Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Back in Cusco

Weight wise we have been doing well. But with our return to Cusco that will likely change. There are MANY fine restaurants here and we plan to make the most of it.

We started our local touring at two Inca sites: Saqsaywamán and Q'enqo. Both were made of large boulders (from a few hundred to several thousand pounds) and in Incan fashion, all carefully chiseled out to fit together with only extremely narrow seams. It is hard to picture how this was accomplished with only manual labor...but there are theories about ramps and rolling the rocks on logs or round rocks.

Just think about how they got that stone on top of this gate...

Later in town we visited the Cathedral,
 built using blocks pilfered from the nearby Inca site of Sacsaywamán. The interior of the Cathedral was impressive because of the massive amounts of glitzy silver and gold side chapels. Drat no photos allowed.  But we bought a couple postcards. 
Choir stall, copied from the cathedral in Toledo
There is also a wealth of artwork featuring the Cuzqueña School (combining of 17th-century European religious styles with the local colors and sacred symbols of the Incan culture). One notable piece is that of the Last Supper where instead of feasting on a sacrificial lamb, they are feasting on a Viszacha, the wild Andean chinchilla...sacred in Andean mythology. Note: It is often stated that they are feasting on Cuy (guinea pig), either way you get the picture. This is not the European view of Catholicism. ;-)

Last Supper, copied from a postcard.  
Our final stop was at the Church of Santo Domingo, built on top of the Temples of the Sun and Moon, typical of the Spanish conquerors. A few remnants of the temples can be seen around the church and convent.

That dark round protrusion on the righ MAY be a portion of the temple of the sun.

From there we said good-bye to Harry and went for lunch at Papachos, a Gaston Acurio restaurant where we had Tapitas Papacheras (bruschetta with "bacon, elderberry, cheese, sour cream and spearmint sauce, and a hot rocoto pepper sauce."  Bill had the Porteña burger (with "cheese, avocados, sauteed onions, parsley & garlic chimicurri, lettuce & tomato"). Pat had the Mac & Chis made with "Paria Andean cheese with a spicy bite".   

Saturday we visited the MAP museum of pre-columbian artifacts. Pieces in the collection date from 1250 B.C to.1532 A.D. with galleries reflecting works of the major cultures of Peru including Nasca, Mochica, Huari, up through Inca (starting with the earlier cultures). We found the artwork interesting, some pieces seeming quite primitive and others, like these two bottles, from the period 1250 BC to 1 AD, more contemporary.  

And how about this set of earrings!? Yep, they are about 4” in diameter and go in the earlobe.

After visiting the museum we went to the Fallen Angel, a restaurant with funky decor and excellent food. The photos are the best descriptors of this unique eatery. 

Our complementary starter (kalmata olives with marinated cheese cubes)

Asparagus Quinotto - made with asparagus accompanied with oyster mushrooms, artichokes and lake algae
Vegetable Melody - grilled pumpkin & beet slices, with baby onions in pisco and red wine syrup, fresh orange wedges, huacatay oil and tree tomato vinaigrette
Bill had "Rainbow crusted trout- rainbow trout in a caper crust with piquillo peppers. Accompanied by new potatoes, snow peas, asparagus, broad beans, stir fried capsicum and crunchy prosciutto."  

Chocolate bomb - An explosive chocolate and hazelnut coulant, accompanied by a scoop of lúcuma ice cream with a raspberry and strawberry syrup.  Drunken pear - soft pear marinated in red wine,  stuffed with kiwicha and custard cream, and enveloped in puff pastry, accompanied by Andean mint, chia and pistacho ice cream with plum coulis.
What happened to those desserts???
The funky decor includes a metal angel and glass tables supported by bathtubs with resident gold fish. Note the heart stuffed seating and the 4-eyed cat eyeing the goldfish.

The San Pedro market was our next stop. The large area has stalls offering clothing, fruits, vegetables, meats, and a lot more.  As with any market you can get lots of cool photos, but our favorite is this mix of corn.

As we were leaving the market, a procession was approaching the local church. We stopped to watch and compare the local festivities to those in San Miguel. A lot of similarities.

This group was well supplied with Cusqueña beer.
That kid on the left sure hops high!
Not sure what he represents, but he is definitely colorful.

Sunday we visited the Museo de Historia Regional which follows the history of the area through the Incas and Spanish. It is an eclectic museum housed the home of the Inca-Spanish chronicler, Garcilaso de la Vega...the son of a Spanish conqueror and an Inca noblewoman. He is recognized for his chronicles of Inca history, culture, and society. The chronologically arranged collection begins with arrowheads from the Preceramic Period and continues with ceramics and jewelry of the Wari, Pukara and Inca cultures. The final exhibit is on the life of Garcilaso, also very interesting. Again, no photos. 

Then we returned to Cicciolina. Remember last Sunday’s promise for more on this restaurant? We began with an "Arugula & fresh basil salad with duck proscuitto, goat feta, pickled baby onions, roasted tomatoes, and sugared almonds. It was served with grained red quinua drizzled with a green olive dressing".  

Bill had "Fillet of Alpaca with a creamy 4 pepper sauce. Served with crispy yuca soufflé and roasted tomatoes". The fillet was AMAZINGLY tender. Pat’s choice was "Cracked pepper pappardelle tossed with a salsa of smoky grilled chicken, roasted onions, sweet zucchini, peppers, mushrooms sautéed in dry white wine and creamy parmesan. Topped with fried garlic slices". Pat rarely orders chicken and she far prefers dark meat, but this white meat was juicy and extremely tasty. A good choice. The wine, Intipalka Tannat.  

To finish the meal "a white chocolate mouse mounted on a soft whisky brownie. Drizzled with warm butterscotch sauce, sprinkled with toasted chia & served with little mint jellies". Oh, and we also had Oporto Malamado from Argentina.

Pn our way back to our apartment we encountered some more local color...local dancers waiting for the their part in another procession.

Pat liked this sign and plans to take it seriously. Oh, wait. She already has.

 Shortly before reaching our apartment, we noticed this fountain in Plazoleta San Blas.

And here is the view from our apartment...Note: There are MANY steps to get to the Boutique Hotel and then more to our Penthouse apartment. Depending on the route from the town center, there are 100 or more step to the driveable street near our apartment. Then there are 40 steps up to our building and 42 more to our apartment.  Consider it part of our exercise routine.

On Monday, we first visited The Museo de Pisco, an excellent tasting room and tapas bar. It was a great place to get educated on Pisco while having a light snack. 

Pisco is a colorless or yellowish-to-amber colored brandy produced in Peru and Chile. Made by distilling fermented grape juice into a high-proof spirit, it was developed by 16th century Spanish settlers as an alternative to brandy that was being imported from Spain. It had the advantages of being produced from abundant domestically grown fruit and hence avoided the need to transport the drink from Spain and up to remote high-altitude regions.

Our knowledgeable Pisco guide, patiently described the types of Pisco and how they are produced. He also provided a great charts with provided much information on the history as well as the making and styles of Pisco. Our favorite of the tasting was a Torontel, made from torrontes grapes. We were particularly taken by the jasmine & peach characteristics. 

We had planned to visit the Museo of Popular Arts to learn more about the local crafts. Apparently it is quite small and has erratic hours.  In any event, it was closed. We moved on to the Museo de Inka. 

The Museo de Inka provided another lesson on pre-Inca through Inca cultures, as well as the Spanish conquest and its impact on the culture. We are slowly getting better at recognizing some of the many early cultures of the area. The displays feature pottery, jewelry, weavings, mummies, dioramas and the world’s largest collection of queros (ceremonial Inca wooden drinking vessels). Again, no photos allowed but here's a photo of a quero taken from the museum ticket. 

As we exited the museum, we saw this group and couldn't resist the  photo op. 

Then we stopped at Baco (a sister restaurant to Cicciolina) for a late afternoon snack (blue cheese and fig pizza) along with an Intipalka Malbec.  A nice finish to our next to last day in Cusco.

Last day and one more museum, Museo Casa Conchadedicated to the history of Machu Picchu. It is a joint creation between Cusco’s San Antonio Abad University and experts at Yale University who in recent years have used modern technology to learn more from the artifacts taken from the site of Machu Picchu during the excavation by Hiram Bingham and his team in 1912. Aside from interesting displays or artifacts and explanations of archaeological techniques, there is a detailed model of the archaeological site of Mach Picchu and a real quipu.

A quipu is a knotted-string device used for record keeping by the Incas. The name comes from the Quechua word for knot. The principal component of a quipu was a primary cord to which were attached so-called pendant strings. Subsidiary strings were attached to the pendant strings. Information was recorded by using a range of colors, changing the direction of the spinning of the strings and by attaching more strings as subsidiary strings or pendant strings. Information recorded included census and tribute records, as well as genealogical data. 

Lunch was at another fine restaurant, Incanto, where Italian and Peruvian cooking is blended into some very fine food. We started with the house focaccia with a dipping sauce of olive oil with salt & lots of ground pepper. The focaccia was thin and light, very tasty. It seemed like it had been started in a cast iron pan and then placed in the oven for last minute warming.This was followed with Polenta and Funghi, small golden polentan pancakes with a mushroom ragout and parmesan cheese. Delightful.

Bill had Spicy Prawns, prawns fried in a spicy sauce of Peruvian chilies and herbs with "an artisanal tagliolini nero di sepia". Pat had Trout Peperonata, grilled lake trout from Lake Titticaca with stewed peppers, and golden Cusquesnian humitas (fried mashed sweet potato patties) with pesto sauce. 

OK, we've done our best to sample the cuisine of Cusco. Time to move on to the Amazon.

Oh, but one last stop: the Jesuit Church, the one that threatened to overtake the cathedral in beauty. The outside wins. But we had to see how the inside compared. It definitely contains some very fine work but not to the level of the cathedral. Part of the problem may be that the chapels are too black with soot from ages of burning candles. They certainly are not as stunning as in the cathedral.  Again... Sorry, no photos. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Incan Heartland (Cusco to Machu Picchu)

We’ve been in Inca territory since we arrived in Peru, but with our latest move, we are deep in the heart of the Inca. Cusco was the center of the Inca Empire. The Inca civilization arose from the highlands of Peru in the early 13th century. Its last stronghold was conquered by the Spanish in 1572. At its peak, the empire spanned from Ecuador to central Chile, including Peru, western and south central Bolivia, and northwest Argentina. Its official language was Quechua. And Quechua is widely spoken here today.

We had to rise early (4:45) to catch the flight to Lima and a second one to Cusco. We arrived at our hotel in Cusco around 1pm. We got organized and then headed out for a late lunch. We noted that Cicciolina's "Bodega…Bar de Tapas…Restaurante”  is open til 3pm and headed out around 2pm. It took us longer to get there than it might because we were so distracted by the beauty (and the shops) of the city. We were delighted to realize that we had 5 more days (after our visit to Machu Picchu) to enjoy the ambience, shopping and restaurants.

We had to wait 20 minutes for a table, but made the most of the break by sharing a split of Pro Secco and studying the menu. The difficulty was that we wanted pretty much one of everything on the menu which has a mix of international and Peruvian dishes. We finally settled for a "salad of BBQ prawns and calamari drizzled with sweet and spicy chilli sauce sitting on fresh green leaves with mint, toasted peanuts, coriander leaves, avocado and crisp rice noodles" followed by Pat’s "wild mushroom risotto" and Bill’s "gnocchi with parmigiano, sage, butter and truffle aromas". You will be hearing more about this restaurant!!

And for dessert, we chose "chocolate and pecan brownie with peanut butter sauce, 'earth' ground chocolate and lemon grass ice cream."

After lunch we wandered over to the Plaza de Armas (the central square) and got lost in the beauty of the competing churches (the Cathedral and the Jesuit Church which is far more ornate, at least on the outside), the Colonial architecture, and the views of the city as it climbs up the surrounding mountain.

There are lots of options for taking photos with ladies and baby llamas.

We are not sure which church this is but liked the photo op
That stone wall reflects typical Incan construction which consists of stones finely worked to produce interlocking blocks forming the walls of terraces and buildings. Blocks of stone could weigh many tons and they were quarried and shaped using harder stones and bronze tools. It is thought that the blocks were pounded into shape rather than cut and then moved from the quarries using ropes, logs, poles, levers and ramps. The stones were likely readied for final installation using grinding stones and sand. The final shaping of the blocks was so precise that mortar was not necessary and the blocks fit so tightly that typically the space between the rocks are narrower than a credit card. Here's a shot of the "12-sided stone" that is located on a walkway near Cicciolina's Restaurant. Actually 12-sided is likely a misnomer because this one surface reflects 12 sides. 

As we headed back to our hotel we found a Kuna Alpaca store. At the Lima airport earlier in the day we had found some great travel slippers of alpaca or llama leather and baby alpaca tops. So great. But not available in our sizes. The clerk suggested we try their stores in Cusco. Here we were. And they did have slippers for Bill. There are more Kuna stores in Cusco and Pat was determined to succeed (which she did.)

Nearby Cusco are a number of impressive and notable Inca sites. The most renowned being Machu Picchu. But there are several in the Sacred Valley of the Incas as well. Stretching from the town of Pisac in the east through to Machu Picchu in the west (more than 60 miles). The Incas considered the valley sacred because of its astronomical relation with the Milky Way which at certain times of the year aligns with the valley. Key Inca sites here are:
  • The sweeping pre-Colombian agricultural terraces of Pisac that blend into the natural curvature of the hillside. In recent years Pisac has been home to a weekly market. Nowadays the market has turned into a daily market that is the main event.
  • A large fortress at Ollantaytambo (a former Inca administrative center). At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru, Ollantaytambo served as the last stronghold for Inca Manco Yupanqui. It is also the most common starting point for the famous Inca Trail. It was here, in 1536, that a force of Conquistadors was showered with arrows and eventually routed after the Incas used their irrigation system to flood the valley floor, bogging down the horse-riding Spaniards. It was a dramatic stand but only deterred the Spanish briefly.
  • The experimental deep circular terraces at Moray (which we had to pass up). With these circular terraces rising over thousands of feet, the Incas experimented to see which crops worked best at which altitudes. Intriguing and we hated to miss it. 
We made a few photo stops enroute to Pisac. Then we hiked/climbed through the Incan site appreciating the fine stonework.   

Views over the Sacred Valley

Below are a few views over the agricultural terraces at Pisac.

Note both "stairways" above: the primary one crossing the photo horizontally and the simpler one rising from the second to the third terrace (stones sticking out from the front of the third terrace near the center of the photo)

Local women were waiting in the parking lot to sell their wares.  

Then it was off to the Pisac market. We found a few irresistible items including a baby alpaca sweater for Pat. Pat wandered behind the market and found a cross that appeared to be dressed up. It turns out the local traditions included dressing images of the gods in fine clothing. When the Spaniards forbade this custom, decorating crosses became popular.  

For lunch we went to Ulrike’s Cafe. It’s a small place in a small town but the food was excellent and went well with our Cusqueña (the Cusco brand) beers (the first time we had them officially in the district of Cusco). Bill had the alpaca focaccia sandwich and Pat had the vegetarian lasagna. Harry, our guide, ordered a starter of taquenos (small rolled tortilla stuffed with cheese served with guacamole for dipping). He nicely shared. Oh and his name? Well his Dad really liked the Dirty Harry movies. He also likes Santana and apparently Harry & his Dad (a military type) have matching tattoos commemorating a Santana concert they enjoyed together.

We arrived in Ollantaytambo later in the afternoon and settled into our hotel. We shared a pizza for dinner.

Next morning we toured Incan Ollantaytambo, a few hundred meters up the mountain from the modern town. 
Terraces leading up to the Temple of the Sun. Yep, we climbed up.

Ruins of large warehouses built on the mountain.

Pat's "fish-eye" view of the massive stones of the temple wall

The seemingly odd bumps on the temple wall apparently
align perfectly for some astronomical events

Next we headed off to Huilloc, a local village whose economy is based on agriculture and weaving. The road up was narrow with steep drop-offs causing Pat to have a few worries. But we arrived safely. And Harry reported that the road was vastly better than a few years ago. Glad we waited to visit! Upon arrival, it was interesting to see the locals in native costume. We visited the community cooperative shop and bought a nice weaving. 

Bulls hauling the plows as they prepare the fields for planting

Cleaning burrs out of the wool

Cute kid

In this culture it seems to be all about the hats.
Even the design of men's knit hats tell a story.  We just can't read it. ;-)
Then, with the clouds moving into the area, we headed back to Ollantaytambo and wandered around town visiting an Inca styled housing complex…several modest open-plan houses surrounding a shared courtyard (now populated with shops.) In one of the shops we noted the character below. Apparently he provides good luck to those who pay for his smokes.

And then we discovered that a pole extending out from a shop with a red bag on it. It turns out this indicates that their corn beer is ready. We are not sure how long it takes to brew the beer or if they really ever take the poles down, but...interesting.

Dinner was at our hotel. The fish sticks (little fingers of trout) were excellent. 

The next morning we were off to Machu Picchu. From Ollaytaytambo, it is a 4 day / 3 night hike to the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu OR a 1:45 train ride to Aquas Calientes followed by a 20 minute bus ride up the precipitous mountainside to the main site. We chose the later approach taking only an overnight bag on the train ride. After checking into our hotel we hopped onto the bus. Thanks to our guide we successfully avoided long lines and were quickly on the site.

Machu Picchu is thought to be the seasonal residence of Pachacutec, the 9th Incan ruler. During his rule, the Inca Empire had reached its highest level of development. The site’s location and the orientation of its most important structures, were strongly influenced by the location of nearby holy mountains. On important days such as the equinox or the soltice, the sun can be seen to rise or set behind nearby mountain peaks.

Our first view over the “urban” part of the site was from near the guards hut, quite impressive in the bright sun. We wandered up, down, around and through the site. Hard to imagine how all this was created. We headed back down knowing we would be back in the morning.

The stones in the front are shaped to mirror the sacred mountain peaks in the background

Cute baby llama

Agricultural terraces spanning great heights
The next morning we woke to a cloudy day. Additionally our timing was such that the site was more crowded. It began to rain just after we arrived. So for 5 soles each (about $1.50) we bought plastic rain gear. We were quite amazed they were so inexpensive. And they are good enough that we are saving them for our Amazon rainforest visit. 

Given the foul weather we decide to walk to the Inca Bridge. The Inca Bridge spans a 20 foot gap in a trail built into the cliffs. With a sheer stone cliff on one side and a 1900 foot drop on the other, the bridge, consisting of several tree trunks, spans the gap in the trail. 

In several places the trail narrows to the width of one person. Thank god for the heavy cable railing added in recent years…without it, we would never have gotten so close to the bridge. The views from the trail are cloud forest, river canyons and mountains. We got a few glimpses in spite of the fog. The hike was well worth the effort, but we would never consider crossing that bridge. Actually it is gated off so we had no choice.  

Yep, that's the trail directly behind Bill.  The sign says ""Walk carefully / Narrow Path"
The bridge is a little more than 1/3 of the way up this photo
and basically in the center from left to right

Here's a close-up of the bridge.  We just noticed the rocks protruding along the wall beyond the bridge. They are similar to the stone step up terrace walls. We can't imagine when they were used.

We headed back down to the Aquas Calientes and after a quick snack (pizza), we boarded the train back to Ollantaytambo. 

Our driver was waiting with our left bags and we headed to Cusco. We stopped at Chinchero, a picturesque colonial village renowned for its intricate traditional textiles (blankets, shawls, table cloths, bags, etc woven from Alpaca and wool). At the Interpretation Center of Andean Textiles, local women, in traditional Andean dress, provide weaving demonstrations. They also show how the wool is washed, dyed and spun. 

Cochineal bugs are used for a range of red dyes.
Here she shows how adding lemon juice changes the color.

At one point three women were braiding this one's hair.

After the demonstration, we wandered around looking at their wares and purchased a lovely, light-weight blanket. 

Back in Cusco we made our way down some one lane, bi-directional streets to our apartment. The trip was made all the more challenging because of a procession in the main square which caused rerouting of traffic. After settling in we headed to Pachapapa for dinner, Alpaca skewers with potato, salad. Bill’s came with a stuffed pepper. A nice bottle of Peruvian syrah went quite nicely with these.