It’s 8 am and the sky of Cusco is covered by a tick blanket of cloudes like any other typical morning of the raining season. An old, tiny man with a huge umbrella its waiting in front of the hotel, ready to accompany us to the bus station, the starting point of our new adventure. When we requested “pick up from the hotel” I never imagined that the tour agent will actually show up with no car but I guess this is what you get for 60 soles (20$) trip. In fact I was about to regret my commodity straight way, when I realized that the man has a problem with his leg which made the walking even more difficult.
After 2 hours drive we reach the main attraction of our journey, the famous Sacred valley of the Incas where the struggle with the altitude its still taking place but on a lower level (2900 meters). I am experiencing difficulties in breathing and chest pain while my friend condition is even worse and we are worried that she might need medical care during our stay.
Altitude sickness is a real concern that has to be taken into consideration when planing your trip to Cusco as this might led to possible complication like hypoxia and even death. A good physical preparation, avoiding heavy meals and alcohol, drinking plenty of coca tea and requesting for oxygen when needed will help you acclimatize much easier.
Dressed in colorful ponchos bought from a local handicraft market, we enter the town of Pisac, where is located one of the most beautiful archeological site left behind by the Incas.
The entire Sacred valley was built as a reflection of the Milky Way, being not only a home for the sons of the Sun but literally the heaven on earth, where the living, the dead and the gods lived peacefully together.
Incas were not only masters of astrology but they could also predict and use the weather in their advantage especially for agriculture purposes, ensuring the main source of food for the vast empire.
Hundred agriculture terraces arranged in a shape of a Condor are still being used today by the locals who are trying to rebuild the complex irrigation system and advanced techniques used by their ancestors in an attempt of saving water and increase production.
We continue to climb the difficult terrain, following Marco’s instructions, who is not only an experienced tour guide but also professor of Astrology and a real passionate of Inca’s culture. Concerned for our safety, Marco instruct us not to stop in the areas marked with a red or orange flag as this might put our life in danger.
Two Chinese ladies decide to leave the group and explore the site by themselves and I am keep thinking how fortunate I am to understand both languages (Spanish and English) being able to learn an interesting history lesson in the best classroom that one can have: surrounded by the nature and well preserved ruins of a lost era.
In the same spot its located an well known Inca cemetery carved in a rock wall and containing more than 3000 burials. Here, the Inca used to bury people who have no family while the other ones, more fortunate were mummified and cared for as they were still alive: their family would change their clothes periodically, invite them for dinner and even take their mummified body out for a “walk”.
**Inca cemetery digged in a rock wall
But dying of natural cause or in war was not the only way of loosing your life in Inca’s time.
The modern archeological discoveries shown an increased number of human sacrificed in so called “sacred rituals” in order to obtain the Gods favor or simply just to prove the mortals gratitude in front of the divinity. And what can be more pure and precious than the life of a child? The kids, usually born in peasant families were given drugs and alcohol in their final moments to ensure their compliance, being left to die.
The rituals were performed on top of a sacrificial stone, hundreds still being preserved today across Peru.
What would be an enormous tragedy for a modern family was considered as a great honor for that time, the parents of the sacrificed child being blessed by the Gods and envied by the people.
**Incas mummies buried with their child
We are heading to Ollantaytambo, a 15th century Inca’s town built on cobblestoned streets and well preserved adobe buildings, a marvel of engineering and architecture, being both fortress and complex city in the same time.
The name of the town its associated with a pre-columbian love story not often mentioned to the tourists, a romantic tragedy where the Ollantay, the most brave warrior and trusted general of Pachacutec felt in love with the daughter emperor, who gave birth to a child in secret. Their love was forbidden by the emperor and after 10 years in exile Cusi Coyllur was forgiven by her father and reunited with her beloved Ollantay.
Across the ancient city, separated by a huge stone gate is located one of the Inca’s most sacred place: the temple hill.
The fortress, originally built for religious purposes was the site of a major battle, one of the few when Incas defeated the Spanish conquistadors, a great role in the victory being played by the high location from where the Incas could monitor the approach of the enemy.
The temple of the Sun
We are trying to keep up the rhythm of climbing with Marco but our guide even if he is much older than us seems to be more fit and most of the time we are left breathless, behind the group. When we finally manage to reach the top of the hill Marco is taking out his famous notebook, like a real teacher, pointing over a pile of stones in front of us: The temple of the sun, the most important construction in the region.
Built out of 6 massive “lazy” stones (piedras cansadas), each of them weighting more than 50 tones, the unfinished temple was used as a calendar by the Incas especially during summer and winter solstice, reasons of great celebration for the living and the dead on both sides. How the Incas managed to carry those huge stones up to the hill remains a mystery for the modern archaeologists and architects.
Like any other civilization, Incas believed in a powerful, universal presence who taught their ancestors agriculture and many other useful arts, an old man with a long white beard, known by the name of Wiracocha. He was the creator of the entire universe, the time and the civilizations and was represented wearing the sun for a crown, with thunderbolts in his hands, and tears descending from his eyes as rain.
The Incas worshiped their God dedicating him numerous temples, festivals and even a carved portrait facing the Temple hill of Ollantaytambo which like any other construction made by the Incas was built in close correlation with the alignment of the stars.
Marco stops again and like a real teacher, trying to test the knowledge of his students is asking us to identify the massive structure made out of stone. Nobody knows the answer but the crowed its about to queue for pictures as soon as they find out that are standing right in front of an energetic gate. Since the old times humans believed to have found 7 energetic gates to another dimensions, two of them being located in Peru (Sacred valley and Titikaka lake).
A white rope is keeping the curious away from the entrance and nobody seems brave enough to break through the other side. Stepping on another dimension or just a myth? Probably the humans of the present will never find out the answer as its hard to believe that we posses the energy level necessary to unlock ancient secrets.
Thanks to the modern systems of global positioning, it is now known that Ollantayntambo together with many others sites (Nazca, Easter island, Pyramids of Giza, Petra) are aligned on a single circle with a far grater meaning that we are aware of. The mysterious invisible line connecting the most ancient cultures and civilizations across the world is passing right thorough this stone, which is believed to have great recharging and healing powers.
I place my hand on the miraculous stone, taking advantage of the crowed who seems hypnotized by Marco’s stories about ancient civilizations, trying to feel something more than a cold piece of rock but it seems that the energy of the place had faded over the time.
We thank the professor for the wonderful informations shared throughout the day and we return to the bus tired but excited for the new adventure which is waiting for us early in the morning:the famous Machu Pichu.
Two sisters, wearing colorful traditional clothes are greeting the tourists in the parking area ready to win few coins with their sweet smile and the cute Alpca carried in their arms. Even though I know they should be at school and not out on the streets, I decide to enjoy the beautiful encounter and end up the day with a nice holiday souvenir.
Our short flight from the capital Lima just landed in Cusco where we are greeted by a totally unfriendly weather with heavy rain and wind and by the invisible enemy called high altitude which will constantly remind us that breathing might require more concentration and effort than before.
The touristic town of Cusco is located 3400 meters above the sea level where the air is thinner and the pressure low, making not only each breath more difficult but draining the last drop of energy from our body when doing simple activities like walking or talking. Even locals seems to encounter similar symptoms related to the altitude being always tired and breathing heavily reason why they are restlessly chewing Coca leaves, a natural medicine which fight against the altitude sickness.
As you might have guessed already, Coca leaves are the raw material used to produce the drug Cocaine and while the hallucinogen powder is illegal everywhere in the world, the Coca leaves remain the most wide spread medicine and herbal tea in the Andes region, totally safe and…legal.
This being said, in the airport next to the carrousel bag a big basket of Coca leaves is inviting the tourists to taste the bitter plant (3 leaves for free) and even if I am not fan of weird “experiences” I grab the complimentary plant before I would have changed my mind. I am waiting patiently for my brain to go in a state of hallucination ready to meet the dragons and flying monsters deep hidden inside of my head but after few minutes I realize that none of this is ever going to happen.
Same as I mentioned before, Coca leaf is not a drug but a medicine used to suppress hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain and overcome altitude sickness. It can be found raw, as main ingredient of caramels and candies or as capsules in pharmacies. However you decide to try it don’t forget that Coca is prohibited outside of Peru and taking it to your home country might put you in serious trouble. Beside that, if you have a job which require periodically drug tests (aviation, army, police) you might want to stop the Coca ingestion at least 36 hours prior your duty as it might mark you positive for drugs. Explanation as “I just got back from Peru where Coca is legal” wont help you much.
Cusco is nothing compared to the beautiful capital of Peru, Lima, but a small town in the mountainous region of the Andes, very popular for the tourists interested in ancient history and backpackers hiking the difficult terrains, all of them chasing the same goal…to explore one of the most beautiful wonders of the modern world…Machu Pichu.
The altitude continue to trouble us even if we had the wrong idea that working as cabin crew would help our body to adapt much easier with the low air pressure so we decide to spend first and last day of our trip in Cusco, experiencing the andean cuisine and the esoteric rituals so famous in this part of the world.
The travel brochures advice no heavy meals and no alcohol and trying to follow strictly the instructions we choose an organic restaurant recommended by a colleague Chef and well rated on trip advisor: Organika.
5 stars restaurant for 2 stars bill
The restaurant does’t impress by its design and our first thought was that we are in the wrong place but once the plates were brought to our table we didn’t regret the choice we’ve made.
The food was not only healthy but absolutely delicious and plated with passion and attention for details by the 5 chefs who were working together in the open kitchen. Beautiful edible flowers were used to decorate the meals making it even more appealing to the guests. Faced with the entire frenzy of taste and colors we couldn’t resist the temptation of pairing our main course with a glass of Cusquena, one of Peru’s most popular beer. Travelers vs Altitude sickness 1-0.
**Quinoa salad, Grilled fish with sweet potatoes, Warm chocolate tart with raspberry sorbet.
The girl in charge with our table noticed the delight on our face and suggested that we should try their newly open restaurant “Rucula” based on same concept of delicious organic food meticulously selected by their chefs. And that was definitely a great choice for dinner. Best food quality in a casual environment and affordable prices (20 euro for 2 persons), all that we need after a failed shaman experience.
** Shrimps and avocado salad, Carpaccio, Lasagna and Carrot cake.
Now we are going to enter into the “dark” details of our trip and if you are not into esoteric, spiritual stuff you better stop reading like now.
Chasing the coca ritual
My friend G. came up with the weird idea of reading our future in Coca leaves (thats how I found out another benefit not so well know of the Coca) and I knew that whatever argument I will bring against it she wouldn’t change her mind so I decide to follow up with the plan. Like the Tarot and other similar scams, this art is not normally practiced in plain street view but having no clue where to find a proper fortune teller we started by asking every street vendor for details. This is how we end up in a bad famed neighborhood of Cusco called Calle Nueva (New street) full of beggars and people engaged in doubtful activities.
We were about to give up and leave when we noticed a tiny old lady displaying a bag of Coca leaves and some playing cards on a street corner. “There she is” we thought full of excitement while giggling and waiting impatiently for the old lady to finish the casserole of rice served for lunch. We approached her confidently, greeting her in Spanish, well aware that English wont be familiar to a person of her age. Surprisingly she wasn’t speaking Spanish also and the only way to communicate with our fortune teller was in Quechua (the Inca language spoken only by 25% of Peru population). Its time to give up, said my friend never and while we continue our journey on the obscure streets of Calle Nueva we decide to involve the new technology in search of old habits.
After a detailed research on Google we found ourselves ringing the bell of one of the most popular Shaman house in Cusco, willing to pay the 100$ tax for an accurate reading of our future. The website advertise professional expertise of one’s life from a real Shaman plus translator from Quechua to English so why not to try?
Do not fall in the trap of fake shamans
The whole ritual was a total scam from the beginning to the end. We were invited to enter the “consultation room” one by one and while G. entered first I continued my research online still questioning the veracity of their prophecies.
When my turn came, I entered the big room simple decorated with an old rug in the center while the Shaman wearing a funny colorful hat and a poncho was waiting for me.
(Google picture from the same place just for you to have an idea what I am talking about when I mention “funny” clothes)
He immediately start invoking his ancestors or bullshiting something in Quechua which was totally incompressible to me. The lady who was assisting him was responsible with the translation but it looked like she didn’t pass the basic English test at school (if she ever attended one). The Shaman was keep blowing on his leaves “A ver, A ver” (let’s see, let’s see) was whispering the whole time but either the Coca leaves were deaf or the Shaman an impostor because nothing of what he tried to guess didn’t apply to my current life situation.
When I was about to lose my faith in the Shaman magical powers (which I never had in the first place) the floor start shaking violently under me and I thought “that’s the end of this story…some ugly demons will come out of the floor ready to punish me for my skepticism”. Fortunately it was just an earthquake so common in this region as Peru is located in a seismic zone between Nazca and South America tectonic plates and little tremors can happen on daily basis.
In the end, the Shaman tried to convince me that I have some issue with the Chakras located on my stomach which require an urgent healing session. I said “No thank you, I like my stomach the way it is” and I rushed to the entrance door ready to leave this charlatan behind, angry and with few dollars gap in my budget.
**Making some extra money with overpriced clothing
Surprisingly….or not…my friend was all excited and convinced that she needs a new ritual meant to cure her life of bad luck and negativity, performed on another floor by the same “gifted” Shamans.
Pachamama or the Mother earth ritual is performed every year on early August (but doesn’t matter for our experienced Shamans that we are only few months earlier-March) and basically represent the concept of giving back to Earth whatever we took from it. Different offerings are blessed and buried in order to show the gratitude and obtain even more goodies in the future. The whole ritual was performed under the close supervision of a stuffed Alpaca which made the whole situation even more hilarious.
I thanked God when we finally finished the whole masquerade but rushing to the exit I bumped into two young men who just finished the so told “Ayahuasca retreat”, looking a little high and having a weird glow in their eyes.
The ceremony involves drinking the hallucinatory mix of plants under the guidance of a Shaman and expect a whole new set of feelings which are unique and personal for each and everyone.
Some people describe it as an out of body experience, indescribable happiness, encounter with the divine while others more unlucky never come back alive from this journey.
Whoever have the curiosity/courage to experience the “wisdom plant” must know that this is a truly life changing and transformative experience which require a serious process of purification through fasting, deep cleaning and a trustworthy Shaman.
Around the city
Outside, the life continues its normal cycle: locals trying to sell their handicraft, tourists gathering on the tiny streets, colorful decorated Alpacas waiting patiently their moment of glory.
And for us its just the right time to explore some of the beautiful architecture left behind by the Spanish conquistadors laughing about our failed experience with the fake shamans and trying to plan a better handling of our savings for the future.