Sep 18, 2012

Cusco, Peru: fiesta city

Cusco kind of appears out of nowhere from the plane - it´s been nothing but stunning Andes peaks and the occasional farming village for the last hour from Lima and then suddenly, there it is, spreading out up into the hills from a valley at around 3,400m above sea level. The first thing you notice is its characteristic red tile roofs, and as the plane makes a sharp (and bumpy) turn to make the landing on the tiny, one-runway airport, you´re not sure quite what to expect. But it doesn´t take long for Cusco to win you over.

Within minutes of leaving the airport to head to our hostel in a cab, we ended up right in the middle of some kind of giant fiesta in the main square. Traditional costumes, full marching bands, dancing, firecrackers, giant Catholic effigies, plus thousands of tourists and locals looking on. I´d read that Cusco liked its fiestas, but I had no idea just how much. Over our first 3 days there, it was hard to turn a corner without coming across some kind of religious parade, party, wedding or funeral procession. Shops would be closed almost randomly for some kind of celebration, whether it was a major religious holiday or just time to grab a cerveza with the friends. It´s the kind of celebratory lifestyle I could get behind.
And when Cusqueñans aren´t fiesta-ing, they´re throwing their all into the tourist experience. There´s been a resurgence in recent years of traditional Quechua pride in the former capital city of the Inkas; even some of the street names have been changed to their original Quechua names, and the tourists, of course, love this. Women and children walk the streets in traditional costume, selling handmade alpaca goods and trinkets. Most citizens work in tourism in some shape or form, whether at a hotel or restaurant, guiding or portering on Machu Picchu treks, or in a more entreprenurual pursuit (like these ladies, who charged us 12 soles for photos with their baby lambs. How could we resist?)
One of my favourite things about South America is feeling tall
But despite the evidence of Cusqueñans´ native pride, the influence of Spanish colonialism remains everywhere in their city, from the massive, unbelievably boroque main 16th century Catheral (no photos allowed inside, but think dozens of huge, intricate religious figures and gold- and silver- plated everything) to the colonial buildings with their quant little balconies that line the main square.
Several cathedrals loom over Plaza del Armes in Cusco
These balconies are a great place to sit and take in the main square in Cusco with a cerveza
It´s hard to believe that the main square you see today (Plaza del Armes, as it´s called in many cities here) was once the main centre of the Inka capital city. When the Spaniards arrived, they destroyed many of the important Inka buildings around the city and used their famously perfect stone blocks to build their own churches and places of worship. A great example of this is the Koricancha Temple and Santo Domingo Convent. It was once the most important Inka temple to the sun god, and its walls were covered in gold to reflect this. This feature, of course, made it fairly appealing to the Spaniards, who stripped said gold and then used the site to construct the Santo Domingo Convent. Today, it houses an impressive collection of colonial religious paintings. The large grassy area in front of the buildings still bears resemblence to tiered Inka ceremonial grounds.
If culture´s not your thing, or if like us, you just like to end a day of sightseeing with a Pisco Sour and a few cervezas, Cusco´s got some pretty solid nightlife as well. The bars around the main square are all tourist-fueled, so you´ll mostly be drinking Peruvian beer with a bunch of other young gringos, dancing to American Top 40. Several bars offer free salsa lessons for tourists until 11:30, which are almost as fun to watch as they are to take part in. The little cafes in artistic San Blas where we stayed can also turn into great nightspots with more of a mixed crowd. The food in Cusco is excellent as well, with a huge variety of local and international eats for very reasonable prices (think $10 CDN for a huge main plate) - I even managed to find a vegan restaurant (yes, go ahead and roll  your eyes). Sean had his first taste of alpaca, and I ate an embarrassing number of giant, sweet avocadoes and formed a fairly serious addiction to coca tea. Ironicially, the first issues we both had with our stomachs stemmed from an American-style breakfast at tourist spot Jack´s Cafe, and not from anywhere local. Lesson learned.
Late night snack: the most amazing handmade nacho chips and coca tea.
Typical narrow, steep street in the San Blas neighbourhood.
Although Cusco is mainly known as the kicking-off point for treks to Machu Picchu (as it was for us), it´s a beautiful city in its own right and is definitely worth spending a few days in, for more than just pre-trek acclimitization. If we had time, we´d be going back for more. Cusco, I´ll be back someday.
Taking in the view from above San Blas
Bylaws require buildings to have the traditional red tile roof in Cusco

1 comment:

  1. Looks like you guys are "havin a time". how many times were you offered a tour of the chocolate museum or a hike to Machu Picchu?