High up, very high up, in fact 11,000 feet above the sea, in very thin air sits the intriguing city of Cusco.
Often referred to as the ‘Navel of the World’, the umbilical life-giver, the puma, the stealthy predator, Cusco has a long and interesting history. It’s the centre of the great Incan empire, with 3000 miles of roads emanating from it reaching as far on the north to Ecuador and in the south to Chile.
The first thing that hits us as we arrive in Cusco are the perfect pieces of stone Inca walls; enormous granite blocks carved to fit together perfectly without the aid of mortar beds. It is a tribute to the Incas that their anti-seismic design has survived the test of time. The Spanish colonial architecture has been rebuilt several times following a wave of earthquakes that have hit the city.
I’m reading “The Last Days of the Inca” while in Cusco, which immerses and blends me with this city. A powerful book about the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire and the modern day search for the Inca’s lost capital of Vilcabamba. I love this connection with Cusco and despite modern technology I still love a little paperback tucked in my pack about when I am travelling.
Stepping out from our beautiful apartment onto the cobblestoned Calle Choquechaca Street we feel quite at home. Just steps away is everything we need, restaurants, convenience stores, laundry, and quaint coffee shops all with that distinct colonial atmosphere.
Our apartment is on top of a small hotel, and provides us with all the comforts of home. We have wonderful views from every room and a large space to enjoy up on the 3rd floor. We huff and puff a little each time we climb the stairs but after all we are on top of the world in the heart of Cusco!
A short walk from our apartment the heart of Cusco is revealed. The Plaza de Armas, which stands out for its huge, churches and architecture built in the 16th century. Plaza de Armas is surrounded by colonial stone arcades and graced with two extraordinary churches, the Catedral and the Jesuit Iglesia de la Compañía.
Perching ourselves on one of the park benches we watch Cusco go about its daily life. Filled with religious wonders and historic sights, the main square is a lively place to chat to the locals.
It’s full of child shoe shiners, hand-holding schoolgirls, women with babies in their swaddles, and old men sharing crossword puzzles and playing cards. We ponder what might have happened here in Inca times.
The most impressive feature of La Compania is the incredible baroque facade with two majestic bell towers. The interior is cool and a little gloomy apart from a stunning gilded altar-piece which is often lit up at night and most disappointing that no photos allowed inside.
Constructed in the shape of a Latin cross, the three-aisled nave is supported by only fourteen massive pillars. It contains nearly 400 colonial paintings including the Last Supper by Marcos Zapata showing Christ and the Apostles about to dine on guinea-pig, washed down with a glass of chicha! (The famous corn beer)
To the side of the cathedral, a narrow pedestrian street named Procuradores is lined wall-to-wall with restaurants, bars, and cafés. This is called Cusco’s Gringo Alley, which is crowded with local hawkers including massage girls. Tempting us after a hard day walking around, we engage a conversation with one of these girls. Next minute we are off down the dark alley and up the stairs. Before you get too excited we manage to convey that we just wanted massage, NO “Happy Ending”.
What followed was a relaxing massage for about $10 for both of us, a great deal for the budget.
San Blas is where we find sculpture, pottery, painting, jewellery, textiles, woodcarvings, stonework, religious art and antiques. Despite trying not to shop for big items, there are so many trinkets we want to take home. The discovery of a brass wind chime depicting the Inca story and gods just has to come with us.
A born and bred local – Edward guides us around Cusco, he teaches us the Inca culture, history and interesting facts that only a local can tell you.
Having never done the “guided” thing before we were certainly nervous about it, we quickly realise that we enjoy the local input Edward gives us. It’s just us and Edward, you know a private tour which is well worth it. He even helps us post a box of trinkets home.
We were introduced to Edward by Kuoda Travel who cleverly helped us coincide with the celebration of the Winter Solstice, Corpus Christi and the Festival of the Sun Inti Raymi.
The week was full of parades, festivities, pomp and ceremony and without Edward’s help it would have been hard to know where to be and when.
Peru is the land of hats and by day we need the sombrero and by night a baby alpaca hat and gloves. The days are quite hot, but come night and you need that baby alpaca hat and gloves the lady tried to sell you today!
On the unfortunate side in Cusco is the presence of MacDonald’s and Starbucks and a place with the name Paddys Pub! These seem out of place and only serve to satisfy the tourists not the locals.
There is also a select few who like to try and rip off the traveller, but this is the same the world over, these people are everywhere.
Our time in Cusco, Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley was one of the highlights of our trip to Peru, and when we depart for Bolivia we know we will be back someday.
If nothing else, we would love to catch up with our welcoming hosts at Kuoda Travel, Edward, Mere, Edison and Tom.
Peru is a stunning country and we just long to go back for more.
Thanks for reading our story.
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