by Maureen Zupan '72, P'09
Our tour guide Jimmy and our bus driver Victor picked us up at 9 a.m. for a tour of Cusco. It's a beautiful town, very European in its feel. For two centuries it was the center of the Incan Empire. Our guide often referred to it as the "belly button" of the Sacred Valley, because of its central location. It was declared a "World Heritage Site" by UNESCO in 1983…and even today, it's easy to see why. It is filled with buildings influenced by the Spanish, yet there remain many traces of the Incas who founded the city. While there were many people dressed just as you would see people in the US, there were also many people dressed in traditional Incan garb: bouncy bright layered skirts, colorful tops, women with long hair in one fat braid down their backs.
We started at Santa Catalina, a convent that was built in 1610 over the Incan ruins of Acllawasi. Today a large part of the building is a museum, featuring those Incan ruins. There is a large central courtyard in the convent, and the original Incan walls are around the edges. The walls are great examples of the incredible stonework that the Incas had mastered…somehow without mortar, huge rocks were stacked together in ways that allowed them to last for centuries, even through major earthquakes that took buildings all around them down. The builders used techniques to withstand those tremors and earthquakes, including making windows out of the stronger trapezoidal shape. The builders even managed to align the windows of a series of walls so perfectly that you can see from one end through three windows to the other end.
Outside Santa Catalina, we encountered several street vendors. There have been vendors in each of the towns we have visited, and Cusco is no exception. They sell all kinds of woolen (they SAY it's Alpaca) goods, jewelry, water, etc. They are polite but insistent, holding their goods and stating their prices. In Cusco there are also quite a few young boys that carry equipment to polish dirty shoes. We walked by one VERY young boy, with two other people who likely were his brother and his mother. He had a great big smile, and in perfect English said "one dollar…one dollar," as they happily encouraged him.
We also saw a beautiful elderly woman sitting on the steps who also had a big smile on her face as she greeted us and asked her to buy her dolls. The hard thing about each of these encounters is that they are asking for so little money for whatever they are selling…we know they make very little money…and we in the US have so much. We felt a great deal of pressure (from our own brains!) to buy something to help. Whether we did or not, nearly all the vendors were friendly and appreciative.
Next on our tour was La Catedral which took nearly 100 years to build (starting in 1560). It's actually three churches: the cathedral in the center, and two smaller churches/chapels on either side. One of those chapels is called El Triunfo, so named by the Spanish to symbolize their victory over the Incas. To make the symbolism even stronger, the chapel was built on top of the main Incan armory. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the cathedral or the chapels, which is too bad because the interiors are too ornate to adequately describe. One altar, for example, is several stories high, and is all gold plated. Another altar is silver and weighs nearly 900 pounds. There is a large painting of the Last Supper, with some Incan touches: Jesus and his apostles are eating a traditional ceremonial Peruvian meal of roasted guinea pig and they are drinking corn beer from Incan cups.
Outside the church, there are several decorated crosses. Guide Jimmy explained that those crosses are outside the church because even while the Spanish were attempting to convert the Incas to Catholicism, they didn't allow them in the churches! So, the crucifixes outside the church allowed the converted Incas to worship.
Our next and last stop was to Sacsayhuaman (and yes, it's pronounced something very close to "sexy woman"). These ruins sit on the highest point in Cusco. It was an Incan military compound, built from HUGE stones, weighing as much as 350 tons. One rock is about 17 feet high! Guide Jimmy told us that thousands of men were "recruited" to build the compound, and that it took 20,000 of them to haul the largest stone into place. Legend is that thousands of them were crushed to death when the stone toppled over at one point.
We walked across the square to The Inka Grille for lunch. This is another wonderful Peruvian restaurant with food presented as beautifully as it tasted. My favorite was the dessert I had: Ponderaciones con Manjar de Yemas. If is an old Peruvian dessert: vanilla ice cream was atop very delicate crispy biscuit spirals. It was all set in a pool of manjar blanco sauce which is some sort of baked condensed soup. It was amazing!
I should mention that since the first night we arrived when we were first introduced to Pisco Sours, described as "Peru's National Drink" or even "Peru's Miracle Drink," there have been many more opportunities to indulge. Pisco is a clear grape brandy; it takes about 13 pounds of grapes to make just one bottle of it. The sour itself consists of Pisco, lime juice, sugar syrup, egg white and some bitters. It was a drink enjoyed many times, along with the beers and wines of Peru.
After lunch, we were free to shop and explore. Since this was our last full day in Peru, we all spread out to check out the shops and the tiny streets of Cusco. Nearly everyone bought something made out of alpaca, and lots of people bought some sort of silver or gold jewelry. There were also lots of small items bought to bring home as gifts.
Kate and I visited the Textile Museum and watched three weavers work their craft. The museum showcased the process of weaving from shearing the alpaca, making the yarn, weaving it into intricate patterns, and then using the cloth to make the colorful local clothing.
Dinnertime in Cusco came too close on the heels of the filling lunch we had. Many people opted for a light appetizer or small dinner. One group went to the MAP Café, a sister restaurant to the Inka Grille. It is located in the central courtyard of the Museo de Arte Precolombino, and is actually a glass cube set in part of that courtyard. It was lit by candles, with gentle music playing in the background. Once again I'll focus on dessert: The Incan Bridge…some sort of meringue shaped into a bridge, with flowers and flavors that were as crazy as the presentation.
It was the end of our last full day in Peru. We didn't want it to end.