¿Que Pasa?

(posted from Cusco, Peru)

Sorry for the long wait, but we have been very busy studying and traveling, and we have had few good internet connections.

Ferry Tales

Jackie and I took a few days to visit Wilmington, NC to look at houses.  No, we didn’t buy a house, but as part of our stay there we took a ferry down and across the Cape Fear River to Southport. The ferry follows part of the route we took on the way south in 2009.  That portion of the trip was rainy and foggy and it was one of the rare times when we used the chart program on the computer to make sure we stayed on course. The weather for the ferry ride was warm and clear – much different than when we came through on Compass Rose.

South of the Equator

Jackie and I have been talking about visiting Peru.  Well, here we are.  We had a couple days of craziness in DC-Northern VA getting clothes and shots for the trip, but finally we were ready to go.

Jackie had found some cheap plane tickets.  We left Dulles Airport (Washington area) late in the evening and flew to Toronto.  We stayed overnight and caught an early flight to Bogota, Colombia.  After a few hour layover we flew to Lima, Peru.  The flight arrived late in the evening.  We spent our second night in a hotel and caught a plane to Cusco, Peru, the next morning.  The elapsed time was about 36 hours from DC to Cusco.  Despite the two hotel stays, we spent a lot less than the next cheapest flight.

Cusco, Peru

The first two weeks of our trip were devoted to learning Spanish.  We were signed up for lessons, room, and board at the Amauta school in Cusco.  We arrived on a friday, but they didn’t have a room available because students were still there from the previous week, so they put us up in a nearby hostel. 

The hostel, Wara Wara, was recently opened by a young couple, Viviano and Michael, who both speak English pretty well.  Wara Wara is very nice and we felt more like we were visiting family than renting a room.  Cusco is in a small valley in the Andes mountains.  The hostel is on a hillside and we had a great view of the mountains around us and the city below. 


Some would say that the view leaves you breathless, but at 11,000+ feet above sea level, it’s more likely the lack of oxygen in the air.  We started a course of pills before we left the US to prevent us from gettng sick from the altitude, but they can’t put more oxygen in the air. 

We were looking for something to do, so our hosts suggested visiting Sacsaywaman, some nearby Incan ruins.  Sacsaywaman (sometimes mispronounced “sexy woman”) is at the top of the mountain above the hostel.  We managed to hike up there without passing  out, but we took a lot of breaks.

The most obvious features of Sacsaywaman are three walls built one above another along the edge of a high plain.  The walls are not straight – each is made of many short walls going in and out.  Cusco was founded by the Incas and was designed in the shape of a Puma.  When seen from above, the walls form the teeth of the Puma. 

Sexy woman standing in front of some of the Puma’s teeth at Sacsaywaman

The Spaniards conquered the Incas in the late 1500s.  They took the smaller stones from the tops of the walls and from Incan buildings nearby and used them for construction in Cusco. Next to the site is the white Christ – a copy of the statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

White Christ to the left – Sacsaywaman to the right

Can You Say “Frio”

On sunday we moved into our room in Amauta’s Residence 2, just up the hill from the school proper and the primary residence.  There are only five or six rooms in our residence and most have their own banyos (bathrooms) so we don’t have to share as they do in Residence 1.  

We also have a small kitchen almost outside our room so we can have hot coffee during the day and mate (coca tea) anytime.  Having hot drinks available is very nice because despite being near the equator, this is winter and the altitude and lack of heat in the buildings makes for some cold nights.  The first Spanish word that most people learn here is “frio” – cold! We find ourselves wearing as many layers of clothing as we can until about lunchtime when the sun warms the air enough to peel down to a shirt or tee shirt.  By late afternoon we are adding layers back on as the sun drops.

Cruising Cusco

Amauta is a couple hundred yards up the hill from Plaza de Armas – the main square in in Cusco.  The square has a large fountain in the middle and two large churches on separate sides.  One church is actually the cathedral which includes two smaller churches.  Cusco has over 30 churches, most of which the Spanish built on sites sacred to the Incas.

Plaza de Armas

 Most of the streets in Cusco are narrow and steep, and paved with bricks or cobble stones.

Looking down the hill past Amauta towards the Plaza de Armas. This is one of the wider back streets.

The cathedral (left) and another church (right) are on the north and east sides of the Plaza de Armas

The square and the surrounding streets are filled with restaurants, stores, and hostels.  Restaurants serve a lot of local, Mexican, and Italian food (including pizza), and vary a lot in size and presumed quality.  There are even a McDonalds and a KFC (one each).  Most restaurants let you order ala carte, but the best deal is usually to pick from a “menu.” 

Menus are a package deal where you can select one each from a selection of food groups.  The groups are usually a soup and a main course, but can also include appetizers, desserts, and drinks.  There is one set price no matter what you select.  Prices usually range from 10 to 20 Soles.  One US Dollar = 2.61 Soles, so we can often have dinner for less than $10 US each. 

Much of Cusco is built on old Inca walls. They are easy to spot because they lean into the building by design.  The better quality walls have irregularly shaped stones so carefully fitted together that they do not need mortar and you cannot slide a piece of paper between them. The Incas usually only built one level high, so you often see buildings were Incan walls provide the first floor and are topped with colonial Spanish walls.

Back to School

We start school on monday morning.  We get breakfast at the school along with our fellow students.  We find that most are under thirty, female, and from Europe, Canada, and the US.  We do meet a few people closer to our own age.

Jackie and I are scheduled for two 2-hour sessions each morning.  We work with two instructors – one for each session.  There are just the two of us with the instructor and we are at about the same level, so it works out well. Class is held in the small dining area outside our room, which is very convenient.

By noon our heads are full.  We go back to the main building for lunch and then into town to sightsee, shop or visit a museum. 

Cusco Native Art Center

We had to buy a Boleto Turistico – a tourist ticket to get into Sacsaywaman.  It was pricy, but included three other Inca ruins near Cusco, quite a few museums in Cusco, and three Inca sites in the Sacred Valley.  One of the first places we went was the Cusco Native Arts Center where they demonstrate native dances.  At least five or six dance troupes performed – all with different dances and traditional costumes.

Traditional dance demonstration at the Cusco Native Art Center

Studying in the Sacred Valley

Amauta has a few locations – one is in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.  It includes three meals a day (instead of the two we are getting in Cusco), transportation to the school, and a few excursions – at no extra charge.   And the altitude is lower, so it is warmer during the day and there is more oxygen.  We sign up to go there for our second week of instruction. 

Sunday morning we meet outside the school with our bags packed.  Surprisingly, Washington, one of the cooks who speaks no English, is our trip leader.  (We find that he does a great job of getting us to and from the school and taking care of our needs.)  He arranges for a couple taxis to take us to the bus terminal.  We get into one of the local buses – a bit like an old tour bus – and in no time it’s packed.  Off we go to Urubamba.  People standing in the aisle leaned on me most of the way, but at least no onebrought any livestock.

Yes, the curve is as close as it looks and yes, we passed the van

We arrive in the bus station in Urubamba and switch from the big bus to a “combi” – essentially a van.  Like in Grenada, the rule is cram everyone in that you can, but combis have baskets on the roof for luggage and other sundrie items too big for your lap.

Can you pick out the Spanish students

Carrying stuff on the top of the bus can be interesting and entertaining.

(left) This package came out of the roof rack halfway between Olantytambo and Yanahuara – the bus driver saw it and kept driving. (r) The pile of fur in the rooftop carrier is a live, unhappy, sheep

We arrive at the school in Yanahuara.  There are eight students, two instructors, the caretaker couple and their daughter, and Washington.  The school is a nice little facility.  The rooms are in round buildings with one room on each floor.

(l) rooms, (r) courtyard and main building

There is no internet here, but there is a small internet cafe and a couple small stores around the corner.  There is also a very nice hotel up the road where you can use their computers or wifi if you buy a drink.  Unfortunately a beer and a glass of wine can set you back $30 (soles).  Eventually we start sitting on the steps of the building across the road and using their wifi.

Field Trips

Classes are from about 8 to noon and 4 to 8pm.  We request and get morning classes.  This schedule leaves the afternoon free for field trips.  Our first trip is to the Inca ruins at Olantaytambo.  You need a Baleto Turistico to get in so all but one other student skip the trip to save money.   Our ticket has expired, but they let us in anyway.

The ruins cover much of a mountainside.  There are some dwellings at the bottom and the top, but most of the mountainside is terraces for crops.  It is an amazing sight.  We climb the stairs and wander through the ruins.  It is the first Inca city that we have seen on the trip and it is very impressive.  Across the valley we see three groups of ruins on the mountainside.  In a later visit to Olantaytambo our hostel owner shows us the path up to them so we eventually got to explore an area most people never get to.

One of the most impressive things about the ruins is that the Incas diverted water from springs and rivers to provide water for irrigation and daily needs.  

Left side of the main part of the ruins

One of the many places where water is diverted for bathing and clothes washing

Looking up from the village square at the ruins we climb to on a later visit

Looking across the valley at the main ruins

The other field trip we went on was  to the salinarias, a huge network of salt evaporation ponds on a mountainside near the school.  A salt lake feeds the area and workers divert the flow to fill the ponds.  Eventually the water evaporates leaving the salt to be collected.

Looking down at the salt ponds

Mom gets ready to haul a load of salt up the hill while her child looks around

Misc. Photos

I’m skipping through some things because there is so much to cover.  Here are some things I couldn’t leave out.

The Incas were amazing builders.  They could fit stones together amazingly close if they wanted.  Here is an example of a wall from the Temple of the Sun in Cusco that was later built on by the Spainards.

The smooth, lower wall is Incan, the upper wall is Spanish from the colonial period

Jackie and I went on a bird watching hike up to the Salineria.  On the way back we passed two kids “sledding.” At first they both rode down the hill on an old car bumper, then the boy tried to slide down on a piece of corrugated steel.

Sledding down a dusty hill on some corrugated metal (l) and on a car bumper (r)

The first week we were in Cusco it seemed we couldn’t go anywhere without running into a religious procession.  Evidently this is not uncommon, but they really went all out because the Assumption was approaching.  Each procession consisted of dancers in traditional costume, a group of men carrying a statue from their church (a very heavy statue), and a small band.  They also liked to shoot off a lot of fireworks, too.

Carrying a statue in a religious procession

There is also a certain amount of wildlife to be seen.  I check out a llama when we visit Sacsaywaman.  Llamas can be found all around the square in Cusco and at popular tourist sites.  For a few soles you can get your picture taken with a llama and either an old Kechan woman or a young girl.

Llamas can be found wherever there are tourists; Alpacas can only be found on menus

 Moving On

We finished our week of Spanish lessons in the Sacred Valley and decided it was time to take a break from school and do some sightseeing.   The first step was to get a ride to Olantytambo.  It turns out the school caretaker is a mototaxi driver by day and is more than willing to take us.  We find out the price is about 5 times what it would be on a combi (25 soles – just under $10), but we figure it will be fun. 

The front half of a mototaxi is a motorcycle with a small engine (125-150 cc). The back half has two wheels, a seat for 2, and a small lugage platform on the back.  they are designed for in-town use and have a top speed of about 25-30 mph. On the open road other vehicles fly by.

Halfway to the destination, the driver stopped to adjust one of the rear brakes

We arrive OK, but the hotel didn’t quite get our room reservation settled, so they booked us into another more expensive place at the same rate.  We stay the night and the next morning hop a train to Aguas Calientes.

Train station at Olantytambo

The train runs along the Urubamba river and the scenery is beautiful.  We make a stop along the way and this local woman came down to the train to sell some flowers.

Flower lady

In Aguas Calientes we check in to our hotel, buy a bus ticket for the next day, and explore the town.  The next morning we are up and gone by 5, but the line for the bus is already forming.  Soon the buses sart running and we climb the mountain to….

Machu Picchu

Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). Often referred to as the “City of the Incas”, it is perhaps the most familiar icon of the Inca world.  Although known locally, it was never found by the Spainish and was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham.  We get off the bus, queue up, and walk in.  We have a guide book and info from The Lonley Planet.  We follow their suggestion and climb up to the guard house.  As we crested the rise, this is what we saw:

A picture is worth 1000 words. Machu Picchu

We sit and watch the sun come up.  The view is amazing as Machu Picchu goes from shadow to daylight.  The city is perched on the flat top of a mountain.  There is only one way in without scaling the mountain.  It’s no wonder that the Spainiards never found the city.

We spend four hours walking around the ruins.  Manyof the structures have been rebuilt, but it’s still amazing that they have lasted over 500 years.  We visited the Sacred Square.  One one side is the main temple.  You can see it is collapsing, but this is because the ground underneath is sinking.  Across the square is the Temple of Three Windows.  This was one of the clues that led Hiram Bingham to identify the city.   On top of the hill beyond the Main Temple is Intihuatana, a pillar carved out of the rock to measure the sun’s position.

Sacred Square. (l) MainTemple, (r) Temple of Three Windows

The construction of the city was interesting.  Here we see a building’s roof tied on to a stone jutting out of the wall.

Typical construction – the roof is tied on to a stone built into the wall

A view of the living area of the city. The round building at the far right is the Temple of the Sun

Looking east over the “Industrial Zone”

We were there

Next: We visit more ruins

3 Responses to “¿Que Pasa?”

  1. Singing Frog Says:

    Muy bonita!!!

    We hope to visit there someday too.

    Great to hear from you and see your stunning photos!

  2. Marion joyce Says:

    What an amazing adventure you are enjoying and documenting for those who will follow in your tracks, but espepecially for those of us who will not. You both are living a dream, and we thank you for sharing it. All the best from the Land of Pleasant Living! Your Chesapeake Bay sailor friends, Marion and Chad

  3. Jim Beaudry Says:

    OK, I have been waiting to hear where you landed, but thought I’d push and ask, where are you guys? Hoping to catch up with you at some point.

    Jim Beaudry

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