Unraveling Cusco: The Heart of the Inca Emprire

We woke up day number 2 of our trip at the crack of dawn once again.  Our 6 am flight at the Lima airport required an early check-in since apparently flights in Peru are notorious for leaving early. Thankfully, I had read the guide book and knew this advance.  The plane left twenty minutes before its scheduled departure!

The flight to Cucso was only one hour which made it hard to sleep.  I was able to get a few shots out the window and thought excitedly about the journey ahead to the Andes.  I love mountains and couldn’t wait for the trek.

Cusco is known as the heart of the Incan Empire and was founded in the 13th century where the Incas ruled until their tragic defeat by the Spanish in 1532.  Located near the Urubamba Valley in the midst of the Andes mountains, it has an alarmingly high altitude to the newly acquainted tourist:  11,200 feet/3,400 m.

In 1983, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and serves today as a major tourist destination and launching off point to the sacred Inca Trail and Machu Picchu.

As we made our descent into the Cusco airport, I was alarmed with my palms sweating full force.  Due to the high altitude and precipitous location of the town, the pilot had to do some crazy maneuvering over the 12,000-foot high mountains and at one point it felt like we would make a crash landing right into the mountains!  I was completely freaked out. Just when I thought it was over, the pilot swerved violently, making a rapid, frightening decent into the steep valley where the airport was perched at a mere 11,000 feet. I felt faint but recovered most likely once I realized that after I pinched myself, I was alive.

If you have never landed in a high altitude place, it is a strange, discomforting feeling.  Normally, you have time to adjust and acclimatize to the altitude of a place. For example, if you are driving out west in the United States to the Colorado Rockies, you slowly ascent and get used to the altitude.  But this is not the case in the height of the Andes Mountains!  I felt the 11,000 or so feet instantly after exiting the plane. My young, twenty-eight-year-old body felt winded and breathless.

Thankfully, a driver and representative from our tour company, Andean Life, was there at the airport to meet and greet us. He went by the name of Timothy and most likely reached my armpits (the indigenous people of Peru are quite short, especially compared to a tall American woman).  We were once again welcomed by a live Peruvian band which woke us up out of our stupor.  Timothy lead us to the modest car, and loaded our luggage in the trunk.  I sighed with relief knowing that everything was safe and got in the back seat of the small car with my dad.

My first impression of Cusco was one of amazement.  It is a fascinating, old and outright grimy city in the valley of the spectacular Andes mountains. Once again, the poverty of the place was instantly noticeable, much more so than in Lima.  Being in central Cusco felt like stepping back one hundred years in time.

The houses were very old and dirty. The roads were bumpy and awash with scum. There were no signs of luxury except for the majestic cathedral which was probably THE most impressive cathedral I’d ever laid eyes on (this is a big statement given the fact that I’ve spent years traveling throughout Europe and have seen a lot of impressive cathedrals). I think what stuck with me most was the fact that the Spaniards literally tore down the Incan Empire and placed their Catholic Church right on top of it, and adorned it with the most amazing, impressive Silver and Gold-encrusted altars that I’ve ever seen. This kind of beauty and wealth juxtaposed to such poverty seemed to me like an outright crime.

Timothy brought us directly to our hotel a lovely authentic place called El Balcon located in the heart of the Incan Empire, Cusco.  Here is a picture of my dad carrying his “luggage” (we were requested to pack everything for our trek in a duffel bag) outside of the hotel, El Balcon (or “the Balcony”).

Photo of the street leading from the main square to our hotel.

We were warmly welcomed by the owner of our hotel, a Quechua woman who spoke no english or spanish whatsoever.  We gingerly climbed the one flight of stairs, stopping to catch our breath at every step and came upon this view of the rooftops and the courtyard garden below from the large balcony spanning the width of the hotel.

Our room was spartan but clean and served its purpose for the night.  We would be guaranteed a good nights sleep in this peaceful place yet were to be rudely awakened the next day at 4 am to start our travel to the start of the Inca Trail.

The balcony was gorgeous and intricately carved reminding me somewhat of the gorgeous balconies we saw in Lima but on a more casual construction.  We were offered some coca-leaf tea, a common drink in the high Andes, which is supposed to relieve altitude sickness.  The tea tasted remarkably good.  Yes, the coca leaves are derived from the coca tree, the same plant as cocaine.  However, there is less than 0.4% trace in the tea and it is a common drink in the high altitude Andes countries.  (No, I didn’t get a high from it but it did reduce my headache slightly).

I was fascinated by the beautiful red rooftops and couldn’t get enough pictures of them.  I also loved the dramatic mountains in the background which offered a promise of the beauty that was to come.

The city of Cusco with a shot of the main square and cathedral in the background.  Hard to believe that this village was once the stronghold of the great Incan Empire that now ceases to exist.

After a brief rest and more coca tea, we decided it was time to explore the town.  Timothy would be our guide for the afternoon.  But first we were going to walk around a bit and grab some lunch. Here is a photo of me (mind you, ten years younger) holding the map to this mysterious city.

We ate lunch in the building on the right, outside on an old bright blue, wooden balcony.  We lavished in a delicious red beet salad and delightful pizza, a bit surprised by the level of international cuisine in a town that seemed so impoverished.  The beggars seemed to be missing a bit from Cusco.  Perhaps we were just in the wrong part of town.

After lunch we met up with Timothy, our guide for the afternoon, and headed to the main square, Plaza des Armes (aren’t they all called that in Latin countries!).  Below is a picture of the main cathedral, the Cathedral of Santo Domingo that was one of the most impressive piece of architecture I’ve ever seen.  Inside, there are two dramatic altars, each one at least 100 feet hight, soaring to the sky, and one of the altars is completely embossed in silver (an amazing sight).  The cathedral was built in 1654 taking almost one hundred years to complete, and was literally built smack on top fo the remains of Corichancha, an Incan temple torn down by Spanish colonists.

This picture below is of another, smaller catholic church in the Plaza des Armes, the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, a rival church to the cathedral.

Larger picture of the Plaza des Armes.

It was amazing to be in a place with so much history and so much tragedy.  I reflected a bit on the defeat of the great Incan Empire and the spread of christianity throughout South America.  It felt so unjust.

After our tour of central Cusco, we headed to another part of town, where the only remaining Incan ruins still stood.  These ruins are called Sacsayhuaman (which made me laugh as the guide pretty much called them “Sexy Woman”).  The walled complex located on the northern outskirts of Cusco are a rare find.  Like many other constructions made by the Incas, Sacsayhuaman is made without mortar.  Each boulder was carefully cut, polished and fit together as seen in this picture below.  An amazing feat of architecture!

To demonstrate the size of these stones…here is my silly dad.  There is much debate among scholars how the Incas moved and worked these stones to complete this amazing structure.

After our tour of the ruins, we headed back to our van.  I couldn’t help but notice a local shepherd in the distance, herding his sheep and working the old-fashioned way.

The view of Cusco from Sacsayhuaman is absolutely stunning.  The old Inca Empire in all her glory.

As we approached our awaiting van, of course there was a market located directly across from the parking lot.  The locals were selling all sorts of Peruvian goods such as handicrafts and blankets for next to nothing.

Then there were the local children offering you a “Kodak moment” for a buck.  Although I felt guilty encouraging child labor, I couldn’t resist taking the shot.  The only one smiling is the laughing llama.

Then I got the whole family in traditional dress.  Cost?  Priceless.

We climbed back the meager flight of stairs, breathless and exhausted beyond belief by the last two days of travel and adventure.   I climbed into my thin cot, pulled over the wool covers and was out as a light as soon as my head hit the pillow.  For tomorrow was going to be yet another day of extreme adventure and fatigue.  But I was ready…

Stay tuned….next post documents Day 1 trekking the world-famous Inca Trail.