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Cuzco, Peru

Describing Cuzco in a manner which does the city justice left me staring at a blank page for longer than is probably considered reasonable. It demands a complex level of appreciation that I have neither the time nor the vocabulary to reflect but I will try to paint you a few pictures in my usual disjointed way.

We arrived five days before the start of our Inca trek which we had booked so many months ago (luckily, because the next available trek was in three months time!) and we stayed in a highly recommended hostel called Loki (we had also stayed in Loki, Miraflores) which was on a steep but utterly beautiful cobbled street overlooking the city. The hostel itself is a beautifully converted 450 year old building and the views are unbelievable, especially considering the fact that we were paying six quid a night. Like Loki in Lima (where we played football, beer poker, etc) the hostel offered a range of activities, an optional evening meal and a noisy bar crowded with young travellers all wearing the same alpaca jumper.

Purely by chance our visit to Cuzco coincided with Inti Raymi, the ancient Inca festival of the winter solstice, and we were greeted with excited crowds and colourful parades featuring costumed dances and elaborate floats with giant models representing Inca legends. Even without this wonderful display, the history of the city is reflected spectacularly in the elaborate colonial architecture of the Spaniards and in the resilient Inca walls and arches which seem to be part of almost every street.

Being invaded by the Spanish and then by the tourists has led to a cosmopolitan, if slightly tragic, new South American city where local women sell their wares outside quirky Irish pubs and the Inca ruins indifferently upstage the grandeur and pomp of the invaders that wiped them out. Beyond the terracotta roofed houses which climb up the hillsides around the city there are a number of Inca sites and our most rewarding outing involved visiting a number of these.

We took a public bus (our first in South America!) up to Tambo Machay where ceremonial water fountains flow out of the stone and are fed by a mysterious hidden channel of unknown origin. We then walked down to Puka Pukara, which offered us amazing views of the region, and Quenqo – where I was told off for climbing up to look at some of the more interesting but admittedly dangerous carvings. I was enjoying wandering around these scenic sites in the mountains but I was not blown away until we got to Saqsayhuaman. Here giant rocks weighing up to 130 tons are fitted together perfectly to form imposing and impressive walls – the stonework is so staggering that apparently the Spanish refused to believe that the Incas could possibly have been capable of such construction and even today there are those who have other worldly theories and explanations. These are people whose hobbies include online gaming and tripping off the local cacti and they are probably best ignored but they do underline the unbelievable feats that the Incas achieved.

The view from Saqsayhuaman is probably the best way of seeing Cuzco in its glorious entirety. We walked home along a cobbled pathway gazing lovingly at the city in front of us until we were once again consumed by its narrow stone streets and the buzz of the celebrations grew louder and louder. With the climax of the festivities the next day, an event which I understood involved most of Cuzco making the journey up to Saqsayhuaman to witness a llama having its heart and lungs torn out by a priest, we decided to have a quiet night – taking part (and winning!) the hostel pub quiz. My only useful contribution was our team name, Inca- pacitated, which I had thought of the day before and was, in truth, the only reason I particularly wanted to take part.

I awoke the next day to find that Josh, in his usual way, had got up ridiculously early and disappeared. He had gone up to the ruins (where the parade would eventually be marching and the final ceremony taking place) five hours early. I had no desire to spend ten hours on a hillside so I was pleased to discover a note on my bed from Nicole, a fun loving self proclaimed pothead from Philly, telling me to meet her in the Plaza de Armas. I headed down there with Mia and spotted Greg, a laid back and hilarious American whose first words upon seeing me were “I thought I´d be able to spot your tall white ass.” It seemed he had also received the same message from Nicole and when she appeared we spent a bit of time watching the strange performances in the Plaza de Armas before following the herd up to the ruins.

The crowds were filtering in constantly and the hillsides were covered in hundreds of local families and a sprinkling of tourists wearing suncream and ridiculous paper hats. Well, we were anyway. We found a spacious spot where we had a decent view and could also stretch our legs out and made ourselves comfortable for an hour or so, eating anything and everything that the numerous sellers brought our way and admiring the colourful spectacle of the colourful crowd blanketing the bold ruins.

Eventually music began to echo around the site and the dancers, soldiers, Inca leaders, princesses and flower throwers arrived in flawless formation and began their elaborate performances. This lasted around 3 hours and although I was impressed by the choreography and energy of the dancers, the crowd provided just as much entertainment. Everyone around us seemed to have a plate full of potatoes with a guinea pig balanced on top, ice cream sellers squabbled over turf and as the crowd grew increasingly dense we found ourselves becoming amusingly intimate with our neighbours and our outstretched legs being gradually pushed back towards us by shuffling Peruvian bums.

Disappointingly the slaughter of the llama was carried out in a suspiciously secretive manner – with people huddling over something and then holding up something which was supposed to be heart or lungs - I wasn´t convinced. I was hoping for a much more gruesome climax but being part of the biggest Inca celebration was nevertheless a memorable privelage. After another evening sampling the alcoholic and musical offerings of Cuzco I retired to bed wondering whether Josh´s early ride and five hour wait on the hill had paid off and provided him with a better view of the llama sacrifice. It hadn´t.

The next day we moved to a fancy hotel which was included as part of our trek and rented some walking boots in order to preserve my disintegrating trainers and my stoic feet. They would, after all, soon be facing their greatest challenge. The Inca Trail.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on June 25, 2009 from Cuzco, Peru
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Saqsayhuaman, Inca, Cuzco, IntiRaymi, TamboMachay, PukaPukara, Quenqo and LlamaSacrifice

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