Per aspera ad astra

13°31′S 71°58′W: Peru-d.

August 22nd, 2009

About sixty hours after arriving back from Russia  (spending a night in DC and Iowa), I arrived in possibly the most beautiful country I’ve visited so far- Peru. Three continents in three days? Not bad :)

I spent most of my time in Peru in Cusco, which is appropriately enough a sister city of Moscow and a relatively small (population 300K) town in the middle of the Andes. At over 10,000 feet, it’s literally and figuratively breath-taking.

In part due to the climate change (remember, south of the equator = winter in August) and what felt like non-stop travel, I spent most of the first day cooped up in my hostel room recovering from a bout with a cold. Sounds dreadful, but considering this was my view, I couldn’t complain (too much):

A succinct history of Cusco- the Incans founded it (as the capital of their empire); the Spanish found it and took over; the country declared its independence. Like most cities that have gone through colonialization, the surviving architecture is a mix of the ancient and the colonial power.

And like most Latin American cities/towns/villages, Cusco has its own Plaza de Armas (another Spanish influence) around which a large part of the city revolves. In the case of Cusco, this is the place you’ll most likely get accosted by a tour company, souvenir vendor, lady with a llama, or relentless children who won’t leave you alone until you buy one of their one sol (33 cent) finger puppets or postcards. It’s also a beautiful and incredibly clean (thanks to the high influx of tourists) part of the city.

As is the case with most places I visit for a short period of time, I wish I was able to stay longer and really experience local culture. As a tourist (particularly in such a tourist-driven town), I felt incredibly spoiled by the variety of foods, goods, and services available at reasonable prices (keep in mind, though, that prices are still much higher in Peru than in many South American countries). I could get a sandwich for under $3, bought a kick-ass purse for $8, and an hour-long taxi ride for around $5.

This is all well and good for me- a relatively well-to-do American- but it’s certainly not the locals’ lifestyle. Salaries vary based on occupation, of course, but even the highest-paid locals don’t make more than a couple thousand (US) per month. I’ve seen the disparity between tourists (and their ‘areas’ of town) in Egypt and Russia, but in Peru, I felt the gap constantly.

Back to the photo tour! To get a little more local flavor, my travel companions and I visited a local market (like a grocery store, the aisles are labeled- unlike a grocery store, um, there are dogs in the aisles).

Despite the fact that it was winter, fresh fruits and vegetables were readily available (thank you equator!).

Ignoring the constant calls from tour company vendors (“Amazon! Sacred Valley! Nazca!”), I opted to spend my vacation relaxing in Cusco. Walking around the city, I ran into some random bits of pretty architecture and took almost as many photos as I did at Machu Picchu :)

My travel buddies and I stumbled on the Manne Cafe in the San Blas neighborhood- if you find yourself in the area, it’s worth a stop. Excellent sandwiches and the best coffee we tried in town- plus a set of super comfortable couches.

We spent a lot of time in local cafes, each with its own particular style and flavor. Here’s a shot of a great tapas place- Cicciolina.

We weren’t terribly worried about compensating for the amount of delicious food (and coffee) with exercise- the stairs and hills in Cusco more than made up for our appetites.

There are two things you cannot avoid doing in Peru: visiting Machu Picchu and shopping. We opted to visit the market in Pisac, a smaller town outside of Cusco), where you can literally buy any Peruvian item your heart may desire. The Sunday market is reportedly packed with tourists (we opted to hit Machu Picchu instead as a result), but the crowds die down on Tuesday- and there was certainly no lack of vendors ready to bargain.

Of course, while shopping, you should be aware that you will be roped into buying a ridiculous hat…

while being accosted by women in traditional garb with llamas who are more than happy to for you to photograph them– for a sol. Of course, budget travelers opt to snag a photo from a moving taxi.

Volkswagon (classic) beetles are everywhere in Cusco- probably thanks to the fact that the streets are too narrow to accommodate many other types of car.

There are plenty of books out there on Peruvian cuisine, but I thought I’d focus on a traditional Peruvian drink- the pisco sour. While I feel obliged to mention that the drink contains pisco (a local liquor), lemon/lime juice, and… wait for it… egg whites, I also feel obligated to mention that, when done right, it is delicious.

Two last things any visitor to Cusco should be aware of. There are dogs everywhere- I’m used to the average pack of dogs in the Moscow metro stations, the Cusqueñan dogs ar in a class of their own. While it’s incredibly sad to see so many homeless dogs (animal shelters aren’t nearly as prevalent abroad as they are in the US), the animals themselves can be incredibly interesting-looking- and they pop up in the weirdest places.

And lastly, visitors who find themselves in Cusco may be under the initial impression that Peruvians are really accepting of- and proud of- gay rights. Truth is, Cusco’s city flag just happens to be a rainbow.

And that’s all she wrote!

1 Comment »

  1. Barb says

    I am loving the rolling narrative…
    sort of wish you were here in person speaking of the place…
    It all sounds so amazing, Amanda…
    and I truly LOVE being able to enjoy your thoughts and phots!!

    August 22nd, 2009 | #

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