Though we could’ve easily kept sleeping, we had to get up at 8:30am in order to squeeze in breakfast and a shower before our 10am orientation meeting with our group and guide. This was where we met our fearless leader, Francisco, along with our 4 companions for the next 4 days, more on that later. We went over the itinerary for the hike, learned of our 6am and 3:30am wake up times, and received our duffel bag that could hold up to 7kg (15 lbs) of our personal belongings that we had to have ready and packed by the time we got picked up tomorrow. It was also at this point that I made the last minute decision to rent a pair of walking poles, which was probably the best decision I could’ve made in preparation for the trip. We were only going up 4500 feet and down another 5500 feet after all…and these poles saved my life (well at least my legs)!
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by the Cathedral of Santo Domingo at the Plaza de Armas, a grandiose structure comprised not only of the Basilica itself, but the adjoining Cathedral of the Sacred Family (Sagrada Familia) and the Iglesia del Triunfo. It was interesting to see one of the many buildings that the Spaniards built on top of the Inca foundations. Following their conquest of much of the Inca empire, and certainly Cusco as its capital, the Spaniards tried to impose Christianity and their culture on their new lands by tearing down many of the Inca buildings, and in this case, stealing stones from other Inca structures like the neighboring Sacsayhuaman. Sometimes they even built on top of the Inca foundations since they were so perfectly built to withstand earthquakes. Photography wasn’t allowed inside the cathedral, unfortunately, hence no pics…but the interior was beautifully adorned with gold and silver and tons of artifacts throughout.
Once we dropped off our bags and poles, we were off again, this time to Qoricancha, one of the most important temples in Inca history, dedicated to the sun god (Inti). This structure was pretty much the center of the Inca empire, where the main Inca roads all converged onto, and housed some ancient Inca ruins right in the heart of Cusco. Randomly it also housed some religious paintings from the adjacent Church of Santo Domingo because surprise surprise, the Spaniards also tried to take this one down and replace it with a church, only to keep much of the original stone foundation. It also now houses a very random abstract sculpture exhibit that I didn’t quite understand…definitely not circa 1500’s.
By this point, it was lunchtime, and in lieu of another fancy Peruvian restaurant (don’t get me wrong, they were terrific and at roughly $50 for two, still a great deal), we opted for a more traditional spot called El Fogon that offered a 3-course lunch special for 10 soles, or $3.50. While it wasn’t a blow-your-mind meal like the others had been, it was still a great deal and gave us more of a traditional experience.
Our original plan with visiting Sacsayhuaman, one of the largest Inca sites still intact in the Cusco region, was to hike the 45 minutes uphill, but upon the urging of our guide, we opted to just take a 10 minute taxi and save our legs for the real challenge of the Inca Trail tomorrow. Good thing too, because the hike up was steep and seemed confusing, with no real path except for a narrow one that was shared with cars. The view atop was phenomenal though, offering us a birds eye view of Cusco’s old quarter as well as getting us close to the White Jesus statue that we could consistently see from in town. Sacsayhuaman itself served as an ancient fortress that ended up being a battleground of sorts between the Spaniards and Incas. Though much of its stones were taken to build Spanish Cusco, the fortress was so immense that there were still a lot of gargantuan stone walls that the Spaniards couldn’t tear or carry down.
Last stop for the day in our Cusco marathon of sights was the Choco Museo, the museum of chocolate. Much like with the Mayans, chocolate found its way into Inca history as Peru is one of a handful of countries that can actually cultivate cacao beans. In order to successfully grow the beans, cacao requires a host of conditions such as rainfall, humidity, and temperate climates that can only be found within 20 degrees north or south of the equator. The museum, free of charge, had some small fun factoids about chocolate, how cacao beans are cultivated, and how they are then turned into chocolate. In addition to the store, there were some sampling stations for cacao tea and even chocolate pisco. Another surprised we learned, Americans aren’t even on the map with per capita consumption of chocolate, as most of Europe (Switzerland, Germany, France, UK) took the cake on that one. Well, don’t mind if I take another piece then…
After spending some down time at the hotel and strategizing what to pack for my day pack vs. the 8 lbs I could get my porter to carry, we wrapped up the night at Pachapapa, a restaurant close by to our hotel with a lovely (though chilly) outdoor seating area around their brick oven. Since I was cold and also starting to feel like I was coming down with something, I passed on alcohol in favor of a hot tea with anise, coca, and oregano – strange but effective. The rest of the food, our potato and cheese soup and tallarin de pollo, was delicious but the portions were so huge I hardly felt like I could even make a dent. Last order of business was to pick up some pisco for the road, along with cold meds (boo) and some of the infamous coca leaves to chew for our hike. Unlike the previous night, we had a very early morning to prepare for, so we went back to the hotel early to avoid getting locked out again.