Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Peru: Cusco, the Inca capital

      If you know anything about the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, you probably know the story of the 1534 Spanish kidnapping of the Inca (emperor) and the ransom of a room full of gold. The Inca Atahualpa was on his way to Cusco after winning a civil war with his half-brother when he was taken hostage by Francisco Pizarro. The great sun temple in Cusco was stripped of much of its gold to pay the ransom. After it was paid, the Spanish killed Atahualpa anyway. It was the beginning of the end of the short-lived Inca Empire.
    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
main plaza.
     He was Cusi Yupanqui, the son of the eighth Inca and the brother of the designated successor.  When he was a young man, a rival empire, the Chankas, attacked Cusco.  His father and brother fled. He stayed to successfully defend the city and the legend is that even the stones of Cusco rose up as soldiers under his command. He was recognized as the Inca around 1438 and ruled for more than 30 years.
    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).

This wall was once the foundation for
 the main sun  temple in Cusco.  Today,
 known as Coricancha, it is part of the
 Santo  Domingo Monastery complex,
 the Spanish having  demolished 
much of the sun temple   and  built a 
cathedral atop  its ruins. This temple, its
 walls  and floors  covered with plates of
 gold as  thick as four  inches,  supplied
 much of  the gold that was given  to the
 Spanish in an  attempt to ransom
 the Inca Atahualpa.
Here you can see how the Santa Domingo Monastery
is built on the ruins of the Incan sun temple. 

Over the centuries, Inca-era stone walls have been given new life
as parts of new buildings. Note how no two stones are exactly
alike. The wall is a stone jigsaw puzzle that is strengthened
by the way the stones fit together. 

Tile roofs give Cusco a Spanish look.
This view is from a roof terrace at the hotel
Andenenes al Cielo. The woman is sweeping a
walkway above the hotel's courtyard.

The Cathedral of Cusco dominates the city's Plaza de Armas.
The Cathedral Complex consists of, from the left, the
extravagant Iglesia de Jesus Maria (mostly hidden here), the
twin-towered Cathedral itself, and the Iglesia del Triunfo.
The Cathedral is home to many works of arts by the
so-called Cusco School, painters who combined
European techniques with native content, such as
a painting that shows a local delicacy, guinea pig.

being eaten at the Last Supper. 
A French flag flies on a typically narrow Cusco street.
Note again how partial old stone walls are reused.
Its role as the gateway to Machu Picchu and the "Sacred
Valley" of the Urubamba River,  along with its own ruins
and other attractions, has made Cusco a popular destination
for travelers from all over the world.

The historic central district of Cusco has a number
of pedestrian-only streets. This one climbs a hill north 
of the Plaza de Armas.

Ornate wooden balconies such as this one in Cusco are
common on Spanish Colonial building throughout Peru.
In Peru, the Spanish Colonial period is referred to as
the Spanish Viceroyalty.

The ruins of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced "sex-say woman,"
 to the endless amusement of many visitors) are on a hill overlooking
Cusco's historic district. This was a huge fortress and temple
 complex that the Spanish used as a quarry, taking stone from
 it to build their palaces and churches in Cusco.

Although the Sacsayhuaman's builders were able to work with
 gigantic stones weighing as much as 361 tons, they were
apparently too large for the Spanish to move. The smaller
stones in this photo  represent repairs that allowed the
 terrace above this wall to be restored. The sign below
is at 

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