Enjoying our last day in the Sacred Valley
This was our last full day in the Sacred Valley. We met David Ramos again for a tour of Cusco. Our first stop was the fortress of Sacsayhuaman ("Sexy Woman"). Because it was the site of the Inti Raymi festivities the day before, there were still rows of folding chairs and a makeshift stage with a gaudy gold-painted throne. The ruins were composed of some of the largest stones we had seen in Incan architecture. Sadly, the conquistadors had dismantled so much of the fortress. Otherwise, I’m sure it would rival Machu Picchu in grandeur and fame.
David pointed out several patterns in the walls of the fortress such as a serpent and a puma paw print. At the time, I thought he was on some bad ayahausca trip (Later, I saw a photo of another Incan ruin that proved that they did build designs into their walls). At the top we got a great view of the city. I could almost imagine Manco Inca and his warriors standing on that exact spot during the siege of Cusco in 1536.
David led us to the less visited side of the ruins. There were some natural slides in the rock. He said that kids would go sledding down there when it snows. I don't know, they looked pretty steep. Besides, does it really snow there? We passed a circular field to get to some tunnels. There are many niches in the walls that were used in the past to bury the dead. We were told that thieves sometimes hide down there to rob tourists. All we saw was an old lady and her llama. It's sad when the elderly turn to a life of crime.
We then drove a short distance to Q’enko. This temple originally had a large sacred rock carved like a frog. It has been damaged over the years, so now it just looks like a big blob. Nevertheless, there were some extensive rock carvings including a surrounding row of stone seats or niches. Inside are also several openings which were used in the past to store mummies. There was also a small altar inside that formed the profile of a llama.
We headed back into the city to quench our thirst. David took us to a clean watering-hole where we had some chicha, a fermented beverage made with corn. Unlike the spit-fermented chicha that Anthony Bourdain drank in the Amazon jungle, our drink was made with more sanitary techniques. In general, Sherri and I drink very little alcohol. It’s probably because we come from a long line of people who are deficient in alcohol dehydrogenase. Nevertheless, both of us actually enjoyed the drink a lot, much more than the popular pisco sours.
Our next stop was the Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun). Like many other Incan buildings, it too had been converted by the Spanish into a cathedral. The Dominican architecture, while beautiful in its own right, does not compare to the precision and durability of the Incan masonry. The walls of the temple were apparently even more amazing during Incan times. Unfortunately, greedy conquistadors ripped off all of the sheets of pure gold that covered the walls.
I couldn’t leave Peru without trying cuy. We drove out to a small town outside of Cusco known as Tipon that specializes in cooking up guinea pigs. These little rodents were stuffed with herbs and whole-roasted in an oven. They were served up baring a macabre grin and still sporting their little rat claws. I dug in heartily. Sherri only tried a few nibbles and then polished off the accompanying peppers and potatoes. There is really very little meat on these guys especially on the front half of the body. Cuy did not have a strong or gamey taste, probably because it only “free ranges” within somebody’s house. David encouraged me to eat the head, brains and all. The guinea pig and I were not quite at that stage in our relationship yet.
We spent the afternoon at the Museo Inka. Having a guide take us through there was really helpful. There are some descriptions of the exhibits, but they are not as thorough as, say, the Smithsonian. David’s knowledge helped fill in the many gaps. From there we ended our tour at the Cathedral of Santa Domingo in the Plaza de Armas.
This is truly a beautiful building with even more marvelous (and somewhat garish) objects inside. It houses the “Black Christ” which has developed that color from centuries of candle smoke and ash. This artifact is paraded through the streets of Cusco annually as it is thought to be protective against earthquakes. My favorite painting is the infamous “Last Supper” by Marcos Zapata. Created in the Cusquena tradition, it depicts Jesus and his Disciples eating cuy, passion fruit, corn, and other foods indigenous to the new world.
On a side note, there are several shops mainly around the San Blas area that sell machine-made replicas of famous oil paintings, usually at pretty high prices. I really wanted to find a copy of this aforementioned painting but was repeatedly unsuccessful. Luckily, I stumbled into a small shop where I found an artist who could replicate any painting from its picture. He would do it for even less than any machine-made copy. I told him that we were leaving Cusco soon, but he promised that he could deliver in that time. I was a very skeptical about the quality but paid the small deposit for it. When I came to pick it up the next day, I was in for a shockingly-good surprise. It was beautiful. He had a done such a marvelous job replicating the painting down to the smallest details on a smaller scale (the original is huge). He had spent the entire night and following day painting it, but still had the Disciples hands to finish. He even delivered it to my hotel late that evening when he did complete it. I paid him more than we had agreed because I thought that he had done such a great job in such a short time. If I ever make it back to Cusco, I’m going to bring pictures of other paintings—“Mona Lisa, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Dogs Playing Poker, Starry Night,The Scream, etc”—for him to replicate. The artist’s name is Enrique Pescoran Perez (firstname.lastname@example.org), and his shop is Caller de Arte Souvenir.
We gave David our most heartfelt thanks and said our goodbyes. We truly appreciated his vast knowledge of Incan history. His passion for his heritage is evident. There are several other touring options in the Sacred Valley that are cheaper than hiring a personal guide. However, given our time constraints, I don’t think we would have been as immersed in the culture of this region if we did not have David showing us around.
We spent the evening at the Museo de Arte Precolombino (MAP) near our hotel. Since there is a greater emphasis on art rather than history, I didn’t like this place as much as the Museo Inka. The galleries at the MAP are presented more modernly and professionally, but I could not get over the exhibit descriptions. They sounded too much like a snooty art aficionado piling on the B.S. Did I mention that I am a philistine?
We then dined at the fancy MAP Café. I really enjoyed my appetizer which was essentially a stew with Andean spices and vegetables covered in puff pastry. Puff pastry makes anything good. In my quest to eat two of each animal on this planet, I felt compelled to try the cuy dish. They fancied up the rodent by making a confit of the hindquarters—similar to how duck can be served. Unfortunately, I really didn’t enjoy this version as much because the meat was rendered too chewy and dry in order to make the skin crispy. Overall the food and service were good but somewhat pricey.