Travels with Mikey, Day 9: Aboard the Inka Express

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April 22, 2013 by jiejie768

A residential structure at the Raqchi ruins, the fourth of five stops during our trip aboard the Inka Express.

A residential structure stands at the Raqchi ruins, the fourth of five stops during our trip aboard the Inka Express.

This is the bus that took us from Puno to Cusco with several stops en route. Our tour guide, Hugo, was among the best Meg and I have had while in Peru.

This is the bus that took us from Puno to Cusco with several stops en route. Our tour guide, Hugo, was among the best Meg and I have had while in Peru.

By the morning of Tuesday, March 19, following our (mis)adventures in Puno that Monday, Mikey, Meg and I all were thrilled simply to be on the same vehicle putting Puno behind us. The trip from Puno to Cusco was necessary because there is no cheap/easy way to fly (or bus) from the shores of Lake Titiicaca to Lima, where Mikey would catch an early morning flight on Thursday. This being the case, we booked a Wednesday flight from Cusco and an all-day tourist bus on Tuesday from Puno to Cusco.

These seat covers reminded everyone that the bus ride was "just to enjoy." I think they meant to say "just enjoy," but you never know.

These seat covers reminded everyone that the bus ride was “just to enjoy.” I think they meant to say “just enjoy,” but you never know.

Unlike the other buses we had taken on this and other trips, the Inka Express was more than just a means of transport. Our bus came with a bilingual guide and made five stops, including lunch (part of the ticket price), at various tourist locales on the road between the two cities.

Originally, this seemed like a pretty good plan, as it would break up the bus ride, and give Mikey (and us) a great chance to see some more sights during his trip.

The view out the bus window was often as good as anything we saw during our stops.

The view out the bus window was often as good as anything we saw during our stops.

This, of course, was before Meg contracted salmonella, and our day of sleeping-in was flushed down the toilet … many, many times throughout Sunday night/Monday morning — not to mention the less-than-restful Monday night I spent on a tiny hospital couch. The result was a rather road-(and bus-)weary trio occupying seats 12, 13 and 14 on the Inka Express, as even without Meg’s illness this was our 4,000,001st (or so) bus ride during the 10-day trip. Even so, our relief to be together and more or less healthy-ish was enough to brighten our spirits.

There's a big, ornate Catholic church in the center of literally every town, city or village in Peru. This is Pukara's, which is among my favorites from the exterior.

There’s a big, ornate Catholic church in the center of literally every town, city or village in Peru. This is Pukara’s, which is among my favorites from the exterior.

Pukara is famous for the ornamental ceramic bulls made there. The bulls are often found atop houses as they are thought to offer protection to the residents. This guy was guarding the cathedral in Pukara.

Pukara is famous for the ornamental ceramic bulls made there. The bulls often are found atop houses, as they are thought to offer protection to the residents. This guy was guarding the cathedral in Pukara.

The first stop of the day was at Pukara, about two hours outside of Puno. Pukara is best known around Peru for being home to the ornamental, ceramic bull makers (see picture). These bulls are very common sights atop houses in both the Cusco and Puno districts and are believed to protect the occupants of a home. We pulled into the town’s city center and parked in front of — surprise, surprise — a large and picturesque Catholic church. Mounted on the wall enclosing the church grounds were several gorgeous examples of the ornamental bulls (apparently even God’s house needs looking after).

It was the first of five stops, after two sleepless nights more than a month ago, so I don't really remember what the deal with this mummy is. But it's still a mummy, which you don't see every day.

It was the first of five stops, after two sleepless nights more than a month ago, so I don’t really remember what the deal with this mummy is. But it’s still a mummy, which you don’t see every day.

The main attraction of the stop was a (very) small museum about two blocks from the church. I’m going to be honest, it’s been more than a month since that day, and I was exhausted to start with, so I don’t remember EVERYTHING our very capable guide, Hugo, told us during that tour. I remember a lot of pottery, a fossilized claw of some sort and three mummies. I believe most of the artifacts and the mummy were from the Aymara people, who predated the Incas in pre-colonial Peru. I do have a picture of the mummy, so there’s that.

What I do remember about the tour of the museum was the vicuña pen. Generally speaking, these smaller cousins of the llama and alpaca are wild and not found in captivity. They also are noted for their softer fur. This feature coupled with their undomesticated state combines to make vicuña wool the most valuable of the cameloid wools found in Peru; it can cost as much as $3,000 per kilo (or roughly $1,400 per pound).

A quartet of Vicuna munch on some breakfast at Pukara, our first stop of the day.

A quartet of vicuña munch on some breakfast at Pukara, our first stop of the day.

Nom, noms.

Nom, noms.

It was pretty cool to be this close to the animals, and I wasted little time firing of photo after photo in these close quarters. After about 45 minutes, Mikey and I returned to the bus (Meg, still exhausted, but no longer feeling the more troublesome symptoms of salmonella, had remained on board) and prepared for the next stop.

The bus ride itself is about six hours (the other four are tours and lunch) and takes passengers through a pretty dazzling array of countryside and Andean landscape. Pretty much the entire trip, we were treated to towering peaks and beautiful agricultural countryside. I took nearly as many photos out the window (when I wasn’t nodding off) as I did at any of the various stops.

The view from La Raya Pass. Even at 14,222 feet, there are peaks rising in every direction.

The view from La Raya Pass. Even at 14,222 feet, there are peaks rising in every direction.

Here's the proof that we were 4,335 meters above sea level (14,222). Though, that still falls well short of the 16,100 feet we were at during our trip to Colca Canyon.

Here’s the proof that we were 4,335 meters above sea level (14,222 feet). Though, that still falls well short of the 16,100 feet we were at during our trip to Colca Canyon.

The day’s second attraction was La Raya Pass, the point where one officially crosses from Puno Department (basically state) to Cusco Department. It also was the highest point of that particular journey, sitting at 4,335 meters above sea level (14,222 feet). The stop here was very brief, just 10 minutes or so, and gave us a chance to take pictures of the snow-capped peaks surrounding the pass. Even after all this time in Peru, I never cease to be amazed by the fact that I can stand 14,000 feet above sea level and still look up and see numerous mountains towering several thousand (additional) feet above my head.

This little girl, whose mother sells souvenirs at La Raya Pass, was perplexed by this bottle. Meg, who did not get off the bus, chuckled when she saw this photo because she had been smitten by the child while watching her out the window.

This little girl, whose mother sells souvenirs at La Raya Pass, was perplexed by this bottle. Meg, who did not get off the bus, chuckled when she saw this photo because she had been smitten by the child while watching her out the window.

The third stop of the day was the one which I was most looking forward to: lunch. The buffet lunch in Sicuani, had been a highlight of the Inka Express’ advertised perks when booking the trip. Other than a stay at the ridiculously nice (for Peru) Las Dunas Resort during Meg’s family’s holiday visit, I had not seen an all-you-can-eat buffet during my time south of the Equator; and as many friends of mine can attest, I do some pretty solid work at an all-you-can-buffet. The excitement was dulled a bit by the fact that we visited an excellent buffet a few days earlier during our trip to Colca Canyon (I did not know about this when I booked the Inka Express), but since I hadn’t eaten anything but a banana since lunch on Monday, I was more than ready for lunch upon arriving in Sicuani.

As it turned out, the buffet was a little bit disappointing, especially compared to the food we’d eaten at the buffet in Chivay, but it was still good to get a meal (and a big one at that) in my belly as we prepared for the second half of our day.

Having eaten only a banana over the past 24 hours, I was pretty excited to see the Buffet Andino sign and the accompanying spread (below). The food turned out to be mediocre, but it was still a welcome meal.

Having eaten only a banana over the past 24 hours, I was pretty excited to see the Buffet Andino sign and the accompanying spread (below). The food turned out to be mediocre, but it was still a welcome meal.

Inka Express — Buffet in Sicuani

Even better, was the fact that Meg was able to get some rice and other food down (and have it stay down) during this stop. It was the first time she ventured off the bus and the first food she’d really eaten in about two days. She still was far from 100 percent, but she was clearly on the other side of the mountain, so to speak. Mikey took a couple turns at the buffet, too, and sadly for him, that’s not the last time he’d see that meal on that day … but more on that later.

Following lunch and a visit to the very respectable restroom facilities at Buffet Andino (hey, when you’re traveling in Peru, you appreciate a good toilet, seat or no seat), we boarded the bus and headed toward Raqchi, our fourth of five stops.

A white stone churh sits on a hill in the countryside between Puno and Sicuani.

A white stone church sits on a hill in the countryside between Puno and Sicuani.

Before getting to the sights of Raqchi, let me take a moment and offer a hat-tip to our guide, Hugo. During this trip with Mikey, and others Meg and I have been on, we have met a wide range of tour guides ranging from excellent to complete douche bag (yeah, you, Felix). Hugo is at, or near, the top of that list.

A family bathes in the Urubamba River outside of Sicuani. After two showerless days, both Meg and I were jealous.

A family bathes in the Urubamba River outside of Sicuani. After two showerless days, both Meg and I were jealous.

He was informative, funny and generally a good guy. Of the three guides we had on Mikey’s visit, he easily outstripped the competition. Though we were weary, and maybe didn’t fully appreciate the whole operation, I would highly recommend the Inka Express experience to anyone going from Puno to Cusco or vice versa (it runs both ways with the same stops).

The Temple of Wiracocha (the big wall in the distance) was dedicated to the Incan god of creation, making the site one of the holiest in the Incan empire.

The Temple of Wiracocha (the big wall in the distance) was dedicated to the Incan god of creation, making the site one of the holiest in the Incan empire.

The wall, far right, was the center of the Temple of Waricocha and the slanted roof was held aloft by columns placed where you see the circular stone structures.

The wall, far right, was the center of the Temple of Waricocha and its slanted roof was held aloft by columns placed where you see the circular stone structures.

This wall is the centerpiece of the ruins of the Temple of Waricocha in Raqchi, Peru.

This wall is the centerpiece of the ruins of the Temple of Waricocha in Raqchi, Peru.

Raqchi is the site of some very important Inca ruins. Located about two hours from Cusco, Raqchi was home to the Temple of Wiracocha. Wiracocha was known as the “great creator god” of the Incan empire, and as such archaeologists believe that the temple at Raqchi was among the most important religious sites to the Inca (or Quechua) people. (Side note: the Inca people is a popular misnomer. The word Inca actually referred to the king or ruler of the Quechua people. The actual tribe, or people, were known as the Quechua with there being only one Inca at any given time.)

The main feature of the ruins at Raqchi is the central wall of the Temple of Wiracocha. This massive, mostly-intact structure stands about 20-30 feet tall and features the well-known Inca stonework along its base. A series of 10 or so circular pits on either side of the wall indicate the Incas used columns to support the slanting roof that once enclosed the temple. It’s a pretty impressive sight.

In addition to the Temple of Waricocha, the ruins at Raqchi featured agircultural storehouses and (seen here) and a residential area (below).

In addition to the Temple of Wiracocha, the ruins at Raqchi featured agircultural storehouses (seen here) and a residential area (below).

In addition to the Temple of Waricocha, the ruins at Raqchi featured agircultural storehouses and (above) and a residential area (seen here).

In addition to the Temple of Wiracocha, the ruins at Raqchi featured agircultural storehouses (above) and a residential area (seen here).

The rest of the complex, which is the size of a small college campus, features a residential area and large agricultural-storage area. The modern town of Raqchi, about 1,000 people at most, sits about 500 meters away, and features, of course, a Catholic church and countless souvenir stands selling hats, blankets, tapestries and the other accoutrement of the Peruvian tourist-trap industry.

A blue church rests in the foothills of the Andes Mountains somewhere between Puno and Cusco.

A blue church rests in the foothills of the Andes Mountains somewhere between Puno and Cusco.

I know for myself, and I think for Mikey, too, the stop in Raqchi was the turning point at which I decided I was done being a tourist and just wanted to rest. Raqchi was by far the most interesting of our stops up to that point, but the events of the prior day, and the rain clouds that moved in toward then end of our visit, had conspired to leave me exasperated and made it difficult to appreciate what I was seeing. We boarded the bus about 15 minutes before we needed to (Meg had, again, stayed on board to rest) and silently wished we could skip Andahuaylillas, the last stop before we got to Cusco. Unbeknownst to me, Mikey was also beginning to feel the first foreboding signs of intestinal discomfort.

Nevertheless, we soldiered on (as if we had any choice) and tried to be excited about the church we were going to see at Andahuaylillas. The cathedral there — the Iglesia de San Pedro — was billed as the “Sistine Chapel of the Andes” and supposedly featured an array of murals and artwork to rival the famed Vatican ceiling. Knowing this in advance, Meg had resolved to accompany us on this leg of the trip, so that, at least, was a plus.

The Iglesia de San Pedro in Andahuaylillas was our last stop of the day. The murals within were gorgeous, but unfortunately photography is not allowed inside.

The Iglesia de San Pedro in Andahuaylillas was our last stop of the day. The murals within were gorgeous, but unfortunately photography is not allowed inside.

I don’t know if San Pedro’s actually rivals the Sistine Chapel, which is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, but it was pretty incredible (sadly photography is forbidden inside, so there are no pictures). Even in the exhausted, stupefied state in which I found myself, I was able to marvel at the dueling artwork of the Jesuit founders and the Dominican conquerors throughout the church. Apparently, though both Catholic, the Jesuits and Dominicans don’t have the best of relationships, and when the Dominicans gained control of the church in (some year … I don’t remember, I was beat) they made a concerted effort to cover up the gorgeous artwork done by the Jesuit occupants.

In modern times, however, the site has been restored and both the Dominican and Jesuit artwork is visible throughout, though much of the Jesuit handiwork is still covered. The most interesting piece was a mural of heaven and hell near the church’s entrance. Since the vast majority of the Quechua people were unable to read, the conquering Catholics used art to minister to and convert the native people. Prior to the arrival of the Catholics, the native people worshipped, among other gods, the Pachamama, or Mother Earth. As such, the ground and terrain below the ground was considered holy. In attempting to reach their new constituents, the missionaries wisely avoided depicting Hell in its traditional location —below the Earth’s surface — as such a depiction would be viewed as blasphemous by the local people.

Another cool quirk of the artwork in this cathedral was the presence of several Bible verses translated into Quechua. I’ve visited many Catholic churches throughout Peru, most in regions still occupied by a high number of Quechua speakers, and though there are often Quechua masses, this was the first time I’d seen original artwork in one of the churches that featured the native people’s native tongue.

About halfway through the tour of the church, I turned around and noticed that Mikey was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared without a word, which was an unsettling development. Not being able to speak Spanish, Mikey generally stuck close to us in public, and would tell us when ducking away to the bathroom or to grab some ice cream (this latter move often earned him company). This time, however, he’d said nothing. I assumed he simply had gone to the bathroom and would meet up with us later, but Meg’s illness had set my sensors at red alert. Thus, I was discouraged, but not really surprised, when Mikey returned 10 minutes later and responded to my question, “Are you feeling alright, man?” with a drawn-out and sheepish, “Noooooooooo.”

The Urubamba River Valley in the area immediately outside Cusco is truly amazing.

The Urubamba River Valley in the area immediately outside Cusco is truly amazing.

Though not nearly as miserable as Meg had been a couple nights earlier, Mikey, it seemed, had contracted an illness as well. He was, all things considered, still in pretty good shape, though. He had merely revisited lunch, in reverse, and was not, as of yet, dealing with any issues at the other end of the digestive track. He drank some water, said he was fine, and we got back on the bus. It was only another hour, if that, to Cusco, and the rest of the ride was uneventful. Once in Cusco, we quickly caught a cab and headed to our hotel. Once there, Mikey’s situation began to deteriorate.

At first, he insisted he was fine, he’d simply caught a parasite and would take some Cipro and go about his business after a brief rest. He even went so far as to suggest taking a walk around town to see some of Cusco that evening. He was not, he assured us, as sick as Meg had been (true), likely didn’t have salmonella (less true), and would be fine if he just took it easy (probably not true). He didn’t need to go to the hospital (not at all true).

Well, about an hour later, Meg and I took the decision out of his hands and called the doctor anyway; Mikey’s condition had not improved, and his digestive troubles had now manifested at both ends. The hotel had a doctor come to the room, but said doctor quickly surmised, especially once he heard of Meg’s condition, that Mikey needed to be hospitalized for tests at the very least. Tour of the town forgotten, the three of us boarded the ambulance which had brought the doctor and headed off into the night to see how Cusco’s medical facility compared to the one in Puno.

Catch up on all our travels with Mikey:

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One thought on “Travels with Mikey, Day 9: Aboard the Inka Express

  1. Patty Ward says:

    We appreciate you taking such good care of Mikey ~ You guys were great!

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