The first days in Cusco, Peru can be a bit uncomfortable, or even seem impossible. With 30 percent less oxygen high up here than there is at sea level, our Midwestern lungs, like everyone warned us, needed a few days to acclimatize. In addition to being an extra 11,203 feet up, the 116 steps up from the main plaza in Cusco to Loki Hostel where we were staying doesn´t do much to help.
The air smelled different here and tasted colder. After one whole day of sleeping after an eight-hour layover in Lima, Peru, we finally mustered the strength to stroll down to the Plaza de Armas. Our time was spent meandering through some golden, gaudy churches and getting kicked out of a restaurant (presumably) because we looked American.
Upon our return to the hostel, we quickly began drowning our altitude sickness sorrows with tea of coca, a local plant used for many healing practices and to ease the effects of the lack of air.
Our third day in town, we were finally feeling physically well, and ventured into the Peruvian countryside, by way of horseback. The weather in Cusco in November was also a strange thing; this month begins the rainy season.
Like clockwork, there will be a few hours of burning sun in the morning and then, around 1 p.m., the rain begins and continues in spurts, with sun reappearing now and then. The clouds gather beyond a 82 ft tall white statue of Jesus Christ, which sits up on a mountaintop overlooking the city.
As we mounted our horses, the rain began to ease up, and we rode for four hours through eucalyptus trees and Incan ruins, such as the Temple of the Moon. Inside of the temple, which, from the outside still seems like a basic rock formation, were carvings of snakes, pumas and condors.
Respectively, these represented the past, present and future (or, underworld, present world and heavens) for Incan people.
As we left the temple, a man was going in to meditate. While walking around outside again, we noticed many offerings of coca leaves in natural rock formations, which we later learned were often placed there by shamans who still live in the hills of Cusco.
The hill of Huayna Picchu, where we rode, is home to many donkeys, horses, baby sheep, as well as an abundance of agave (mescal) plants, which are easily mistaken for aloe.
It is also common amongst people of Cusco to use the healing powers of the psychoactive drug ayahuasca in cermonies to Pachamama (Mother Earth). When brewed properly with a few other herbs, the ayahuasca mixture contains DMT and other active agents that the people here believe to provide a cleansing experience for the body and soul. Mixtures without DMT also can be made for such ceremonies.
After riding back down the hill, which overlooked the ruins of Saqsayhuaman (pronounced ¨sexy woman¨ in English), we plucked some eucalyptus leaves, headed back to the hostel, and now sat, waiting to explore the Sacred Valley of the Incas tomorrow.