Not much of interest to report. Flight to SFO [why do we fly north to go to the Southern Hemisphere? Don't ask.] was uneventful, with a quick transfer to the plane bound for Houston (continuing on to Lima). Had an hour in Houston to be bored standing up instead of bored sitting down.
The flight to Lima was a bit bumpy as we dodged (sometimes more, sometimes less, successfully) weather over the Gulf and on into Central America. The sun was down pretty soon, and there was no real-time map to gawk at, so we flew through anonymous black with nothing to mark our crossing into the tropics, or my first dip below the equator.
On the ground in Lima around 11 PM local time -- through immigration and customs. The tour had arranged for a night's stay at the Ramada Airport, which is not the most luxurious, but you can't beat the location -- across the street from the airport. The hotel offered us two free drinks -- the option of pisco sours was tempting, but we needed to be in bed soon & up early, so we opted for the water.
Up and back to the airport for the flight to Cusco on Star Peru. The plane was a cute BAe 146. Even though Star Peru was by far the cheapest domestic carrier on this route, the service was excellent, better than most US domestic flights. This flights was also more interesting. Just an hour and 5 minutes in the air, all of it uphill for Lima. It seemed like the plane climbed the whole time, but never got any higher off the ground, as it flew from Lima on the coast, up to Cusco at 10,800 feet. Just inland from the foggy coast, the mountains started rising, quite brown and desolate. My first picture in Peru was out the plane window, of a trail or road switchbacking its way up a mountainside. Then there were a few barely snowcapped mountains and snow melt lakes and canyons.
There was quite a character on the plane. Several rows behind us, but with a stentorian Southern-accented voice that echoed about the cabin. He was quite the enthusiastic Christian, with a PTL every few sentences, and a great deal of "God led me to do X". He apparently saw a travel poster that read "Go to the mountains!" and it struck him as a divine command, and here he was, headed off to the Andes.
From the rather desolate area just inland, the landscape started to get greener, and there were more little villages and switchback roads, climbing from the more fertile valleys over the surrounding mountains. A few signs of terraced agriculture. We landed in Cusco. Kind of neat landing there -- you pop over the surrounding mountains, and instantly sink down with mountains still towering around you in all directions. We collect our bags and find ourselves a tiny bit lightheaded from the altitude. I've never noticed a problem before, but I've always driven to altitude over the course of days, never dumped two miles up after an hour-long flight.
We hook up with the transfer agent, who gives us a few words of welcome and orientation, and takes us to the Hotel Libertador, which is a neat place with older architecture, plopped on top of really older architecture, as the foundations date back to an Incan palace.
To help acclimatize, we are served a cup of mate de coca -- coca tea. It tastes very much like green tea, and the cocaine content is negligible, but Dr. Pookie found that it truly does work to alleviate soroche -- unfortunately, she suffered rather dreadfully from the altitude on the trip, with crushing headaches that particularly followed any exertion. Not enough cocaine to numb your gums, but possibly enough to get your blood pumping a little more, helping to distribute oxygen better. Now a little downtime in the hotel, before a little tour of the city.
We first took a little walk to get our bearings and see the main Plaza de Armas. (The larger cities in Peru were all awarded arms (i.e. a heraldic device) by the King of Spain and these are celebrated in the various Plazas de Armas.) Cathedrals and shops and restaurants and a statue of the Inca [Although we call the culture 'The Inca', the Inca properly refers only to the king.] A line of locals waited to have their picture taken on the steps leading up to the statue. Many insistent hawkers, restaurant-shills and shoe-shine boys in the plaza. Next up the guided tour.
We picked up the tour a little late, but caught up to it at Santo Domingo Convent, which is right outside our hotel, and also houses the ruins of Q'oricancha, an Inca temple of the sun. The holy vestments with silver and gold thread and other finery and religious paintings were interesting. The paintings were primarily interesting because they had been painted by local (i.e. Andean/Incan) painters who incorporated some native elements into the Catholic religious iconography -- the Cusco School -- often with duskier, Incan Christs, wearing colorful Inca-style skirts on the cross, and with the 'Roman' centurions decked out in Spanish conquistador fashions; along similar lines, there were many depictions of angels armed with the most terrible weapons of the Lord God: the arquebus. These armed angelic portraits are apparently unique to the Cusco school and are collectively referred to as "Angel Arquebuses".
But the real interest of the convent was that it had been built on the remnant of the Incan solar temple. Again, this was a common thread throughout Peru; the conquistadores destroyed the local temples and built churches and other religious sites on their foundations, suppressing the native religion with force, up to and including the inquisition. The temple shows the typical Incan elements of closefitting mortarless stones, with trapezoidal windows, niches and doorways, and slanting walls that meet in cornerstones carved with both slants. Amazingly finely crafted and this site was well-preserved from weathering by the enclosing convent.
Then a busride to Sachsayhuaman, which also shows fine stonework but on a more monumental scale. Huge plazas, walls, and terraces, along with complicated hydrologic networks. Not as fine as the solar temple, but who knows what it looked like when new? The Inti Raymi festival had been celebrated a day or two before, and there were still platforms and seating for the event. The festival brings in Peruvians from all around, and actually only a relatively small number of seats are reserved for foreigners.
Puca Pucara was an outpost. The bus stopped only briefly to have a look before we were off again the short distance to Tambo Machay, which unfortunately started off with a really steep 500 meter walk up a hillside. Dr. Pookie was having troubles with the altitude, and I wasn't doing so hot myself. Especially since this was the high point of this little trek at about 12,450 feet. But we struggled up and found the interesting fountains left behind by the Inca, again with the water channeled through the trapezoidal shaped openings.
Walking back downhill was easier, and then the bus took us a short distance to Qenko, a small site with a carved altar in a cave, apparently where royal mummies were laid out. The guide told us to feel the altar, and it felt like it was part of the mountain's bones - ice-cold. I managed to thwack my head on the ceiling of the cave, standing up after taking a not-very artistic photo through a crack. I didn't quite shed blood in the mummy cave, but had a little blood blister under my forehead that turned into a scab.
We stayed on the bus during the obligatory stop at the tourist souvenir shop. Then we were let off near the central plaza. Fortunately, since we had scouted the area earlier, we knew right where to find the Inka Grill. Finally had my first pisco sour of the trip, which was quite excellent, while Dr. Pookie opted for more and more coca tea, this time with plenty of leaves floating in it. She found the local cure to be very helpful for the altitude sickness, but sadly only temporarily.
To eat, she had the ají de gallina, a very common Peruvian dish that's sort of a chicken curry. I opted for the alpaca filet, lightly breaded and fried (sort of alpaca-schnitzel). It came with a fried egg on top, and accompanied by fried plantains and tacu tacu: a dish of mushed lima beans and rice -- not super savory, but really a good side dish. The alpaca was quite good. A bit tough, but tasting most like pork with a bit of game-y taste. The restaurant was very English/tourist friendly, but still I think a fairly good example of 'Nuovo Andino' cuisine. Roast cuy was on the menu, but at about $20, I wasn't going to order something I might find totally inedible.
Dollars are partly accepted as a secondary currency, particularly in the bigger cities of Peru. But Peruvians are fanatic about only accepting US bills that are in mint condition. The waitress chased us out of the restaurant to exchange a $20 that you or I wouldn't think twice about accepting for a better one. We strolled back to the hotel and got some much-needed sleep, before tackling the Sacred Valley tomorrow.