Cusco, Peru was a place of many first for us. First time at a high altitude, first touch of the ancient Inca ruins, first taste of the famed Cuy or guinea pig, our first time crossing 30 feet of terrain and stopping to catch our breath in oddly surprising, unable-to-speak gasps and our very first experience with altitude sickness.
What is notable about high altitude is how your lungs shrink to almost pea-size and just walking around seems to take all your concentration (because most of you is trying to breathe) which makes it hard to really appreciate those ancient Inca ruins. And they did not disappoint. The architectural skills of the ancients is really astounding as precision cuts into stone, combined with anti-earthquake stacking leaves one wondering how it could have been done without Divine intervention. Along the whole cut of each temple stone, the mortar-free seam was so tight one could not even slip in a piece of straw between the interlocked blocks creating a flush, level wall that even modern times has trouble mastering. Mind boggling.
But the altitude of where the ruins rested was even more impressive. Cusco nests at 11,000+ ft. The air is ‘thin’.
Admittedly, I would have been even more impressed with the whole package if it weren’t for the trying to breathe thing that occupied my mind. I remember thinking, “Just get enough air, it can’t be that hard. There has got be oxygen somewhere in these molecules right, just get a big breath…that’s right…what did the guide say? ‘Take our time? Quickly now!...what the heck does that mean...don’t worry about it…just breath…nice big breath…OMG! There is absolutely no oxygen on this damn mountain! I am on a mountain right? Or is it a hill? Crap! It’s just a hill!’
These were my first experiences of Cusco. I did recover well enough on the bus ride back to the hotel to tell my sister I think I was having hallucinations (certainly from oxygen deprivation) because I kept hearing the tour guide say, “Quickly now! Take your time…We will stop at the Pee-Pee room next.’ But no. I was assured by my sister that that was indeed what I heard. I would comment more on the language barrier more but she (our guide) spoke three complete languages and I spoke one, plus ten words each of three different ones.
We rested at our hotel for a bit and, feeling restored, went into the night for a bit of supper. Everything is up and down in Cusco, well, really all of Peru, and the quaint narrow streets were cobblestone dotted with Peruvian women in brightly-colored regional dress sitting with alpacas so tourist could pose with baby alpacas and the women for a very small fee. (I am sure if I would have jettisoned a few non-essentials like my extra shoes and two pieces of clothing I could have slipped one of those adorable baby alpacas in my pack.) We passed on both because we were in search of food. Cusco had a large number of Italian restaurants and we were looking for a Peruvian menu but we settled on a fusion place of both cultures and tried Cuy ravioli followed by a nice sauvignon Blanc of Peru breeding. Cuy is the famed guinea pig of Peru and while it was interesting, it left us undecided and we made a mental note to try it again to make a judgement. Then we retired to the room for the evening and that’s when things really got interesting.
Cusco was the one fly in the ointment of our Journey. Hence it has a new name I have bestowed on it, undeserved to be sure, but nonetheless, it remains in my journal as ‘The Poison City on the Hill.’
And I will tell you why next time. Until then…just breathe.