Sunday, January 27, 2013

Views of Cusco - On to Machu Picchu

Written by Karen.
Cusco, Peru is 11,200 feet above sea level; some 11,000 feet higher than where we were just a few days ago in Peru’s capital city, Lima.  Cusco is another UNESCO World Heritage site - full of Spanish Colonial architecture and restored churches in the historic city center - built upon the the ruins of the former Incan empire capital city of Qusqu.

Cusco is also the primary staging location for travelers who want to visit the long-hidden Incan city of Machu Picchu, located some 80 km to the northwest.  Cusco is a mid-sized city of approximately 350,000 residents, but hosts more than 2 million visitors each year.  

Cusco is a challenging city to negotiate.  It is a place full of contradictions.  There is a palpable indifference towards travelers, but paired with a very proactive approach towards maximizing the tourist dollars that can be spent here. With so many tourists coming into the city, it's understandable why the tourism industry seems jaded and bored with the never-ending lines of eager travelers asking questions and trying to figure it all out.  One unfortunate consequence of the constant stream of travelers is that the city's historical center has become more of an exclusive bubble focused on very expensive tourism options.  Other historical city centers that we've visited were vibrant, diverse and fully working municipalities; the historical center of Cusco is simply a tourist destination, and an expensive one at that. 

For example, the majority of museums and churches in the historical center can only be seen with a tourist pass costing $43 USD each ($86 USD for the two of us).  Although we enjoy visiting museums and seeing churches, we passed on purchasing the pass and instead walked through the cobblestoned streets and explored the tiny alleys and off-the-beaten track neighborhoods of the City on our own. It is through these explorations that we came to appreciate Cusco for its diversity, history and artistry - no additional fees required.  

This is still an amazing place to be. After all, some of the walkways that we walked down, stones that we touched, and the sharp green hills in the distance that we saw are the same walkways, stones and hills that the Inca walked on, touched and saw in the 15th century - nearly six hundred years ago.  

Our primary focus while we are in Cusco is to finalize our travel plans for our upcoming visit to Machu Picchu, another UNESCO World Heritage site. 

The Peruvian government has rightly placed strict controls on visiting the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu in order to preserve it. As a result, the logistics to get from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (the closest town to Machu Picchu) can be a bit complicated.  

The number of persons allowed into Machu Picchu on a daily basis is limited, and tickets must be purchased in advance.  In addition, figuring out the train and bus options and timetables to get from Cusco to Aguas Calientes are confusing. We anticipated some of these possible complications and gave ourselves plenty of time to make our final arrangements.  

Good thing. The required personal visits to cultural centers and transportation ticket centers are sprinkled throughout the city, and it takes determination and effort to find them. We finally found the National Culture Institute (where you purchase your admission into Machu Picchu) tucked into a side street and we ducked inside grateful to be out of the wind, rain and hail that accompanied us. Yes, the weather changes rapidly and very dramatically up at this elevation.  It was sunny and warm when we left the apartment and within hours it was hailing!  

304 soles later ($119 USD), we had our preferred date of January 31st tickets to visit Machu Picchu!  Now we can make our final arrangements to travel through the Sacred Valley and into Aguas Calientes by January 30th.  We have a time restriction to be inside Machu Picchu and to start our hike to the higher observation point of Huayna Picchu between 7 am and 8 am.  We're hoping the weather cooperates. We're also hoping that the 30-minute bus ride that will take us from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu operates on time and without delay.  

Bottom line?  We've done all of the pre-planning and organizing that we can possibly do to visit Machu Picchu. Now we are only left with the unpredictable and the unforseen.  However this visit to the ancient city of Machu Picchu turns out, we will appreciate whatever we wind up seeing and experiencing.

The view from our living room apartment window. We rented a small apartment in a working class neighborhood about twenty minutes from the historic downtown center. 
Cusco flows upward into the surrounding hills. Often there are no roads, paths and stairs take you to the next neighborhood.    
An old adobe wall  
Looking down towards the City center
On the outskirts of the City
Adobe wall and patterned rocks as we climb the hills around the City 
More steps as we climb up and down around the City
An old window
We were high above the City when we got caught in an absolute deluge of rain.  We took shelter in a doorway and watched the water come burbling down the cobblestones.
Seeing the downtown in the rain.  The multi-colored mosaic roof of one of the cathedrals.  
The Plaza de Armas - the main square
The downtown area is quiet due to the rainy downpour.  
A cross-section of historical architecture.  The Cathedral was built on top of the Incan foundation.
Taking shelter from the storm.  Plaza de Armas
An elderly indigenous woman starts walking up the hill
Passing through Santa Clara gate
Exploring outside of the City
A musical concert that was held on the outskirts of the City
Locals seen on the outskirts of the City
Local fruit and vegetable store. Bunches of bananas were hung outside on large hooks.
Local market
Whole baby pigs for sale - ready for the spit.
Stall after stall of minimally processed pork....
Fresh chickens stacked for a quick sale!
Corn anyone?
Beautifully arranged beans and corn in a local shop
Variety of dried corn 
Another local market
Looking down the street at the local market activity
Plaza de Armas - in the sunshine 

Good triumphs over evil
A downtown cathedral 
There are many downtown cathedrals and plazas. This fountain gave us a restful respite from the heat during the middle of the day.  The spray cooled the air down nicely.
Architectural detail
Downtown alleys are cool in the direct sunshine
The ninth Inca Emperor: Pachakuteq 
Roses in January?

A quiet suburban street just two blocks away from the City's historical downtown center.
Adam and I

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