Today, Cusco, a city of more than 500,000 people, abounds with reminders of its past. Its first people were the Killke, who founded the town around 900 A.D. Some of the ancient stonework that is thought of as Incan was in fact built by the Killke people. Cusco was conquered by the Inca in the 1200s and became the center of the Kingdom (or Chiefdom) of Cusco. The people were mainly farmers -- all the much-photographed mountain terraces of the Andes were built for agriculture -- until a leader came along to use Cusco as the base for one of the world's great empires.
|Statue of Pachacutec in Cusco's|
He became known as Pachacutec ("shaker of the earth") and ruled as a warrior king, He conquered many other ethnic groups and expanded his empire's territory, creating a model of Inca conquest that was still in progress a century later when the Spanish arrived and conquered the Incas. He also was a great builder. Machu Picchu is thought to have been built as a winter retreat for him. Under him, the empire built roads and cities, and consolidated conquered peoples into the empire.
Pachacutec's empire was known as Tawantinsuyu (the four corners). Today, thanks mainly to the Spanish who didn't use the Tawantinsuyu name, we know it as the Inca Empire. It lasted little more than a century yet its impact survived three centuries of Spanish rule and can still be seen today. Its language, Quechua, is one of Peru's two official languages and is widely spoken in the Andes.
A visit to Cusco means breathing at 4,300 meters above sea level. Most hotels have oxygen tanks available for guests who have trouble adjusting to the altitude. Another aid is coca, and everywhere there are coca leaves for people to chew or use as a tea. Candies containing coca are available at every corner grocery. Peru and Bolivia are the only countries where coca (it's the essential ingredient needed to make cocaine) is legally cultivated. Our stay in Cusco came after our visits to Arequipa (elev. 2,335 meters), Ollantaytambo (elev. 2,772 meters) and Machu Picchu (elev. 2,430 meters), so we thought we'd have little trouble. Both Jane and I found that walking up a slope or a flight of stairs could make us short of breath, and this is an extremely hilly town. In fact, some pedestrian-only streets are nothing but steps. Other than that, which didn't lessen appreciably during our four-day visit, we had no problem.
I found Cusco charming. It has several very good restaurants, some tucked away in hard-to-find narrow streets and some overlooking the main square, Plaza de Armas. There are also a lot of shops to browse -- from handicraft alcoves in alleys to top-of-the-line shops selling very fine alpaca goods. A thorough search found bartenders capable of making decent mojitos, and it takes no effort at all to find solid pisco sours, the "national drink" of Peru that very few Peruvians seem to drink. Pisco is a grape brandy much like Armagnac except that it's not aged in wood. They prefer to mix pisco with ginger ale or Sprite. Perhaps it's because pisco sours require more work (pisco, lime juice, simple syrup, and egg whites, shaken very hard with ice, strained and topped with drops of bitters).