“In the museum, or on Wikipedia, you will see one history of our people. This history is wrong. They will tell you the ruins here were not built until the 14th, 15th centuries. Not so! These are falsehoods, spread by the Spanish Conquistadores. I will tell you about the true history here, of how Manco Cápac came here and built these walls – fifty thousand years ago.”
We are at Sacsayhuamán – a massive Incan construction perched above the city of Cusco – where we have happened upon perhaps the most eclectic local guide possible. Mario leads us on a 1.5hr spiritual and mythical exploration of the site. This involves retellings of Incan mythology interspersed with interpreting scratches on, and arrangements, of stone blocks.
It’s actually pretty interesting, and we do learn some cool stuff. For instance, the Incans rolled the heavier limestone monoliths into place with large stone ball bearings; and the fantastically precise fits were honed by tilting the blocks back and forth in place while supported by timbers. We see symbolic doorways, figures represented in stone arrangements, and note how the layout of the huge complex represents the Milky Way. (All of these claims are substantiated by more… plausible sources.) Mystical Mario does wear thin by the end, however. He’s not actually clear whether construction of Sacsayhuamán occurred 50,000 or 12,000 years ago, but he is clear that the preceding founding of Cusco took place in the era of the tectonic arrangement known as Pangaea. (Sorry Mario – not buying it.)
Well, whether Sacsayhuamán is 500 or 5 centuries old, it’s a marvelous exhibition of Incan construction. All of Cusco, in fact, is littered with robust walls of different types that the Spaniards simply built on top of. One can walk around the picturesque streets and alleys and find example after example of precise stonemasonry. And layered on top, in turn, are fine examples of Spanish colonial construction. Mix in bright Peruvian art, clothing, food, and locals, and you have the complete recipe for Peru’s top tourist center.
And touristy it is! This is the only place in Peru where we found (marginally) pushy touts and crowds of hapless foreigners. We also found uniquely boutique shops and coffeehouses. Finding a great meal at reasonable prices took a bit of work. At the end we couldn’t help but compare Cusco with Arequipa: Cusco clearly has a lot going for it, but overall we found Arequipa to be a better value, more welcoming, and more delicious. This isn’t to say Cusco wasn’t worth our time – it was! – only that Arequipa certainly was as well.
Elaine’s turn came to be under the weather for a day so I visited a couple museums. The Museo Inka is a fairly simple yet compelling collection set in a pretty cool colonial mansion – along with some mummies I really enjoyed seeing the many ceremonial wooden and stone vessels with intricate painting and carving.
Even better was seeing Qurikancha. This was once the premier Incan temple complex of Cusco, decked out in gold plating from floor to ceiling. They even had a ‘garden’ of life-size plants and animals – all made of gold. Well, if you’ve ever been to a cathedral in Spain, you know where all the gold went; and the colonists plopped a church of their own right here over what remained of the walls as an exhibition of dominance.
If you can get past the tainted history and symbolic suppression of one culture by another, it’s actually a very beautiful arrangement. The church alone is quite nice, and the effect of the black Incan stone blending into white Spanish columns and arches is striking. Lush flower gardens flank the outer walls, also a mix of Incan and Spanish. The original Temple of the Sun remains outside, its curve and windows matching the one we saw in Machu Picchu. And the stonework here is the finest I saw, designed and crafted with high precision. Don’t miss it if you’re in Cusco!
Food paragraph! I got to try chicha in Cusco, which is a traditional fermented corn ‘beer’. If you’ve had kombucha it was a little like that – kinda vinegary – and pretty good. We also tried a few local craft beers and they have some nice ones! Our best meal was at Cicciolina – great tapas – and the best value we found was lunch at a little vegan place called Green Point where we had four perfect courses for less than $5 each.
We visited the busy San Pedro marketplace which is a busy wonderful mess of local foods. Whereas Arequipa’s market was bright and colorful, San Pedro was rather dark and dingy but in some ways more interesting. All the real stuff was here from cuy to queso.
left: choclo con queso is a snack of corn and cheese. right: roasted cuy in a basket
left: a lot of the street vendors are knitting to pass the time. right: selling bags of coca leaves near an Incan wall.
Well Peru, that about wraps up our time here! After an overnight back in Lima we are striking south into Chile and the beginnings of Patagonia. This is perhaps the last big ‘hard to reach on your typical short vacation’ destination that we’ve been dreaming of since we started our travels ten months ago… we’re ready to see what it’s really like!