While preparing for our travels back in England, I asked my softball pal Pete to share some of his top tips from his recent trip to Peru. Alarmingly, one of the first things he mentioned was that Cusco had a McDonalds in the main square, despite knowing that one of the main reasons I travel is to eat memorable food. I assumed Cusco was a forgettable tourist trap for the hordes who pass through this area on the way to see Machu Picchu.
It was a pleasant surprise to arrive and discover that Cusco is a very likeable city (and that you shouldn’t ask a bloody Aussie for travel tips). Although we couldn’t resist stopping by Macca’s, just for you Pete…
True, the many travellers and agencies arranging treks and other excursions to the pre-Inca and Inca sites nearby form Cusco’s lifeblood today. But historic beauty is everywhere: huge Inca stone walls are on either side of cobbled streets which lead to wide, well kept plazas with flourishing flora, fountains and grand colonial cathedrals. It would take more than the modern tourism industry and a few fast food joints to diminish a place which used to be the centre of one the world’s most eminent civilisations.
Cusco used to be the Inca capital and is South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Even the name (originally Qosq’o in Quechua) means “navel of the earth”.
It is a lovely city to wander around and just a short puff away, up from the main square, are some good views.
A bit further away is the temple of Saqsaywamán, which forms the head of Cusco’s distinctive and intentional puma shape (other significant parts of the old town form the puma’s belly and genitals). The puma is the most powerful land mammal of these parts and a symbol of human prosperity. There are hundreds of significant symbols still within the stones, such as this puma paw.
Although it sounds like “sexy woman” (tee hee!) Saqsaywamán means “satisfied falcon”, named after gory bloodshed between indigenous people and their Spanish conquistadors in 1537. After the battle, flocks of hungry condors were attracted to the site littered with thousands of dead. This event is memorialised by the name it is known by today, and the eight birds depicted in Cuzco’s coat of arms.
Today only 20% of the original structure remains after looting by the Spanish – though the odd stone can be found in Cusco city, where they were taken to be used in colonial buildings such as the cathedral of the main square. The stones which remain must have been too large to budge – the ones in this picture weigh more than 70 tonnes.
We signed up for a day trip to explore the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba river, not far from the centre of Cusco. The main attractions include the ruins in Pisac and Ollantaytambo, plus numerous Andean villages along the way.
The Inca stone work is impressive, especially since nobody knows the exact methods used to get such precise lines. Although it is known that the Incas didn’t make things easy for themselves – they didn’t use the wheel, or slave labour, and often built structures miles away from the source of the heavy granite stones.
Incas knew about sophisticated techniques such as building the walls of houses and temples with a slight inward incline to protect against earthquakes, or creating terraces for efficient farming and irrigation.
Weaving is also an ancient and important way of life in these parts. We learned how intricately patterned, versatile and durable fabrics are made from llama and alpaca wool and natural plant and insect based dyes.
By the way, with so many guides, tour groups and agencies in town it is important to shop around for the best deal. Many offers are very similar so in the end we decided to pick the guide with the cutest kid. This little charmer won us over!