A Visit to Cusco, Peru

A look into the beautiful and exotic town

The fight to Cusco from Lima takes you South East towards the Andes. After flying out over the Pacific we reverse directions and first cross the broad alluvial plan of the coast, earth washed from the alto plano. The rest of the flight takes us over the alto plano, an ancient sea bed raised to an elevation of 8,000 to 12,000 feet. It is also known as the great Pacific plate, the Nazca that slides under the South American continent. The mountains are sedimentary, interspersed with basalt from both new and ancient volcanoes.  On the far horizon a chain of snow capped costal volcanoes extends to the South. Further to the east the Andes rise, sharp and rugged, shapes typical of newly formed mountains. The high Andes were formed as the pressure of the rising earth cracks the crust and lifts and deforms the underlying granite. They rise as a wall towering over the alto plano to a height of twenty thousand feet and more.  The Andes are still rising. Frequent earthquakes of magnitude 7-8 on the Richter scale rock the country. The volcanoes remain active.

Few people live on the alto plano. Small rivers cut deep into the plain, creating strips of green. Widely separated settlements of 50 to 100 people lie in or near these river valleys. Occasionally a scattering of houses rests on the edge or slope of a hill. Antonio Barck, Minster of the Environment, told us that the dispersed nature of these small communities makes it difficult to provide health, education and public services.

Cusco is nestled in a broad valley 9,000 feet above sea level. The valley extends west to east. Visible far to the east are the tallest snow capped peaks of the Andes, their high flanks covered with melting glaciers.

Cusco was the center of the late Inca Empire. The name the Incas gave it was Tahuantansuyo "Four Kingdoms" representing the four cardinal points of their Empire. To the north the Inca Empire included Ecuador and Southern Colombia, to the South Bolivia as well as half of Chile and parts of Argentina, to the west what is now Peru to the sea. The Inca Empire stopped at the Amazon forest, the jungle people being their most feared enemies.  About 15 million people were included in the Inca Empire at its peak, just before the Spanish conquest. Of these, 250,000 people lived in and around Cusco and about 50,000, mostly nobles and priests, lived in the valley. The remainder farmed the surrounding hills. Today, the population of Cusco is about 500,000.

Cusco is literally built on Inca foundations. The Cathedrals are built on the site of temples, the major homes of the colonial city on the foundation stones of the homes of Inca Nobles. The superstructures of the cathedrals are quarried from the many Inca Temples that surround the city high.

The central plaza of modern Cusco is that of the Inca. The principal temple was to the sun "Inti." Just as important is the mother goddess of the earth, Patchamama. Our guides repeatedly mentioned the importance of the mother earth goddess to people today. Evidently, Mary's current popularity reflects her association with this ancient deity.

Legend holds that there were 365 small temples on the hills surrounding the city, one for each day of the year. These were built on small rock outcroppings (so as not to detract from arable land). One of these was the temple representing the summer solstice, June 21. Footings for residences also built at these sites are still visible.The temple of the solstice also is the site of what we were told was a sacrificial cave. Young men and women were sacrificed. The guides said the families considered it to be an honor to offer their best to the gods. The sacrifice chamber is in a natural cave. An alter carved of live stone is said to serve both for the sacrifice and subsequent mummification.

The Incas believed in an afterlife. A person could return as a human or as a powerful animal. They carefully preserved the dead and wrapped them in the finest fabrics. Many of the mummies were richly adorned with jewels. The tombs of the nobles and the rulers still yield rich treasurers of gold and silver jewelry, body ornaments, rich fabrics, wonderful pottery and weapons.

The animals most sacred to the Inca are the condor, who bears messages from the dead, the snake, who has wisdom and intelligence, and the puma for strength.

We arrived on June 24th, the annual celebration of the sun, Inti. The Inca celebration took place on the date of the winter solstice. The current celebration conflates the founding of Cusco with the ancient celebration. The celebration begins early in the morning at site of the temple of the sun and continues through the day. It moves to a high mountain plateau, part of a large archeological preserve called Saqsaywaman pronounced "sexy woman". Festivities end in the early evening with small groups from different communities dancing and parading through town to the sounds of flute and drum. This year 35,000 people, almost entirely from the surrounding communities, watched 500 hundred performers.   The performers are high school boys and girls and some soldiers.

This is a family day. On a field near the ceremonial site, families roast potatoes in small earthen ovens dug directly into the earth. The air is filled with the smell of roasting potatoes, guinea pigs, spicy sausages and burning eucalyptus.

The ceremony itself takes place in a spectacular ruin. This was an enormous temple of the sun protected by a double line of massive walls. Watch towers at strategic locations protect all entrances to this site as well as to the city proper. The stone work is famously amazing. The foundations of the wall are made of basalt blocks some twenty feet high and ten feet wide weighing more than 100 tons. The stones are tightly filleted without mortar. They are interlocked with central male and female joists, not visible in the outer wall. There are two styles, pillow in which the surface of the blocks gently protrudes, and faced imperial blocks. The Inca buildings were built by large teams of workers. They were typically farmers who paid taxes in labor 2-3 months a year. They were provided with a place to live, clothing and tools as copious amounts of "cicha" corn beer said to be good both for nutrition and exertion. Teams of up to 30,000 workers worked for 30 years or more to build the temple of the sun and fortifications. The site was used as a quarry by the Spaniards to build the cathedrals of Cusco. The largest of the temples were razed to the ground. The Inca temples were said to be covered with sheets of silver and gold and to dazzle in the sun. The interiors as well exterior of residences were plastered with a reddish stucco.

The Cloister of San Domingo is a very good place to view the combination of Inca and Spanish construction. The cloister is built directly upon the Inca temple. Large portions of the original are still visible. In colonial times the Inca walls and rooms were plastered and painted. Today the beauty of their construction remains. The cloister itself is one of the oldest in the new world. The inner courtyard is typical. The upper floor was replaced fooling an earthquake. The walls of the ground floor are covered with glazed terracotta tiles from Spain. Each tile panel is unique.

The Central Cathedral is a wonder. Built and rebuilt over 100 years (begun in 1550 finished in 1654), it is one of the oldest cathedrals in South America. It is really three Cathedrals in one, the first smaller church, now enlarges, built on the site of the Inca armory, a large central cathedral and small flanking church. The wooden Alter and choir and works of great beauty. The Cathedral houses more than 300 Cuscuian canvasses painted by the Inca under instruction their Spanish rulers. Most were painted by teams, each member an expert at one component, and faces, background, dress, ornamentation. One of the most remarkable of these is a very large (30 by 20) painting of the last supper. Front and center, in all its roast glory, is a guinea pig, belly and feet up!

The most important chapel is dedicated to the Lord of the Earthquake. Over 70 percent of the local Catholics chose him as their deity. Each Easter he parades around the city is a specially built silver car (stored during the year in a flanking chapel).

Saturday is market day.  The variety of potatoes and corn for sale is remarkable as are the quinoas and related seeds. One stall sold arawaska (contains dimethyl triptamine) as well as an other psychoactive drink made from a six starred cactus.