Day 2: Viva Cusco
After enjoying a sweet little taste of the city on the evening of Day 1, my friends and I awoke the next morning to a beautiful, glorious day in Cusco. The sun was shining in the bold azure sky, and everything looked different in the bright, cheery daylight than in the mysterious lamp-glow of night. We started the day with a simple breakfast of bread, meat (for some of us), and coca tea at the hostel. Then, traipsing down the cobblestone streets, we admired the colonial buildings surrounding us, especially the brilliant blue doors, rails, and trimmings that enlivened the architecture like splashes of cool water. When we returned to Plaza de Arma, we could make out some of the more exquisite detailing on the cathedral, along with the beautiful lawn area with its profusion of pink and yellow flowers. Rainbow-striped flags were flapping in the breeze throughout the city – and no, they did not signify gay pride; apparently, the Inca people just happen to share the same flag as the gay community!
Two of my friends (PS and SK, who are married) and I decided to tour the interior of the cathedral while our other friends (RohZ, P2D2, and KP) checked out some nearby streets. Unfortunately, photographs were not permitted in the interior of the cathedral, so I’ll try to describe it as best as I can. Just to give you some background information, the Catedral de Cusco was completed in 1654, after nearly 100 years of construction, in the Spanish Gothic Renaissance style.
The cathedral was magnificent. There were several separate spaces ensconced by stone walls and incredible domed ceilings adorned with white filigree. Each space featured intricate golden carvings and small arched alcoves holding a number of sacred relics, including life-sized figures of various saints and –of course- Jesus. The sight of the lifelike Jesus was unsettling; there were so many figures of him, every direction you turned, all of them with dark rivulets of blood weeping down the skin and a prickly crown of thorns atop his head. Gilded columns and ornate framework also surrounded massive allegorical paintings. Stairs led down into silent, eerie crypts where the bishops were buried. In the pews, a few locals were bowing their heads, praying into their steepled hands; there were also people standing along the walls, praying directly to the figure of their patron saint.
As I’m not religious, I was surprised to feel a sense of deep reverence as I wandered through the Catholic structure; the feeling of sanctity permeated the entire space…it could not be ignored…it was nearly palpable. I wondered if I’d had too much coca tea that morning.
Once PS, SK, and I were done with our tour of the cathedral, we met up with the rest of the crew and climbed an inclining road to reach a high point with a wonderful overlook. From this vantage point, big billowy clouds floated above us like white ship sails, while Cusco sprawled below us in a blanket of red-tiled rooftops. In the distance, we could also make out a mountainside etched with the words “VIVA EL PERU”. It was a gorgeous spot, and the perfect place for an impromptu photo shoot.
After a quick stop back at the hostel, we tried out the highly rated Morena Café for lunch. The café was a bright, clean space with a very modern, trendy feel to it. Light bulbs glowed within large plastic teardrops suspended from the ceiling, like fireflies in jars, and flower boxes hung from the walls to lend an air of freshness. One wall was painted with the face of a beautiful “morena” (brown-skinned girl). Our silverware was presented on carved rocks. Pretty much 100% of the clientele was comprised of tourists.
We all ordered sandwiches, which were huge, mostly tasty, and served with a fresh flower on top. With the exception of PS, who ordered a delicious chocolate milkshake, we also tried Inca Kola, the official soda of Peru. Inca Kola is a neon lime-yellow color and tastes like carbonated liquid bubble gum. While most of us were satisfied to never taste another drop of Inca Kola after the first saccharine sample, P2D2 took a strong fancy to it and was soon volunteering to down our remaining colas! After our filling meals, we tucked the flowers into our hair and set off in search of new discoveries.
We decided to check out San Pedro Market. On the way, we ducked through a random archway into a courtyard filled with abandoned parade floats (some of which were quite terrifying). Then, back on the road, we watched as a couple danced what looked like the tango. In order to get to the marketplace, we had to pass through a beautiful stone gateway topped with what appeared to be winged sentinels and some sort of religious figure. I love passing through gateways; they offer a sense of transformation, like portals into a whole other world.
Once we passed through this particular portal, we soon arrived at San Pedro Market, a large indoor marketplace where merchants were selling everything from traditional clothing and touristy souvenirs to pig heads and live leeches. We perused the wares for quite some time, but worked to steer clear of slaughtered animals still in possession of their eyes. At one point, PS claimed that an old Peruvian lady tried to curse him. So, you know, just a normal day at the market.
With our newly purchased items secure in brown paper bags, we continued on our merry way through the town. Before long, we came upon another marketplace, this time in the open air. The outdoor market was far less crowded than the San Pedro Market, focused mostly on clothing and accessories, and featured delightful Peruvian music. The market was bordered on one side by yet another lovely stone church, and on the other by Colegio Nacional de Ciencias (National College of Sciences…although RohZ initially got excited when he mistook the sign to mean National College of Cinema). Our bags expanded with our additional souvenirs.
As we made our way back to the hostel, we snuck in some photographs with the beautiful blue doors. I was looking up at the blue balconies above, musing that it would be another ideal spot for a photo (leaning over the balcony all Juliet-like and whatnot), when we noticed the sign above us: Choco Museo. Que? Como? Chocolate Museum? Si, por favor! What a stroke of serendipity to be loitering idly in front of a building that turned out to be a shrine to my favorite treat! First we barged into the gift shop, where the lady directed us to the entrance around the corner. And then we barged into the museum itself, where the sweet, divine scent of chocolate embraced us.
Immediately, a man shuffled over to us with a plate of assorted chocolate samples, and he didn’t have to ask us twice before we began trying them out like seasoned chocolate connoisseurs. Later, other museum employees offered us samples of chocolate tea and more chocolaty goodies. Our exploration of the small museum revealed a kitchen where fresh chocolate was created from scratch (the kitchen offered lessons, but alas, we didn’t have enough time to make our own batch of chocolates), an upstairs area devoted to information about the cacao plant and its products, and shelves stocked with chocolate in every form imaginable – chocolate bars, chocolate syrup, chocolate liquor, chocolate jams, chocolate tea, etc. I feel like the Bubba Gump of chocolate just trying to name them all.
Once we exhausted our examination of the museum, my friends and I headed for the balcony to take some pictures. At one point, SK and I were alone on the balcony, attempting to take a selfie, when one of the museum employees offered to take a photo of us.
“You are two special flavors on the balcony,” he said in his rich Peruvian accent, gazing at us like we were newly discovered types of chocolate. SK and I glanced at each other, trying not to laugh, when SK’s husband PS suddenly appeared behind the employee.
“I can take the photo,” PS said sternly, holding his palm out to take the camera. Reluctantly, the employee handed him the camera and slowly melted away into the shadows.
When we had all added various chocolate products to our souvenir bags, it was time to head “home” to the hostel and chill for a bit after gallivanting about all day. We lingered in the beautiful courtyard, taking turns playing some competitive ping pong (and by competitive, I mean our trash-talking level, not our skill level), while the others lounged in the reclined chairs.
Finally, our grumbling stomachs signaled that it was time for another meal. At first we made our way to Cicciolina, which had garnered good reviews, but the restaurant had no tables for us unless we wanted to split up our party. So we decided to stop by the Salkantay Trekking office, which was nearby, and attend our trek orientation before trying again at Cicciolina. The orientation was incredibly detailed and somewhat daunting, to say the least. We felt nervous but also excited as our guide, Roger, described our route, timing, and activities. I tried to follow our stops on the map provided to us while also frantically jotting down notes. By the end of the orientation, Roger reminded us we would be picked up from our hostel at 4:00 a.m. the next morning. Ouch. He also advised us to buy ponchos, as the weather tended to change often, “like Peruvian girls.”
After the orientation, we tried Cicciolina again, but no dice. So we settled for a nearby restaurant called Café de la Paz, which was a large upstairs space that was almost entirely empty. The food was decent, but nothing to write home about, and we all had the opportunity to practice our Spanish with the waitress. We all paid our separate checks with 100 sole bills in order to make change, which the waitress thought was hilarious.
As we left the restaurant, we passed through a spooky hallway where a partially open door led to shadowy stairs and strange noises. RohZ got the chills from the haunted aura and was too creeped out to explore beyond the door, so when we all walked outside, I tried to hang back for a moment and then jump forward and shout in order to scare him. Unfortunately, a little old Peruvian lady somehow crossed my path in the midst of this plan, and I ended up accidentally jumping/shouting in her face. The lady was understandably startled, and then, assuming I was some sort of hooligan, she began cursing at me while I ran to catch up with my friends, my head hanging in shame. This was the second time that day one of us had been cursed by a Peruvian lady!
We made one more stop to buy ponchos and exchange money before heading home to shower and sleep early. After all, we had to wake up before dawn the next day. And then our trek, and the misadventures, would begin…
Or start from the beginning and read Day 1 – Touchdown Cusco!