The First Steves on South American Soil

Jackie Steves is guest-hosting her Dad’s blog with 17 posts in 17 days. Follow the adventures of Andy and Jackie Steves as they — the first Steves to venture into South America — report on their experience.

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At 7 in the morning, a full 24 hours after our initial departure from The States, my brother Andy and I finally reached our destination: Cusco in Peru, the capital of the magnificent ancient Incan Empire.

Our hostel had sent instructions that a cab ride from the airport should not exceed 10 sol (about 3 US dollars). Our guidebook also told us not to hop into just any cab on the street for risk of kidnapping, even if the cab looks official. A taxi official directed us to a cab driver with whom Andy was careful to pre-negotiate. He insisted on 25 sol. I said to the driver, a bit tongue-in-cheek, but also trying to guilt-trip him, “You know, our hostel warned us that you would try and trick us.” Andy laughed and then mumbled to me in the back seat that it was probably worth the safe ride into the city. I guess we’re grateful for any sense of security after hearing all kinds of stories from friends and relatives about the dangers of travel in South America.

Our drive into the center of the city introduced us to Peruvian architecture: squat buildings, walls of stacked blocks of stone, and glass shards on top of fences for a security system. Messages graffitied on the sides of houses ranged from political endorsements, to advertisements for telephone companies, to written cheers for their favorite football players.

Our hostel had an awesome interior courtyard with a ping-pong table and beanbag chairs for socializing. The place is decorated with quirky furniture and vibrant wall murals.

Once we set out, it took us less than a block before we scored a curious tourist’s treat! On the Plaza San Francisco, we witnessed hundreds of small boys dressed up in military-esque uniforms, all lined up marching in goose-step behind a shabby out-of-tune band. They start training them at a young age for the couple of years of universal conscription. The boys’ out-of-sync step made the scene far more adorable than discerning.

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The Incans esteemed Cusco so highly that they believed it to be the navel of the world. At the center of this navel, they constructed sacred temples around what is today Plaza de Armas, the main city square.

The Catholic Spanish constructed a cathedral on Plaza de Armas. The artwork of this cathedral is different from European Cathedrals. Crucifixes depict Jesus wearing bright pink, blue, or green skirts, with beads and sequins made of precious metals. The altar decoration is somewhere between tacky tin and extravagant silver. The large Last Supper painting has a roast guinea pig on a platter in the middle of the table who — I have to agree with my guidebook — “steals the show.” It’s curious that in every crucifix Jesus is portrayed, not of Middle Eastern or even Incan race, but as Caucasian.

I used the chilly night temperatures here as an excuse to buy a hat and gloves, made by local nuns, as souvenirs. The proceeds go to five social projects, including abandoned children, sexually abused women, and girls’ education. I would agree with Andy that the hat is dorky with its long tassel, but I still like it a lot!

We found a coca shop where we tried some coca chocolate and coca tea. I’m not a huge fan of the bitter lemony taste. Coca is the leaf used in cocaine and Coca-Cola. Drinking coca tea and chewing it can’t get you high, but it can help prevent altitude sickness. We’re feeling the 11,000-foot altitude here and hope this stuff will help Andy’s dizziness and my headache. The Incans worshipped coca for its plethora of uses.

At the Inca Museum we learned that these ancient peoples (a completely isolated civilization when the Spaniards found them) were tremendously developed, basically only lacking the wheel and the arch.

An Irish pub was next on the agenda — training wheels on the going-out-in-South-America bicycle. We asked to share a table with a couple we discovered were Norwegian. At the table next to us sat four Irish girls. By coincidence, we were sandwiched between groups of our own heritage. We shared travel itineraries with these friendly Europeans over Cusqueña (the popular beer in Cusco). Already on the first night I was feeling good about our upcoming adventure.