Traveling south to Cusco, or: Peru is bigger than we thought it was!

Our wonderful Galapagos experience had come to an end and it was time to get back to reality:  planning our own itinerary, making or buying meals, and deciding where we would sleep each night.  We flew back to Guyaquil on the mainland and immediately took a cab to the bus station where we caught a bus to Cuenca (about 3.5hrs away).  Cuenca is an attractive, colonial city which happened to be celebrating a triple-whammy of festivities that weekend:  Hallowe’en, the anniversary of the city and area’s independence, and Dia de los muertos.  Somehow, we always seem to arrive during festivities (or are South Americans just constantly celebrating something?)  Needless to say, accommodation was at a bit of a premium, but we found a hostel/cafe called “el cafecito” that was central, clean, friendly, and fairly comfortable (except for the rock-hard mattress on the double bed!  Within minutes, I was inflating my thermarest to put on top of it.)  Of course, el cafecito was also located beside an old church.  With bells.  That started ringing at random intervals starting at about at 5am! 

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We took a bus tour of Cuenca.
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Rooves that extend beyond walls are Spanish, and balcony grates are French-inspired.
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We were told to remain seated as the bus drove under this arched bridge.
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We visited a couple of markets and shared some jelly coconuts.
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Flowers and decorations were being sold for families to decorate graves on Dia de los Muertos.
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Kaia and Jake are holding guaguas (pronounced "wawas"). They are sweet bread "babies" that are eaten at this time of year, usually paired with colada morada, a delicious drink made from purple corn flour.

Cuenca is an artsy place with markets, bookstores, and a lively music scene.  We attended a free guitar concert the night we were there and saw a display of traditional, handmade guitars.  The craftsman was there as well.  The concert was a one-man show with guest appearances by an interpretive dancer and a singer.  The music was pretty mellow, and we were sitting on the steps since the small venue was full, so when it wrapped up after an hour, it was just right!  Cam and Kaia went to check out the entertainment at the central square, and I took Jake back to the hostel.  We had seen online that the forecast in Peterborough for that evening (Hallowe’en night) was for near-freezing temperatures, rain, and possibly snow!  So we missed the dressing up and trick-or-treating, but not the cold feet and soggy costumes!  There were many parties happening in Cuenca that night (thank goodness for earplugs!) and next morning… church bells… 5am.
Cam spent most of the day blogging, processing photos, and backing up data.  The kids and I visited a museum of anthropology and went to a bookstore that had a good English-language section.  E-books are fine as long as you can keep your devices charged up and wrestle them out of the hands of your electronics-addicted family members, so I am still partial to the paper kind!  So we each picked up a book in preparation for long bus rides ahead.  First up, that very night:  a 9-hour overnight bus ride down to Piura, Peru, which included a 2am stop to cross the border.  At that point, I night have welcomed some church bells as I was feeling a bit groggy!  Crossing borders seems to involve A LOT of repetitive paperwork (I have memorized all of our passport numbers because they have to be written multiple times on these forms!)  First you have to fill out forms to exit Ecuador, and then, almost identical ones to enter Peru.  I have never written my home address so many times!   However, the border crossing went much more smoothly than we’d anticipated based on some blogs we’d read that described buses driving out of sight once the passengers got off, and people having to run back and forth through no-man’s land in the middle of the night to get/deliver the proper paperwork.  Now, in a welcome example of efficiency, the ‘exit’ and ‘enter’ booths are conveniently right next to each other in the same building.  So, our entire busload of zombie-like passengers obediently filled out forms, lined up and got our passports stamped.  Most of us looked even worse than our passport photos and I think it was really starting to look like “the day of the dead” !
Then, back on the bus for more troubled sleep, or, in Cam’s case, sleeplessness.  We looked out the windows as the sun rose and asked ourselves, “Are we back in Africa?”  Dirt roads, 3-wheeled motorized tuktuks, and corrugated steel rooves were everywhere!  The town of Piura didn’t look like much and we were in a rush to get down to Cusco.  For Cam, one uncomfortably sleepless night on a bus told him that we couldn’t spend the next 2 or 3 days/nights doing the same thing.  You see, we had a flight booked from La Paz, Bolivia, on Nov. 19th, and that left us only about 18 days to get to Cusco, visit Machu Picchu, try hiking in the high Andes, get down to Bolivia and do some things there.  And Cusco was still at least 24hours away by road.  So we went to the airport in Piura to check out if there was any truth to the rumours of “dirt cheap domestic flights” that some people boast about on the internet.  Of course, it happened to be Sunday at this point, and a holiday (Day of the Dead), so the airline ticket counters weren’t open!  However, where there are Gringos ready and willing to spend hundreds of dollars, there is a local entrepreneur ready to help them do so!  We were directed to some guy standing around the airport who made several phone calls for us and then took us to a travel agency right near the airport.  The “cheap flights” didn’t exactly pan out but we got a pretty good fare to take us all the way to Cusco via Lima.  Only hitch:  we’d arrive at the Lima airport at 10pm and our connecting flight left at 4am.  Aaargh!  Another night without a bed!  Anyway, we booked it, and then Cam really needed to sleep so we jumped in a taxi and went to a really cheap (and disgusting) hostel/rooming house where we got a couple of rooms for the day for the equivalent of $10. 
Jake and I went out in search of food and walked through empty streets.  Eventually, we saw some action a long way down a side street so we walked towards it.  Turns out, everyone was at the cemetery!  Of course — it was Nov 2nd — the Day of the Dead!  There was a carnival-like atmosphere outside the gates of the cemetery, with food, drinks, candy, decorations, and candles being sold.  The heat and dryness were oppressive, but it was quite an experience to walk through a south american cemetery on that particular day!  There were so many families there and the graves were all decorated.  Instead of just having graves underground, there are tall structures (4-5 graves high and dozens long) where coffins can be placed behind a stone or cement facade.  Its kind of hard to explain, but sorry, I did not take photos as that would have felt very inappropriate! 
We took Cam and Kaia back via the cemetery before catching a couple of tuktuks for the short drive to the airport.

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The most common form of transportation in Piura.
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Cam and Kaia pose for a selfie in the tuktuk.

So the flights were fine, but the night on the floor of the Lima airport sucked.  We rolled out our thermarests in a “quiet” part of the airport, but… it happened to be where they were waxing the floors that night and had to move all the furniture! 
Next stop:  Cusco, the capital of the Incan Empire.  I’ve just recently learned that the Incan Empire only lasted for about 100 years — from the mid-1400s until the arrival of the Spanish in 1532.  I’m still having trouble accepting that fact because it seemed like the Incas were so powerful, influential, and managed to build so much great stuff!

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Plaza San Francisco in Cusco, with large colonial churches (built on the foundations of Inca structures).
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This narrow street is typical and shows the remnants of the Inca walls with colonial structures on top.
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Cam is standing next to the 12-sided Inca stone -- the largest stone found to be used in the Incan Empire, which also happens to have the most complex geometry. How did they cut these stones so precisely? I never got a satisfactory answer.
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The Incas actually invented LEGO! That is part of the secret of how the stone walls stay together.

The Spanish built many of their homes and churches using Incan foundations, and when an earthquake struck, guess what?  The Spanish part collapsed and the Incan “lego” walls stood strong! 

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The typical shape of the Inca window. Here you can see how well they were lined up.
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Here we can see where Spanish arches were built atop Incan walls.

We spent most of our time in Cusco being harassed by people trying to sell us stuff, and talking to different tour operators about options for visiting Machu Picchu and hikes in the mountains (Jake, Kaia, and Cam will be writing about those adventures.)

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Cusco markets are colourful, and yes, we did buy a few things, knowing that Cam's mother would be able to carry a few things home from Fiji!
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Typical sight in Cusco, where the indigenous population represents 45%.
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Courtyards, fountains, and woodwork were colonial standards.
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Enterprising locals bring tiny lambs or alpacas into town for tourists to pose with (for a small fee).
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Yes, we paid for a photo with an alpaca!
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One can never be too careful when heading into high altitude! Actually, we did not buy this enormous hat!
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Food for thought.

Yvonne

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