Saturday, February 2, 2013

Arequipa to Cusco first class

We arrived at the Arequipa bus terminal about 8:00 pm for our 8:30 departure for Cusco. This would be our second overnight bus ride in Peru, and we decided to spare no expense this time, travelling on the Cruz del Sur bus line in the superior section of the bus which was set up with spacious leatherette reclining seats, movies, dinner and hygienically sealed blankets and pillows. And of course wifi for the 12 hour ride.

The waiting room was a clue that indeed this was a classy operation. After paying our regional tax to leave Arequipa (2 soles each) and tagging our luggage, we were escorted into the very modern lounge equipped with wifi, leather seating, and TV to wait for our bus to arrive.

The bus arrived punctually and within a short time, we were comfortably seated. I have to say this is the closest we will ever get to first class travel. I am not kidding. Lots of legroom, comfy seats, and wifi (well not all the time, but still…). The bus left promptly and we even arrived half an hour early. Kudos to Cruz del Sur for a job well done! We were at our hotel, Los Andes de America within 20 minutes and shortly thereafter we were settling in to our upgraded suite. Life is good!

As we soon learned, even though it is rainy season, the mornings in Cusco are sunny and views of the Central Plaza as you enter from the side streets are spectacular. All of the architecture is stone construction, in many cases, colonial additions to Incan and Pre-Incan foundations. A mosaic of history calls to you from every stone, every oil painting, and every cedar-wood carved church alter meticulously painted with gold leaf. After a day or two visiting the designated tourist sites outlined in Frommer’s and included on the Boleto Touristico (a package of entrance fees required for both museums and Incan ruins in the Cusco vicinity and the Sacred Valley), we found ourselves with more questions than answers. The Inca and pre-Inca civilization/empire astounds and baffles at the same time.

The historical centre of town is home to the El Cathedral, Convento de Santa Catalina, Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun), numerous churches and many interesting local museums highlighting pre-Inca and Inca culture, popular and modern art, and regional history. It is also the meeting point for numerous day trips to archeological sites that literally dot the landscape in every direction from Cusco, through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. If you want to catch everything several days are required. We, of course, wanted to do as much as possible, so our three days turned quickly into four and eventually into five, with a couple of extra days away to see Machu Picchu and experience the scared valley first hand. Even having spent a full week in this part of Peru, there are many stones left unturned. As a matter of fact as I am writing this post, on our bus to Puno, we just passed the town of Urcos, (that is not in any guide book) which was in full-blown local market mode as our bus passed through it. I guess we will have to catch that experience on our next trip to Peru …

The down side of being in the centre (or bellybutton as they say here) of the Incan Empire, and the jumping off point for tourists interested in trekking the Inca trail, or taking the train to Aguas Calientes to see Machu Picchu, is that it is a tourist trap. From the moment you arrive until the moment you leave, you are accosted by hawkers of day trips, raincoats, coca candies, paintings, restaurant meals, and souvenirs. If you don’t do your homework, you are likely to overpay for something if not everything. It took us a day or two to get over the feeling of being taken advantage of and realized that underneath it all was an amazing place with much to offer.

We took a half-day city tour, the salt pans of Maras, the Incan terraces of Moray, the Chinchero Sunday market, and a full day Sacred Valley tour. All were excellent with wonderful guides that shared their knowledge with us and prepared us for our trip to Machu Picchu. We learned not only about the ingenious architectural feats of the Incas, but also their knowledge of astronomy, mathematics and physics. We learned about their experimental farming that has resulted in hundreds of varieties of potatoes and other tubers that we still enjoy today. ( And all of this without any written language.

A very interesting aspect of our city tour was the descriptions of the paintings in the Cathedral. When the Spanish conquered the Incan Empire and began to convert the Quechua people to Christianity, they used paintings of depicting people and stories of the New Testament as educational tools, since there was not yet a written language for the indigenous people they were trying to convert. What came out of this was the Cusco school of art ( The indigenous people became accomplished artists following European styles. The result on the walls of Churches in Peru are Renaissance style artworks, painted not by the masters, but by Indigenous people. The most interesting part of this story is that they managed to embed into these paintings symbols of their own religion, making these paintings unique as religious art.

To give you a couple of examples, a huge oil painting of the Last Supper has Jesus and the apostles feasting on guinea pig, which is the national Peruvian food for special occasions. Another interesting example is the way the Virgin Mary is depicted in all of the paintings we saw. The Quechua people, as I have mentioned in previous posts believe that the mountain symbolizes their God. When they painted the Virgin Mary, they styled her dress in the shape of a mountain. When you view the painting, there is a subliminal theme of worshiping the Virgin Mary and the mountain at the same time. The way our guide put it, his people managed to bring two religions into the Church at the same time. And it remains that way today.

Cusco is also no slouch when it comes to fine dining. We enjoyed several meals at upscale restaurants, all located in historic colonial buildings, outfitted with the best in modern kitchens and classically trained waiters looking out for our every need. Local cuisine as well as Western options were plated beautifully and taste as good as they look.

On the art scene, there are numerous shops selling local Alpaca products. Most are fakes and it is hard to find the real deal anywhere we have been. But here it seems to be even more outrageous. On the other hand, there are high-end shops selling some nice items. I can’t say fashion has hit the same highs as the food scene here. I have not found anything I wanted to buy (if I was in the market to buy anything), until we by chance found the working studio of Antonio Olave.

The studio is called Museo Taller Galleria Arte Olave. Antonio is considered a national treasure and we could very quickly see why. The master and his family were at work on several types of pottery and ceramic dolls when I walked in. I was not able to take any pictures of the work so these are from the internet. Even there, I was not able to find very many examples. Every piece is hand painted. Olave takes his inspiration from ancient cultures such as Inca, Paracas, Chimu, Moche Wari, and Nasca. His work is very detailed and each piece is unique.

On the other side of the spectrum, he also paints religious themed paintings and produces hand painted dolls. The whole family works on the dolls. We saw him working on the plaster heads and, while the woman folk in the family were hand sewing elaborate dresses for them. It was a great chance encounter with some really well made and interesting artifacts.

Even with the high altitude, and the aggravating hawkers at our feet, and the knowledge that no one leaves Cusco without being scammed at least once, our five days in this magnificent city were full of memories to last a lifetime. And hey, if we overpaid here and there, we like to think we have supported the Pruvian economy at the same time!

I have left the rest of the Sacred Valley for the next post.

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