CUSCO | THE CAPITAL OF THE INCA EMPIRE

When we arrived in Peru, I never realised how much time we will spend in Cusco, one of the largest cities in the country and also the historical capital of the Inca Empire between 13th and 16th century.

After crossing the border from Copacabana in Bolivia, which was fast and painless, our next stop was Sillustani, a pre-Incan burial ground and an archeological site. Despite sounding all fancy, we spent the night in our tent in the car park. Sillustani was meant to be just a stop on the way to Cusco, but we did visit the burial ground, built by Aymara people (conquered by Incas in 15th century) sited on a large hill. The site mostly consisted of ‘chullpas’ – towers built of stone blocks used as tombs, sometimes even holding groups of people, like extended families of the Aymara people. Sillustani is not the only site with ‘chullpas’, but is recognised as one of the best examples throughout the country.

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One of the ‘chullpas’ across the top of the field

Besides the tombs, there were also some areas where sacrifices had taken place, again, formed from stone blocks. It was very hard to understand what was what, because all the boards with information were in Spanish and were there was information in English, it seemed to be translated with Google Translate, and did not make much sense. Despite that, there was some beautiful scenery around.

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A view from the top of the hill

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Some more stone structures

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And I managed to get an awkward picture with a baby alpaca while the little boy was getting excited about velcro on my jacket

After the site visit, as mentioned before, we camped in the car park (as those are the rules there) and woke up early next morning to set off. It was about 250 miles to Cusco, also one of the site guards at Sillustani suggested we avoid Juliaca (we are still not quite sure why) so part of the road was off-road which made for a hard and tiring day.

As we arrived in Cusco and rode through the outer areas of the city, I wasn’t too impressed, it just looked like any other South American city to me, but I was in for a surprise as we were headed to the historical centre where we would be based for our stay.

Our first choice for the place to stay failed, so we randomly found a place on Booking.com, which turned out absolutely amazing – Jamuy Guest House, with an amazing view to the city and super helpful staff. Don’t be fooled though, this is not a representative of the places we stay at – we decided to treat ourselves for few days.

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The room with a view

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But there was even a better view at the rooftop terrace of our hotel

After settling in, it was the time to explore. The historical centre of Cusco is the place where the Inca heritage is seen the best – in the buildings, in the narrow streets and even the touristy stalls, selling anything associated with Inca Empire. At the same time, the results of the Spanish colonisation are seen everywhere, with colonial buildings built within the Inca ruins or many Catholic churches. One of the most picturesque testaments of the Spanish influence is Plaza des Armas – seemingly, the centre of everything in Cusco, with a cathedral and the Church of La Compañía facing the plaza and the plaza itself being surrounded by Spanish built stone arcades, now housing many shops, bars and restaurants.

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Ever-busy Plaza des Armas

Although much happens in and around Plaza des Armas, equally famous is the Barrio de San Blas with a great concentration of artisan shops, eateries, workshops and little narrow streets surrounded by colonial buildings. In fact, most of the historical centre is picturesque, albeit hard to drive through and there are many policewomen, yes, women about with loud whistles regulating ever-annoyed drivers sounding their horns impatiently.

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One of the many cobbled streets of Cusco, with an old-school VW Beetle – they seem to like them here

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There are many steep steps around the area and can make you pretty breathless if not used to the altitude

Of course, it does not come as a surprise that Cusco is a very touristy place with millions of people visiting each year. And that reflects all around with it being impossible to walk through the Plaza des Armas without being offered random paintings or fake Ray Bans about million times. There are many traditionally dressed women about with llamas or alpacas, always eager to have a photo taken with them for a small amount of money. Sometimes they carry around, what they claim to be an alpaca baby, but what looks more like a lamb with a bobbly hat on its head.

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Some of the traditionally dressed women walking down the street

Besides taking in all the sights and eating our way through the many restaurants of the city (for more info about the food and places to eat, see my previous entry), we took it upon ourselves to walk up to Cristo Blanco – a gigantic statue of Christ, looming over the city on one of the mountains surrounding it (seems to be characteristic of many cities and towns). We did not take a tourist access route where you have to pay, but walked up through many little streets and less known routes. It was quite disappointing though, as the statue was surrounded by a fence and by the time we got up there, it started to rain heavily and we got soaked and cold.

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The only picture I took of the statue

As we were making our way down, we found ourselves just by the ruins of Saksaywaman which, although seem to be Inca ruins, were originally built by Killke culture (who occupied the area before Incas), but were expanded later by Incas.

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A gloomy picture of the Saksaywaman ruins

After few days exploration, it was the time to make our way to Machu Picchu (and you can read all about it here). When we returned from Machu Picchu, the Estrellita Hostel – a place where we wanted to stay originally, had a room available and we settled ourselves there, now closer to San Blas neighbourhood. Estrellita Hostel is famously known between motorcyclists and cyclists making their way through Cusco, but, of course, backpackers and other traveler stay there too. With a double room at 45 soles per night (approximately 9 pounds), you cannot go wrong. Yes, the rooms were basic and the showers are shared, but there is a great vibe about the hostel, with many amazing people coming and going. At the time we were staying there, we met many bikers, so a lot of stories were shared and new acquaintances made.

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At some point there were 6 motorcycles in the courtyard, with me being the only girl on one

The reason we came back to Cusco, was Carl waiting for a new shock absorber from Germany. It was sent through via DHL, but we did not know how long would it take, expecting up to two weeks, so there we were, stuck in one place for much longer than we wanted to. If we spent the first part of our stay in Cusco, walking around, seeing places, the other part seemed to acquire more of a social aspect, with much more staying in the hostel and socialising with it’s inhabitants. We met many remarkable people there from all around the world and shared meals, drinks and stories with them. I read many books during my stay (which should hopefully help my ‘read 50 books in 2015′ challenge) and it was great to catch up with our blogs, social media, talk with friends and family back home and just reflect on what we have experienced so far.

Although it was nice to relax in one place for a while and increase the amount of books I have read in 2015, we were getting restless and our package still had not showed up. One of the guys at the hostel suggested few places to visit slightly outside of the city and we decided, why not.

On a cloudy Saturday morning we visited Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary, just about 22km from Cusco on the way to Pisac – a place where rescued animals find a loving and caring home. The Sanctuary has helped animals abused by humans, involved in trafficking, hunted birds, like condors and even little puma cubs left without a mother after a car had killed it. If I was scared that the place will be like a zoo, with animals looking run down in their captivity, I was in for a surprise. Even though, some of the animals are tied up, they all seemed happy and cared about. They had plenty of room to roam about and the Sanctuary does not receive even a tiny fraction of visitors you would encounter in a zoo, making it a peaceful place to stay.

The entry was only 10 soles per person and you get one of the staff to walk you around the relatively small premises chatting about the various animals and birds, explaining where do they all come from and answering any questions you might have. After the guided walk, you are free to  wander around taking pictures or just spending some time with the animals. Lots of animals are easily accessed with no restrictions (apart from dangerous ones, like pumas), but be careful with your affections, as I got attacked by an aggressive, one-eyed vicuña who bit me in the arm. Thankfully, I was wearing few layers, including my motorcycle jacket, so got away with a mild shock and a scratch. (I should have known it is suspicious when it ran up to me looking way too friendly).

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It lulled me in a false sense of security by looking all friendly and interested

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But don’t be fooled – there it looks all innocent, while I am looking ugly and upset

Apart from the aggressive vicuña, the rest of my experience was great, seeing many happy animals and, most importantly, seeing the great Condor up close and personal. It surprised me to learn that condors can live up to 95 years. Every day is a learning day, huh?

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The majestic condor – this particular one was 65 years old, practically retired

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This female was only 7 years old – a baby in condor years

I did not hesitate to snap away all the time, so scroll down for some of my favourite photos.

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Some more vicuñas – these were only baby ones, so calm and polite

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Some sort of a monkey, but look at his little face!

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Another little monkey fella who loved to hide in a cupboard

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I think these were mates as they kept grooming each other and looking very affectionate

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Possibly eagles (wish I would have been more into nature when I was growing up, I am lame, I know)

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Peruvian hairless dogs, freely roaming about the premises

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And I could not resist taking pictures of this self-indulgent cat

There were many more animals, but pumas were napping, guinea pigs felt shy and kept hiding away from us with a suspicious look in their eyes and some of the other animals were busy chewing away on food so I could not take very good pictures. The whole visit took us a little more than an hour, but it was a time well spent.

We are still in Cusco at the moment, but hopefully our package should arrive in next few days so we are not up to much, just relaxing and sorting things out. Our next stop will be Arequipa, so stay tuned.

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