Once the capital of the Incas, Cusco is now the capital of tourism in Peru. Those who come here visit the hiking trails on the Andes, vicuna farms, other cities built by the Incas, and the legendary Machu Picchu.
The Incas designed Cusco’s master plan inspired by the big wild cat they regarded as sacred -a lying puma! I’m trying to see this big cat looking down at the city from San Cristóbal Hill. The red-brick buildings are so dense that the only sign of life I see is Plaza de Armas, where the Incas once held their ceremonies and celebrations, and the people on this square. However, Cusco is home to impressive stories, secrets, and beauties. This city, where Andean and Spanish cultures blend, is a gate opening to other cities with traces of the Incan civilization such as Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Moray, Sacsayhuamán, and Rumicolca. It’s also the beginning of the road for those planning to visit the legendary Machu Picchu. That’s why Cusco is so popular. Now, it awaits me with its wood-carved balconies overlooking narrow cobblestoned streets, people talking in Quechua in the shade of these balconies, astonishing Incan architecture with ancient stone walls, local women in colorful garments sitting in front of their house doors with baby llamas in their laps, and artist workshops in the district of San Blas. Although I fail to see the lying puma from San Cristóbal Hill, I climb down to mingle with the city streets to feel its spirit. It’s surprisingly crowded in Cusco, with tourists from Japan, the U.S., China, and Brazil standing around. But I know that almost all of them have found it hard to get used to the altitude in Cusco which is founded at 3,416 meters. Having overcome that, they now excitedly head for the Temple of the Sun, the Inca Museum, Cusco Cathedral, and stylish stores selling everything from authentic handmade carpets to retablos, small bull figures of Puca Pucara to glamorous ceremonial masks.
I opt for the Inca Museum to better understand the history of the Incas. Housed in Palacio del Almirante, one of the finest colonial buildings in the city, the museum has a lot to say about the Incan culture as it shows me how many talented artists have lived in these lands with exhibitions of mummies, ceramic artifacts, textile products, jewelry, gold objects, and wooden cups called keros. Next, I visit the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art (Museo de Arte Precolombino) in Plazoleta Nazarenas which adds to my surprise. The Incas created artwork that pioneered modern art centuries before Picasso’s Cubist paintings, Moore's and Brancusi’s abstract sculptures, and Modigliani’s faces. Each is a unique source of inspiration! The museum is filled with examples that can be defined as perfect in terms of form and composition. In the courtyard of the museum, two local women are weaving something in front of a giant jug; watching them makes me realize once again the value of handcrafts. I eat a meal at MAP Café right next to the museum. In the Peruvian cuisine which has become a rising global trend in recent years, chefs blend the exotic herbs of the Amazon Forests, the vegetables and fruit of the Andes Mountains, and the seafood of the Pacific Ocean to serve their guests brand-new delicacies. I couldn’t believe my ears when I learned, before visiting Peru, that the country cultivates more than 3,000 potato species. When I asked the locals if that was true, the answer was almost always the same, “Three thousand? It’s too little. It’s much higher, my friend, much higher!”
I have to confess -my visit to Cusco gave me, a traveler with very high expectations, a lot more than I imagined. This was on my mind while I examined the red granite of the Cusco Cathedral, which was completed in nearly 100 years, and the more than 400 paintings made by artists of the Cusco School, listened to the street musicians playing the flute of the Andes Mountains which made me imagine condors floating in the air, and wandered astonished among the walls made by stones weighing hundreds of tons in Sacsayhuamán. A wonderful example of military Incan architecture, I see Sacsayhuamán with its zigzagging city walls situated on a hill overlooking Cusco. “Even the sharpest knives cannot scratch them,” wrote Spanish historians about these granite stones, each weighing as much as 350 tons, brought together without any binder like mud. Legend goes that over 20,000 people worked to place the heaviest of the stones in the city walls and thousands of them were crushed when one fell off. Sacsayhuamán represents the head of the puma after which Cusco was designed and the zigzagging city walls its teeth. The city center of Cusco is the wild animal’s body and the part stretching towards Corichancha Temple its tail. Incas, the designers of this plan, also studied the universe and the concept of time. In 1493, the borders of the Inca Empire comprised many regions on the Andes Mountains, from Chile to Ecuador in modern geography, which meant ruling over a line of 4,800 kilometers in length.
Cusco rose in the late 13th century as the capital of the Incas and became the strongest and biggest city on the American continent in the early 15th century; but what does it offer to its visitors today? They eat healthy quinoa salads at restaurants; bargain with sellers to buy quality clothes made with alpaca, llama, or vicuna wool; try playing the wankar drums; try to find which wall in the city has the 12-sided stone; or buy tour tickets to visit Maras Salt Mines, to climb the Rainbow Mountain or to see the giant mysterious geometrical shapes in Nazca. However, as you might guess, the most popular one among these activities is the Machu Picchu tours. Mostly by train, the shortest of these journeys takes nearly 3.5 hours. Add to this the breaks and the bus ride to the mountain and you have to spare five hours for the tour. Always embraced by the fog and rainbows, Machu Picchu makes a magical impression on visitors with its location that challenges your understanding of altitude and mysterious structures.
On my last night in Cusco, the sun sets as I wait for my ceviche on the wooden balcony of one of the restaurants overlooking Plaza de Armas, its yellow-lit lamps creating a poetic atmosphere. The square goes quiet despite people wandering around. I suddenly feel Cusco has a lot more to tell me. It may be mute now but I’m sure it will tell me its stories with feathered serpents, pumas, and condors once it unseals its lips. That’s why I pack a book of Inca legends in my bag as I leave the city -so that I never forget Cusco.