After living for a while in Lima, foreigners often had the misconception that all Peru would be more or less the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Incan capital of Cusco (or Qosqo in the native Quechua) stands the test of the time, high atop the lofty Peruvian Andes. My family and I had the pleasure of visiting this national treasure and UNESCO World Heritage Site in July of 1996. It sits comfortably at a whopping 3,400m (11,200 ft) above sea level and yes, you can certainly feel the altitude and lack of oxygen up there. Everyone will advise before arriving to take it slow and drink mate de coca (coca tea). This hot beverage helps the transition to high altitudes and is part of the Andean culture, both in traditional medicine and religion. Some of the locals also chew the leaves and there is a colourful ritual involved making it a very social custom. Coca-Cola once contained this natural leaf as a key ingredient, explaining the first component of the hyphenated name. It is crucial to your survival to walk slowly, taking small penguin steps, as soon as that airplane door opens and everything gets depressurised. Don’t worry if the locals are faster than you, they are used to it. Don’t be a hero. Not many people are used to living at these altitudes, perhaps explaining why the city’s population holds a mere 350,000 inhabitants.
|Brian, Maman and I posing before the city of Cusco|
As the plane made its descent onto the Velasco Astete runway, a sea of white houses with ceramic tile roofing dressed the scenery, giving us a picturesque colonial architectural welcome. There were no hints of major modern construction from afar. The city looked frozen in time. We claimed our luggage from the carousel, found our shuttle booked by our travel agent in Lima, and headed for the heart of the city to our boutique hotel. I believe it was called La Posada del Inca. It was located in the radius of the Plaza de Armas, formerly known as the Square of the Warrior back in Incan days. This strategic centre was the location of several important events such as Francisco Pizarro’s proclamation of conquest and the execution of one of top 19th Century’s indigenous rebels. The businesses in the area included many fine restaurants, ready to plate high quality Peruvian food and the traditional Andean cuy (guinea pig) - a real delicacy many of us opted out of except for my adventurous Dad. I ordered my dependable and delicious lomo saltado, a dish I would strongly recommend to my meat-loving brethren. Keeping in line with culinary references, this is also the potato capital of the world cultivating over 2,000 different varieties of spuds. Your chances are high there of getting serenaded by a local pan flute band playing El Condor Pasa. In the covered sidewalks surrounding the square, many of the local business people displayed their arts and crafts hoping a tourist would be interested in purchasing. Here I bought a wonderful grey alpaca sweater that accompanied me easily for 10 years. The main park in the centre of the Plaza de Armas displayed some of the local flora, including some beautiful pink flowers that provided a distinguished touch.
The oddest characteristic of this square was that there were two major catholic shrines built by the Spaniards: the Church of La Compañía (Jesuits) and the Convent of Santo Domingo (Dominicans). Usually on the main square of Spanish cities, whether established or colonized, there is one major sanctuary holding vigil over the square. Maybe the Europeans felt remorseful regarding their behaviour in “interacting” with the locals. Inside one of these churches, a tour guide had mentioned that the Spanish originally built their structures over existing Inca walls, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate their supremacy. Furthermore, they had constructed their buildings with a type of European retrofitting able to withstand earthquakes in the old world. The problem with the old versus new worlds was that earthquakes in one place tend to shake the land up and down whereas in Latin America, side to side. As a consequence, the early buildings constructed by the Spanish caved in causing substantial havoc to the general population. I am not too sure how much of this interesting fact is true as I have only felt these phenomena in the new world. The conquistadors and their future generations had fought tirelessly to convert the locals to their religion and culture, but it appeared that the quechua was able to prevail in many aspects to this date. The locals dressed their traditional outfits, especially the women with their fabulous hats and colours. When roaming through the streets of the city, the predominant language was still the native and Spanish seemed to be reserved for the tourists. Peruvians from other regions would tell you that their Spanish is not inferior due to their lack of education but to the trained ear, this language was a form of early Spanish which had not evolved over time as it had in Lima. Obviously the Peruvian coast had been strategic for the colonizers to ship the extracted riches to the Madre Patria and the Church of Spain, therefore local peoples in the area were more susceptible to change. The mountain people, isolated in a tough terrain, were able to hold out longer and keep more of their identity. Modernization seems to have taken its sweet time to reach those areas.
The following day after arrival – first day usually spent acclimatizing – we were picked up early in the morning to tour Cusco and the surrounding era. Our guide was a local who possessed many degrees in tourism and archaeology named Boris. Great name for a Quechua native, I know. The tiny narrow streets of the city uncovered secrets of the past, as remnants of Inca construction served as the base for newer Spanish-style buildings. Some of the locals referred to the lower portion as the wall of the Incas and the upper, the wall of the Inca-pables. After some uncomfortable bouncing around in the van, we made it to one of the most important pre-Colombian constructions in the northern outskirts of Cusco: the ruins of Sacsayhuamán – similar to perhaps other tourists, I initially though the ruins were called, Sexy Woman. This fortification provided an excellent example of Inca walls, and the many stones weighing several tons fitted together seamlessly. How anyone, even several thousand quechua people, could have placed these gargantuan stones on top of each other was beyond any tangible belief. Nevertheless, they were unbelievable architects. Their constructions were able to withstand years of decay and heavy earthquakes, and still, they stood proudly before any visitor and their cameras. The huge fortress and walled city provide also a great panoramic view into the valley where Cusco passively sits. Absolutely breathtaking, especially with El Condor Pasa playing in the background. This place left many unanswered questions, similarly to other native constructions, the Europeans had left a path destruction. The settlement could have housed people as their were systems of labyrinths resembling streets, a possible location of a destroyed temple, and even a large gathering area mimicking a city square, where nowadays locals dress in ceremonial outfits to entertain tourists dancing to the beat of El Condor Pasa. We visited afterwards other minor (in size but not importance) sites and retired to our hotel to rest for the next day.
Our final day in Cusco was dedicated to the pre-Colombian mega structure of Ollantaytambo, a royal estate next to the sacred Urubamba River. On our way there on a Japanese van full of foreigners hailing from all corners of the world, we were able to see the various terraces on the sides of the mountains. The soothing sounds of the El Condor Pasa song delighted us on our way there. As flatlands were not readily available in these regions, the farmers had learned to create a system of steps for their crops where water could trickle from one to the next irrigating them as it descended. It is amazing to see the amount of work to convert mountains into an agricultural field. They had perhaps done this for thousands of years. As we arrived to the town bearing the same name as the royal estate, we walked around what used to be a ceremonial centre created under the orders of Emperor Pachacuti, who annexed this region on behalf of the Inca Empire. The carved rocks were massive and perfectly cut to fit into different ones, leaving the observers to wonder, did these people know something we didn’t? Beyond this, they were transported many kilometres to this site. How? It’s a mystery Charlie Brown. We had a lot of work done by contractors in our homes and embassies in Lima, yet none of these labourers seemed to have had a knack that the Incas did. Once we wrapped up this tour, we headed back to our hotel, as we would leave early the next day in the first train to Machu Picchu. I could not wait.