Wandering in America del Sur

Travel time: July 2005 - March 2006  |  by Allison Webb

In the heartland of the Inka

Left Arequipa in the full on sunshine, wind whipping my hair while El Misti towered in the background. On time, as usual, our Lan pilot felt obligated to show us the sites, careening back and forth over volcano and then to highlight the Colca Canyon while the passengers, wide eyed, hoped we would actually make it to see another day. The land of the Inka´s was scattered with settlements and terracing and everywhere mountains, high, high mountains without any trees, the sandy brown of their hillsides standing out.

After a very turbulent descent, landed in Cuzco also known as Qosq´o in Quechau. Was prepared not to like it because it is now a tourist mecca extraordinaire, and most probably the most touristed place in all of South America, but from the first narrow corner in the old city, I was hooked.

The sense of history is palpable as you glide along the cobblestone streets so smooth from all the feet before you and know that this was the land of the Inkas. Even the original Inka walls are smooth from all the hands running over them in amazement at the construction that has withstood the test of time.

In San Blas where I was staying and its environs, the streets were cobblestone and not made for cars with tiny steps also not made for North American feet or bodies. The steps went straight up or down as the case might be to the Plaza des Armas and the centre of the city. But in the backstreets there was also an incredible liveliness made richer by the sun washing against the white buildings, their red tiled roofs seeming even richer and three dimensional, spilling forth for as far as the eye could see.

Almost every door was the entrance to a quaint restaurant, craft shop or travel agency. It was, more than anywhere else I´d ever been except Khao San Road in Bangkok, build for tourists. Except here, the touristas had a lot of money and were wide ranging from student backpackers to families to rich, well off older travellers. The diversity was immense as the city mobilized to take full advantage of the all might dollar.

It was not always like this of course. At 3,326m it was the premier city of the Inca Empire, but continuously occupied before this time for centuries. It is steeped in history with its grandiose Inka build walls and since the Spanish time has also become the archaelogical capital of the Americas as well as South Americas oldest continuously occupied city.

The Inka legend associated with the establishment of Cuzco says that in the 12th century, the first Inca, was told to find the navel of the earth also known as Cuzco. At this place he would be able to plunge a golden rod into the earth until it disappeared. When he found this spot he founded the present day Cuzco here.

Cuzco thrived for centuries until the arrival of the Spanish and while they build the most incredible churches and houses for the wealthy, after a series of battles with the locals, the Spaniards victorious, turned their attention to Lima, the newly formed capital and Cuzco waned, becoming just another colonial city in America del Sur. The discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911 changed all of that, with the world rediscovering the splendor and mystique of the area. And since the 1990s,it is now on the must see lists of all tourists worldwide.

But despite all the tourists roaming its streets, it proudly remains, at its core, a dynamic place with the ability to absorb all of the gringos in its back alleys and still provide the locals with enough benches to sit in the Plaza des Armas and watch their children run dangerously close to the fountain. And in the squares, students in their school uniforms run through the narrow passageways, their laughter carrying through the channels. And always, the sound of the church bells peeling and the whistles of the traffic police, directing all the taxis, cars, and buses that ply their way through the perilously cramped streets where sometimes cars have to back up a long,long way to accommodate other traffic.

And what to do in Cuzco, but get to know its very soul by walking the streets for hours - trying not to get lost in the narrow and often ending streets where the names change as they cross another avenida. The soles of your feet connecting with history at every step. And sitting in the sun on the steps in front of the Cathedral in the Plaza des Armas dodging salesmen of every type from the kids with postcards, to the women dressed with baby alpacas snuggled into the blankets slung over their shoulder in hopes of a photograph,to locals who just want to practice their English marvelling at the architectural splendors surrounding you.

And speaking of architecture, I decided to spend my 13 soles and tour the main building of the square, the Cathedral and its smaller churches, El Truinfo and Jesus Maria, with few expectations. Started in 1559, it took more than 100 years to build and as soon as I entered I could see why. Never in my life have I seen a church as spectacular. The ceiling was sky high and seemed to go on for miles, the gothic arches gracefully leading your eye up to the windows and paintings. And talk about art, on every wall,there were enormous portraits and paintings of a scale that I have never seen complete with a description alongside in beautiful spirally handwriting of the time. This artwork was from the Cuzco school which combined both European and native styles to form striking pieces in the 16th and 17th centuries and still influences art in Cuzco today.

The middle altar was made of solid silver which gleamed magnificently as the centrepiece of the cathedral. And off to the side there were closed off rooms with gold inlays and different pictures and sacrements. Opposite the altar was the choir - elaboratively carved wood with detail like the embroidery of the women in the Colca Canyon. It explained a vast history in its carvings with crests and talons that only someone with a trained eye could completely decipher.

And despite all the tours and mulitude of languages, I wandered in awe, unphased by the others and felt, overwhelmingly small in such a grand and magnificent building, the heart of the city in many ways.

And at every twist and turn there was another church, its bell tower gleaming in the sunlight, set on a square where people languished enjoying life. And close by the gringos shopped and haggled over prices while others quaffed cervesas and traded stories about this wonderful place.

And while I´m only beginning to know its streets I am hoping to go further beyond to another magical place, Machu Picchu, but am now waiting to see if I can procure a train ticket, the soon to be general strike chasing me and threatening to close down all services on the 14th thwarting my efforts to travel.

Stay tuned to see if I learn to love Cuzco even more or whether I get to tramp new grounds of the Incas

Le Merced church on the Plaza des Armas, Cuzco

Le Merced church on the Plaza des Armas, Cuzco

The narrow cobblestone streets of Cuzco - see the original Inka wall on the right

The narrow cobblestone streets of Cuzco - see the original Inka wall on the right

The red tile roofs and the fountain in Plaza des Armas

The San Blas Church

© Allison Webb, 2005
You are here : Overview The Americas Peru In the heartland of the Inka
The trip
My trip through Peru before heading to Chile to work for 6 months and then travels afterward in South America
Start of journey: Jul 05, 2005
Duration: 8 months
End of journey: Mar 02, 2006
Travelled countries: Peru
The Author
Allison Webb is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 19 years.