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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Exploring downtown Cuzco and looking for the "sexy woman"

Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits approximately 3,400 meters above sea level. As a result, most visitors often experience altitude sickness as their bodies adapt to the higher elevation. Taking preventative medicine (e.g., Diamox) and drinking coca tea had fortunately warded off most of the symptoms of altitude sickness for me.

When tourists first arrive in Cuzco, it's easy to mistake the city as a super liberal haven due to the multiple rainbow colored flags draped and hung around everywhere. However, the colors depict the flag of Cuzco and not a statement on gay rights. The flags do add a dash of color to the orange-red hue that seems to tint everything in and around the Cuzco area due to the rusty color of the surrounding mountain ranges.

Despite being a major tourist attraction, Cuzco has been a wonderful city to visit. The physical manifestation of the city's rich history is evident in the Spanish colonial buildings, plazas, and sidewalks that sit atop of Inca built walls. If you look closely, you'll notice that the Inca walls are slightly tilted in a trapezoid fashion and that the wall foundations are generally made up of small, rather than large, stones. Both were strategically designed to protect the buildings from natural disasters, particularly earthquakes.

The San Blas neighborhood can be found after a short hike up steep and narrow streets. More Bohemian in nature, the San Blas neighborhood is much more relaxed than the downtown area. Vendors selling various knickknacks rarely bother the tourists walking about.

A little further at the top, past San Blas, is one of the Sacred Valley sites known as Saksaywaman (pronounced very similar to "sexy woman"). An English couple I met recently told me their hostel reception informed them, upon checking in, that "sexy woman" was 40 minutes away. It was a rather disappointment when no sexy woman appeared 40 minutes later.

In the city center is the Plaza de Armas, a large open square lined with Peruvian flags and surrounded by the Cathedral, the Church of La Compañía, cafes, and tourist agencies. Very well hidden are also a McDonald's, KFC, and a Starbucks. I will admit that my heart skipped a beat when I saw the Starbucks logo. Though I've had great Peruvian food, the coffee here is a little less than desirable. 

Beyond the Plaza de Armas is Plaza Regocijo, Plaza San Francisco, and the San Pedro market. The last of which is an extremely large covered outdoor market targeted at the locals. Inside, you can find anything from fresh fruits and juices to soups and sandwiches to meats and vegetables. Sitting down with the locals at one of the many food vendors inside the market, I got lunch for a mere three soles (just slightly more than a buck).

Earlier in the day I had bumped into three travelers - Becca, Megan, and Kristen - I had met back in Iquitos. It was from them that I learned of the free walking tour of downtown Cuzco. The guides took us on a ~1 hour walk through the hidden culinary gems of the city, with samples of chicha morada (a drink made from boiling purple corn and a mixture of spices), alpaca, coca tea, and chocolate tea. 

Then, they led us on a ~2 hour walk through some of the historical "non-touristy" areas of the downtown area, including the San Blas neighborhood I had visited earlier in the day. The tour wrapped up at a bar, where we were treated to a taste of the national Peruvian drink - pisco sour. 

One great thing about Cuzco is that it's not difficult to find an open cafe or restaurant. Quite a number of places open early and close late. That is, except for El Encuentro, a vegetarian restaurant that Alain and Soche (sp) had recommended. Every time I showed up for lunch or dinner its doors were padlocked.

So far, my only real qualm about Peru is its ATMs. The ATMs here have a max of 400 soles per transaction - with a ~$5.50 charge per transaction (not including what the US bank charges). Consequently, I've had to visit the ATM multiple times, resulting in enough fees to pay for my meals and lodging!


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