We arranged our trip so we book-ended our time in Machu Picchu with 2 nights in Cusco both before and after. That gave us two full days to explore Cusco itself, which turned out to be plenty of time. Our hotel in Cusco was right in the thick of things, just a couple of blocks from the main plaza, Plaza de Armas, and close to a number of other sights as well. We were also close to several good restaurants, where the three of us had nice dinners for about $30 each time. Good stuff.
One of the really fascinating things about Cusco is the relationship of the modern Peruvian people, who are largely descended from the indigenous Quecha people, with both their Incan history and their Spanish/Catholic history and present. As it was explained by our guide (in other words, I haven't independently verified this information and so don't quote me), at the time of the arrival of the Spanish you had a very large and thriving Incan culture. That culture was divided into at least two basic classes, the Incan ruling class and the Quecha people. All of the leaders and priests were Incan, and inter-marriage between Inca and Quecha was strictly forbidden. Then the Spanish arrive, bringing both smallpox and Catholicism, among other things, and completely wiped out the Incas (and many of the Quecha as well). And they wiped them out in more ways than one: there are a ton of churches in Cusco; this is because the Spanish built a Catholic church on the site of every Incan building of significance. Fast forward to today, and you observe that the descendents of the Quecha are very devout Catholics, but also harbor no illusions about what transpired 500 years ago and how they became Catholic. Further, they combine that Catholicism with little hints of the religion they had before and still feel a spiritual connection to the mountains and the sun, for example. On the one hand it seems strange that they could adopt Catholicism so thoroughly, but then again, the tenets of Catholicism are probably far more appealing than those of the Inca religion.
So we spent the morning of our first day walking around the central part of Cusco and seeing all the squares and churches that were built upon the Incan palaces and temples. After lunch we walked up to the San Blas neighborhood, which is several hundred feet above the Plaza de Armas and offered good views of Cusco itself. It was a cute little neighborhood with lots of shops and restaurants. After that we decided to head to the main Inca ruins that are right outside of the city, Sacsayhuaman. This was once a sanctuary and temple to the Sun, although it has been pillaged for hundreds of years for building materials for the city below. Nevertheless, enough of the walls and structure still exist to give a sense for the engineering feats of the Incas, including placing giant, 100+ ton boulders to build perfectly smooth walls with no mortar. Indeed, there were aspects of Sacsayhuaman that I found more impressive than what I saw at Machu Picchu.
Our last day in Cusco was spent primarily on three major activities: the parade, a last minute scramble to make sure we had everything we needed to get our visa upon landing in Bolivia the next day, a "bean to bar" chocolate class. There was an enormous parade going on in the Plaza de Armas that last morning. They had a small grandstand set up right in front of the Cathedral (built on the site of the Palace of Inca Wiracocha), and there were a number of military units, groups of school children, what appeared to be female office workers, and so on who went goose-stepping past the grandstand. Later we found were the military units were all lining up in preparation for their turn. They were almost bizarrely happy to have their photos taken, so we got a shot of Jie in a military jeep and Walter and me with some sort of special forces soldier.
There was a lot of confusion online about what is required in order to get a visit upon arrival in Bolivia. The US State Department recently updated their documentation to recommend that US citizens get a visa in advance and not wait until the border. Well, too late for that. Further, the Bolivian government does not list explicit requirements for the on-arrival sort, only the advanced visa, which requires completing certain forms, submitting photos, etc. So in a last minute panic we made copies of all sorts of documents (passports, flight information, hotel bookings, yellow fever vaccinations, etc) and I ran around Cusco until I found a place to print copies of the passport photos I had fortunately taken for Brazil and still had on dropbox. We got it all done, but it was a little nerve-wracking, and it turned out later that the only thing we needed were printouts of hotel bookings. But, better to be prepared.
Finally, that afternoon Walter and I did a fun chocolate making class at the Cusco Choco Museum. I'd always thought that chocolate was a European thing, but it was actually first made by the Mayans and then slowly spread through South America. That chocolate was pretty bitter and only consumed as a beverage...it wasn't until much later that the Europeans refined it into what we consume today. Well, actually much of what we consume today is low quality stuff with too much sugar and not enough cocoa butter, but that's a rant for another time. The museum had a fun "bean to bar" class where you get to make your own chocolate bar, learning the entire process along the way. We had a good time doing it, and Walter made some marshmellow and oreo milk chocolate goodies.
Our next stop after Cusco was La Paz, Bolivia, a country we should have just skipped altogether (more on that in a future post). We were flying Amaszonas Airlines, a tiny little carrier that flies used CRJs to several destinations in Bolivia and surrounding countries. Given that it was a tiny airline, I wanted to get there early in case there was only one check-in person and a long line. Well, I was half right. There was only one check-in person, but given they only have 1 flight out of Cusco and there were only 13 people on the entire flight, we were checked in in just a few minutes. So then we waited, as that was the only international flight out of Cusco so they didn't open international security until an hour before the flight. Once security opened we were surprised to learn that you can't take ANY opened food into Bolivia from Peru. Well, Walter's chocolates from the class weren't exactly sealed. She promptly pulled them out and put them in bin behind her, at which point Walter burst into tears (he'd only been allowed to eat one so far). Fortunately, she relented and gave them back, with an admonition not to remove them from his bag until out of the airport in Bolivia. But the drama wasn't over.
After we got through security and immigration, there was a guy at another desk who asked for a form where we declared we weren't taking more than $10,000 of currency out of the country. Well, no one had given us such a form. No problem, he says, and proceeds to use what appears to be his personal phone to take photos of my passport (and only mine) and the contents of my backpack. Bizarre. We couldn't find common ground between his English and our Spanish, so I still have no idea what that was all about.