Cusco – cobblestones, coffee & civilisation, Inca-style

11 June 2019

Cusco – the oldest living city in the Americas and another city on the ‘oldest inhabited city’ list (Varanasi being the other recently-visited one). It was the Inca capital for about 300 years until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century – though there is evidence that it was in existence as early as 1000BC.

We have a full day to explore Cusco today – probably not enough as I suspect we would be doing this quite slowly. We were back at 3,400 metres above sea level; the Diamox has helped my headache, but not the shortness of breath.

Cusco streets

Cusco is a lovely city to explore on foot. Our hotel was well located near the historic centre, in the artistic and artisan San Blas neighbourhood. Old Cusco is all cobblestoned streets, fascinating shops – and, of course, the must-have central plaza – the Plaza de Armas. On our first morning here, we got to the Plaza to find it teeming with activity – there were marching bands, dancing children and cheering crowds. It seemed to be that different schools and possibly universities were on parade – apparently a regular occurrence in the Plaza de Armas. Whatever it was, everyone was having fun.

View from our room at the Tierra Viva, Cusco
Schools on parade
Pachacuti – an Inca Emperor in the Plaza de Armas, Cusco
Boy band member taking a break

The Inca & The Spanish

Cusco is known as the city built by the Incas in the 13th century. It was pretty much destroyed or built over by the Spanish invaders in the 1500s. Some of the archaeological references say that the city was built in the shape of a puma, an animal sacred to the Incas – a design replicated when other Inca cities were built. While we couldn’t verify the shape of Cusco, we did see that Cusco was a hybrid of Inca and Spanish architecture, and where the two styles collided, it was evident that the Inca architecture was far superior.

Our first encounter with this architectural juxtaposition was on the cobblestoned street of Hatunrumiyoc – the street of the polygonal stones. On one side, the wall has stood since Inca times – the multi-sided granite rocks fitted perfectly, no mortar in sight. One particular stone had twelve angles and all its angles and sides were snug against the stones next to it. What was even more mind-boggling was that each of these granite boulders were 2 to 3 metres deep – what technology did the Incas use to cut the granite with such precision…nevermind how they were transported?!

Inca Wall

On the opposite side of the street was the Spanish wall – a rough rocky wall, held together with much mortar. While the Inca side has withstood many earthquakes (as did the Inca structures in Machu Picchu), the Spanish side had been rebuilt many times. The Inca side had an almost modern minimalist grey aesthetic about it – I thought the Spanish wall looked older.

Spanish Wall

Since arriving in Peru, Shiv has been looking for a good coffee – in particular, she was looking for a good coffee to be had at 10 in the morning. We were promised that Cusco may be where she finds her 10AM fix. Near the Plaza de Armas, at just about 10AM, we chanced upon the Museo del Cafe – or Coffee Museum. The coffee was indeed good – out of sheer greed we also had crepes.

Dan told us that a good friend of his (also a photographer) was opening a coffee place in Cusco, just around the corner from our hotel – we, of course, said we had to go. A phone call later, we were informed that the place hadn’t opened yet – and was only going to open tomorrow – and we were leaving tomorrow morning for the Amazon. Shiv, in her inimitable fashion, persuaded Dan, who in turn persuaded his friend to open his place to us at 9AM tomorrow – so we’d have time for a good coffee before leaving for the airport. We’ll know for sure tomorrow if all the persuasion worked, and if promises are kept.

Between coffee and history, some of us bought stuff from street vendors, bargaining in true Singaporean fashion; we also popped into a couple of shops – where one of us did ALL her shopping and probably wore down the sales staff with her bargaining…as prices were fixed, we were offered chocolates in lieu of discounts.

Street sales in progress

Waiting for the shoppers. The vicuna tops were oh-so soft – and oh-so expensive…

Qoriqancha – centre of the Inca World

Our visit to Qoriqancha – or more accurately the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo was probably the highlight of Cusco for me. Qoriqancha (or Korikancha) was dedicated to the Inca trinity. Like many other religions, the Inca had their trinity too – the Creator God (Viracocha), the Moon God (Quilla) and the Sun God (Inti). Qoriqancha which means golden place (kori meaning ‘gold’ and kancha, ‘place’) was considered the most sacred of Inca sites – with the Temple of the Sun being the most important temple within the enclosure.

Literature describes Qoriqancha in ancient times as “having a garden of golden plants with leaves of beaten gold and stems of silver, solid gold corn cobs and twenty life-sized gold llama with their herders.” The temple was said to be “lined with gold sheets that reflected the sun” and its orientation was aligned with the June solstice – such that the sunrise of the solstice fell directly on a niche, which was viewed as the most sacred site within this sacred place.

While the Temple of the Sun was all glitter and gold, that of the Moon was said to have been covered in silver (‘tears of the moon’, said our guide – though why the Moon was crying I couldn’t quite figure out). There were smaller temples of ‘lesser Gods’ (again, I can’t explain the pecking order of the Gods) – a temple for Venus, one for the Rainbow God and one for the Thunder God…I suppose love, unicorns and ineffectual bluster don’t count for much.

Viewed from above (again, we’d have to take our guide’s word for this), Qoriqancha was apparently shaped like the sun, with rays emanating from it. These rays go on to lead to more than 200 sacred sites around Cusco. Qoriqancha itself is located in the tail-end of the puma-shaped Cusco, while at the head-end is Sacsahuaman, the second-most sacred site in Cusco.

The closest to an aerial view – from the balconies of Santo Domingo

But even if we could view it from above, we would not have been able to see the magnificence of Qoriqancha – for when the Spanish arrived, they tore down the structure and built the church and convent of Santo Domingo over it – a common occurrence in many other countries, as we saw in Armenia and Georgia too – a surefire way to stamp one religion’s dominance over another’s…though, if you ask me, it is an insecure religion (or more accurately, its followers) that feels a need to do that…

And oh, besides building over Qoriqancha, the Spanish also acquired a good haul of gold from the temples and apparently melted this down for their use. Though there’s another story, where the Spanish captured the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa – and in return for his freedom (which never came), Atahualpa gave the Spanish most of the gold and precious stones from Qoriqancha.

While the outer structure no longer looks like any ‘golden place’, many of the inner structures have been preserved – or rather, these Inca-built structures have survived the multiple earthquakes, while the Spanish ones built over them have been destroyed – and rebuilt over the years. The trapezoid doorways and the walls that lean slightly inwards (which Victor pointed out at Machu Picchu) were features here too – and obviously played an important role in rendering the structure earthquake-proof. The symmetry was amazing too – especially how from particular spots, one had a clear view through little windows in the wall, right across the complex.

Our guide was obsessed with panoramic shots – photography wasn’t allowed unless it was by him (he said) – we came away with a plethora of panos of us within the frames of various niches and doors. It got slightly hysterical after a while.

Pano #1
Pano #2
Pano #3…and on it went

Panos done, it was time for a late lunch – which was at quite an authentic little place that served chicharrón (yummy and most definitely unhealthy fried pork belly) and a lovely chicken soup/stew… it was a good lunch. We were all quite tired post-lunch and it was an unanimous decision to head back to the hotel for a rest before venturing out again later.

As it turned out, we found a spa place a few doors down from our hotel and booked ourselves massages. This turned out to be quite an experience – Shiv and I went first. The place was dimly lit, with many candles, and the masseuses non-English speaking. The massages, however, were very good. It later transpired that the candles were plentiful because there was an electricity blackout (which also explained why it was SO COLD). Shiv then thought she might as well indulge in a ‘manipedi’…but there were no lights, so while the manucurist held Shiv’s iPhone torchlight over Shiv’s hands, she cut her own nails – the much safer option, no doubt.

Our street

Back at the hotel, we had a good editing tutorial with Dan, before going out for dinner. Before dinner, however, we had to go back to the Plaza as G’s bank card had been swallowed by an ATM machine earlier – we were told to return in the evening to get it back. The Plaza was still buzzing with kids dancing, and music booming – a really amazing vibe.

Dancing in the streets

The bank card was retrieved and we made our way back to our San Blas dinner venue, Pachapapa. During our week in Peru, we had heard many times of Pachamama or the Earth Mother – the goddess of fertility, who sustains life on earth. When annoyed (for example, when she feels that we humans are taking too much from nature), Pachamama causes earthquakes.

I didn’t think there officially was a male equivalent or Earth Father – Pachapapa – and suspected that the only Pachapapa was this restaurant in Cusco. I later googled Pachapapa. The best explanation I found was this one from Urban Dictionary – “A native word of Quechua, it literally means earth-potato. While this phrase holds no practical use on its own, the word does hold value as an exclamation which is fun to say and, if timed right, amusing to hear. For example – “It costs how much for a plane to Peru?! Pachapapa!!” So while Pachamama is a God that can cause earthquakes if annoyed, Pachapapa is a potato.

Pachapapa – a potato and a restaurant in Cusco

We had outdoor seating at Pachapapa and I was freezing, till the nice waiter brought me some hot water and I managed to warm my hands on the mug. The food was excellent – especially the caramel custard dessert.

It was an early night for all of us – packed, showered and slept…looking forward to a good coffee tomorrow (albeit at 9AM, not 10), and then the Amazon!

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