Cusco, Peru: Tale of two Cities

Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
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Trip End Sep 12, 2010


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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

We arrived in Cusqo (Cusco), Peru from Puno, Bolivia, long after dark; disoriented and nauseous from ten hours bouncing and swaying in a cramped bus that felt like it had four square wheels. Tucked into a bowl-shaped valley at the base of the snow-capped Andes, Cusqo was a magical, mystical sight - a city as beautiful as it is wrought with tragedy. With a population of about 380,000 (and growing), Cusqo has been continuously occupied for over 5,000 years, though it was officially developed as the Inca capital around 1,200AD. Its proud history as the beating heart of a mighty empire is abundantly evident. Colonial cathedrals, convents and administrative buildings are supported by Inca artisan masonery foundations. Inca stone walls twelve feet tall divide the city into a neat grid pattern, and the narrow cobbled streets of the city center -- too narrow for cars -- were designed for the llamas that once bustled to and from surrounding farms conveying goods and food to the city's inhabitants. Cusqo's steep terraced hillsides with their ingenious irrigation canals once flourished with beans, quinoa, corn, onions and wheat. Though now fallow, rows of stone walls defining the terrace rows mark the hillsides in prominent horizontal lines. 
The utter destruction of the Inca empire and Cusqo's transformation to a colonial trophy, began in 1532, with the arrival of Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish conquerers. In a matter of less than a year, Pizarro's' army, through indiscriminate torture, killing and plunder of wealth, had felled the Incan empire, and brought the native Quechua to their knees.The proud Inca were reduced to slave labor for the construction of catholic cathedrals, convents and administrative buildings, using materials of their now destroyed temples and palaces. The Spaniards, with their mighty guns and horses, easily subjugated their lesser armed adversaries, who fought with bow and arrow and rocks, and were terrified of horses. Sadly, the power inequity continues today, as persons of Spanish or mestizo descent generally enjoy a higher level of income, opportunity and social status than indigenous Peruvians. And, Peru's majority of Spanish-descent leaders have embraced an imperialist market economy, which has further advanced the fortunes of those already in power. We were stunned, especially after the cultural purity of Bolivia, to see that a McDonald's had recently opened on the otherwise historically in-tact Plaza de Armas.
Evidence of the tragic upheaval in Cusqo's history in the 16th century is best seen within the vaulted walls of the main Cathedral. The interior fittings, statuary, and religious objects positively drip with opulence and wealth. The cathedral's soaring space contains cavernous alters and shrines, each filled with priceless objects of solid silver and gold. In all directions one can see gold and silver idols studded with precious stones, fine wood carvings coated with "pan de oro", and walls lined  with massive paintings of saints and biblical scenes. These last were painted by Inca artists by decree of the Spanish king. This degrading use of Inca craftspeople, in transferring their skills to build a new empire to replace their own, was common following the conquest. The style of painting is still taught, however, and is known as the “Cusqo Style”.
Cusqo’s pre-conquest history is irrepressibly the foundation, literally and figuratively of the city. Fine stonework and giant carved boulder walls, such as the incredible "12-sided stone", for which no mortar was used, must be seen to be believed. We felt dwarfed by the meticulously carved boulders used in construction of Sacqsayhuaman (see below).
The central Plaza de Armas is tourist central. A huge central Incan plaza was divided into three individual squares, each fronted by a cathedral, following the conquest.Today, these central streets team with tourists. Here is where we finally encountered a glut of Americans after seeing virtually none in Bolivia and very few in Chile and Patagonia. I heard and understood the grating American accent, especially when spoken at high volume. (Why Americans tend to speak louder than tourists from Europe and other countries is a mystery to us.) We wandered up into the hillside neighborhoods to escape the hectic scene, and here found tranquility among the winding streets lined with quaint flower gardens and little houses overlooking the city. 
Walking is the best way to see Cusqo. Most places of interest to visitors are easily accessible by foot, and traffic on city streets is so bad that cars often sit a standstill. By far the best walk is out of the city to afore-mentioned, Sacqsayhuaman, the massive Incan fortress, astronomical observatory and temple complex that overlooking the city from a defensive position on the highest hill. The masonry here is incredible. as boulders as big as fifteen tons were perfectly carved to fit together using no mortar, like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Using darker stone, the shape of sacred animals, such as the condor and jaguar, are formed within the wall. The entire fortress, seen from above, forms the shape of a jaguar head with open jaw. One of the last stands of the Inca against the Spaniards was played out on the highest temple overlooking Cusqo. We could easily have spent an entire day up here, exploring the various ruins of this sprawling complex.
Cusqo is rich in cultural attractions, and, after Sacqsayhuaman, we found the Cathedral de Santa Domingo and the Inca Museum most worthwhile. Cusqenos are friendly, outgoing, well-educated. They seemed to enjoy engaging us in conversation -- especially the touts! When they asked where we were from, they invariably responded with "America! Obama!" Many South Americans we've met don't know where California is, but they all know, and love, President Obama!  
We found a good local restaurant, La Libertad, that made excellent pizza! Oliver kept it local, ordering (twice!)  the local specialty, Cuy, or guinea pig, served complete with head and clawed feet! We met up with the Olufsens, kindred spirits and traveling family from Norway, for the last time this trip and enjoyed sharing with them their last day, after nine months of world travel.
Leaving the city for a few days, we ventured into the Valle Sagrado, which follows the Urubamba river, a narrow valley at the feet of steep Andean walls. The valley is best known as the route toward Machu Picchu, where tourists begin the trek along the Camino Inca, or Incan Road. Still magnificent remains of Incan cities, fortresses and terraces are very much a part of the landscape, evidence of the scope and grandeur of this once formidable civilization. Pueblos still thrive among the ruins, based on agriculture and tourism. As a base, we stayed in a hostal on the cobbled streets in he walled city of Ollantaytambo, site of an imposing fortress built into the cliffs surrounding the city. We also explored nearby Incan and pre-Incan sites including Pisac, Maras, and Chinchero. We employed local guides who spoke only Spanish, which by now we could understand very well. These men were invariably locals with a deep knowledge of and respect for the people, history and archeological sites of the area. All of this was a precursor to the main event, the lost Incan city and spiritual center of Machu Picchu which we reached by the Inca Trail, following the route of Inca pilgrims some 500 years ago. Continued next entry... 
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