What a memorable first week it’s been studying in Peru! We’ve seen Inca sites such as the Qorikancha, learned all about pre-Inca cultures and Peru’s colonial past.
On our first day, both our History group and the Biodiversity group were treated to welcome gifts, morning tea and a welcome dance with some amazingly vibrant costumes. These dances ended in an invigorating group dance, with most joining in, but some who were not quite yet acclimatised to the altitude (like me), had to sit this one out.
Cusco is 3,400m above sea level; much higher than our bodies are used to, and the air is much thinner so your lungs are working overtime trying to get more oxygen. The effects of this are called altitude sickness, or as the locals call it soroche. Of course, I had come prepared with tablets to combat this and a couple days after my arrival I was back to normal.
We had our first field trip to the Cusco Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas, which we see every day on our walk from the hotel to the university. Photos were not allowed inside the Cathedral and it’s two adjoining churches Templo de la Sagrada Familia (Temple of the Sacred Family, also known as the Church of Jesus, Mary and Joseph) and Iglesia del Triumpho (Temple of Triumph). We learnt that, though there is no Inca influence in its architecture or design, it was built by descendants of the Inca. The amount of gold leaf, vaulted ceilings, and the interesting crypts underneath were simply awe inspiring. One of the most curious pieces of artwork we saw here was ‘The Last Supper’ by Marco Zapata, which is most famously known as the Guinea Pig last supper – yes, guinea pig (or cuy) IS served almost everywhere in Cusco!
Our next stop was the Qorikancha and the Santo Domingo, a Dominican church built on the foundations of the Inca site in colonial times. The Qorikancha today, is a combination of Inca, colonial and modern architecture. It included five buildings of worship to the gods of the Sun, Moon, Stars, Rainbow, Thunder. We marvelled at the incredible workmanship of the Inca craftsman that has withstood two major earthquakes since the building was built; one in 1650 and one in 1950. The Inca stonework remained mostly intact, yet the colonial buildings suffered extensive damage in 1950 which uncovered many interesting features and sacred sites. The Spanish had attempted to cover these up to stop the Incas continuing to worship their gods and to convert them to the Catholic faith. It was at this time that the Ministry of Culture made the decision to remove some of the colonial architecture in a bid to preserve the nations Inca heritage, something which is incredibly hard due to dense urban population growth. Many Inca sites are buried under modern cities, housing and other infrastructure, so what little can be preserved, must be preserved.
We had many opportunities to shop and immerse ourselves in the culture after class, though always keeping in mind the readings due for each day and the field reports, as well as keeping up with our travel diaries. There are many markets in Cusco, and bartering is an art form here so be prepared to haggle! You can even talk the price down if you get a few people in your group to buy at once – it pays to buy in bulk!
The food is quite different to what we are used to in Australia, and it takes a while to build up the courage to eat fresh foods as we learned what will and won’t make us sick. Though if we were craving Western comfort food there are places like Jack’s Cafe, a few different Pizzeria’s, and plenty of variety around the Plaza de Armas.
Another interesting cultural difference, are the many street dogs throughout the city. You begin to recognise individual dogs after a while, and they will sometimes accompany you on your journey through the city and bark at any suspicious people who get too close to you. They seem very well fed, none I have seen are underweight, and they are very friendly. You can pat them or talk to them, but if you do, be prepared for them to follow you and your group around for a while. Our group once had a two dog escort to the ATM and one waited outside for us while the other stood guard half in, half out of the doorway.
The pinnacle of this week, and the most life changing experience, has definitely been the trip to Machu Picchu, and the climb up Huayna Picchu. We all knew we were signing up for Machu Picchu when we selected this course, but what few of us realised was that this day trip included hiking up Huayna Picchu – the massive peak usually seen pictured behind the Inca site of Machu Picchu. The Incas, along with many other cultures around the world even today, believed the mountains to be powerful gods. Sitting on top of Huayna Picchu, it’s not hard to see why.
The trek up the steep slopes was arduous work, and many times part of me wondered why I was voluntarily pushing myself up these stairs, sometimes on all fours, but once I got to the top, it was totally worth it. I had achieved something that I wasn’t even sure I was capable of. Only 400 people per day are allowed to enter Huayna Picchu every day, and only 200 at a time – and I was one of those lucky people to sit atop this mountain and look down over Machu Picchu and the Urubamba river and just marvel at how lucky I was to be here. The one and only thing on my bucket list checked off after 10 years of dreaming of this very day. It was a physical and emotional experience that simply cannot be put into words, but is one I will never forget. What a way to end our first week in Peru!