Cusco: Chocolate Cookies and Kitties
I’ts time to catch you up on my recent wanderings!
Cusco, Peru, was a lovely place to exist for the past three weeks. A tourist-soaked city, yes, but full of Incan and Spanish architecture, a wonderfully warm culture, delicious food and drinks, and plenty to do in terms of tours to the Sacred Valley (Machu Picchu, of course, but there’s so much more than that).
I stayed in a lovely apartment through Airbnb in the historic San Blas neighborhood, cohabitating with two lovely white cats who adopted me quickly. Their owner, a fashion designer, is on vacation in Europe for a few weeks, and so I lived as if I had my own home with cats in Cusco.
All this has been a respite for me, a solo woman traveler who has experienced quite a bit of unwanted attention, mostly obnoxious and tiresome, always uncomfortable, in the past weeks in Ecuador and now here in Peru.
But Cusco’s different: a snug place where it’s easy to find other travel companions, there were ample, comfortable opportunities to be myself, dining alone and reading a book in restaurants and cafes around the main plaza, without looking like an invitation for a conversation and solicitation of personal information by male employees. In short, I’ve caught my breath, made new friends, and enjoyed taking Spanish lessons again.
And the food! I’ve indulged in vegan chocolate chip cookies and vegan pizzas; and enjoyed trying chicha morada (made from maize) and pisco sours (liquor with lemon and whipped egg whites). I’ve tried grilled alpaca (delicious and rich, reminiscent of elk), roast cuey, (guinea pig) numerous Andean soups, potato dishes (hundreds of edible potatoes here, so nourishing!) quinoa dishes, and fresh fruits from San Pedro Mercado.
The Sacred Valley: Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu
I thought of you when I visited the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu. I almost skipped them; the thought of how many tourists pour through the place unsettled me. (I’m not a crowd person). But visiting the clouded mountaintop citadel was as fascinating and awe-inducing as I expected, and due to the time of year, November—it was pretty chill at the citadel when I went.
Even still, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad while walking amid the massive stones that sit so well together; I’d been planning on hiking in on the Camino Inca with a friend to the ruins, but both my foot and that friendship suffered, and I had to change my plans entirely.
The day before I rode the train to Machu Picchu (or more accurately, Aguas Calientes–you have to then hike or take a bus up the mountain to the ruins), I signed up for a “horsehike” out of Ollantaytambo, one of the pretty Inca villages in the Sacred Valley. (You can also catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, from Ollantaytambo).
I went out with a guide named Richard, nicknamed “Condor”, and his friend David. The two showed me the Canteras de Cachiccata, where the Inca mined the rocks used for their dwellings, as well as a tomb still used today.
“Piedras cansadas”, those stones left in transit when the Spanish arrived, lay scattered all around the mountainside. Massive-cut stones taller than me, it’s easy to get caught staring at them in amazement, wondering how the heck anyone could have moved those, much less cut them, on a regular basis. At one point, while sitting on one of these stones, snacking on a banana, I noticed my guide and David had snuck off to smoke an apple. Between puffs, they conversed in a veil of chuckles.
“Y cómo fue la manzana de marijuana?” I asked them with an easy smile when they returned. They thought they were being sneaky; but I recognized their fruity pipe from the beginning, and could smell the marijuana smoke.
I happened to be puffing away on my tobacco pipe when I asked this. We laughed, got the horses and headed back down the mountain, talking about Quechua food and traditions and the local religious tradition of Choquekillka, a patron deity of the town. Condor also pointed out the single house perched high on the side of the mountain opposite us cumbia music inundating the valley with cumbia music (ubiquitous in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia), a surprise soundtrack for my horsehike day.
Maras, Rainbow Mountain, and Ayahuasca Ceremonies
The gorgeous Maras salt pools, in operation since pre-Inca times, managed by local families, were delightful to visit one afternoon. You can wander the pools and watch locals pick up salt in large bowls.
The day after visiting the salt pools, I hiked up Rainbow Mountain with a friend. The climb is literally breathtaking at 17,000 feet. The last 30 minutes I inched my feet upward while using a breathing technique I learned from my long distance running days in order to get the oxygen swiftly into my lungs. The summit offered a cold gray cloud instead of a rainbow, but that was all right; the scenery along the way was worth the effort.
Did I mention that I participated in an ayahuasca retreat in the Sacred Valley? I, along with eleven other participants from around the world, were led in two ceremonies conducted in the traditional way by a Shipibo shaman. A controversial choice for a gal like me from Minnesota, indeed. However, many travelers explore ayahuasca while visiting Peru, and last year while planning I had ample opportunity to learn about it and consider its possible side effects. Michael Pollan’s book, “How to Change your Mind” influenced my choice.
Though I confess I don’t plan to take a drug like that ever again, or at least not for a long time, ayahuasca did calm my mind. The best analogy? It was as if I hired someone to come take out, dust, clean, and re-prioritize all the contents of my mind—when I say all, I mean all; the insecurities, the desires, the heartbreaks, the shortcomings, all the good and bad that comprise who I am. In truth, it was uncomfortable reviewing a number of those things within a sparking, colorful psychedelic film taking place in my head. But afterward, a recent heartbreak suddenly seemed distant and in the past, shelved as it should be; the decisions I need to make for the future seemed manageable but also shelved in their proper place. Also, the pressing priority after I left the retreat was to connect with family and close friends, just because, and because it was Thanksgiving weekend.
While there, I asked staff (which includes: a nurse, a psychologist, a general practitioner doctor, among others) how long the effects would last, they claimed at least two weeks, but longer—hopefully a lifetime—if I cultivated techniques such as meditation in order to maintain the changes induced by ayahuasca. Time will tell how long-lasting the results are. (If you are interested in learning more, please contact me–there are a number of “sham” ayahuasca retreats in South America, so it’s important to do your research.)
Right now I’m sitting in La Paz, Bolivia, just returned from climbing Huayna Potosi–the most physically demanding event of my life. I’m enjoying Bolivia so far, and will be writing about it soon!
Hope all is well in the land of ice and snow, my friend.