Peru Travelogue, Part 2 Cusco…Naval of the Inca Empire
Peru – Empire of Hidden Treasures
A four part travel article on Peru, South America
Part 1 Lima
Part 2 Cusco
Part 3 The Sacred Valley & Machu Picchu
Part 4 Puno & Lake Titicaca
The flight from Lima to Cuzco (Cusco) is about an hour and twenty minutes. The plane has to swing widely out to sea before aiming upwards over the Andes. The sun had finally broken through the haze and it had warmed up a bit, but it’s too late because where we are going, at 3400 meters elevation we’re expecting Cusco to be cold. We made all our flight arrangements with Lan, had my travel agent in Vancouver look after all the flights. Air travel is so much safer now in South America than it was, especially with the safety record of this carrier…and so we are feeling pretty good. Nevertheless, landing in Cusco is a a little bit of an unerving experience…what I’d think landing on an aircraft carrier might be like.
Coming over the mountains, the clouds have cleared away and we get a glimpse of Cusco spread out in the valley below in what’s left of the late afternoon day light. So the plane heads towards some small mountains on the edge of the city and I can tell he’s going to loop around it to lose some altitude. Some of the mountains on the edge of this ridge are huge, many snowcapped and probably channeling this wind we are bouncing around in through the valley. As we swing around the mountain I can see that the ridge on the other side reaches a fair distance up the mountain and we’re dangerously close to terrain and still Cusco is far below on the other side. I look over at my partner, sound asleep and catch a glimpe of a mountain out his window so large…half if it is covered in snow. Once we clear the ridge, the plane dives while we continue to bounce in the wind. Suddenly I see building tops and then bang, we hit the runway hard…the reverse thrusters scream to life and I can feel they must have the foot brakes to the floor, as I plant my cheek into the seat rest before me. And we are here!
My sister who had only been in Cusco a few weeks earlier, strongly advised my partner that he takes it real slow at first to get used to the altitude and to avoid the symptoms. It’s a small airport and most of the passengers appeared to be local, only with carry on and so there was little traffic on the baggage carrousel. We hadn’t arranged any hotel transfer as it wasn’t a service they offered yet being so new , and so we wandered out into the parking lot with a fair understanding of what a taxi to our hotel would cost. I happen to see a driver with a Marriott sign and so despite knowing they didn’t have pick up service, I took the chance. When we were pulling out of the airport parking lot, the driver passed the same sign to another driver. Not to worry though, it turned out fine…the cost in line with what I expected and the driver appeared quite happy with the small tip he wasn’t expecting. Our hotel is the coolest place, a brand new Marriott built in a totally rebuilt colonial Monastery a building that 4 to 5 hundred years ago was itself built on an old Inca and before that a pre-Inca temple. So, lots of history to explore right in the hotel.
They offered us Coca tea as soon as we arrived and sat us down by the fireplace. The sun was just going down and already the temperature was only a handful of degrees. I could feel a little pressure on the top of my head and a tad short of breath. My partner, as expected wasn’t doing nearly as well and so I was happy this hotel pumped oxygen into our room to lessen the effects from the altitude symptoms.
Cusco or Cuzco is a beautiful city day or night. The city was once the naval of the Inca Empire, their capital city…protected by the mountains that surround the city and the military fortifications that guarded the only passable routes through the valleys. The city today is essentially still a colonial city built on Inca foundations. The Spaniards destroyed Cusco after the conquests, tearing down the temples and replacing these with colonial buildings made from the blocks of the ruined Inca city.
Unfortunately, the Inca were much better builders than the Spaniards of their time and the Inca structures were built to withstand the many earth quakes they get each year and so when the first quakes hit, the colonial buildings came tumbling down killing all inside under the weight of the giant stone. The Inca builders used cut stone, stone cut so fine and planned to precision that the angles of the corners, combined with the perfectly fit stones provided seismic sustainability to the structures through both horizontal and vertical support.
The stone on your left is pre-Columbian Inca stonework, the right is more modern colonial stone. After the first earthquakes, the Spanish began to build their buildings on top of the Incan structures, taking advantage of the better foundations and many of these buildings are still standing today despite being over 500 years old and having withstood a multiple of quakes, some quite severe. Some of these techniques are still being converted into modern engineering methods today as archeologists uncover and understand more about ancient Incan building principals. There has always been a great deal of speculation in how the Inca were able to quarry, move and cut with precision some massive stones such as the ones seen high above Cusco in the site of Sacsayhuaman.
And while Cusco is for the most part Colonial now, it is also a modern City with a vibrant economy based on tourism and some of the finest cottons and wools in the world made from baby Alpaca and Vicuña hairs and even Guinea Pig pelts. It is not uncommon to see both Alpaca and Llamas in the City or throughout the Sacred Valley where they are an everyday part of Peruvian / Andean life. Even the Inca people, in their customary clothing that tells where they are from by the styles and colours are everywhere, especially in some of the livelier markets throughout the City.
We were in Cuzco for about 10 days, enough time to enjoy some of the many great restaurants in the City, to explore all the sites in the City and the surrounding areas including farther up into the mountains. Cuszco is a popular base camp for tourists heading into the Sacred Valley or for climbers heading into the mountains or for travelers continuing upwards to Puno and Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world.
The seasons are the opposite between Lima and the Andes. When it’s dark and wet on the coast, it’s clear but crisp up in the mountains. Every day is different in Cuzco, except for the weather, for the time we’re there. One day a small Indian dance will break out in a plaza, the next a demonstration with a strong police presence. Cuzco is a mix of Castilian, Mestizo and Incan people. The Inca men are attractive, with strong hawk like noses, high cheek bones, and tall for Indian people and represent nearly 40 % of the population with mestizos representing 47%.
Cusco is famous for their art, the Escuela Cusqueña has been a renowned Mecca for artists from around the world for quite some time and many graduate artists of the school chose to stay in Cuzco leaving some of the best paintings, tapestries, sculptures and renditions of many forms available in some of the multitude of galleries spread out in the city. The Cuernavaca of the south, I was able to scoop up some great pieces including this one….which I kept.
Cusco is a great city for just wandering around in with a camera. There is great architecture to see throughout the city, small museums, shops, plenty of friendly people that are quite used to seeing tourists as any trip to Machu Picchu would probably include a stopover or an overnight in Cusco. The train to Machu Picchu doesn’t even leave from Cusco anymore due to some landslides and so travelers need to take a taxi or a shuttle to the next nearest town, Poroy to catch the train.
Because Cusco is built in a valley, once you get used to the attitude the climb up the cobbled streets to better vantage points high above the city is well worth it, especially at night with the lights glittering up and down the valley sides like another night sky. And like all Latin American cities, there is a cross lit up and even a redeeming Jesus standing guard over the city from one of the nearby peaks.
On one of those peaks is the ancient site of Sacsayhuaman who’s stones are among the largest used in anywhere in the Americas prior to colonization and spaced so closely together that not even the width of a single piece of paper could fit between the stones. Unfortunately much of this site and the blocks that originally made up of it have been taken down to Cusco to be used in colonial structures.
Just outside of Cusco begins the Sacred Valley and the diverse towns that you pass through on the way to Machu Picchu. Both Pisac, famous for its ruins and it’s very colourful market days and Chinchero famous for its fabrics and dyes is only a few hours away and an easy drive. The next chapter of this installment will take us through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu.