Wednesday, August 8, 2007

CUSCO. Day 1

We arrived in Cusco early on a bright morning on August 1st. We had purchased a package tour which left us the first morning free to rest and acclimatize, perhaps with the aid of the hotel's complimentary coca leaf tea.

Ben and the Sacred Plant of the Incas

Not content to just sit around, my cousin Juancho, Susana, my cousin Ceci and her husband Ben, and I, took off toward the city center, which like everywhere else in Latin America revolves around the Plaza de Armas.

Ceci and Ben in front of the Jesuit Basilica in the Plaza de Armas

Taxis in Cusco are regulated and prices controlled. During the day, a fare is s/. 2 and at night s/. 3. We were surprised and at first felt a little bad paying so little for a ride that in Lima would be double that. However, it was very convenient to be able to just hop in a cab without having to first negotiate a price like we'd have to in Lima.

Around the plaza, the group let me lead them to a couple of places I had been wanting to see: Loreto Kiqllu and Hatun Rumiyoq. Each of those streets includes Spanish colonial buildings erected atop inca masonry walls, and vies for the title of most being the most beautiful street in Cusco and as having the most perfect walls.

In reality it is perhaps a matter of taste. In Loreto the walls of the former Aqllawasi (House of the Sacred Women) are fitted together in neat rows of similarly-sized rectangular blocks, giving the wall a look of highly finished perfection.

Loreto Kiqllu

Wall detail in Loreto Kiqllu

In Hatun Rumiyoq, on the other hand, the masonry is closer to the style called "cyclopean" by archaeologists. There, the stones are oddly shaped and sized, and rather than being smooth-faced the are trimmed at the joints giving them the appearance of bulging out. Here the Inca masons' skill and creativity at joining stone to stone is evident at its highest, giving rise to stones joined to five, six, and even more, other stones, including the famous Twelve-Angled Stone and a lesser-known one with thirteen angles.

Susana and I in Hatun Rumiyoq

Twelve-Angle Stone
Thirteen-Angle Stone

In the afternoon the tour guide picked us up at the hotel in a bus, and we left to visit sites on the outskirts of the city. The first one we passed -although we did not stop, even though it was ostensibly on the program- was Puka Pukara, a small hilltop fortress guarding the access route between Cusco, Tambomachay, and the Urubamba Valley. Pukara (or Pucara) is a Quechua word meaning 'fort' and, as mentioned in other posts, puka means 'red', the place name translates as 'Red Fort'.

Puka Pukara

A bit beyond Puka Pukara, and serving to explain its presence, lies Tambomachay. Here, the Incas built a temple around a sacred spring which flows to this day.

There have been all sorts of theories calling this the Inca's bathhouse and a purification place for Inca priestesses. However, its distance from the city and ceremonial centers, gives doubt to those, and in its name perhaps lies a clue to its purpose and origin. In Inca days a tambo was a waystation where travellers could rest and gather strength. The complex lies on an Inca trail from the eastern part of the empire, the Antisuyo, and Tambomachay may have provided as much a measure of hospitality to travellers as a measure of control, as a small pukara overlooks the site from across the esplanade.

The next stop was at K'enko. K'enko means labyrinth in Quechua, and that is what the site resembles. It is composed of a large natural rock formation, which has been modified and worked by the Incas. The top is carved with channels and odd shapes, and natural spaces underneath have been enlarged and shaped into altars and niches.

Although our guide had said that we'd go easy as he knew we were all tired and adjusting to the altitude, he was clearly in a hurry and kept urging us along. Consequently, we did not get to climb the rock and examine it's upper carvings.

That, and that we had already skipped Puka Pukara, gave me a feeling (correct it turned out) that we'd be rushed along our next stop - Saqsahuaman- and that we'd not have the opportunity to check out Suchuna Hill. So, upon entering Saqsahuaman, I decided to get off the bus at the base of Suchuna and catch up to the group later.

Suchuna is a small promontory across the plain from Saqsahuaman fortress which has been worked by the Incas. Behind it, I discovered a small amphiteathre overlooking a semicircular plaza and a little k'enko.

After walking behind Suchuna, I climbed along its flank and came into view of the fortress of Saqsahuaman itself.

In Inca times, Cusco was laid out in the shape of a puma, whose head was composed of the promontory upon which the fortress was built. It is an apt location, as the fortress overlooking the city could serve as the empire's 'eyes', and the fortresses serrated walls are said to represent the puma's teeth.

Here, the Inca's cyclopean style of architecture is displayed, it not at its finest, then certainly at its grandest. Many of the stones weight upward of 20 metric tons, and some exceed 60, 80, even 90 metric tons.

Nico and Susana at Saqsahuaman, with Suchuna in the background

Back in town, we made two stops: one at the Qorikancha and another at the Cathedral. The Qorikancha was the Inca sun temple in which a gold sun disk was kept. There were also other, smaller, side recincts for other sky deities such as lightning, the constellations, etc. The Spanish built the church of San Agustín on top of the temple in the 17th century, but in recent times authorities have exposed most of the remaining Inca structures.

We remained at the plaza for dinner. All the little kids wanted pizza or Bembo's, so Susana and I split off and went to a restaurant that I had heard of via the internet some time ago: Pachacutec Grill. It is located right on the plaza, and one of its walls and entrance were actually part an Inca building that used to exist on the spot. So, while the rest dealt with their kids and ate substandard pizza, Susa dined on a plate-sized spinach raviol and I enjoyed roast alpaca in a huacatay sauce with scalloped potatoes and a glass of wine.

Later, Susana, Juancho and I decided to stay and explore some more. We thus ended up in the Hotel Monasterio, the luxest of all in Cusco, where we two Juanchos sipped coca sours (a pisco sour made with coca-infused pisco) and Susana had hot chocolae from a silver service. She said it made her feel "like a lady".

Courtyard of the Hotel Monasterio

After dropping Susana off at our hotel, the Hotel Agustos, Juancho and I returned to the plaza, found a quiet nook, and settled in for several rounds of cold pisco sours and warm conversation.

Cusco Cathedral and Plaza de Armas

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