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Cusco, with its dark gleaming cobbled streets and public squares made spectacular by cathedrals reaching out to the clear blue skies, reveals few signs except for the occasional Quechua name, of the having been the capital city of the Incas. Even Coricancha, supposedly the most sacred temple of the Incas that subsequently became the site of the Church of Santo Domingo built by the Spanish in the 17th century, speaks little of its Incan past. It is when one sheds the baggage of expectations that one begins to appreciate the finer nuances of this place – colored wooden doors on houses, narrow one-way alleys where one has to step off the 2-feet wide sidewalks to pass, fascinating Spanish architecture, delectable aji de gallina, and a welcoming people.

The day of arrival in Cusco was spent exploring the place, visiting its sights, and chewing on coca leaves to avoid the onset of altitude sickness. The dal chawal dinner that night is not something we had expected to find here – over the course of our wanderings, we had chanced on Maikhana, whose owner claimed that they are the only Indian restaurant in the city. A lack of appetite possibly caused by chewing the coca leaves and the onset of altitude sickness does not allow me to comment fairly on this meal . The next morning, we took the 3-hour train to Aguas Calientes, the closest access point to Macchu Pichu (more on this later), and returned back to Cusco the day after toward dusk. We had hoped to catch a bus out of Cusco on to the Peru-Bolivia border and across. But that was not to be. We missed the last bus and had to stay. The view of the Plaza de Armas that night from Bagdad Cafe – one of the many cafes that outline the plaza – would be the last image consigned to memory of this wonderful city.

Out of the airport in Lima and on the road, the less than perfect traffic flow: buses, cars, and their lesser companions moving in a general direction without the predictability of lanes, indicating their will and size by the intensity of their honks, reminds me of Bombay, makes me feel less of a stranger in this hitherto unvisited city. The cab drive up to our hostel in Miraflores – a relatively nicer part of the city, we are told – offers views of the seemingly boundless Pacific, lined by pebbled beaches and high-rises – fleeting views made shorter by a cab well over the speed limit. We have half a day in the city, enough time to try out two tipicos, local specialities – the cebiche, made of raw fish and lime with onions and chillies in the Peruvian version (countries in SA have their own versions of the dish), and pisco sour, made from pisco (a kind of liquor distilled from grapes), lime juice, egg whites, and bitters, and prepared by our affable host at the Backpackers Family Hostel. One is advised not to consume both of these in quick succession – their high acidity being compounded – online advice we flouted and got away with. An evening walk around the neighborhood takes us to the Parque Kennedy, a small park made memorable by a street play in a small amphitheater-like setting, El Parque del Amor (or love park) with its statue of two lovers in embrace, and LarcoMar, a shopping center overlooking the ocean, whose elevated view of the sea at night reminds me of the Queen’s necklace – the spectacularly lit night-view of Marine Drive in Bombay; another image drawn from a lexicon of the known to describe the unknown. Next morning we move on to our next destination, Cuzco – capital city of the Incas.