It´s on the old side...

Trip Start Nov 08, 2004
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Trip End Nov 08, 2005


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Monday, August 8, 2005

Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire for more than 200 years, that is until the Spanish conquistadors came along and, well, conquered it. They rode in on their horses brandishing their shiny swords and the poor Inca's didn't have a chance. The city's gold covered palaces and temples were looted and most of the Inca buildings pulled down. In the following years some historians estimate that the Inca population dropped from 32 million in 1520 to perhaps 2 million in 1600, mainly due to the European diseases they couldn't handle. More people died in South America during this time than in the Nazi holocaust...

The Inca's were extremely adept farmers; they used the micro climates of the Andes to expertly cultivate more types of veggies, corn and potatoes than we could dream of. Many of the veggies we know and love originated in Peru! The Spaniards had no clue how to farm highlands and destroyed all of this. The Inca's didn`t even know about the wheel but through superb organisation they achieved quite amazing engineering feats for their time - 40,000km of paved roads from southern Columbia to Chile for example!

The tourists are definitely the current rulers of Cusco, but although every other building is a restaurant/hotel/travel agency, and you are constantly hassled by street sellers, the city really is quite special. The Spaniards have left behind plazas full of colonial arcades and original 16th century buildings, narrow twisting cobbled streets and ornate churches decked out in gold and built on Inca foundations. You can wander from the colonial plazas into little alleyways with original Inca walls - built of massive stone blocks some of which have up to 12 sides.

Sometimes I feel like we have done the colonial city thing to death in the past 8 months, but this one is so well preserved in that almost the whole city is 16th or 17th century, not just a few streets in the "old quarter". Surprisingly, the feeling of the city doesn't get ruined by the dozens of people trying to sell you things or pull you into their restaurants. The amount of kids on every corner begging you to buy their "finger puppets" or cigarettes is quite heartbreaking, especially when they are still there in the cold at midnight. There are also women dressed up in traditional clothes pulling Llamas and kids along hoping tourists will pay them for a photo - I am so glad we saw the real Andean people going about their real lives in Huaraz.

Being a package tourism destination has its advantages though. There are millions of international restaurants, cool bars, and "backpacker" clubs. Hunting down international food has been a bit of a theme recently, I know it's not true traveller style but we now know that eating cheap local food may well result in being bed ridden for the next few days! We have been hanging around with a few fellow travellers we met on the way down through Ecuador and we have all been excited about Cusco´s culinary possibilities. It's a great place just to hang around "acclimatising" (again it's over 3300m) and indulging in western delights. We found a cool, if crumbling, converted farmhouse to stay in at the top of the steep cobbled street. It's hard work to get up there but it has great views and is really quaint.

The Inca's picked a quality spot for their capital - the surrounding area known as the "sacred valley" is really picturesque and littered with ruins. Feeling a bit lazy hanging around the city, we checked out 4 of the ruins in the valley and walked back 3 hours to Cusco with some friends, Simon and Hannah. The first couple of ruins just seemed like a collection of huge stones and comments such as "is that it then?" were heard, but the last one, Sacsayhuamán (pronounced "sexy Woman"), was quite impressive. It was still hard to imagine it's previous splendour; all that's left are walls made of massive stone blocks, but even to think the Inca's got these blocks to the top of the hills is quite mind-boggling. Some stones are rumoured to be over 300 tonnes.

During the day the sun shines and the sky is blue here, but as soon as the sun goes it gets bitterly cold and you run for your fleece, scarf, hat and gloves. None of the buildings have any heating and we have spent alot of time fantasising about the lovely British custom of central heating.... reading in bed requires gloves and a hat and we have both bought a pair of extra sexy woollen long johns!

To escape the tourists and find some cheap warm clothes I went to the enormous central market. It was a cool experience - hundreds of stalls selling everything from pig's innards to socks. There were only a handful of other tourists and it really felt like local life. Rows of stalls sold traditional Andean dresses and material and at each stall there was a lady with an ancient "singer" sewing machine with a foot pedal who was making the clothes then hanging them up to sell!

Now we are off on a hike to Machu Picchu, every tourist's reason for being in Peru.
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