4/5 Cusco the Heart of the Americas
Landed in Cusco smooth as silk. Descended through the clouds into this Mecca perched high in the Andes. Checked into Hotel Rojas just around the corner from the Plaza de Armas, and I really like it. Cheap as hell (which is tough here in Cusco), well situated and stately-comfy. There’s free coca leafs and hot water for tea for those ailing from altitude sickness, but for me so far so good. I actually don’t believe in altitude sickness. Its a myth. I drink lots of beer, occasionally smoke a cigarette and suck at staying hydrated, and I’ve never got a symptom. So if I didn’t get it, you won’t get it. PMA.
Walked around a bit this evening, figuring I’d keep it chill in case I was wrong about the whole “altitude sickness is a myth” thing and needed to acclimate. Tomorrow I’ll do a full on walk about before I leave for my Machu Picchu trek on Monday. I’m surprised by the party town aspect of Cusco. Daniela and her friends in Lima had told me that this is a destination to party for Limeños, but gawddamn! Its a Saturday night and already the old streets are packed with kids, with house music shaking the Inca foundations.
Having dinner at Victor Victoria, which just happens to be the closest restaurant to my hotel and I’m starving. It’s nice! Super friendly dueña and a huge menu of trucha (trout), alpaca, cuy (guinea pig), ceviche, and a myriad of other options that cater more to less adventurous gringos. I ordered the alpaca a la chorrillana. I think the chorrillana sauce is usually for fish, but who knows. First time for alpaca so maybe it tastes like fish. The salad bar here is another nice perk. Rarely south of San Diego have I seen such a nice variety of fresh veggies. Cabbage, beets, radi….-
Holy shit. THIS ALPACA IS FUCKING AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!!!
***After devouring the plate, my exact words…***
BY FAR the best and most unexpected meal I’ve had in a long, long time! And for $20 with a couple beers. The alpaca is tender, lean. Part filet mignon, part pork tenderloin in texture and flavor. The marinade and/or spices were reminiscent of chimichurri somehow. Oh my god SO FUCKING GOOD. I’m out of bread. Tempted to pour the juices into my face. Holy shit am I glad I came in here! Jesus lord. This is a game changer, and totally out of the blue.
***Crappy iPhone pictures don’t do it justice!***
So yeah, if you get a chance; eat alpaca. I wasn’t exaggerating. For the rest of my trip I ate alpaca (or llama in Bolivia) basically once a day. Chorrillana style is something I definitely want to make at home, and seems easy enough. Grilled tomatoes, onions with a slightly tangy/spicy aspect that must be based in wine or white vinegar and oregano. When I had regained my ability to speak, I asked the dueña how to make this amazing dish. With a gleam in her eye she said, “Just cook the meat, tomatoes and onions until they’re done.”. DRATS! Secret recipes be damned, I’m going to figure this one out back home.
4/6 Exploring Cusco
Had a shitty night sleep last night thanks to the raging party that was going on til at least dawn. Also got back from dinner around 9PM and found the door locked. Had to bang on the door for 20 minutes before the night guy woke up and let me in. So although the bed was comfy as hell, two points against Hotel Rojas. Once I made it out and about this morning, the day was perfect. Warm sun and white clouds against a dark blue sky. There was a parade in Plaza de Armas, for what I have no idea, but fun to watch none the less.
I trudged up to and past the artistic San Blas section of town, and kept going up in the hopes of finding a good view point of Cusco as a whole. Can’t say I found anything great view-wise, but I figure plodding up the hilly streets was good practice for my trek. On the way down, I happily lost myself in the labyrinthian back alleys. Headed in the general direction of Qorikancha/Santo Domingo. All along the way its amazing to see the uniform, precisely engineered rock foundations that still support hap-hazard and often adobe extensions that the Spaniards started after they destroyed the formidable metropolis the Inca had created. To add to the mystical vibe (to a gringo at least); the Quechua men and women. Here in Cusco was where I first noticed what would become routine in the journey. Great-great-great-great-great grandchildren of the indigenous people that ruled these lands are not relegated to reservations in the high plain. To this day they hold it down in the city, and have plenty of open land in the country side. It was a weird to think about the decedents of the original people in the States. You probably won’t see a Lenape woman walking in Manhattan, or a Camanche warrior in Dallas. Sadly you’d probably be hard pressed to find someone speaking the original language on many of the reservations we moved our originals to.
A perfect example of the Spaniards building on the broken backs of the Inca is at the aforementioned Qorikancha/Santo Domingo site. Back in the day, Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire. Literally all roads led to Cusco. The divine leader (called The Inca), presided over his land, stretching from Ecuador to Chile, from this government seat. Originally Qorikancha was the grandest temple in the Inca empire. Hundreds of pounds of gold and other precious metals decorated this center for ritual and science. Francisco Pizzaro and his men conquered Cusco, ransacked the place, and destroyed most of the mighty Inca structures. Eventually the sight was bequeathed to the Dominican monks who built a church on the stone foundation of Qorikancha. The original temple was built in the 1400s and what’s left has stood strong while the subsequent church has been destroyed twice by earthquake (1650 and 1950), and severely damaged in 1986.
Ducked into Jardín Secreto on the road between my hotel and the plaza. Really cool little local joint, or so it seems. Through the walkway from the sidewalk leads to a nice outdoor courtyard with bar, and tables for food. A local football match is projected on the wall and it seems like everyone knows each other and are meeting up for some Sunday afternoon beers and grub. Old men order rounds of Pilsen beer, kids run around, and large tables of friends and family (I assume) eat ceviche and chat. I got the ceviche, and it came with a seafood consume. I am a lover of all things ceviche, but after my first try of trout ceviche I must report it was a bit much for me. It came garnished with frilly seaweed, and had a nice ginger/spice kick to it, but the fresh water gamey-ness was undeniable. I decided I’d stick to cooked trout and alpaca during my time in the highlands.
For my last meal in civilization for a while, I treated myself to a fancy dinner at Chicha. Gastón Acurio is probably Peru’s most famous chef. He had an early hand in elevating Peruvian cuisine, utilizing the abundance of natural ingredients the various climates of Peru provide. The name for the “new” style is novaandina, and sounded pretty damn good to me. It was a splurge for sure ($40 with couple beers), but gawddamn it was good. I figured if anywhere, here was the place to try cuy (guinea pig). The plate was amazing, but I’m guessing not very traditional. The cuy itself was cut off the body, and in strips; topped with what looked like quail eggs. Taste wise cuy was almost fishy. I guess the word is gamey. Kind of the texture of chicharron. More skin than meat. Not that bad though. Underneath amazing. A quinoa “fried rice” kind of action with broccoli, plaintain, and an asian slaw. Tastes of hoisin, mirin, chili oil, anise (?). Very light and cohesive. A fusion (barf that word) of asian and caribbean, with strictly Peruvian ingredients. Crisp, prompt service and looked like a high end variety of drinks (I stuck to Cusqueñas).
Left Chicha full and ready for bed, but spent the next couple hours gathering supplies for tomorrow’s trek. Water, rum, coca leaves, CHECK. Can’t wait for what feels like the REAL beginning of adventure. Tomorrow night I will write by starlight on top of the Andes mountains!