I thought about writing my first entry from Cuzco (or Cusco or Qo’sqo if you want to get all fancy) as a postcard but it didn’t seem right to put the city I’m going to live in for the next several months into the same category as those places I pass through in a couple of days.
I’ll start this post by saying, getting to our new home was a grueling trip. Long layovers, exhausting flights, miscommunication, sleep deprivation, multiple security checks, none-too-friendly immigration officers, and lugging a hundred pounds of gear made this one of the most stressful and taxing journeys I have ever made.
Sitting in Lima’s terminal, my spirits were pretty low. I had gotten about seven hours of sleep in the last two days and I felt burnt out from all the stress. We boarded our flight to Cuzco around 6:30 in the morning. Even before the wheels left the ground, my eyelids were collapsing.
I don’t remember what woke me up — it might have been turbulence, it might have been the fatigue induced nausea — but whatever it was, when I opened my eyes my mood started changing, for the better. To my side, distorted only slightly by the water streaked and stained windows, I saw the narrow coastal plain of Peru rise abruptly. Brown hills, green mountains, white peaks in turn passed below me. I watched as streams left glacial lakes and fell staggering distances into steep valleys lost in shadow.
As we flew higher, I saw a thick layer of clouds breaking on sharp peaks like ocean waves. Soon all was lost to whiteness. “What a country,” I said to Sonya. She was asleep. “What a country.”
I slept in vignettes for the next 30 minutes and woke up just in time for our plunge into Cuzco. I call it a plunge because words like descent or landing don’t quite do justice to the experience of arriving in the old Incan capital. When I had fallen asleep, the clouds were unbroken but now summits loomed unsettlingly close, like icebergs adrift on the same white sea our airplane floated on.
The pilot turned our craft in a full circle; nowhere, save for those menacing peaks, did I see ground. Now I realized that we were going to dive blind through the clouds, with only the flight instruments as a guide. Clouds don’t seem so soft and fluffy when you realize solid rock could loom unseen behind any one of them.
Soon though, the world opened up to me again and I saw we were flying through a valley with hills, still lush and green from the rainy season, rising high on both sides. Cuzco now came into view with all of its red tile roofs and square concrete houses. I was still delirious from the sleep deprivation but my adventurous spirit was alert and only beginning to wake up.
The short drive from the airport to our guesthouse so full of new sights that is hard to put it down in writing. One thing I will recount were the roads. Tire-polished cobble stones rose steeply from the city’s center and whipped around switchbacks that looked more like hiking trails. Whenever our driver approached one of these he wouldn’t let off the gas but rather lay on the horn as a warning for anyone coming the other direction.
We wound through narrow alleys and up hills that sapped every last bit of horsepower from the tiny station wagon. Our guesthouse was perched on top of Cuesta Santa Ana, a stair-lined street with an impossible slope that fell away to an awesome view of the central Cuzco. At 11,000 feet above sea level, even walking up small flights of stairs left us huffing.
To fight altitude sickness, we sipped tea made from coca leaves but the effects were almost disappointingly mild. So mild in fact that after consuming the base product of the world’s favorite illegal upper, we fell soundly asleep and didn’t wake up until late afternoon.
When I did wake up, I set out on foot in search of water. The local markets only carried small bottles so I asked the receptionist at the guest house where the nearest supermarket was. Armed with a hand-drawn map I descended Cuesta Santa Ana. The trip down the stairs was easy, even fun, the trip up was less so. Ladened now with five liters of water and a bagful of groceries, I plodded slowly upwards, mouth agape, pulling thin air into my lungs.
When I reached the guesthouse gate I turned back to look at the steps I had just ascended and down on the city. When I looked, I had a suspicion that I was falling in love with Cuzco. My trip into the center of the city had taken me past colonial churches, Incan stone work, and crumbling plaster. When I looked at the architecture I noticed that something was missing — advertising. Sure, every shop had a sign and I had seen a few billboards at the airport but that was nothing compared to some of the places I’d visited in Asia.
Cuzco feels like its own city. Like anywhere in the world, western influence is a factor, but this city has somehow managed to keep a soul. How many other places in the world could you walk up to a McDonalds and only realize that it was a McDonalds after you had stepped under a stone colonnade and peered through the windows?
Sonya and I walked onto the roof of our guesthouse right before sunset where we saw Cuzco open panoramically before us. Rainclouds darkened much of the city, but off to the east we could see a mountain, snow sheeted, glowing yellow in the late afternoon sun. Below us people walked in plazas and church bells rang. If I read what I am about to say somewhere else, I would dismiss it as a travel writer’s hyperbole, but I promise this is what really happened; as we stood there tracing old stones with our eyes and embracing against the mountain breeze, the soft sounds of a pan flute drifted up from somewhere in the cobbled streets below.