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This morning I woke up in the city of Cusco, well before my alarm was set to go off. Lightheaded and still half dreaming of the sunrise over the Andes and cocoa beans, I reached across the bed, grabbed a fistfull of coca leaves and shoved them into the inside of my cheek. The taste was sharp and earthy- like inhaling the fresh-cut grass in a Maryland summer. I would love to be able to say that these coca leaves were the answer to all my problems. But you don’t even know what those problems were, for one!

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Since the day we arrived in Cusco, I have been suffering from a mild case of altitude sickness. This means that I have not been able to stand, get dressed, climb into bed, make a cup of tea, really do anything without feeling like I’ve just run a marathon. The air in Cusco is so incredibly thin that when we first came into the high altitude on the ridiculous 24 hour bus ride, I felt like I couldn’t breathe at all. I’ll spare you the details of just how bad the sickness was when we first got here and skip to what I have learned from it. I have learned that coca tea and coca leaves help with the altitude sickness a little bit. I have also learned that the leaves are the base ingredient for cocaine but are only a mild stimulant, less so than coffee, and are completely legal and taboo-free here. I have learned to drink LOTS of water. I have learned to take it easy. If you come to Cusco, intent on jumping right into all the wonderful activities that this region has to offer, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Emphasis on the sore. We didn’t plan to do anything for the day after our horrendous bus ride, but we did have to go and get some food and water. Just walking to the store, which was very close to our hostel, was a huge event for me. At this point, I was the only one feeling the effects of the altitude. Ross and I joked that we are a perfect statistic because they say that one out of every two people will suffer the symptoms of altitude sickness. Eventually, the thin air caught up with him, too, but I’ll let him tell that story.

IMG_1003Anyway, the coca leaves are only a bit of a distraction from the sickness and I highly recomend that you just take as long as you need when you get to Cusco to rest. Unfortunately, we did not have the time for that.

Considering how ill I still felt on our first full day in Cusco, we got a surprising amount of stuff done. We walked around the town, met lots and lots of dogs, and checked out some of the things people had suggested to us. Before leaving the hostel that morning, we asked the person at the front desk if they knew of any good vegetariano places in the immediate area.

Much to our delight, they replied, “Vegetariano or Einzelbildero?” “Einzelbildero!”

It just so happened that there was an amazing 100% Einzelbilder restaurant just five minutes away from the hostel! Before we went there and had a life changing experience while devouring a loaf of their tomato and onion bread, however, we had some touristy things we needed to do!

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Some people in our hostel room where talking quite positively and animated about a chocolate making workshop that they had attended at Chocolate Museo. Obviously, Ross and I perked up, “Do you know if you could make the chocolate vegan?!”
“Of course! They had dark chocolate there!”

We were so in. When we found out how much it cost to participate we were slightly less in. At $20 a pop, it was arguably the coolest thing we did in Cusco, but certainly the most expensive thing we’ve done in all of Peru. As you may have read, I recently turned 20. So I said, “What else is birthday money for?!” and we signed up for the class.

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It. was. so. frickin. worth. it. I had an amazing time. We learned the history of the cocoa bean, the differences between coca and cocoa, and loads of other chocolatey facts. After our short history lesson, we were taught how to make some chocolate drinks from scratch. Our incredibly humourous host was quite good about making sure that the experience was vegan friendly. He only gave us the grief that his over-the-top character demanded he give us, and gladly poured us a big pitcher of chocolate soy-milk. The class was definitely worth the price as it was over 2 hours long, very very fun, and we got to take home the chocolate we made! We also got a 10% discount in the Chocolate Museo gift shop after, so if you plan on buying the chocolate lovers in your life some little souvenirs while you’re wandering around the museum, do the class first!

I don’t want to say too much more about the chocolate class for two reasons. 1.We are working on putting together a little video that features it! and 2. If you ever find yourself in Peru with nothing to do, you can see it for yourself! And you should! It was such an experience!

By the time the class was over I was completely exhausted, out of breath, and very VERY hungry. We headed over to Green Point, for the most delicious food and friendly staff ever. This is the place with the best bread on earth, at Peruvian prices! I had really wanted to take advantage of those low prices to buy some cheap vegan sweets, because it has been such a long time since I’ve had baked goods. However, the portions at Green Point are huge! I simply had no room for cake! I know! Unheard of!

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At the end of the meal, and at the end of what a person with altitude sickness would call a big exhausting day, we headed back to the hostel to relax for a little bit, catch our breath, and plan out the rest of our time in Peru. Unfortunately, as a result of this planning, I am writing this blog post on our last day in Cusco. There was so much more we wanted to do while we were here. We just didn’t have the time, money, or energy to do it all. I am happy with the wonderful things we did get to do while here and I am sad to bid this beautiful city goodbye so soon. I know I’ll be glad to say goodbye to the altitude though.

With bad altitude and a good attitude,
Ellie Lebo

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