Cusco, Capital of the Incas

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May 2nd 2014
Published: May 2nd 2014
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I left Copacabana under grey skies. Overnight there had been a ferocious thunderstorm and the weather remained unsettled. It felt like a good time to be moving on.

The journey up to Cusco was a long 12 hours. The border crossing into Peru was fairly straightforward but then we had to wait whilst we changed buses at Puno. We were the first people on the bus to Cusco and for a brief period had the luxury of near empty bus. It couldn´t last. Before too long the bus was full to overflowing and resembled something approaching an impromptu food market as various locals tried to sell everything from sandwiches to more exotic local specialities. My first impression was that Peruvian buses seemed much more relaxed about stopping on request. As a consequence it was a stop-start journey, with a high turnover of passengers. I´d been warned in advance of my journey to be careful of my belongings since in the general melee it is all too easy for an unscrupulous person to walk off with your bag. In the event the tide of comings and goings resulted in nothing more serious than an hour and half´s delay to our journey.

We pulled into Cusco well after dark. I took a taxi through steep and narrow streets to my hostel, dropped off my bags and suffering from the now familiar bus-lag and armed with a dinner recommendation for a local restaurant headed off for my first look at Cusco. My hostel was a short (but steep) walk from the historic city centre but I had seen none of this when I was being driven from the bus station. Therefore it was a jaw-dropping surprise when I rounded a corner barely 100 yards from my hostel and was confronted with the magical view of the Plaza De Armas lit up for the night. It´s two baroque churches (the Cathedral and the if anything more impressive Jesuit church, La Iglesias De Compania De Jesus) and its beautifully proportioned collanades were a breathtaking sight.

Truth to tell I hadn´t given much thought to Cusco as a destination in itself, but rather had been thinking of it as the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. However, by the time I´d got up the following morning and spent a couple of hours wandering around its narrow, cobbled streets and soaking up the sun in its generous squares I was a firm fan. Cusco is easily the best city I´ve been to in South America.

Up until now my South American experience has really been about the landscape, and whilst some cities like Salta have contained buildings of note and been interesting, this was the first time I´d felt captivated by a city. It helped of course that the sun was out and that as luck would have it I´d arrived on a national holiday (May 1st - Labour Day). This was celebrated in typical South American style with a protest march around the Plaza De Armas, complete with bands, flags and the obligatory bangers. There was a slightly feverish air of excitement but it all seemed quite good natured.

There are plenty of cities with a raft of impressive, colonial buildings, and many will have an old quarter with attractive cobbled streets and squares. However, when you start to throw in the steep slopes that allow panoramic views across the city and a distant glimpse of the Andes you start to get a feel for how special Cusco is. And then on top of this you have a pleasant climate, excellent restaurants
Inca Masonary at SacsayqamanInca Masonary at SacsayqamanInca Masonary at Sacsayqaman

The walls are created without mortar. The largest stones weigh over 30 tonnes
(I am pleased to confirm that on the currently limited evidence available to me Peru´s reputation as having the best food in South America is well founded), and the possibility that you could (as I did) find yourself stumbling upon a world class archeological site such as Sachsaywaman and you can see why, in comparison, other cities seem just a little two dimentional.

It´s true you could barely move 10 yards in the Plaza De Armas without someone trying to sell you art, textiles, city tours, or sunglasses (the latter proving very handy - I´m currently onto my 3rd pair for this trip) or to shine your shoes (wearing walking boots proved no deterrent to offers). But not even the ubiquitous tourist touts or the constant pan-pipe renditions of "Hotel California" and "Let It Be" that wafted from shops and restaurants could not dim my enthusiasm.

I spent a couple of hours speaking to various tour operators about trekking to Machu Picchu. I´d set my heart on the Salkantay trek, which at 5 days and 4 nights is the longest of the short treks available. It takes in the most diverse landscapes and achieves the greatest elevation (4,600 metres). There were no shortage of offers but I´d read a number of horror stories about unscrupulous companies adding on charges or cutting corners to keep costs down at the expense of trekkers´ food and accommodation. In the end I found a company that was officially accredited and well recommended by Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor. So it´s full steam ahead - leaving tomorrow!

In the afternoon, hoping to find some good viewpoints to get a look across Cusco I climbed up into the hills and without really meaning to discovered Sacsaywaman (pronounced "sexy woman", meaning somewhat more prosaicly "contented falcon"). To be fair it was already on my radar as the most important of the several Inca sites within Cusco´s immediate environment. It´s a spectacular site and was a great introduction to this area's Inca legacy. The view it commands over Cusco makes it easy to understand why the Inca´s chose the site as the location for the city´s defenses . Only 20% of the original site is now visible, much remains hidden under the ground and still more was removed by the Spanish, who were keen to undermine the significance of indigineous structures and in Sacsaywaman found a convenient source of masonry for their own constructions. However, what does remain is still hugely impressive - notably the perfectly constructed masonry, stones of up to 30 tonnes cut to the centrimetre in order to allow them to lock together to form a significant defensive redoubt. And indeed it nearly worked, since from here the Inca´s besieged the city and narrowly failed in their attempts to take it back from Pisarro´s conquistadors. Nowadays it is an altogether more peaceful scene, tourists come to marvel at the size and complexity of the interlocking stonework, whilst locals are content to soak up the sun and picnic.

Cusco is a spectacular city by day but is really at its best at night. The Plaza De Armas has a couple of pubs with balconies from which you can indulge in a spot of people watching or just make the most of the local happy hour. Then after the sun has gone down the lights of the houses on the hills sparkle and with no high rise buildings to block the view and very little traffic outside of the central area you can clearly make out the lit up squares and silhouettes of the churches. I dined at a gem of a restaurant - Inkazuela - which specialises in spicy local casseroles - last night it was Peruvian beef with spicy chiles - not a million miles from a very rich chilli con carne - tonight I have every intention of going back to have a crack at the chicken.

So far I've barely touched the surface of Cusco´s museums and churches, not to mention it´s other significant Inca sites, so there remains much to look forward to when I return to Cusco from Machu Picchu. But for now it;s a different focus with an early start tomorrow morning followed by 5 days trekking, 3 nights camping and a night in a refugio and at the end of it all Machu Picchu...


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