Another over night bus later we arrived in Cusco in high spirits, high because of the altitude. Sitting at 3300m above sea level, Cusco is the launching pad into the ancient Inca Empire within the mountains and valleys that surround it.
Plaza de Armas, Cusco
Over 500 years ago Cusco was the capital of the ancient Inca Empire. From here the various Inca Rulers expanded the Empire to be one of the biggest ancient civilizations the world has seen, stretching from Colombia in the north, down to Chile in the south. They ordered the construction of vast cities, military fortresses, and hilltop temples and citadels to worship their gods; of the earth, water and sun, all that is required for life on earth to exist. They were sophisticated builders, and the perfection of their stone masonry is jaw dropping
Original Inca Stonework with Spanish additions above.
Church of La Compañia de Jesus on the Plaza de Armas
In come the 15th Century Spanish Conquistadors, here to conquer the “new world” and pillage as much gold and silver as they could get a hold of. The Spaniards were ready to take on the fierce Inca Empire. Lucky for them the Inca’s were already in a civil war, and therefore taking over the reins proved far too easy for Francisco Pizzaro and his bearded friends.
Cusco was originally a large Inca city built of finely cut stone, pieced together like a jig saw puzzle without any mortar. When the Spanish arrived they destroyed all of the Inca buildings but the foundations, and a top of these foundations they built exquisitely detailed colonial buildings. It is sad, but at the same time the result is a culturally diverse and architecturally rich city of layers; a convergence of ancient Inca and Spanish Colonial architecture.
A typical Cusco laneway. Old Inca stonework forming the foundations of the city
Sitting comfortably 400m above the city of Cusco is the ancient Inca Archaeological site of Saqsayhuaman, or “sexy-woman” as us gringos often refer to it. We spent a wet soggy morning exploring the ruins, which is presumed to have been a military fortress back in Incan times. The stone work here was incredible. These aren’t just little brick sized stones; we are talking massive, at least 4m by 6m stones, each one carved and interlocked together with absolutely no mortar. How they did this remains a mystery, but you can certainly appreciated the delicate craftsmanship that has gone into creating this and many other Inca sites, and which is quite possibly the reason why they have managed to survive for so long and in such perfect condition. Unfortunately, for the ancient Inca, this site was ravaged by the Spaniards as a quarry to provide materials for the city below. Almost every building in Cusco is constructed of the stone that originally built Saqsayhuaman, at least what they could carry, which certainly wasn’t the incredibly over sized stones. The site also provides magical views over Cusco below, the Inca’s certainly knew how to pick a location.
The parade ground, still used today for the IntiRaymi Festival
Giant stones so finely carved
Stone work at Saqsayhuaman
View over Cusco from Saqsayhuaman
We spent our first day wandering around the old town, a UNESCO heritage site, with bustling plazas and squares, fountains and colonnades. The tight little alley ways were so interesting; lined with souvenir shops on one side, ancient Inca stone work on the other, and with stark white colonial buildings sitting directly atop the stone. So many layers, and so perfectly detailed. We were in awe.
Wandering the streets of Cusco
Steep tight alleys make driving interesting
Little doors for little people
So many gorgeous courtyards
With so much to see we opted to get the Boleto Touristico (Tourist Ticket), which allowed us to see a number of ancient ruins and city museums at a bargain price. Well, that was until the lady at the counter told us we were too old to get the cheap ticket. Apparently you have to be under 25 to be a student in this town. We went with the ticket anyway, at double the price we were still going to make some savings. Bad decision. The tourist ticket included a number of museums which we quickly learnt were the lousy museums nobody wants to pay to go to. We have both been to our fair share of museums around the world, but these would have to be the shittiest museums ever created. Some were just utterly pointless others were just weird and creepy. The Museum of Popular Art was by far the strangest; a room jam-packed with grotesque clay models and caricatures depicting various scenes of the regions history. Some of the models weren’t really telling much, some looked like they had been made as part of a high school art project. Our apologies to the artists, but seriously is this really popular art? You might just have to visit it to understand our view. The whole town is pretty much a tourist trap, and it seems the museums are a result of this. Basically the city trying to slap together some half-arsed exhibitions in order to make some money, which is fine I suppose, but to us it de-valued the rich history that makes up this city.
Another beautiful Plaza de Armas
Due to this town being a tourist trap the prices here are exorbitant. Lucky for us we picked a really awesome hostel to stay in, The Southern Comfort Hostel, which has a fully decked out kitchen for us cheapies to use. In an effort to save money here we have chosen to self-cater, (cook our own dinners), just because we are on holidays doesn’t mean we can’t cook. Our diet back home consisted of plenty of legumes and veggies, which is seriously lacking in our diet here, well apart from beans, they love them. We have been missing chickpeas, so we ventured to the Super Mercado (Supermarket) in search of chickpeas and vegetables. Do you think we could find them? Well obviously veggies are in abundance, but fresh, clean, non-rotting veggies are quiet rare in these parts, and tins of chickpeas just don’t exist. Our first proper self-catered meal was terrible. We could only find dry chickpeas, which, when you haven’t pre-planned to soak, are not easy and quick to make into the soft delicious chickpeas we remember from back home. All of the vegetables tasted bitter and just generally crap, and the chickpeas were tasteless and crunchy. We sought advice from John the manager of the hostel and he suggested we visit el Mercado (The Market) for fresher produce. Thankfully he was right and we stocked up on plenty of veggies to get our fix for the week. A lesson we will keep in mind for future shopping decisions; the market is always fresh. I’m just going to throw it out there; Australia you are so lucky you have such amazing vegetables. How we miss you.