Trip: The Cuzco Area

Though Cuzco is 3600 meters above sea level, it lies in a valley. We left the city by making a circle up the mountains. The first stop we made was the site of a gigantic statue of Jesus, which by design, overlooks the city of Cuzco. We all got out, and this was the first chance that I had to greet the other tourists.

There were about 10 in our group. There was a German, and there was also a fellow who had a Spanish accent. I mentioned that a lot of my friends were from Spain, to which he replied that he had been living in Chile for the past 12 years. This is also where I started talking to a couple named Jorge and Carmen, who I became friendly with for the rest of the trip.

The Christ statue was one of those things that you have to accept at face value. As a piece of art it was more conceptual in nature. People in the group started talking about a similar statue in Brazil that was 33 meters tall, and I was somewhat surprised that they were talking about this seriously. I called the statue "Yeso Cristo" (Plaster Christ), and got some filthy looks. To add to the spectacle there were two grungy-looking local women with natty old llamas, who offered to have their picture taken for a fee. I've never done this before or since, but I gave them the equivalent of 50 cents.

We got on the bus again, drove for a while, and then stopped in a small village of mud-brick buildings. The sole business in the town was a café, where we would stop and have some lunch. On the way in, there was a young kid walking by with a pack of llamas. Unlike the mangy old biddies we met by the statue, he was really laid back, even though he was set upon by a pack of tourists. I took a picture of him, and someone took a picture of me with the llamas. I usually get along very well with animals, but when I went to pet one of the llamas it backed away and started to hiss. Llamas are adorable, but one should never forget that they're related to the camel. The next step was getting glommed, so I decided it was best to retreat and have lunch.

Jorge and Carmen recommended that I try mate de coca. I knew that mate is a tea, and the word "coca" sounded suspiciously familiar. Yes, this was a tea made from the coca leaf, which is the same leaf that they use to make cocaine. Cocaine is illegal, but it takes bushels and bushels of coca leaves to make one spoonful of cocaine. In small quantities it's mildly exilarating, and makes a good drink to help people get used to the high altitudes. The government allows farmers to grow limited quantities of coca for making tea. The taste of it wasn't particularly strong, and I can't remember whether it was exilarating or not.

Our next stop was Sacsayhuaman ("Sexy Woman", said the guide). This had been the refuge of Manco Inca as he fought his last battles with Pizarro. Though the guide said that no one was sure whether it was a fortress, it's a good bet that it was. There were three levels of stone, and the stones were set in a jagged pattern. The effect was that it was impossible to approach any wall without showing your back. Nowadays, people celebrate the festival of Inti Raimi there.

We drove back to Cuzco amidst some of the most beautiful scenery, and one of the nicest sunsets I've ever seen. The mountains reminded me of the American southwest. When we got back to Cuzco it was almost completely dark. I took a walk with Jorge and Carmen. They had borrowed a video camera for the tour, and while it was still light, they took pictures of each other, and of me. I took pictures of the two of them with their camera.

Dinner that night was sausage and potato, which we bought from a vendor on the street. They were very surprised that I would eat such food, and didn't insist on going to a restaurant. They were doing the tour on a shoestring – I was simply easy to please. We sat down with our dinner. They had a lot of questions. Had I ever had Kentucky Fried Chicken? Yes, I had. It's horrible. Good, they said, because in Peru it costs a month's salary, and until that moment they'd been curious. I told them that the food I had in Lima was great, and that there was nothing to worry about.

The other questions were the more predictable ones. How old was I? Was I married? I told them how old I was, and that I wasn't married. "Oh," they said, "that's right. People in the US don't get married. They live together." Something like that! Since I was the least interesting one there, I asked them about themselves. They were, as Jorge put it, "children of Cuzco", whose families had moved to Lima. This was the tour of a lifetime. They had studied Cuzco in school, and they knew everything about it. As we walked across a bridge, they even knew the names of the stones!

We walked around till about 11 o'clock. Their hotel was somewhere in the other direction. I walked back to mine, and again, in the cold air, I slept very, very well.