Our first impression of Cusco — former capital of the Peruvian Inca Empire — was a shortness of breath, the air thin and wispy as we stepped off the plane and into the Andes. The town ranges from 3400 to 3800 meters above sea level, a height at which oxygen levels drop to 10% — around half of their normal level — and for asthmatics like me, the first couple hours felt something like being waterboarded.
Our second impression was much nicer: endless terracotta roofs …
…and monolithic Incan ruins.
Cusco is a city of only 400,000, buried deep in the Andes mountain range, but it exists at the intersection of two of Peru’s most significant historical forces: the Incan empire and the Spanish conquistadors. Upon sieging the city in 1533, Francisco Pizarro and his men pulled the classic imperialist move of ransacking everything they could find. Lots were drawn for the city, and the most important members of the party were granted the palaces and temples that surrounded the main square. Therein followed the destruction of centuries of history and some of the greatest architectural masterpieces in the world in the process. Yay colonialism…
Upon the foundations of the Incan temples and palaces (literally), the colonial Spanish built church upon church upon church (fourteen in total, to be precise). Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús is one of the most spectacular, a Baroque construction that towers over the city’s Plaza de Armas (main square). It took almost a hundred years to build (from 1576 to 1668), largely because of the frequent earthquakes experienced by the region. Stones for its construction (and for many of the other churches and noble houses) were taken from Incan sites such as Sacsayhuamán and Qorikancha.
The Convent of Santo Domingo is a beautiful example of Spanish Peruvian architecture, the arched courtyard surrounded by cedar and azulejos (tin-glazed ceramic tiles). It is most significant, however, because of what lies under it. Santo Domingo was built on top of Qorikancha — ‘the golden temple’ — the most important religious site in the Incan Empire. Used for the veneration of the sun god, Inti, the walls of the shrine were plated with solid gold sheets and adorned with precious stones, and idols made of other rare metals hung in the many alcoves that dotted the building.
After the siege of Cusco, all of the finery (including 700 sheets of solid gold) was taken by the conquistadors, most of it melted down and shipped back to Spain. Now, the Incan foundations are visible only because their careful, intentional design has allowed them to withstand Cusco’s frequent earthquakes, even as the Spanish walls crumbled around them.
Sacsayhuamán (pronounced almost the same as ‘Sexy Woman’) stands as testament to the absolute mastery of the Inca over their particular style of architecture. The outer walls of this former religious complex stand at over six feet tall, and are built from stones weighing up to 200 tons (for context, that’s the weight of 1.2 houses, or 30 Tyrannosaurus Rex’s). To construct something of this scale, the Inca employed around 25,000 labourers, taken from citizens of the empire through a system called the M’ita, wherein workers would be called upon for mandatory public service for a period of time. The walls of Sacsayhuamán zigzag, anchored around large boulders set into the corners — a mechanism that provided stability during earthquakes. Despite this complex design and the absence of mortar, each stone fits into the next extremely closely, to the extent that, in some cases, a sheet of paper won’t fit in the crack between them.
One of the most fascinating elements of Incan culture was their apparent lack of written language. Over its three century lifespan, the empire created some of the most impressive feats of architecture and design in the world, and yet no trace of mathematical or engineering schema remains. Quipu — complex cords of knotted strings often referred to as ‘talking knots’ — provide one explanation for how the Inca may have coordinated their subjects. They are also the coolest things in the world.
There’s relative consensus that they were used to represent numbers through the positioning and frequency of the knots, allowing for record-keeping that could support complicated administrative tasks such as taxation, financial management and time-keeping. Some historians, however, have also suggested that the positioning, colour, type of animal fibre and thickness of the strings may have been able to represent more complex ideas, perhaps up to the level of a fully developed language. If that’s the case, quipu’s would be the only instance of 3-dimensional semasiographic language on Earth.
The San Pedro market is… well… it’s something. In the span of less than five minutes, we saw a whole pig cut in half with a bow saw, a pile of chicken carcasses as high as a person, and clear plastic containers filled with what we desperately hoped was, but did not smell at all like, refried bean mix. Beyond that mildly traumatising section, every item imaginable spilled out from stalls, locals bustling past as they prepared for the New Year.
Peru has a reputation as one of the best destinations in the world for gourmet food, and Cusco does not disappoint. Every restaurant we ate at during our time there was incredible, without exception: La Feria, Uchu, Jack’s Cafe. The two standouts, however, were Green Point and La Bo’M. The former is an entirely vegan restaurant, and produced the tiramisu that featured earlier, as well as the incredible tacos here.
The latter is a French crêperie, which saw us devour four galettes in the span of less than twenty minutes. Needless to say, they were delicious. La Bo’M is also a backpacking hostel, which is the most incredible idea I’ve ever heard.
After only three days, we had to leave, heading onward to Peru’s famed Sacred Valley. Cusco’s a beautiful city, and a microcosm of everything the country has to offer: fascinating history, incredible food, and beautiful scenery.