So Machu Picchu was NOT the finale of our trip, but I think it might have been better if it were.  After our hike we had a couple additional days in Cusco to recuperate and relax before heading south to Lake Titicaca.  The plan was to take a 7 hour journey by bus to the town of Puno where we would take a boat cruise of  the lake, which is the highest navigable lake in the world. The scenery changed dramatically as we went from jungle to mountain, to an almost desert-like environment.   All seemed to be going well until the last stretch, when we were inexplicably stopped in what appeared to be a traffic jam.  After waiting for an hour, our guide discovered that the traffic jam was part of a protest by local Puno residents, who had blocked the entrance to the city by throwing masses of boulders on the highway.  They told us if we attempted to pass, our vehicle would be stoned.

Our only option was to backpack the last 30 minutes into the city.  Ugh. I normally wouldn’t mind, but my stomach was kinda sore.

In any case, we unloaded our gear and began the walk.   It was very disconcerting seeing the blockages on the road, but even moreso seeing the numbers of people at the clifftop ready to throw rocks at us.

The area was dusty and polluted, not to mention the extremely high altitude, which made it very difficult to breathe.  At this point, my stomach started hurting a bit more.  Within about 10 minutes I was unable to walk, the pain was so strong.  Luckily, my tour mates grabbed my bags and helped me onto our bus, which our guide had somehow procured and was ready and waiting for us.  It really warmed my heart to see the numbers of local men and women who rushed out of their homes and shops to come to my aid, bringing coca leaves, smelling salts, and all manner of medicine to help.  I was surprised to see the level of care and concern these people had for me – a stranger in the middle of nowhere.  Despite the discomfort (ok – PAIN), this was one of the best memories I have of the kindness of the Peruvian people.

Luckily we had an AMAZING GAP Adventures guide, as well as the best medical insurance money could buy.  Within 15 minutes of our arrival to the hotel, a doctor had arrived from the local hospital to treat me, with our guide acting as interpreter.  I ended up having a vicious intestinal infection, complete with delirium, shakes, fever, and a racing heart.  A cardiologist was also called in to make sure I wouldn’t have a heart attack.  A little over the top, I’m sure – but it was great to be in good hands!  A needle in my bum, handfulls of pills, and a good sleep later, I was ready to rock on the next adventure!

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So you know the saying, “all roads lead to Rome”?  When it comes to South America, you could easily claim that “all roads lead to Cusco”.   The Incas developed a vast empire, from Ecuador, to Chile, Argentina and beyond.  Their intricate system of roadways, rest stops, temples, aqueducts and villages is truly incredible.  In the immediate vicinity of Cusco we had the opportunity to visit a number of archaeological sites.  One of my favourites (and the largest by far) is the site of Sacsayhuaman, originally built by the pre-Incas as a hilltop fortress, and then added to and refined by the Incas.  Most people remember the name of this site because it sounds almost exactly like Sexy Woman.  Whatever works!

This site was also a showpiece of some serious Inca ingenuity.  Check out the size of these boulders!  Also, on the largest boulder in the center of the picture, notice the number of angles, and the precision of the fit.  Those Incas were amazing, I tell you!

Here’s a good spot to introduce my fellow travelling companions.  From top left is Ruben, from the Netherlands, Matt from the UK, Mike, Nick from Ottawa, Robin and Chris from London, Ontario, Noreen from Ireland, Myself, and Nadia from South Africa.  Oh, and the dog is Tarzan.  A very sweet street dog I picked up en route.  We were so lucky to be on a trip with such fantastic, fun, and interesting people!

Also at this site I was stopped by a Peruvian school group wanting to take photos with me.  Seriously?  Yep.   This was a group of teenagers from the Northern part of the country and as part of their education they visited many historical sites around Peru.  I guess they hadn’t seen too many foreigners, because my pale skin, short haircut and funny clothing were quite interesting (apparently)!   As their teacher explained to me, it would also give them practice using english formalities, like “hello”, and “thank you”.  It was kinda strange, but I felt privileged to be a small part the memories of these kids.

This lady was posing outside another site, and for a mere 1 nuevo sol (about 33 cents, USD), you could take a picture with her and her alpaca.  Score!

After exploring the jungle we flew back to Cusco.  Cusco  is one of the largest cities in Peru, with over 350,000 inhabitants, and over 1 million visitors every year!   The city was the capital of the Inca Empire, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.  It’s surrounded by the amazing Andes mountains, and as such, its kinda high up:  3,400m (11,200 ft).   We spent a night and day here to help us get acclimatized to the altitude difference.  Luckily Mike and I were not overly effected, thank goodness.

I really loved touring around the city, and it is fantastically steeped in history.  Cusco has been inhabited since approximately 1000, however it became an official capital with the Inca Civilization from 1300-1532.  The evidence of the Incas buildings are everywhere.  The civilization itself only lasted a short time, however their buildings are  very much still standing.  In the centre of the city many building foundations date back to this time.  In this picture you can see the incredible building on the right side.  The stones are pressed together so tightly you couldn’t even fit a razor blade between them.  Also notice how they are not completely 90 degrees, but slightly tapered?  This was constructed by the Incas to withstand earthquakes.  Clearly an effective strategy!

After Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish invaded in 1532, everything changed for the Incas.  Many of the native peoples were killed by the conquistadors, and many more died of things like smallpox and flu (sounds familiar, eh?).    It was very interesting to hear the perspective of our tour guide, who was ethnically Quechua – pre-contact Peruvian.  Their language, culture and peoples were largely obliterated by the invaders, and their temples and buildings looted for gold and jewels.   The Spanish were incredibly pragmatic however, and realized that Inca temples were too good to destroy, so converted many of them to Catholic churches.

This photo is taken from the inside courtyard of a Catholic church, the Convento De Santo Domingo Del Cusco.  On the right hand side, behind the colums, you can see the original Inca walls.  The original building was the most important temple in the entire empire: Qorikancha.

Qorikancha was a temple of the sun, and its walls were literally covered in gold.  Sheets of pure gold.  Can you imagine?!  All of it was stripped by the Incas to pay the ransom on their leader, Atahualpa, who had been kidnapped by the Spanish.  It didn’t do much good: Pizarro took the gold and killed Atahualpa anyway.

The buildings in dowtown Cusco are really lovely, if you are into Spanish architecture.  The grand squares, churches and government buildings are all very impressive and well kept.  We  stumbled on this parade taking place in the main square, Plaza de Armas.

We didnt get a chance to go into the cathedral in the picture, which is a real shame, because it contains a couple somewhat subversive paintings.  Commissioned by the Spanish but painted by a local, the local artist painted a portrait of Judas, but depicted him as Pizarro (oh snap!).  The same artist also reproduced the last supper, but depicted the meal as a giant guinea pig.  Classic!