Curious kids entertaining our train and hoping for some handouts.

The Peru and Galapagos trip continues with our final days in Peru. With my Fitbit registering a ton of steps and my knees sore, it was a relief to go by bus and train from Machu Picchu back to Cusco. The train had to stop a few times and we would see some locals asking for money. It’s always a reminder of how well off we are and how just a few dollars can make a difference to their day. We saw a local women who looked elderly and her back was bent pretty bad—probably from years of hard work.

So many of these people like to be self-employed. We met a few of them all over the Cusco/Machu Picchu region as they were friends of our tour guide. They called themselves names such as Diana Ross and George Washington. As a marketing professional, I can say I am impressed by this tactic.

Street vendor.

On the way and throughout the trip we would see kids and women in tourist areas with lamas, alpacas, and even baby sheep because they looked cute, dressed up to take pictures and collect money. We noticed the kids would get upset when they weren’t picked for the photo or didn’t get a U.S. dollar if another did. I got my photo taken with some kids who started singing a song. I asked our tour guide what the words meant and he said it was a drinking song. (See below for video of them singing.)

Coca leaves to chew on to help with the elevation were in a big bowl at the airport. I preferred the candy and tea versions.

Back in Cusco, the elevation was making me take deep breaths and hurt my lungs and head a bit. Our hotel was really interesting—it was an old monastery and each room had a lot of character. We took a tour around town to a cathedral and enjoyed a big party and parades going on around the main square. We saw military members walking with those old German type straight steps, guys dressed in cowboy outfits shaking beer and spraying it around, college groups dressed in black and white business clothes, and more. We were told there are so many “holidays” that get celebrated there were too many to count or know all of them.

We went to a lama/alpaca farm where they let us feed them. There were also demonstrations by locals who learned the tradition of weaving the wool and making the wonderful cloths they sell today. Baby alpaca is the first “shaving” of an animal and is softer, costing more. There were several breeds of both kinds of animals and all were fun to and interesting to see.

As we went through a beautiful church, we learned how the Peruvians really mixed their pagan traditions with Christianity. There is lots of that all over the world; however, I was somewhat shocked that they didn’t only observe old traditions, they still “worship” pagan symbols. At the risk of sounding judgmental—I’m surprised they can’t see the outright contradiction with the first commandment. For example, there was a stone from pagan religions that sits in a glass near the door. On Sundays, the people line up after service and put their hands on the stone and pray. The priests say “it’s just a door stop” but the people believe it’s more. There are other symbols including statues and paintings depicting Mary in clothes that are like triangles (mountain shaped and hiding her feet)—she symbolizes Mother Earth who they worship. And paintings of her pregnant that contradict the Catholic religion, but not Protestant. Throughout the trip we were told of many other pagan worship rituals that still happen. While a little disconcerting, it was a good lesson of their culture and I found their architecture and people to be quite beautiful.

Dad and I did our traditional shopping trip around town and then went back to rest before dinner and another very early morning wake up to catch the flight to Lima and then on to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We landed in Ecuador and took a short city bus tour. Our hotel rooms were big and we explored the main street around us—not really finding anything but banks, disease-welcoming restaurants, tiny mini markets, pharmacies, etc. Our next morning was brutally early and back again to the airport to catch a flight to San Christobal in the Galapagos.  Goodbye beautiful Peru and more on the islands to come!

 

 

View of Cusco.

Our Peru adventure continued with a very early flight to Cusco. At an elevation of 11,100 feet, the flight in was a bit scary. I could only see high snow-capped mountain tops out the window, which was disconcerting as we heard the sound of the wheels being lowered, meaning landing was imminent. A very steep banking curve brought us down to a strip that was completely surrounded by buildings. I was thankful when the plane came close to the end of the runway that there was a church there to break our stop if need be.

Bulls on the roof are a symbol of prosperity.

For the first few moments off the plane I felt really dizzy, but was able to adapt to the elevation a little bit better during the bus ride through a town crowded with houses half done and lots of wires between leaning telephone poles.  On our way up and out of town, we passed homes that had two small bulls and a cross on the roof. Evidently that is a symbol of prosperity. Many people take years to finish their houses. For one thing, they save up bit by bit for the parts and construct it over time. Also, once the house is done, they have to pay taxes, so there is little rush. They typically leave some rebars up to make new levels for kids when they grow up.

Our guides explained the culture a bit as we rode through the Sacred Valley. Peruvians have public schools but only some are lucky to attend the private schools that go all day. Others can only go half days—they accommodate everyone by having two shifts in the am and pm. Some of the universities are public but there aren’t a lot of openings. I always think of the USA as the melting pot, but all over the Americas we can see diverse populations and Peru is no exception. The original habitants have mixed with Spanish, African, Asians, Italians, and more.

Storehouses at Ollantaytambo.

Evidence of the vast agriculture can be seen all over the mountains. The Incas built terraces everywhere and stored up years’ worth of food in storehouses. There were ancient potatoes recently dug up that when treated and cooked were still edible. Some terraces are still in use as the Peruvians cultivate about 4,000 varieties of potatoes. The soil there is so varied and in fact some is similar to what is on Mars so they are doing some agricultural testing for the Mars missions.

Guinea Pig on a stick.

Some of the sights along the road through the small towns included rainbow flags—the ancients were rainbow worshippers, red flags on poles outside of some homes—which was a sign that they served Chicha or Corn Beer there, and painted advertisements on homes. The ads were mostly political signs for the recent elections. The people would consent to the painted signs because basically they needed their houses painted and could get it done for free. In random places on the road and on small fields, people were drying corn on blankets and they would store lots of corn cobs in chicken wire bins.

One town was famous for its Guinea Pigs. In many homes in Peru, they have a dozen or so pigs living in the house (which is usually just one stone room) and when dinner time comes, they pick the fattest one and cook it up. As we went through this town, outside a restaurant with Guinea Pig on the menu, there was a 6-ft. plastic statue of a pig and a woman holding a roasted Guinea Pig on a stick. I tried fried Guinea Pig at dinner that night. The closest I can describe it, would be like duck. It wasn’t too bad.

Ollantaytambo terraces.

Mom and I went on a tour to Ollantaytambo, a village near our hotel that was once the site of an Incan emperor and a stronghold for the Incas who were fighting during the Spanish conquest. As we started the tour, Mom got hurt on a step and cut her leg. Not to downplay her pain, but it was just a cut and the reaction from our group and the town officials, which was very kind and caring, was on par with a five car pile-up. Some police showed up and wanted to whisk her away to a local medical hospital of sorts. I thought maybe a bandage and some rest would be fine, so she hung out at a café and people-watched while we took a short tour. We saw how buildings had Incan foundations and doors, Spanish walls, and then modern materials toward the tops of the homes. The next day we all came back for a tour of the ruins.

The sun temple at Ollantaytambo.

The Incas built their sun temples high up on the hillsides. We took a long steep climb up the ancient stairs with lots of breathing breaks. The ruins were impressive as somehow they managed to get 50 ton boulders set in place with ancient earthquake-resistant building techniques. When the Christian Spaniards came, they made the locals toss some of the big boulders of the temple down the mountain and when they told the Incas to build a church there they said, “You should have told us that before the boulders were tossed.” So the church was built in the valley. The Incas had built their temples every 20 miles or so and once had a pyramid there that was bigger than the ones in Egypt.

Ekeko dances.

We ended the day with an interesting exhibition of dancing and storytelling. Peruvians tend to mix their Christianity with ancient pagan religions. One of the things we saw in the house and was also part of story/dance was this strange looking guy called an Ekeko which is the mythological god of abundance and prosperity. The people would place the statue in a prominent and comfortable place in the home and load it up with things like money and other symbols of what a person desires. These offerings are meant to bring wealth to the worshippers.

More about the deep rooted mixture of ancient pagan religions and Christian worship later after we return to Cusco from Machu Picchu!

Locals drying corn and potatoes.

Large Christ statue outside Cusco.

Looking down the terraces at Ollantaytambo.

Locals store corn.

Hillside outside Cusco.

Fried Guinea Pig

Guinea Pigs live in a local home.

A street in Ollantaytambo with a channel of water running in front of some homes. Stone steps act as mini bridges.

Menu highlights Guinea Pig and Alpaca which tastes like steak.

Siesta time on a local farm.

Guinea Pig is on the menu here.

Locals hanging out in front of a house painted with a political advertisement.

The Sacred Valley