Friday, May 29, 2015

5/29/15: Wrapping up Cusco

It's been my experience thus far that 3 days is enough to get a feel for a city without running out of fresh things to do. Everyone has a different travel style, but if I'm just wanting to see a city, I like the 3-day rule.

I was a little skeptical that I would be able to finish seeing everything today, but I think it worked out! I started the day by making my way to the hostel that I've booked for the night after Machu Picchu. It's got great reviews, but the one thing that I hated when I went is that it's basically on top of a hill, with a ton of steps leading up to it. I'm sure I'll be fine, but I was way winded going to it. I haven't written much about the altitude of Cusco, but it is a real factor. I have basically had a dull headache the whole time I've been here, and that makes it a little hard to concentrate when I'm trying to read a sign at a museum or something of the like. The local remedy, the coca candy and coca tea, have been a little help, but it's still tough. Today is the third day that I've been here, and I still feel a little dizzy, and huff and puff anytime I go uphill. On the bright side, the streets near the hostel are quiet and really quite beautiful.

I was in the area of the coca museum, and decided to wander in. The lady running the show was really nice to me and gave me a great rundown of the coca plant in Peru - its relationship with the government and people is complicated. On the one hand, it has been a local staple for centuries, used in rituals and traditional health care. On the other, it's a source of cocaine, which leads to problems of violence and corruption associated with drug trafficking. It was a cute little museum, relatively new, and had snakes for handles along the stairwell?! Yes. Awesome.

It was quite the interesting museum.

I then made my way to San Blas, which is the so-called bohemian neighborhood of Cusco. It's highlighted by this beautiful plaza basically solely for tourist shopping and coffee shops. I would say it lived up to that name.

The Maximo Lauro Museum, which I saw snipets of over the past two days, was right around the corner from this plaza. I decided to walk in that direction in case I did want to check it out, and stumbled upon a tiny little gallery instead. It featured pieces from Edilberto Merida, famous for his sculptures with huge hands and feet. The pieces were interesting, but I did not care for them much.

I then walked around some more and decided to see the Museum of Religious Art. It was a relatively small museum with art that is typical in many cathedrals and other museums - not that interesting, honestly.

I then went to the Inca Museum, which ironically had all sorts of artifacts from pre-Inca times. This was the one museum I went to that didn't offer a student discount, and halfway through my adventures in it, the city of Cusco basically was paused for an earthquake drill. The city puts on huge bells and we all have to stand outside buildings until it's over. I thought that was pretty cool, considering the prevalence of earthquakes in this region. The employee with me at that point shared that the drills happen only once every two years, so it was a cool coincidence that I experienced it! The museum itself shared a lot of elements with the Casa Concha Museum from yesterday, but went in depth a little more on the different historical cultures that occupied the region.

It's been a pretty solid third day in Cusco, and I just met a guy in my hostel that leads "local" tours - his info is at Apparently the tour group tries to rely on genuine local experiences as much as possible - public transportation, hostels, etc. It looked pretty cool, and I'm excited by all the people and perspectives I'm getting! I think it's a testament to South America that many of the people I've met have managed to make travel a part of their lives somehow, or they're experiencing it in a way that will lead to long-term travel in the future.

Tomorrow, I'm about to get on a collectivo - a shared taxi - to Ollantaytambo. I know very little about the area, the method of transportation, the way of seeing everything - basically, I know nothing. It'll be one heck of an adventure before I get to Machu Picchu on Sunday!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

5/28/15: Cusco History and Culture

Other than having to get up to catch buses, today was the only day that I had to wake up to eat breakfast, as it was served from 6-9 am. I got to the kitchen at around 8:45, and ate a little pancake/naan piece with jam, drank coca tea, and chatted with two guys that were eating around the same time. One was from Seattle and was on "extended leave" from his job, and the other had just quit. It was so interesting to meet people that were able to walk away from their jobs like that and pursue something that they were so interested in - they just took the leap and left. The longer I'm in Peru, the more I realize that people are doing that, and the people who have these types of mindsets - ie travelers - are the same ones that I want to be around. They think outside the box and strive for the extraordinary, are willing to put up with uncertainty, are independent and action-takers, and truly awesome. It's that sort of mindset that I love about traveling.

After breakfast, I took a quick shower (yay for hot water!!) and headed out to meet Olivia, a friend from UT who was an orientation advisor with me! We had talked about taking a chocolate-making class, but since it cost 75 soles (about $25), we decided to go to a museum instead. On our way, we passed by some protesters in the street. Olivia said that they were protesting about working conditions in mines near Puno, and that the organizers were trying to bring the protests and strikes all over the country. Interestingly enough, the lady who worked for the organization Olivia was with claimed that this sort of thing happened all the time and was nothing to worry about. Still, the streets were lined with police. At no time did we feel unsafe, though.

We made it to Qurikancha, which was beautiful! It was a lot like many of the other cathedrals that I had seen around Peru thus far. What made it unique was a beautiful view of the city and some art in the temporary exhibition. The picture of all the pieces of cloth apparently symbolized the connection of various people through the city/museum, and anyone could pick up a cloth and tie it wherever they pleased. The other part of the museum with tapestry art was a representation of modern Peruvian culture in cloth, which was really beautiful. Those were made by Maximo Laura, who is apparently world-famous for his artwork. It was definitely worth checking out.

After that, we walked around and found a little restaurant that had no English whatsoever - I assume that makes it a little more local and less touristy, but I didn't have the guts to try something super out-there. I ordered "arroz con pollo" - rice with chicken - that came with green rice. Very interesting, and delicious all the same! It cost 12 soles, a little less than $4.

At that time, Olivia had to leave so I was alone again, and went to the chocolate museum to check it out. It was fun, and I got to try the regular chocolate pieces as well as chocolate tea and jam - interesting, but I probably wouldn't ever buy it. The cool thing about ChocoMuseo was that they had all their text in English, Spanish, and French instead of just the standard English and Spanish. It turns out that I could figure out the meaning of the signs just by reading the French, which was exciting! I can't wait until I go to somewhere that speaks French and I can test out what I know. There were a few signs that I couldn't fully understand just with French, but I'm learning! The museum also had a small terrace that overlooked a nearby park, which made for a pretty view.

I decided to keep moving after that and the closet attraction I had wanted to visit was the Casa Concha Museum, which basically has all the information you ever need to know before visiting Machu Picchu. It had all types of artifacts from the original archaeological digs in 1912 and a replica of the area, which makes me really excited to see it! The third picture below is a huge pot that is used for corn beer (apparently very popular among the Inca), and the last is quipu, the Incan  method of record-keeping that I briefly learned about when I took World History my junior year of high school. This museum surprisingly took me about 2 hours to browse, which was more than I expected but fully worth it!

At the end of this museum was actually another temporary exhibit of Maximo Laura's work, so it's clear to me that either (1) the Laura Museum is doing a really good job of advertising, (2) they are really proud of his work, and/or (3) it is actually that good. I should be in the general direction of the museum tomorrow, and I might go in depending on the price. Since I've already seen so much of his work, though, I'll leave that decision for tomorrow. Still, his work is quite beautiful. Keep in mind that this isn't an oil painting - it's cloth, resembling a rug.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

5/27/15: Struggles in Cusco

I booked the night bus from Nazca to Cusco because I thought that it would save me money and be a great way to get through to the two cities. I'm not sure I was right on either account. The ticket was pretty expensive, but I can deal with that. The thing was that the bus was hot when I got on at Nazca, but I woke up at least twice during the night because it was so cold and I didn't have a blanket. Add on to that, I felt like I wanted to throw up when I woke up (I assume because of the motion sickness, but I've never had something that bad before). I tried to force myself to go back to sleep, though I'm not sure whether that was the right choice or not. Either way, I wasn't feeling too good. On the bright side, I got some beautiful pictures of the rural mountainside. They don't do it justice, but they are all I got.

When I finally arrived in Cusco, I took a taxi with two people who were traveling together. Coincidentally, they are originally from Taiwan but have lived in New Zealand and Australia - another Taiwan link! It was pretty awesome.

I was feeling a little better by the time I arrived at my hostel, but the sensations kind of shifted from wanting to throw up to a dull headache - from motion to altitude sickness. I can tell it's going to be a great time in Cusco these next couple days LOL. I walked to a nearby market with all kinds of artisan products, fresh foods, and a restaurant and got two and a half cups of a fresh-fruit smoothie for 6 soles (less than $2). The lady who sold it to me was very nice, and she basically took fruits that she had sitting on her stand and blended them right in front of me - apples, papaya, pineapple, banana, mango - and it was delicious. Worth it!

After that, I checked out the Plaza de Armas (beautiful as always, in the bottom picture) and a nearby cathedral (top picture) that didn't allow any pictures, but was grand and gorgeous just the same.

I decided to go to a walking tour that I had found advertised on a map from my hostel. There were 4 other people who joined along, and it was cool walking to an iconic wall apparently called the Hatun Rumiyoc, the natural Peruvian plants museum, the San Cristobal cathedral area, and then back to a restaurant for pisco sours. I wasn't able to capture too many pictures, but I loved that I could see the traditional Peruvian women's dress and alpacas/llamas randomly walking through the street. Seriously, only things you would see abroad.

By the time we all left the restaurant, it was dark and cold as hell. I was unprepared, thinking that the weather would be like that in other cities, and wore a thin short sleeve that left me freezing. Luckily, I made it back to the hostel, ate a coca candy (traditionally known for combating symptoms of altitude sickness to help get me through the night - it worked a little, even if it was placebo), and planned the next two days. I've got a pretty awesome itinerary lined up for tomorrow - I'll be meeting up with a friend from UT, and hopefully my mild/background headaches will be relieved by then! Here's to the new city and new friends within it.

5/26/15: Nazca

I was excited to leave Huacachina and Ica because it had been a relatively slow couple of days. When I got to Nazca, however, I quickly realized I didn't know what I was doing. I had a large and very full backpack on my back, a neck pillow, and a heavy jacket to lug around, and from what I could tell, it would be kind of difficult to see the city just walking around.

I walked out of the bus terminal with no plan whatsoever. I originally planned to sit down and take a look at my options, and came across this travel agency with just a nice old lady sitting behind the desk. She asked me if I was interested in something, and she started telling me about the possible tours she had and said that apparently her father was Chinese, so she always kind of felt a connection to Asian culture as a mixed child. She was really sweet and offered a private tour, luggage storage, and tried to connect to me on a personal level. What she offered was attractive and I didn't know how else to see the city, so I agreed to a tour. It turned out to be pretty awesome.

The first thing my tour guide, Pepe, showed me was a natural lookout point for the lines. I wasn't able to see any figures, but the straight lines and geometric shapes are as much a part of the structures as the monkey, whale, or condor, so it was a good spot to talk a little about links of the lines to the calendar (points to where the sun sets on solstice days) or water (points to rivers).

We then went up a little tower (maybe 3 stories tall) that allowed me to see about two and a half figure - the hands, and tree, and a little bit of the lizard.

I definitely didn't see as much as I would have in a plane, but that would have been so much more expensive and I have read that you don't necessarily get to see all the figures. Either way, it was good enough. 

We then headed towards the Cantollac Aqueducts. Since Nazca is in a complete desert, they are crucial even now to peoples' survival. Pepe explained that these have been around for centuries and centuries and are quite cleverly designed, and I believe it. They are characterized by large spiral holes, and you can see the water flowing through the bottom.

I then visited Los Paradones, which are the remains of a structure that was used by civilizations before the Incans as a sort of city center. Apparently, they had a kitchen, political room, church, military room, etc. all in this area, but the ruins are so worn down that it's hard to really see. It's really sad, but I thought the sight was still pretty cool. 

That was the end of the tour. I think I was ripped off a little, but I had some insightful conversation with Pepe (who called most Peruvian TV "basic" and claimed that the media was being used to keep people ignorant - interesting). I took some time to eat at a restaurant, finally, and explore the tiny Plaza de Armas. 

I was basically waiting it out until late at 7 pm, when the Maria Reiche (lady who studied the Lines for over 50 years and made them a UNESCO World Heritage site) Planetarium had a showing. The planetarium was pretty cool, and had some good information about the theories behind the Lines - water, astronomical, religious, rain dances because animals like the monkey or condor are not local but rather represent the water-abundant jungle, etc. We then got to see Saturn and the moon through a telescope, which was absolutely beautiful. (I took this picture with my phone!)

I then went to pick up my bags from Annabella (the lady from the travel agency) and made my way to the bus station. I learned that there was a two-day strike in Arequipa, so thank goodness I was on my way to Cusco instead. I met a nice couple from Taiwan who were a little clueless but kind nevertheless, and it was really cool to use my Chinese with someone other than family! I thought it was awesome that I could make a connection in a language other than English with middle-aged people due to our connection with Taiwan.

I also got to talk a little bit to two guys from South Korea who were on their way to Cusco as well before boarding the bus. It was a day of lots of socialization, and I found that I enjoyed it quite a bit!