Stepping Out: Helen & Dan's Excellent Adventure travel blog

A full moon sits low over the Plaza de Armas

A very close shave in Cusco!

Above the Inka ruin of Intiwatana, "the hitching post of the sun"

Crowded, mud-brick homes in the hills of Cusco

Cusco as seen from Sacsayhuaman

Cusco´s Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas

Farmer's market at Pisac in the Sacred Valley of the Inkas

Inka terraces for experimental agriculture at the ruins of Pisac

La Compania de Jesus - Jesuit Church on the Plaza de Armas

La Compania de Jesus -- Jesuit Church on the Plaza de Armas

Llamas, alpacas and Helen, oh my!

Newfound friends from Spain

Quechua Indians atop Pisac

Quechua women weaving blankets

Sacsayhuaman - the head of the great Puma

Samson and Delilah? . . . Nah!

Shantytown in the hills outside of Cusco

Spanish church built upon Inka ruins at Chinchero

The Sacred Valley of the Inkas at Pisac

The famous 12-angle Stone of the Inka Imperial Age

The steep, cobblestoned streets of Cusco

Typical rooftop decoration in Cusco

cuy -- guinea pig, a cusqueña delicacy

cuy -- guinea pig, a cusqueña delicacy

31 JUL -- 15 AUG

Cusco Takes Your Breath Away

Literally . . .

Southwest of Lima in the Andes Mountains, Cusco rests in a shallow plateau 3,400 meters (2.1 miles) above sea level. Rich in history, culture and natural beauty, Cusco is a jewel of Peru. But it is the high elevation and not the wonders of the city that overwhelmed us during our first few hours here. Almost from the moment we descended onto the tarmac, we moved in torpor, our bodies sluggish and unsteady as we navigated ourselves to a waiting car. Climbing the short, steep hill around our hotel was like climbing a tall mountain. Even while resting our bodies struggled; I slipped into deep sleep that first night, and as my breathing slowed and grew shallow, I woke gasping for air like a drowning man pulled from the water.

And figuratively, too . . .

Just beyond a circle of high hills, the Andes rise dramatically around the city; they ring Cusco tightly, like a woman's choker. The sky seems so close that sometimes I felt that I could literally reach out and grab the billowing clouds. Whereas in Lima in the winter the garua sea mist casts the city in a dull pallor and traps the city noise and pollution, in Cusco during the winter the sun blazes bright and strong in the clear blue sky and a soft, mountain breeze blows constantly. At night, away from the bright lights of the Plaza de Armas, the evening sky yields a spectacular view of the southern lights, stars we have never seen before!

Cusco Then: The City of the Puma

Pre-Christian Inka society deified natural elements: the sky, the sun, the moon, mountains, rainbows (thus the rainbow flag of the Tawantinsuyo), lightning, thunder and animals. Of the animals, the condor and the puma were most revered, the former endowed with power over the sky, the latter with power over the land.

To reflect his empire's power, the Inka Pachkuteq (the term "Inka" refers to the emperor, like "Caesar"; the people the Inka ruled were not Inkan but Andean, or Quechan to be more precise) transmogrified his capital city into the shape of a crouching puma: upon the hill north of the city he built a temple, Sacsaywuaman (the House of the Sun) to form the head; the Rivers Tulumoyo and Dophi outlined the body stretching south, the feline's tail forming where the two rivers join; Cusco-proper was the body and the main street of Pumakurko marked the puma's spine. Along the spine flowed the life of the Empire, conducting the orders from the throne at Sacsaywuaman (the head) to the different parts of the body - the Plaza de Armas (then called Huacaypata), the city's heart and Qorikancha, golden Temple of the Sun, the city's soul.

Cusco is thus a city of fable.

Cusco Now: The City of Inka Ruins, Kitsch and Postcards

"He liked to know how it really was; not how it was supposed to be." For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

The word Cusco comes from the Quechua word Qosqo, or navel. It was the mestizo writer Inka Garcilaso de la Vega who later named Cusco "the navel of the world." At its height the Inka Empire was as big as the Roman Empire, stretching from northern Ecuador, through modern Peru and Western Bolivia to southern Chile, just below Santiago. Cusco was the center and, like Rome, all Inka trails spanning the empire led to this city.

Cusco is still a crossroads for travelers. At any time during the day and into the night more northern tourists than locals can be found in the Plaza de Armas. We came to this city for the same reason everyone visits Cusco - to explore the Inka ruins of the Sacred Valley, to walk the Camino Inka (Inka Trail) and most of all, to see Machu Picchu, the one Inka city that no Conquistador ever fouled. All this we did.

But we discovered more, and not all to our liking. Cusco is really two cities; the larger city exists for cusqueñas not in the business of tourism - the doctors, lawyers, mechanics, bankers, teachers and hard laborers. The other city exists solely for tourists and is centered on the Plaza de Armas. We did not spend enough time in the former for me to understand the differences. But you could not fail to see the differences.

In the city we toured, everything is geared to the tourist. It isn't just the many bars and restaurants that line the arcades of the Plaza; it isn't just the many businesses selling tours of anything Inka; it isn't just the many hostals that fill the avenues off the Plaza or the many open-air markets that sell the same baby (maybe?) Alpaca sweaters, gloves, scarves, and blankets to the those who fancy Andean-chic. More charming and disturbing at the same time are the many Quechua who sell themselves to tourist cameras for one Sole-you see the same women everywhere outfitted in the same felt hat or knit cap, the same multicolored blanket carrying a small child draped over the back of the same sweater, the same navy pleated skirt ending at their knees, where their thick stockings begin. It's authentic Quechua but it's a costume, too, because this is what tourists will pay for. And when they think you're not looking or they're not hawking themselves as photographs, their eyes betray a thousand-yard stare. Maybe it's fatigue, boredom, loathing or nothing, I don't know, but it didn't feel right. But I shelled out one Sole anyway so I could post a picture of these suddenly beaming women on this website.

More distressing are the young boys and girls who roam the Plaza instead of attending school, selling postcards, cigarettes, candies, shoe shines, finger puppets, anything that might tempt a tourist. Some adopt pseudonyms: "Hey amigo, do you remember me? My name is Tom Cruise (or Spider-Man or Kevin Costner). Remember me? You said you'd buy my postcards today. Remember me?" Others try a different angle: "Amigo, where are you from? The United States, right? President: George Bush. Before him: Bill Clinton. Before him: George Bush, the father. Before him: Ronald Reagan. Capitol: Washington, DC. I Love New York. Buy my postcard, mister!"

These waifs come at you in a relentless assault and they look so hurt or angry when you refuse. After all, what is one Sole to me? Twenty-eight cents, give or take. What is that to me? It's not dinner, it's not clothes; 28 cents is practically nothing to me. But it could be everything to a child of the Plaza, already so bruised at such a young age.

So why didn't I buy the postcards? Perhaps I refused because I couldn't buy postcards or finger puppets or wire art or water-colored paintings or whatever from every child that trolled the Plaza. I suspected that behind these kids and their identical postcards and their identical scripts was a Dickensian Fagan or other nefarious archetype. Or maybe I refused because I had already bought three postcards from a small boy, who in a last desperate attempt to part me from my pennies said that he hadn't eaten all day. What I knew for sure was that I couldn't buy a postcard from everyone so, after that one time, I wouldn't buy a postcard from anyone.

Those kids troll that Plaza with their goods because tourists want to buy Peruvian kitsch. Those women sell themselves in photos because tourists want to see Peruvian kitsch. Perhaps they are getting by, but I don´t think it is an adequate living. From what we learned, the Quechua Indians - who speak Quechua, not Spanish - are truly the dispossessed of Peru. Their traditional, utilitarian barter economy is fading in a global market that sells canned pineapple to pineapple growers and Nescafe coffee to coffee growers. The Quechua people are farmers, so while the women and children flood the Plaza, the men grow crops that sell for next to nothing in the farmer's markets that have replaced the barter economy. So tourist dollars become the great lottery. But is the tourist dollar fool's gold? I think so -- but we keep coming so they'll keep selling those postcards.

The Cusco School of Art

A unique school of art that germinated in Cusco during the days of Spanish domination is still practiced by modern cusqueña artisans. Everywhere this style of art is on display: in small art galleries, in restaurants, in craft shops, in fancy hotels and simple hostals or on the street where local artists hawk their work. More interesting than the art itself, which is both lovely and peculiar, is the manner in which the conquered Andean peoples preserved their heritage and expressed their condition as a colonized people in the art.

Rather than import European artisans to decorate their newly conquered territory, the Spanish exported locals to study 16th, 17th and 18th century Italian, Flemish and Spanish art. Upon their return to Peru, these artists didn't simply mimic European styles but rather married indigenous and European styles. In doing so, they created a new school of art that is regarded by many as the most prodigious in South America.

What is interesting about the 18th century work is the traditional Andean elements slipped into the art under the noses of the ruling Spanish and church hierarchies. The artists were allowed to depict only Christian themes, yet they would intersperse what would have been considered sacrilegious images into the sacred designs. For example, Andean artists dutifully carved Christian images into the magnificent cedar choir stalls of the Cathedral. But at the base of each armrest was carved the head and bare torso of a very pregnant woman, a common image on Inka pottery symbolizing fertility but vulgar to Spanish sensibilities. Artists incorporated other recognizable Andean elements into their oil paintings, such as local flora and fauna, customs, and traditions - one famous painting of the Last Supper depicts the apostles feasting on cuy (guinea pig) and drinking chicha morada (alcohol made from blue corn) - and representations of Jesus, his eyes cast downward, like the Indians, who were forbidden to look Spaniards in the eye. Even the Inka deification of natural elements found its way into sacred images - the body of the Virgin Mary drawn as an inverted V, the shape of a mountain (which the Andean people believed contained the spirit of mother earth) or ironically with a serpent across her torso, an Andean symbol of fertility and knowledge.

Gunshots in the Morning, Gunshots in the Evening, Gunshots at Suppertime

A great mystery sparked our interest during this visit. Several times a day and without regard for the hour, the report of gunfire would puncture the relative quiet of the city; telltale puffs of smoke would litter the sky high above. Sometimes, the report would echo from the distant hills or from across town. Other times, the flurry of shots sounded as if the gunmen were outside our doors or around the corner. At first we were slightly alarmed. But when we noticed that the many police roaming the Plaza de Armas were unconcerned we decided this was not a band of Shining Path guerillas closing on the city. Our concern quickly became curiosity.

We asked locals about the noise and when we didn't receive a shrug as response, we received different stories: "Duck season", they explained (but who hunts ducks at midnight?); "Niños", they grunted, wearing a scowl on their face that said they blamed any disturbance on an unruly child (was no one then concerned that children were firing guns willy nilly?); "Religious fiesta" - now that sounded plausible! The pantheon of Catholic Saints is vast; every day of the Julian calendar, in fact, is devoted to a different saint. And this is a devoutly Catholic country. So what better way to celebrate a saint's feast day then with some recreational gunfire, presumably accompanied by a ritual drink or two? The case isn't closed, but we left Cusco having solved the mystery to our satisfaction.

Lazy Days and Cheap Eats

As our visit to Cusco waned, our days became lazy. In the morning, we would stroll to one of the many small Plazas to write and watch. At midday, we would return to San Blas, the neighborhood where we lodged, to the restaurant we had fallen in love with. Twelve soles ($3.40) for two three course meals - grilled alpaca over rice with fresh cut tomatoes and raw onions slathered in light olive oil, bistek with rice and peppers, or trout doused in lemon juice and garlic with white beans; hearty soups of potatoes, herbs and vegetables; delicious salads and a tall, tart glasses of fresh squeezed lemonade.

On our last day, we dined on the local delicacy - cuy. It is a challenge to eat a small guinea pig, with its tiny bones and tough skin. The meat is hard to find and gamey, tasting as you might guess, like chicken. Served with crispy potatoes and washed down with sweet Chicha Morada, the meal was a true leap into the unknown.

In the afternoons, our wanderings were aimless as we explored the outer rim of Cusco. And in the evenings we would return to the smoky Cross Keys pub on the Plaza where beer was served in short glasses from tall pitchers and the international company was different every night.

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