Cusco

Aside from a few words for directions and foods, my only solid recollection from high school Spanish was a section in one of our books on Cusco and Machu Picchu. It was the first time that I recall seeing the famous image of Huayna Picchu and the surroundings. Despite the years of fascinations, I have never traveled there. It has become a very popular tourist destination, the biggest by far in Peru. Inevitably there have been efforts to gain permission to route a local tramway directly to the site and build hotels locally. Beyond development in Aguas Caliente (a 30 minute bus ride away) the jackals have been held at bay, in part because Machu Picchu is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Knowing of these omnipresent threats and hoping to see it before things get worse, coming to Peru and Cusco really excited me. The rains this summer (here) washed away my hopes and I must say disappointed me. I should not have been. As a result, I was able to spend more time in Cusco and travel to some of the other sites in El Valle Sagrado de los Incas (the Sacred Valley).

Cusco is located about 1200 km (720 mi) south and east of Lima by air.  Because it is at 3400 m (over 11100 ft), all of us had to make an adjustment to a significant increase in altitude. The course organizers offered, and in fact encouraged everyone to take acetazolamide. Ideally, a leisurely ascent in incremental steps over a few days is preferable and usually makes medication unnecessary. If there is no alternative to a rapid ascent (e.g., flight in here), chilling for a couple of days is another acceptable acclimatization strategy. Our tight schedule made both of those choices impossible so the medication option was a reasonable one. Because it was free and I had never tried it before, I waddled up to the trough with everyone else for my share.

Acetazolamide is used to help one adjust more quickly to the consequences of the low oxygen content at altitude. The short version is that it stimulates breathing. Increasingly rapid respirations decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in the lungs leaving more room for oxygen.  As a result, there is more oxygen available for red blood cells to pick up as they circulate through the lungs. Additionally, acetazolamide neutralizes the normal physiologic consequences of rapid breathing, adjustments that would otherwise slow breathing down. This is especially important at night when you are asleep. Acetazolamide buys your body some time. I found it not unpleasant; I would use it again under similar circumstances.

Given that it is a big tourist destination, Cusco is a wonderful place. We stayed in an old section of town surrounded by open plazas connected by streets and walkways.  There were a lot of people there but you could escape them with little effort.  The larger streets were lined by small shops.   Being a walker and not a shopper, I was drawn to the walkways and smaller side streets.  These later thoroughfares where bracketed by tall outwardly sloping walls constructed of large stones, placed in the familiar Inca construction style. Unlike brickwork that is orderly (and monotonous), the stones used are of various sizes, laid up bereft of any notion of parallel lines or symmetry. Unlike typical stone construction up north, they did not use mortar. The resulting effect is interesting, paradoxically logical and very pleasing to the eye. That they have been around for hundreds of years is a testament to the style and technique. Where more modern construction had been employed, the walls were clearly less stable. I saw a number whose bulging sides were being restrained by wooden poles, each wedged in at an angle between the wall and the cobblestone surface of the street.  I don’t think any of them will last anywhere near 500 years; one, maybe.  It reminded me of La Sagrada Familia, Antonio Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral in Barcelona. Finishing the project after the Spanish Civil War has been difficult in part because no one remembers how to reproduce the design effects using his style of construction. How soon people forget.

Depending on your inclination, the walkways and narrow streets could have a menacing, claustrophobic feel or an inviting one, close and intriguing. They were cool and often damp because of the rainy season. Some were steep; most had a shallow v-shaped contoured surface, presumably for water drainage. All were cobblestoned. Walking was a joy because the you never knew what to expect 20 m ahead or around the next corner. Although not as grand in scale, not unlike Rome, sometimes one of the little side paths opened up into a courtyard with a garden and other interesting structures. Of course, sometimes it was tourist schlock. In three directions, these roads and walkways led up, eventually revealing an elevated view of the city. Except for the churches, most buildings were no more than a few stories high in this section of town. The view from each vantage point at these heights was of a sea of  rounded, terra cotta-hued tiles, open courtyards and plazas with hills in the distance.

The food in Peru is very good if a bit light on vegetarian cuisine. Surprisingly I had no difficulty finding a variety of good quality vegetarian food in Cuzco. This is probably in consideration of the tourist here. There were few beggars but I lot of people selling local goods on the streets outside of the many shops. Although persistent, a polite “No, gracias” was usually enough to send them off to someone else.

I will talk about the Inca sites next time.

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