We flew from Lima to Cusco on Monday, September 22nd. Cusco is the oldest city in South America. It was already an established city of nearly 50,000 inhabitants when the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s. Not only is it an old city, but it is also incredibly high. In a one hour flight we travel from Lima, at sea level, to Cusco, at an altitude of 11,000 feet. If I were taking a group of climbers on hike up an 11,000 foot mountain, I would definitely NOT recommend going up 11,000 feet in one day, let alone one hour! I can definitely feel the effects of the diminished oxygen as we step off the plane and walk into the brilliant sunshine in the midst of the Andes Mountains.
The 31 of us that make up this Above + Beyond Cancer journey are in a great mood today. It’s less than 24 hours since we departed the United States, but we’re a world away. Today and tomorrow is for exploring Cusco and getting adjusted to the altitude before we head seriously up into the mountains for our climb. We’re here not just to climb a mountain, but to learn what the culture and the people have to teach us about ourselves. We want full-body immersion.
The first dip into full-body immersion is our experience with coca leaves. Coca leaves, from which the drug cocaine is derived, is deeply embedded in the culture of Peru. It’s used for religious, medicinal, and culinary purposes. Within 5 minutes of arriving in Cusco we are all chewing raw coca leaves, drinking coca tea and eating coca candy. We have not yet burned any of the leaves as an offering to our gods, but I’m sure that will be on our total immersion list of things to do.
Consuming coca leaves in the natural form is totally safe. Nearly everyone in Peru drinks coca tea and nearly everyone who lives or travels in the mountain chews on coca leaves to help relieve symptoms of altitude sickness. There’s not a lot of clinical evidence to prove its effectiveness, but there are centuries of anecdotal evidence. When in Peru, do as the Peruvians.
Peru is known to have the best cuisine in all of South America. This is due in part to the mixed cultures that have settled in Peru over the centuries. Peru is the home of potatoes, corn, and quinoa as well as alpaca and guinea pigs. So, on our first day in Cusco we cultivated our culinary curiosity and gave them all a try. The food is fabulous! The concept of eating an animal that may have been a childhood pet is a little disconcerting, but, like most weird meats in the world, it tastes a bit like the dark meat of chicken.
Another Peruvian delicacy is ceviche. It’s raw fish that has been marinated in lime juice along with several spices and peppers. Kind of like a Peruvian version of sushi, but with a lot more tang and bite. It’s really good! It’s fun to see everyone immersing themself in the culture and having the courage to give the cuisine a try. As a ski racing friend of mine said, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
As for “the edge”, the mountain climbing part of the trip is just a couple days away. Excitement is building.