March 3, 2018

City of Cusco

There is an easy resource commonly used in the tourist industry that pisses me off, consisting of extrapolating outstanding features from a top travel site or destination to another that has little or nothing to do with it. As an example, the marvelous church in Andahuaylillas is usually tagged in tourist brochures, as the “Cusco’s Sistine Chapel.” In view of that, I always ask myself why Michelangelo’s work of art cannot be promoted as “the Vatican’s Andahuaylillas?” What do you think traveler? Under that marketing rhetoric, Cusco has been renamed 2the Rome of the Incas,” “the Rome of the New World,” or “the Rome of the Americas.2 sure, because there is a Coliseum and Via Appia built in Cusco, right? The city of Cusco is currently an essential part of Peru’s main tourist destination (with the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu included), the crown jewels, with almost 2 million visitors every year. Located at 3.400 meters of altitude, Cusco is considered one of South America’s most beautiful and interesting cities, and yes, indeed, boasts some non-marketing titles that are worth to be reminded: Archaeological Capital of the Americas and Unesco’s World Heritage, among other minor ones.

Know in pre-Hispanic times in Acamama, legends says that the city of Cusco was founded by Manca Cápac (son of Inti, the Sun god) and ¡his wife and sister, Mama Ocllo (daughter of Pachamama, the Mother Earth), after being sent by Inti with the mission of civilizing men. The founding couple did not appeared in Cusco but in Lake Titicaca instead, the interior sea and symbol of feminine fertility. The Inca had a golden staff in his hands, the symbol of masculine ertility, which he had to bury in the place where the Imperial City was going to be built. That place was the center of current Cusco.

Once the Inca Empire was installed oin the city, Pachacútec is given credit for making Cusco into an Inperial City around the mind-15th century, coinciding with his expansion project. Cusco became the spiritual and political center of the vast Inca Empire, making it the most important city of the Andes and South America. Its palaces, temples and monuments should have been splendid, especially those of the Imperial Period, with its distinctive of maximum quality, such as the double and triple jamb doorways, the stone carving, not to mention what Garcilaso sustained about the unlimited use of gold and silver, in honor of the stars and its brightness.

Francisco Pizarro arrived to Cusco on November 15, 1533, after defeating Atahualpa in Cajamarca. The civil war between this Inca and his brother Huáscar dismembered the empire and cut Peruvian territory in half, producing this north-south dichotomy that in some ways prevails until today. The foundation of the Spanish city took place on March 23, 1524.

All along the 16th century, the colonial city was built over the solid Inca ruins. The material used mostly came from the giant complex of Sacsayhuaman. Hence, the stones that were part of this place of worship lost its sacredness when they were transformed into construction material. It is fascinating to see how evident the cultural misunderstanding between locals and foreigners can be. And of course, you have to observe this phenomenon today with neutral eyes, and not as like certain guides who attack the Spanish tourists with such virulence when they explain the conquest of the Incas, making them quite uncomfortable. The truth is that the Spanish found a magnificent city built out of stone, with lavish palaces where the quality of stone carving and the designing of ornaments expressed a highly sophisticated view of the world. Precious metals where used more as part of the worshiping process than simply ornamental pieces. Traditional textiles enclosed such a high language in themselves, that when the Incas realized the imminent invasion of the “white bearded men,” the first thing they did was to hide or set on fire their llicllas, or cloaks and headdresses weaved with camelid fiber, in order to prevent that their pallais (design icons for weaving) would fall in the hands of strangers.

If you don’t mind, let me go into a disgression. There is a brief novel named Das Gold Von Caxamalca (The Gold from Cajamarca ) by the German writer Jakob Wasserman, dating from 1928 (very praised by Thomas Mann), in which the author reconstructs the “encounter in Cajamarca,” but from ideological standings completely different to the conventional. Based on historical sources, the author registers the absolute surprise of the Spanish when they see the secondary role that the Incas gave to gold in opposition to textiles. The obsession for gold is a Western issue, and it comes even bigger with the great quests in Middle Age Europe for the Holy Grail of the Fountain of Youth. However, in ancient Peru the value of the precious metal was significantly different. Quite recently, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Orefici found in the sacred city of Cahuachi built nby the Nasca culture, a burial of an important person. It was buried in a small temple built from mud and huarango wood with an impressive funerary offerings. There is, for example, a silver plated gold-made mose ring! Orefici says that under that same premise he has found gold made-made pieces painted with colors obtained from minerals: giving “gold” a different meaning of what it has.

The mix between the Inca and Spanish gave a city full of architectural contrasts, but at the same time coherent and harmonious, at least in its major constructions. The beautiful colonial houses and churches, many of them with Inca traces, are a sample of this phenomenon, as well as certain neighborhoods, plazas and streets. Cusco was declared a World Heritage by Unesco in 1983. The “discovery” of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham in 1911, positioned Cusco as the archaeological capital of the Americas.

If we return to the language used in the tourism industry, it should be mentioned that the city of Cusco has a pleasant climate (the altitude isn’t for many tourist), a beautiful landscape in its environs, great architectural and archaeological richness, numerous and varied craftwork and handicrafts, great nightlife and a magnificent gastronomy. The complexity of the city, the enormous, amount and variety of interesting sites it has (each one having a secret, a story, a legend), the enthralling modern history of a city that became, along with Kathmandu, the world’s hippy hub during the sixties, the big changes tourism is going through, and its cosmopolitan atmospheres, make it impossible to squeeze all of that in such a brief guidebook. Cusco is a city that must be lived and experienced and not visited as a tourist, which explains the big amount of people from all over the world that choose to set their residence there for a long period of time or even forever.

But back to reality, you have a guidebook in your hands and I have to accomplish the mission of providing the traveler with information to visit Cusco in a few days, making the best out of it. For this purpose, I consider it very helpful to suggest a daily itinerary. Of course you can change it, but at least it will give you point of reference that combines the cultural aspects with the pleasure of doing absolutely nothing, a little bit of partying, good, going shopping, and the amazement of being in such an arcane place. I have organized the itinerary by themes. So there are five urban routes to see the fundamental and the most secrets aspects of Cusco, with a bit of organization. The themes are: Origins, The Mixing of Races, Art and Daily Life, Architectural Contrast, and Shopping of course.