Cusco: Pumas, pigs, and paragliding


August 10, 2012 by Leah

Tali and I arrived in Cusco, sleepy and chilly, after yet another overnight bus ride at around 6 a.m. Even in our groggy state we could tell that Cusco is a beautiful city. We found our hostel, had breakfast, and set out to finish paying for our rather expensive Inca Trail trek. We explored the Plaza del Armas (the main plaza) and the neighborhood around our hostel. I also supplemented my wardrobe with a new, much warmer, fleece. We strolled through the Plaza at twilight, which turned out to be an excellent idea.

Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire, and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also incredibly cushy and tourist-ready, as compared to many of the places we’ve been so far. The streets are lined with restaurants, boutiques selling Inca-inspired jewelery and 100% baby alpaca clothing, and promoters hustling you to take their coupons. “Miss! Miss! Massage? Massage?” Prepare to be hustled, but other than that, Cusco is a really easy and enjoyable place to be a tourist.

The next morning, we checked out the Church of La Compañia de Jesus, one of the two massive cathedrals on the Plaza del Armas. From the towers, we had an excellent view of the bustling plaza below.

After that, we visited Coricancha, or “Quri Kancha,” which means “Golden Temple.” Coricancha was an Incan temple or sanctuary dedicated to the Sun, with different temples dedicated to the Moon (the Sun’s wife), the Stars and Venus, Thunder and Lightning, and Rainbow. Of course, when the Spanish came, they built a church and a monastary on top of it. It wasn’t until a big earthquake in 1950 when the Spanish construction crumbled that they discovered the Inca ruins below. The Inca construction, naturally, is earthquake-proof.

Here is the monastery part:

Here is where they built right on top of the flawless Inca walls:

The Inca built these amazing stone walls without mortar. Instead they shaped rocks to fit together perfectly with male and female parts, almost like legos. They also built their walls at angles that stabilize them during earthquakes. As our Quechua guide reminded us, the Quechua people built in harmony with nature, not, as the Spaniards did, to conquer it. Here is Tali enamored of one such well-constructed Inca wall.

And here we both are, enjoying the gardens outside Coricancha. These gardens were once filled with golden statues of llamas and other things, all pillaged by the Spanish and melted down for currency.

The other really excellent and important thing we learned at Coricancha was that Cusco is designed in the shape of a puma, a sacred animal that symbolizes power. A nearby ruin called Sacsayhuaman is the head of the puma, the Plaza del Armas is the heart of the puma, and Coricancha is the genitals of the puma–clearly the most powerful spot in the whole world. For the rest of the day, we hummed our own version of “Eye of the Tiger,” which we like to call “Dick of the Puma.”

Later that afternoon, Tali and I changed gears and attended a CHOCOLATE MAKING CLASS. The Choco Museo offers chocolate making classes and we could not resist. It was a little bit hokey, especially since–as they begrudgingly admitted–chocolate was discovered by the Mayans, not the Incas. Still, it was super fun.

We learned all about the history of cacao and chocolate, and even got to experiment with the raw materials. Here’s Tali with a cacao pod.

The seeds, once dried and fermented and peeled, are called “nibs.” Here I am roasting some nibs in a traditional clay oven.

And here we both are griding the nibs with mortar and pestle. Hard work!

Using this ground paste, we made and tasted the traditional bitter and spicy drink that the Maya drank at ceremonies, and the sweeter version adapted by the Spanish nobility. After, we got to down to business and made our own chocolates.

Later that afternoon we explored San Blas, which we were told was the “hipster” neighborhood. We discovered that it was actually a hippie neighborhood. NOT THE SAME THING, PEOPLE! Still, the views were nice.

That night, we gathered the courage to try “cuy,” a Peruvian delicacy. Yeah. It’s guinea pig. Sadly, the presentation didn’t do much for our appetites.

The flavor was equally unappetizing. After a couple bites each, we were done. Sorry you had to die, guinea pig.

The next day, we visited the Inca Museum in the morning, and took an afternoon tour of the main cathedral and some of the nearer ruins in the Sacred Valley. Sacsayhuaman was by far the coolest. It’s one of those Stonehenge deals where no one really knows how they moved all those giant rocks. Inca mysteries!

This morning, Tali (who is afraid of heights) really went out on a limb to help me cross a major item off my bucket list: Paragliding!

Yes. We paraglid(?) off a mountain over the edge of the Sacred Valley. Tandem, of course.

Once we were strapped in, the guide told us to RUN. Yes, RUN right off the edge of the mountain and whatever you do, just keep running. Don’t jump. Don’t sit down in the harness, just keep running until we’re in the air. Running turned out to be tricky, since you’re running against the wind, being dragged back by the giant parachute attached to you… but even before we reached that scary edge, we were lifted in to the air, legs still kicking, and soon soaring peacefully over the valley. It was wonderful.

We landed, without major incident (I came in sideways, whoops) in a pasture admist sheep, cows, and their 5 year old shepards. Bucket list? Check!

Tomorrow we leave for the Inca Trail. Wish us luck!


4 thoughts on “Cusco: Pumas, pigs, and paragliding

  1. Alan Berkenwald says:

    Paragliding? WHAT – ARE YOU CRAZY?!!


  2. Yulia says:

    hey, proud of both of you. I am also afraid of heights and would have loved to do paragliding. for some strange reason, I am not afraid to be REALLY high, just at the top of the ladder and such.
    It looks like you have had a couple of very busy days, I want to hear about the chocolates you made — were they delicious?
    love, Yulia

    • Yulia says:

      PS – we were eating wild mushrooms on the Cape, always a little bit of a scary moment in case we picked the wrong ones. No problem so far, always wake up in the morning but perhaps one day…… argh, aaaahhhhhh.

      Oh, well, they were good again. :o) I have a bunch in a frying pan in the kitchen right now.

  3. Patrick Bayhylle says:

    Hey Leah-

    Just checked in on your trip and it seems like you are having the time of your life.

    Stay safe and keep having fun.

    Patrick B. from school…

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