Bright and early at 8:45am I awoke in eager desires to begin my day in this UNESCO World Heritage Site in which reading about all the gems that capture this city made waking up an easy task. Carmen and I ventured off into the city below to get a taste of Cusco after getting everything ready for the upcoming trek and reserving a couple more nights at Loki upon our return the following weekend.
Downward toward the vibrant city below, the beautiful Iglesias de San Francisco stands with doors open, welcoming us in as we take a pew toward the back as Sunday mass proceeds in Spanish tongue however Latin transcript arcs above the altarpieces that are the highlight of this historical structure. Gazing upon simplistic architecture that features bare stone walls of concrete blocks in gray tones with neo-Gothic art and antique images; a neoclassical altar of cedar portraying images of St. Francis of Assisi and the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception among other spiritual figures unknown to me. As I glance to my right, the door stands open where the city can be seen from this very seat I have been bestowed; hazy, luminescence, picturesque image of breathtaking beauty in something so simplistic as the rays of sun breaching the entrance of a dimly lit Cathedral. Dark silhouettes of bodies pass by these doors; some peer in to simply satisfy their curiosity while others cross this threshold as their figures now become clear and a face emerges from behind this wall of illumination. To know these doors have been open since the 16th Century, to know I am one of many, and to know so many before me have embraced something they believe in and that gives them faith renders me unable to fathom the degree at which history embraces every element around me.
Bustling life outside of these church walls embrace our reappearance as culture fills the air with unique scents and different scenes from what we are normally use to. Peruvian women prepare fresh juices while stirring the contents in five gallon buckets, different colors with platters with fresh cut lemons set on unfamiliar herbs that look freshly cut. A little child dressed in an alpaca sweater and denim panama style hat, stands out among the crowd as he eats a large triangle of fresh watermelon and runs behind his mother as he grasps her hand to insure he is not forgotten.
The sultry Peruvian sun beats down upon us as we walk down side streets to the Plaza de Armas, the focal point and city centre of Cusco. It was once the heart of the Incan capital known as ‘huacaypta’. Colonnaded buildings with restaurants and balconies encompassing tables which overlooking city scenes, terracotta tiles on rooftops, and touts waiting to hassle and haggle their merchandise or services to anyone willing to match their low bids. Artists selling traditional paintings, designer sunglasses, guided tours…fruits, vegetables, full body massages, just about anything you may think of and even things you might not know what they are; that’s right, anything to make a few soles! A demonstration fills the thoroughfare as those protesting march along the streets chanting for change and holding signs and flags in the air. Alan Ratero vende el GAS de Tu Trasero!
A beautiful fountain lays in the center square surrounded by vibrant flowers, lush green grass and trees small in stature. Locals, tourists, young and old fill the streets as stray dogs lounge on patches of green and bound across city streets. Colonial baroque architecture is depicted through the towering Cathedral and La Compania, the backdrop of this city centre where Francisco Pizarro declared Cusco under Spanish rule changing this once Incan city from beautiful palaces and temples to a new style of European flavor.
Darren, an adventurer from Los Angeles, began chatting with Carmen and making our acquaintance as he shared his former adventures in Central America, Columbia down to Peru and now off to Argentina. It made me think of my solo travels through the Baltic and I insisted that he join us in our explorations of Cusco. Passing through the old prison doors we searched for an access to the rooftops overlooking the Plaza de Armas where we had seen others peer from behind the tops of the building to snap pictures from above. A middle-age man asks us if we would like to go up top, 10 soles each for a peak as picturesque images of the city from a different angle. A narrow stairway through darkness, leading to the top of these arched ceilings; where walking along terracotta shingles leads to the edge of the building which overlooks the magnificent city of Cusco. To view the Cathedral an old ladder stretches across the roof to the ledge of the prison face; Darren and I took turns embracing the site as Carmen sat back watching and searching onward for her own views of the valley.
Next we headed out in search of traditional Peruvian cuisine. The market in which we explored yesterday is the site where Anthony Bourdain experienced one of his first dishes on his adventures through Peru. Lomo Saltado, sopa y Coca tea for three of us; masses of food and exactly what I desired for only 12.5 soles. This is equivalent to five U.S. dollars which fed all three of us. Amazing! Considerably different from the restaurants that charge tourists higher prices and poor quality food. A little shopping and exploring the many vendors in the market was essential before heading out to Pisac.
We shared a taxi through town toward a location where a local bus station stood. As he dropped us off we glanced around but not a bus in sight; as I attempted to ask a woman holding her babe where exactly the bus station is, practicing the Spanish words over and over in my head as my first words just about to leave my lips, yet all of a sudden she began nursing the child. Hmmm…as I began backing away, feeling like I was interrupting this natural act of life but at the same time feeling a little awkward that this women sees me approaching and busts out one of her breasts possibly in attempt to redirect my questioning elsewhere. Eventually I found a man walking across the street and asked if he could direct us to the bus station and as he pointed to what looked like a building be began walking toward it and what do you know there it is. One bus filled and departed while we paid the young man in the ticket both a few soles to get on the next bus to Pisac. As we waited two little Peruvian girls chatted with me about where I was from and what my name was. Curiosity and full of life with smiles greeting my every word, giggles filled the air as my attempt to speak Spanish amused them beyond words. As we packed into the over-sized van we made our way to the top of the valley requesting to exit the bus where the Tambomachay ruins lay about 11km from Cusco.
Llamas and alpacas sauntering past in our first time seeing these prominent Peruvian creatures. While Incan ruins line the paths, each detail indicating a representation of fertility and the power animals of Incan civilization. Stone structures finely carved, aqueducts and waterfalls where springs emerge from the foothills are believed to be where the Inca worship the water which is one of the pillars of the Andean conception of the world. El Bano del Inca, is an architectural wonder of sacred beauty and deeper meaning in every carving and placement of stone. Where noblemen of the Empire and the Inca worshiped this source of life and where harmonious creations by Andean architects fit perfectly among the landscape; the sounds of the small river flowing from the mountain, serenity and seclusion. A boy showed us along describing the details and meanings behind his proud heritage as he described symbolic elements indicating each level of earth, each structure and the placement of how they direct the water flow all depicts their praise toward the power animals. This sacrificial site was designed to give to the Gods for fertility and growth, prayers to be able to embrace a robust harvest for the Inca people while showing their appreciation for life.
The serpent, the puma and the condor, central images of the Inca civilization as these three Gods were important elements in the lives of these people. The snake represents intellect, knowledge, the underworld and the past; while Spanish conquerors demolished these figures many depictions of the serpent remain as proof that this Andean culture was of demonic faith. The puma symbolizes courage, internal strength and the present; the prime concept of life and of foremost importance as the Inca believed living completely in the present as the moral ideal of their culture. Each day should be taken for what it has to offer which leads to an appreciation of beauty in life. The condor is what people should strive for; balance, the future and life beyond our dimension while soaring the heavens.
We walked further down to remaining sites, each capturing beauty in its own right and wonders stirring as to the meanings beyond our knowledge. Hitchhiking down to Cristo Blanco while approaching our destination hundreds of kites pierce the sky as children run and gusts carry these wind vessels in brightly colored variations through the heavens. While a statue of Christ pure white and tall in stature stands with arms open to the valley below. In the shape of a cross which can be seen all over Cusco stands out as this Christian figure has emerged among the Inca Gods which are depicted throughout his surroundings as ruins dating back hundreds of years are found only a couple hundred feet away. The sun begins to set blades of grass shimmer in gold and leaves on trees soak in the rays of the sun. Deep colors penetrate the horizon with rolling hills and mountains become shadows against the sky. We play among the Inca ruins as Darren imitates sacrificial rituals of giving Carmen to the gods, a maze of walkways through stones so grand in stature that it makes you wonder how they were placed so perfectly together, two Chilean boys ask to pose with me for a picture as an elder man explains an abstract carving of a serpent in the stone wall.
The sun drops deeper beyond the mountains as we become more secluded from the world around us, people have already left the ruins for the city below as we attempt to head in the direction of the center of town, amazing views of dimly lit roads and church spires, shadows of people walking along, an old building walls while Carmen and Darren chat up ahead so many images capture my attention as I attempt to properly portray them in each scene and angle of photographic images depicting my point-of-view of clandestine nights in Cusco. Wooden posts hold up old city walls as they are angled against the structure embracing the building so it can continue to stand for future generations to see. Darren is off to his hostel as we thank him for joining us and exchange information, it is always amazing to meet new people and develop new friendships with those who enjoy traveling just as much as yours truly.
Alpaca skewers grilled to perfection on makeshift grills along roadsides, topped with a potato and amazing seasonings which filled me up before our enduring trek up the hillside to our hostel. Celebrations fill the parks as family and friends embrace life through food and celebration. Tomorrow is a big day as we leave at 5am for the first day of our Salkantay trek through the Andes to Manchu Picchu.
Cusco by night upon descending the hillside to the city below. And fear not the unknown as we embrace the cuisine that Peru is know for!