me in the middle of night (it was even later their time than mine) to wish me a happy birthday. I appreciated it the next day, but I think I was a little too groggy on the phone to really remember what anybody said. On to Aguas Calientes....