Cusco was once the largest city in all of the Americas. Soak that in. While Columbus was “discovering” the New World, Cusco was flourishing with a population of 150,000 – more people than the city of Syracuse, NY (my hometown), Savannah, GA, or Dundee, UK (Scotland). While it was the continental center of power in the 1400s, today it’s the eighth-largest city in Peru and serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu.
Situated high in the Andes, Cusco sits at an altitude of 11,300 feet (over 3.4km high). If you jumped from a plane at the city’s elevation, you would be in freefall for over 20 seconds. To put that in perspective, you’d have to stack Shaquille O’Neal, at 7’2”, over 1,576 times to reach that height. (OK, that probably doesn’t help illustrate it. Just know it’s high up there.)
Considering its remote location and its claim to fame as the closest neighbor of the famously ancient Machu Picchu, visitors may find themselves surprised at how developed Cusco actually is. While there are no supermarkets or malls, you can generally get anything you need around town. For any North Americans looking for a taste of home, there is a McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway in Cusco’s tourist center.
It’s worth noting that you will see plenty of stray dogs when in Cusco – the city has an ongoing problem with strays. They’re generally very friendly and pretty well-fed (strays are accustomed to going through the locals’ trash bins for dinner) but they are literally everywhere. Official reports suggest that there are around 20,000 stray dogs in Cusco, but there are likely more.
There are some fantastic, albeit underfunded, groups try to help the dogs. If you can find it in your heart to help, as my wife and I did, this link will show you how.
KAMBO CEREMONY at TAMARA’S HOUSE
In every episode of Four Sheets, we like to feature a local hangover cure. Along with the cure for the common cold, a hangover remedy is something the world seeks, but has yet to discover.
There are some things that alleviate some of the symptoms of a hangover to some degree (like greasy food, marijuana tea, or an IV), but the event that took place in this episode actually exacerbated said symptoms. It did, however, make for good TV, and I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to participate since I didn’t know if I’d ever find myself in that position ever again (and won’t if I can help it).
The Kambo Ceremony involves an Amazonian tree frog, commonly referred to as the Giant Monkey Frog. It is an absolutely beautiful, and slow-moving creature that makes a unique sound at night, making it relatively easy to locate and capture.
When captured, it is the unwilling participant in a ceremony where it is stressed out to the point where it secretes a white poison from its back, to thwart predators. In this case, that defense mechanism is actually its undoing. Since the frog is considered a spiritual creature, it is released back in the wild, to go tell its friends what assholes we are. They don’t listen. And the process is repeated.
The shaman who collects the poison of the frog puts it onto a flat stick (much like a paint stirrer) where it dries for later use. To activate the poison, a shaman or medicine person (in this case Tamara) applies it to the skin in a Kambo ceremony. Before it can be applied, small “cigarette burns” are made in the skin (usually the arm), where balled-up BB-sized portions are applied – usually two or three to start. This is where the fun begins.
The point of the Kambo ceremony is to allow the toxin to enter your body to induce purging in the form of vomiting (or sometimes visiting the bathroom for seated endeavors). This is intended to cleanse your body, your liver, and essentially your soul. It does not have any psychotropic or hallucinogenic effects, but it can have some emotional ones. After my ceremony, I went outside and laid on a blanket, where I cried for a bit (not about anything in particular) while the crew packet up their gear.
During the ceremony itself, the effects of Kambo are fast-working. Within a minute after Tamara applied the first dose of three toxin balls, my face got warm. A minute later my face was hot and my ears were pulsing. At minute three, I was definitely feeling the (decidedly uncomfortable) effects. Not uncomfortable enough, though, apparently, so Tamara added a few more balls. A few minutes after that, it was time to throw up all that water I’d been drinking. Afterwards, when I was lying down, Tamara let me know that I was a “tough cookie” – because most people start with two balls their first time. I had six.
It should be noted that I followed Tamara’s instructions and did not have any alcohol for 24 hours leading up to the ceremony, or food for 12 hours prior. But I drank a considerable amount of water. The previous day was spent traveling to Machu Picchu, which is an all day endeavor, where I had a Pisco Sour on the way out there, but nothing on the way back. I’m not sure actually having a hangover would have ruined the benefits of Kambo, but I can tell you that it would have been the worst hangover experience… ever.
Altogether I was incredibly pleased with my time in Cusco. The people – both the locals and expats – were, in my experience, very warm and considerate. At this point in its history, the city of Cusco depends on revenue from tourists to survive, but there is a general sense of pride that Cuscanians love their city and their history, as well as sharing it with a continual flow of welcome travelers. I hope you get the chance to visit.