Exploring the Inca Capitol

On our first full day in Peru, my Australian friend Joel and I took to the city streets. Cusco has a tourist-driven economy and you're likely to see more Gringos than Peruvians in the central square, Plaza de Armas, but once you get off the beaten track you find that Cusco has so much more to offer.

A golden statue of the last Inca in Plaza de Armas.

Locals were often protesting in front of the huge Spanish colonial cathedral.

The city is built of stone: ancient Incan walls perfectly carved with mysterious technologies, colonial churches that have the double meaning for residents of Catholic worship and Spanish conquest, cobblestone streets, rock walls, and oh so many staircases.

A stone arch over the city street, and my friend Joel in the left corner.

A fast-flowing stream contained in a stone channel, between boulder outcroppings and a rock wall.

Stairway to heaven... if your lungs don't collapse before you get there.

The street dogs don't mind the stony sidewalks one bit.

A woman and her lamb lean against a stone wall in downtown Cusco.

The stairs stretch into the heavens, and it's nearly impossible to climb them with so little oxygen in the air. Cusco, at 3800 meters, is the highest city I have lived in, and I was feeling it!

We entered the San Pedro Market for a bit of touristy shopping. I hadn't planned to buy a fuzzy gray llama sweater, a green hat-scarf-combo-garment, rainbow wool socks, a pair of white baby booties made from alpaca hide, or anything else but... when in Cusco, these things happen.

Stacks of touristy alpaca sweaters, racks of sequined girls' dresses, and colorful hand-tailored suits all down the aisle.

Dead animals were conveniently located on the next aisle over.

Flowers took up the next aisle. Then baked goods. Then fruit juice stands. It was very organized.

The craziest thing about the market was the similarity between vendors. Every fruit juice stand provided the same juices for the same prices -- they even used the same signs. The baked good stands were the same way, each offering exactly the same crusty cracker-cookies with sprinkles, the same yellow pink and white meringues, the same flat round loaves of bread. I don't know how each vendor differentiated itself to customers, but someone explained to me that customers have great loyalty to their vendors. Once a woman picks a bakery, for example, she will always return to the same one, and shopkeepers rely on this fact to keep business steady. Totally confusing to a capitalist-minded American girl like me.

We took a walking tour and learned about traditional Peruvian instruments and the unique wooden guitars which emerged through Spanish influence. The small ukulele-like instrument is called a charango.

The more traditional charangos were made out of armadillo shells! 

I spent a whole week in Cusco -- much longer than planned -- because I was feeling sick. First it was a nasty cold, then general altitude malaise, and finally a bacterial stomach bug. Yeesh! As I was healing, I spent many days lounging around the hostel, reading in coffee shops, and buying Christmas presents for my family.

A bonfire with two of the funny Argentine workers at my hostel.

Yes, I paid a couple soles to hold this baby alpaca in a hat. Best money I've ever spent.

Joel couldn't resist the little guy either.

I admit, I frequented the Starbucks in the central plaza. The vente hot chocolate just tastes like home!

While I was shopping for jewelry, a creative saleswoman dressed me up like a Cuscuena. I even have a baby strapped to my back!

One day I decided to be the ultimate tourist and the take the City Tour Bus to the Incan ruins surrounding Cusco. Of course, I had to take the requisite tourist photos.

Qurikancha, a big colonial palace built atop the Incan Temple of the Sun.

The entrance to Sacsayhuamán (often pronounced "Sexy Woman"), a walled Incan battlement overlooking Cusco.

The Incas held together their impressive stone walls with a carved male-female locking system.

The notches and protrusions in the stones are totally hidden once the wall is complete.

Red tile roofs, dusty green hills, and cool sunshine.

Tambomachay, another hilltop ruin with caves and gravity-fed fountains.