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Published: December 9th 2013
My first few months in Cusco were spent in lovely meanderings around town, exploring canyons, green hills and ruins above the city, being awed by colorful festivals and volunteering with children through my Magic Hostel.
I leisurely visited the city's museums, colonial mansions and gilded churches and read the wealth of books on Cusco and the Inca in my hostel's library and in the shops of museums I visited (bookshops, my old standby, cruelly sealed their treasures in plastic). Toward the end of my stay, I bit the bullet, bought the expensive Tourist Ticket and made a mad dash to see everything else in the ticket's limited ten days--would I survive?
Museum Maven in Paradise I love learning the history, art and architecture of places I visit, so I can sense them fully and through time. After coming to know a place through reading and walking, it's time to go deeper and hit the museum trail. Cusco was a paradise with a glut of information and beauty housed in restored, colonial mansions and monasteries. On the lovely, upscale Plaza Nazarenas, the elegant Pre-Columbian Art Museum treated the quotidian and sacred objects of
the many Peruvian cultures, such as the Nazca and Moche, as fine art rather than artifacts. Consistent with what I'd seen in other South American museums the past few years, artistic designs were so much more intricate, fun and idiosyncratic before the Inca Empire exerted its "unifying" influence over other cultures. The same can be seen today as western plastics and mass-produced goods replace unique, hand-crafted objects once used daily in traditional cultures. The rambling Inka Museum was a nerd historian 's delight, and I spent a whole day taking notes and absorbing all the treats. Using artifacts, dioramas, and maps, it provided a comprehensive overview of Peruvian geography, flora and fauna as well as of the cultures of pre-Inca and Inca groups. It was so rewarding to gain an understanding of the land and people that made my later ventures into the countryside so much richer. Studying the large model of Machu Picchu later helped me easily find my way around and make sense of that site. I love textiles, so a delicious find was the Center for Traditional Textiles. It had bilingual exhibits showing the history
and techniques of weaving in villages around Cusco, sold gorgeous fair trade goods, and had weavers demonstrating their varied methods. I'm always awed watching weavers' nimble fingers create intricate designs when I've never been able to produce a decent thread on a drop spindle, something these weavers manage at age five.
Sacred Sites Cusco's premier museum was the 16c Santo Domingo Monastery, which was built over the Inca's holiest site, the Qoriconcha, Temple of the Sun. A huge earthquake in 1950 exposed astonishing Inca temples that had been hidden within the monastery's cloister. Dominican monks still live and pray on the site where Incan priests once prayed. The Spanish wanted to not only preempt the power and religion of the Incas, but hopefully also recognized spots imbued with spiritual power (though this could be my New Age optimism). My next blog will be on Inca Cusco and have photos of the Qoriconcha's perfection. Another bit of symmetry was the building of the Santa Catalina Convent over the site of the Inca's sacred House of the Chosen Women/Temple of the Virgins of the Sun. Nuns still live there, meaning that cloistered women
have lived and worshiped on that spot for the last 600 years. The museum had great exhibits, showing how the nuns of past centuries lived, worked and prayed. In a huge dormitory, each nun had a little, curtain-enclosed nook with bed, desk, religious painting and self-flagellation whip. I rather wondered what the self-flag protocol was--did they all whip out their whips at the same time, perhaps after tea, or would one would hear whips and groans at random times? Other convents I've visited had discrete little rooms for this, but here everything was so public--embarrassing for those who may have been bigger on the moans and slacker on the whip (as I certainly would have been).
The Cathedral and the Mysteries of Religion Kilos of gold, tons of silver, precious jewels, priceless art from the colonial Cusco school! Yes, this was the fabulous, 16c-17c cathedral, built over an Inca palace (as were most colonial structures). It was composed of three churches from different periods from late-Gothic to over-the-top, leave-no-spot-empty, Baroque and plateresque styles. As in all Cusco churches, beautifully carved and gilded alters held countless Virgins and
saints dressed to the nines in gowns and capes heavily embroidered with gold, silver and jewels. This embroidery was produced by young workers in tiny sweatshops on a street near my hostel, and I always stopped to watch their eyesight-destroying work. The Catholics made various concessions to convert the Inca. A painting of the Last Supper showed not a lamb on the table, but a guinea pig, an Andean delicacy, and the oldest of the three churches had altars covered with mirrors, symbolizing water, sacred to the Incas. To convey the idea of the Trinity, paintings often depicted three identical Christs, while Virgins were painted in the shape of a mountain to resemble Pachamama, the Earth Mother. A harder, but still successful, sell was that of the popular Santiago (St. James in English). Known as the Moor Slayer in Spain, here, Santiago was shown slaying indigenous people. These were not Love-Your-Neighbor times. Since Santiago was also associated with thunder, which the Inca venerated, the Catholics convinced them that he was the god of thunder; they bought it and the guy is on top of and in the cathedral stomping the very
people who worship within. Religion is a mystery. I knew all this (and much more that no one else cares to read about) because I studied before I went and had an excellent audio guide. I spent the day meandering about the cathedral and often listened to guides in various languages. While some were descent, others gave wildly conflicting, sometimes ridiculous information to their nodding groups. I must say I generally distrust guides, and this confirmed it. Let the listener beware!
Doing the Tourist Trot Finally after a couple of months in Cusco, I bought the expensive Tourist Ticket to visit archaeological sites and lesser museums. I prefer to linger and visit only one museum/site a day, so it was a bit of a race to see everything in ten short days--not my style. I started with the sites in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, over the mountains from Cusco. and have written blogs on my visits to Pisac and the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo Idyll and Chinchero and Magical Earthworks. I liked the first two towns so much, I returned after my tourist trot for longer stays. I love quirky museums so was happy to
visit ones on religious, popular and contemporary art housed in restored colonial mansions. The regional history museum was in the home of Garcilaso Inka de la Vega, born in the early 17c to an Inca Princess and Spanish functionary. Much of what we know of the Incas comes from his writings based on what he'd learned as a child from his mother's family. Later, living in Spain, he wrote of his people at a time when it wasn't popular--what a hero! My next blog will be about his roots, and the reason people flock to the city--Inca Cusco.
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