Cusco, once the hub of the Incan empire, is now the locus for many a tourist vacation. Foreigners come to Cusco by the masses from all around the world to behold the fusion of indigenous society and the invasive western world. The Incan spirit still breathes although it is buried under products of the Spanish ascendancy.
Upon their arrival in the Incan capital, the Spaniards stripped opulent Incan fortresses and temples of their gold and other riches and built churches and colonial mansions right over them. As a result, many of Cusco’s historical buildings are a funny mix of austere Incan stone block walls and foundations and elaborate colonial arches, columns, and domes.
Developed around the 12th century, Qosqo, which means “navel” in the indigenous language Quechua, formed the core of Tawantinsuyo, the Incas’ name for their kingdom. Tawantinsuyo, or “Land of Four Quarters,” had four provinces – to the northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast of Qosqo – with the capital city located in the exact center.
The factual origin of the Incas isn’t known because the people of Tawantinsuyo didn’t chronicle their history in writing. The genesis of the Incan kingdom is told through various legends. A popular story says that Manco Cápac, son of the sun god Inti, came from his birthplace at Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca with a golden rod and founded the city in the earth’s navel, the spot where he could thrust the rod into the earth until it disappeared.
The Incas occupied just a small region of land surrounding Cusco for a few hundred years until their ambitious ninth emperor decided to expand. Under his rule and later that of his son and grandson, the Incan empire spread north to what is now Colombia and south to modern Chile and Argentina.
The Incan empire enjoyed only 100 years of domination. The Spanish arrived to Cusco in 1533 and conquered the Incas with disease and more sophisticated weaponry. Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro founded a Spanish city right on top of the Incan capital. After some years of Incan resistance, their empire was ultimately extinguished.
During my journey to this beguiling city from Puno, I was quite miffed because – after I had taken great care to book a ticket with Tour Peru, the best bus company according to many people I talked to, and paid more for it – the company had bumped me to another, less reputable and punctual company and changed my seat from the front seat with a panoramic view to a cramped seat with no view. I had been looking forward to a trip of gazing at archeological ruins, villages, and scenery out the window, but instead had to hunker down and just endure the ride.
Unreliable service is not an uncommon occurrence in Peru, indeed in many of the South American countries I’ve visited so far, and there is really no way to prevent it. It is rather annoying, although it is just one of those things that must be accepted while traveling.
My consternation didn’t last long because I quickly learned that Cusco is tourist heaven. Not only is the Plaza de Armas one of the grandest, most magnificent squares I’ve ever seen, with its magisterial Catedral, ornate churches, and colonnaded palaces, but its colonial buildings house absolutely everything that entrepreneurial locals (and some foreigners) could think of to indulge tourists. Tour agencies, handi-marts, ATMs, stores selling trekking gear and tools, alpaca textiles shops, cheap massage spas, bars and restaurants with second-floor balcony views of the plaza, and yes, even a Starbucks.
Apart from the appeal of the plaza-scape, it was really nice to be in the presence of a surprisingly large number of American tourists. I haven’t met many Americans on my trip, and I felt a little bit guilty about being so happy to be around my peeps for a while.
Completely overwhelmed because there is so much to see in Cusco, I decided to follow my Lonely Planet’s suggested tour of the city. (Thank you to my hostel friend who bequeathed me her Lonely Planet on Peru so many months ago. I knew it would come in handy at some point!)
Starting at the glossy fountain in the middle of the Plaza de Armas, I zigzagged to the front steps of the Catedral and ogled this grandiose structure that was built in the 16th century on the site of an Incan emperor’s palace with rocks mined from a nearby Incan fortress. Then I strolled the perimeter of the square for a closer look at the two ancient churches that flank the Catedral, the Compañía, an extravagant church that rivals the Catedral in splendor, and the arcaded and balconied palaces that complete the plaza’s rectangle.
Ambling through Plaza Regocijo, which is also bordered by colonial mansions, I ended up back on Calle Garcilaso, the street of my hotel. My hotel, Marqueses, which got a special shout-out from Lonely Planet for its exceptional charm, is a renovated 16th century colonial residence, complete with internal courtyards and balconies and a grand parlor. (And a pretty delicious breakfast buffet.)
More plazas and churches were next on my tour, including Plaza San Francisco and its spartan San Francisco church, and the Santa Clara church and convent that are reachable from the nearby plaza through a colonial arch.
Across the street from the Santa Clara church is the Mercado Central, a madhouse of a warehouse that reeks of dead meat and swarms with locals selling and buying raw meat and fish, produce, juice, knick-knacks, toys, and alpaca clothes. It was fun to be a part of the local bedlam for a while, although the chaos of it all was also a bit trying.
The jumbled flurry flowed onto the congested Avenida El Sol, home to the busy Palacio de Justicia, a creamy white mass of a building whose front steps were the scene of a hubbub of people coming and going in their daily routine. Continuing on down this main avenue of Cusco, I accidentally missed the turn recommended by my guide book and found myself in front of a massive, impeccably manicured lawn towered over by an imposing brick fortress. It was obviously something important and demanded my patronage, even though it wasn’t a part of the Lonely Planet tour I was following.
A quick glimpse at my map told me I was at Qorikancha, once an Incan temple devoted to Inti the sun god and used for religious ceremonies and astronomical observations. Meaning “Golden Courtyard” in Quechua, Qorikancha was abounding with riches – gold covered the walls and solid gold and silver statues and other treasures filled the courtyard – until the Spanish discovered it and looted it of all of its wealth.
After totally stripping Qorikancha of its valuables, the Spanish built their Santo Domingo church and convent on top of it, using the sturdy Incan walls as a foundation. A few Incan floors, rooms, and walls remain today, brilliantly showing off the Incas’ genius stonework. Earthquakes that crumbled colonial buildings around the city failed to take down the perfectly-fitted and extraordinarily smooth stone blocks of the Incas’ walls.
The once treasure-filled courtyard is now a square of colonial columns and arches that opens onto a few of the ancient Incan rooms, an excellent example of the comical mingling of Incan and colonial architecture in Cusco.
Leading back to the Plaza de Armas from near Qorikancha is Loreto, a pedestrian cobblestone alley that is sided by two Incan walls, one of which belonged to the palace of the 11th emperor. I followed this narrow street to another street that took me to the bohemian San Blas neighborhood.
Slowly rambling the cobblestone alleyways of San Blas, I was already getting winded. When oh when will my lungs get used to the lack of oxygen in this Andean air?
My Lonely Planet next told me to “follow my nose to Sacsaywamán.” Since I couldn’t smell anything potent, I figured that meant “go up.” And up. And up. Curving uphill stone paths and steep stairways conducted me to the Incan ruins jokingly known as “sexy woman” by English-speaking tourists.
Sacsaywamán was an Incan military fortress and religious ceremonial site. Huge stones, carved so that they fit perfectly together without requiring mortar, make up a zigzagged rampart, stone benches circling a field, foundations of what used to be towers, and stairways.
Despite being on a hill way above the city, Sacsaywamán was not free from the Spaniards’ pillaging. The Spaniards used stone blocks from the compound to build the Catedral, other churches, and houses in their new city.
A particularly brutal battle between the Spaniards and Incas was fought here a few years after the Spanish arrived in Cusco, the Spanish barely emerging victorious.
I roved around what remains of the Incan walls, foundations, benches, and stairs, stopping at the edge of the fortress for a sweeping view of the valley that holds Cusco. It was impossible to visualize what this marvelous structure looked like before the Spanish got their hands on it. But from what I have seen of the Incas’ mastery in architecture, I imagine it was absolutely sublime.
Next door to Sacsaywamán is a hill topped with a pure white Jesus statue that watches over the city. With legs feeling like jelly, I garnered one last burst of energy and traipsed up the dirt trail leading to Jesus. Standing underneath his open arms was slightly disconcerting, mostly because his all-white eyes look entirely void of expression up close.
After dinner on a balcony overlooking the Plaza de Armas, which transforms into a lustrous, magical-feeling sanctuary when the sun disappears and the lights come on, my tour of Cusco was over.
Today was spent shopping for things I’ll need for my Incan trail hike to Machu Picchu, which starts tomorrow!