Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Magic of Inca Terraces

If there was one thing in common among the different towns that we visited on our weekend trips, be it Pisac or Maras, it would be the magnificent terraces found everywhere in the ancient Inca Empire ruins. Today, the terraces might only give us aesthetic pleasure, but for the Incas, the terraces were part of an important strategy to maximize their agricultural production. Were it not for the terraces, the Inca people could not survive at a high altitude or withstand the cold weather on the mountains.

The ruins in Pisac were the first major ancient Inca site that we visited. Located in the Sacred Valley which is an hour away from Cuzco, Pisac was once an old town where the Incas lived. After the Spaniards arrived, the conquistadors forced the Pisac citizens to abandon the city and build a new town. Although the old Pisac was emptied since then, the terraces remained and some of them are still in use today. The terraces allowed the local people to grow a variety of crops that otherwise might not have been compatible to grow on the same piece of land. In addition, by separating the hills into different levels, terraces increased the amount of food people could get from one season. Of course, the brilliant Incas also made sure to include different layers of rocks and soils in the terraces so that the rainfalls could go through from the surface, not causing the mountain to slide. In this way, Inca wisdom still benefits the local farmers to this day.

If the Pisac ruins demonstrate how the Incas solved the problem of a lack of land among mountains, then the Moray ruins demonstrate how the Incas combatted the cold weather at high altitude. The Moray ruins are located near a rural town called Maras, which is also an hour away from Cuzco. Although the hike from Maras to Moray was slightly torturous, the view on the way as well as Moray itself was magnificent. Unlike other ruins whose terraces were usually parallel half circles along the mountain, the terraces in Moray were levels of concentric circles. According to the BBC documentary The Inca——Master Of The Clouds, these circles help maintain the temperature on each level because the rocks along the walls absorb heat from the sun in the day and radiated the heat back out during the night. Therefore, the surrounding plants can grow properly at the right temperature.

Nature didn’t give the Incas the best land to survive but they still managed to make the most out of it and maintained their empire for long enough that their creations could still be appreciated today.

Trying Cuy

As a disclaimer, I am not one who particularly enjoys trying new and exotic foods. However, I always do my best to try new things at least once – most of which I never try again. Guinea pig, or Cuy, falls into this category of things that I have tried once that I have no desire of ever trying again. Throughout our time in Peru, we have seen signs for several restaurants advertising cuy, and I was curious. Despite my curiosity, I kept putting it off because I would rather have food that I know I like.
While we were in Maras, we were invited into the kitchen where our guide showed us how to make Chicha, there were tons of cute little guinea pigs running around. At least I thought they were cute. We asked if she was going to eat them, and she said yes. But the guinea pigs are usually only eaten on special occasions, such as birthdays. Thus, they are somewhat of a delicacy you could say. She proceeded to tell us that the first time you break a cuy’s neck, it is a little difficult, but after a few you get the hang of it. Then, to roast it, you just stick a skewer straight through the cuy and roast it over a fire. The thought of that just made me a little sick, but I was still determined to try it at least once.

The next week, a few others were at dinner when the table next to them ordered cuy. I was told that it was a whole cuy brought out so the people could take a picture of it. Then, the chef cuts the cuy for you. But it still had its teeth and everything, with its mouth wide open. Luckily, I didn’t see it that night because it might have deterred me.

Today, Alanna and I went to a restaurant (I forget the name) near our hotel and decided to split a Cuy because it’s almost our last day. They brought out the cuy and it looked like a flying squirrel or a bat or something. It was so creepy because you could see the face and the eyes and the teeth and the claws and I was not about it. Of course, we took pictures of our meal first, but then we proceeded to try to cut the cuy ourselves. With our butter knives. The waitress came over and asked if we wanted it cut for us, so of course we said yes. A minute later, our cuy was back, but this time its head was cut off (still on the plate) and it had been cut into. It seemed that there was so little meat on the bones, and it was still so hard to get off. Finally, Alanna and I took our first bites of the cuy. It was not my favorite. It tasted like pickles to me, and I hate pickles. And it looked freaky, and it was hard to get the meat. I had a few bites, while Alanna tried to eat as much as she could (we did not want to waste our 50 soles). Alanna liked it more than I did, but still agreed she probably wouldn’t order it again. It was interesting, and I am glad that I tried it at least once, but I’m even more glad that I ordered spaghetti in addition to the cuy.


Food in Ollantaytambo

After being spoiled by the wide, rich variety food of Lima and the less-wide-but-nonetheless-delicious food of Cuzco, arriving in Ollantaytambo just in time for a late lunch brought about an unfortunate surprise-- the town was more than just a little behind on keeping up with the food of other Peruvian cities. Embarrassingly, even Maras, the isolated, small mountain village had great (or at least significantly superior) food to offer. 

After splitting up to get lunch, Adaiah and I went to a generic-ish, okay-looking place. The first clue that the restaurant might not know what it was doing was in its postre display case.
At the time, I took this is a comical, sweetly innocent mistake as they attempted to appeal to their chocolate-chip-loving American tourist clientele.

Later, when the actual food came out, I was a little disappointed by the appearance of my food (the chicken looked a little dehydrated and had been darkened unnaturally), but I still had hope. A few bites in, I knew I should have ordered something more local. Instead of tasting like it was "oriental chicken" with the peanut sauce, it just tasted like chicken that had been dehydrated and then injected with salt water while cooking. For the first time this trip, I genuinely missed the restaurants from back home. 

For dinner, I held on to the hope that it was just that one place and that the food would be better elsewhere, so I went to the restaurant that Profe had intended for the group to go to to take advantage of the fixed price menu. I ordered spaghetti and papaya juice and waited. The food came out a little later, and I sipped the juice first. It was awful. It tasted like they had blended a partly-rotten papaya that was well on its way to fermentation. As for the spaghetti, the noodles themselves were alright--they are rather difficult to mess up beyond enjoyment-- but after a few bites I ended up eating around the meat and the cheese, which tasted a little off.

The one saving grace for Ollantaytambo food came from an ironic source-- a street meat vendor a block from the main plaza on the way to the bridge. 
I know that sounds sketchy, but this woman was my hero. I got a good whiff of what she had to offer on our way to get ice cream the first evening (which, to be fair, was pretty good in and of itself--but it's not exactly a meal), and it smelled amazing, but my instinct said "Don't buy meat from a street vendor." The next day, Adaiah and I decided to brave it. She had chicken sticks, beef sticks, and hot dog sticks. To my surprise, purchasing the meat sticks wasn't as simple as, "I want a stick" and her handing you one, but instead it consisted of "I want one," and she would take one, press it into the grill, spread a little oil and sauce on it and then spear a complimentary potato on the top. Not only were the sticks much more delicious than the food at the restaurants, but they were only two soles a pop! Having talked to Adaiah and I about the meat sticks, Jean, as seen in the photo, also decided to try them and finished off her two sticks in no time.

In short, if you're planning on visiting Ollantaytambo, bring lots of snacks and be sure to try this woman's meat stick stand!

Hiram Bingham's "Discovery"

     Despite the highway named after him and the several references of his name and presence at Machu Picchu, I can’t help but think of Hiram Bingham as somewhat of a fraud. Upon his arrival to the nearby area, a local farmer informed Bingham of Machu Picchu’s presence, and an 11 year old led him to the site. Despite the ruins’ reputation as being a hidden secret until Bingham’s grandiose discovery, this was hardly the case. The people were fully aware of its presence, and Machu Picchu only remained a secret kept from the outside world.

My man Bingham
     As Profe mentioned, it seems that year after year, Machu Picchu keeps attracting more and more tourists from all corners of the earth. After waking up at 4 am, we hardly expected to stand in line behind hundreds of people waiting for the bus before the sun had even risen. As many as 5,000 people visit Machu Picchu each day during high season, and an estimated 1 million people annually. I have no one to blame except Bingham for the excessive lines and hundreds of stinky tourists I spent my day dodging (kidding). Of course, if Bingham hadn’t done it, someone else would sooner or later. I also have him to thank for the ease of our visit, a quick bus ride up the mountain instead of following a farmer or 11-year-old in search of the “secret” ruins. But I also can’t help but have somewhat of a Christopher Columbus idea of him, claiming to discover a land and civilization that existed and would continue to exist whether he appeared or not. Machu Picchu is undeniably one of the greatest wonders of the world, but it leaves me wondering where it would be without Bingham.

A Guide to the Mercado Central de San Pedro

Before arriving in Cusco, I did my best to research the city and decide which spots I needed to visit; perhaps one of the most popular sites was the Mercado Central de San Pedro, named after the nearby church and plaza dedicated to the Catholic Saint Peter. After visiting the market a few times, here are the sights (and smells) that I find exceptionally noteworthy:
1.     Fresh juice
One of my favorite parts of Peru is the abundance of juices that are served anywhere one might find food or drink. The San Pedro Market is no exception to this observation; in fact, I would bet that this is the place with the tastiest, freshest, and most creative juices in all of Peru! There is one vendor that I’ve bought juices from multiple times, and it’s fascinating to hear how seriously she and the rest of the market take their liquefied concoctions of fruits and vegetables. People here believe that juices can heal a multitude of maladies, ranging from upset stomachs to poor eyesight. Averaging at five soles (less than $2.00) per juice, these refreshments are a tasty bargain (in Dallas or Nashville, something like this will set me back at least $5.00).
2.     Meats
I mention the meat section of the San Pedro Market perhaps as more of a warning than a suggestion. The smell of raw pork, beef, chicken, fish etc. (emphasis on the etc.) drifting from these aisles made me sufficiently nauseated. But if you’re into that kind of stuff, I’m sure you could get some decent meat for a bargain!
3.     Souvenirs
What kind of South American market doesn’t boast of trinkets and t-shirts galore? Here you’ll certainly find any type of souvenir you could imagine – key-chains, sweaters (some claiming to be made of “baby alpaca”, but I have my doubts), pan-flutes, paintings…
4.     People!
There are a lot of interesting people to chat with in the San Pedro Market, whether tourists, vendors, or local visitors. While drinking a juice one afternoon, I had an intriguing conversation with a sister at a convent in Cusco who coincidentally studied in the States at Marywood University. I have also enjoyed getting to know about the vendors and their lives in the city. Maybe because the market is a bit removed from some the central tourist areas of Cusco, I have had some exceptionally authentic interactions here with locals.
5.     Stuff that I don’t see a use for but Peruvians like
I include this final category with a bit of sarcasm, but I imagine that a Cuscanean wandering through Whole Foods or Wal-Mart would likely have the same impression. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for donkey snouts, pig hooves, hard boiled quail eggs, or cuy (roasted guinea pig – a Peruvian delicacy!), this is the place to go.

These few categories only scratch the surface of the Mercado Central de San Pedro – I could ramble on about the plethora of fresh produce, cheeses, breads, and street foods one might find here. Although the market isn’t particularly close to our hostel (although by Cuscanean standards, nothing is far!), a visit is absolutely worth the distance. Like most sights I’ve seen in Peru this trip, there is certainly no equivalent to the San Pedro Market in the United States!

The legacy of the Spanish (and Inca)

Throughout Peru and the rest of South America, the Incan civilization left its mark on the landscape. Whether that was in the form of terraces, stone cities or simply the legacy of Quechua which is the indigenous language to this day, there is no doubt of the impact they had over less than 200 years of dominance. This legacy clashes interestingly with the architecture and town layout brought to the region by the Spaniards and Pizarro.
The Inca were geniuses at administrative management and retained control of their empire not through military force but through improving the lives of the people under their rule. They did not force them to abandon all their culture and way of life, but simply introduced their customs as well. The Spanish did the opposite, and the result can be seen by the layout of Spanish-style cities and old Inca ruins.

In some areas, the Spanish completely relocated the town such as in Pisac. The old town stands a thousand feet up on the mountainside – a ludicrous place for a city in the view of the Spanish, and too easily defensible. The modern-day town of Pisac is located in the valley and can be seen from the ruins of the mountainside, a testament to the vast changes brought by the consquistadores.

In other towns like Ollantaytambo and Chincherro, the new town has been incorporated and built on top of the old town. The entrance to the old city of Ollantaytambo was converted into the modern central plaza, but the ancient streets can still be seen in both locations. Both these towns are located in more acceptable areas to the Spanish which probably explains why they weren’t completely moved and were instead built on top of.