Cuzco was so… brown. The dry season had rendered everything very dusty. And when we arrived there, after our sleepless redeye flight, I blearily realized that I’d forgotten what Latin America is like. Every place is different, of course, but the working-class areas have a few things in common: The gritty, blocky building exteriors, the casual litter, the many stray dogs. The presence of corrugated metal as a common building material. That guy over there, peeing against the wall of a school like it’s no big deal. Stuff like that.
But don’t get me wrong: Cuzco definitely has its own personality.
First, there’s the altitude. At more than 11,000 feet, the air was noticeably thin and sharp, and the light had a strange quality — in full daylight, it’s blown-out and intense. It burns gringos like us to a crisp, so buying sunscreen is a top priority.
Tourism is clearly a big deal here, and it’s the industry that dominates the main Plaza de Armas and surrounding warren of alleyways. The streets are full of locals who hassle the Obvious Tourists any time we walk down the street: “Shoeshine, lady, shoeshine?” "You want necklace, 10 soles?" ”You want massaje?” You just get used repeating, “no, gracias" every dozen steps or so.
We originally wondered if the massage offers were entirely legit, but it turns out massages really are a thing there — with so many backpackers hiking everywhere, muscles get sore. Still, we declined.
And Inca artifacts? Oh boy, they’ve got Inca stuff lying around. The Inca empire was pretty huge (I’d forgotten about how big it was — it stretched into six South American countries!), and Cuzco was its capital, full of important religious and civic buildings. All of which got savaged by the Spanish, of course.
European diseases had beat the actual Europeans’ arrival here by a few months — I guess those sicknesses made their way overland from the east. What’s more, two princes had drawn the empire into a bloody civil war just prior to Spanish arrival — they had only recently resolved things, so the place was actually fairly ripe for the plucking. The Spanish destroyed the old city and remade it in their own image, and the Spanish empire’s gold-extraction machine kicked into high gear.
Still: Cuzco has its own, distinctly South American flavor. The intriguing little flourishes on the buildings are different, and the place has a more rugged feel. It seems like a stern place, but with a rough beauty to it.
The pillar of the Cathedral at the Plaza de Armas
Elaborately carved wooden balconies are everywhere
It’s a rather hilly town - the narrow streets reminded me of Santorini in Greece, except with a mustard-and-brown palette
An Inca statue on the Plaza de Armas, facing the ruins of Saksaywaman
A close-up of the Compania de Jesus church in the Plaza de Armas
The view as you walk up to Saksaywaman
The Compania de Jesus
Under the colonial layout, you can see the bones of the Inca culture (and you can also see the bones of the Inca themselves, but that’s another post), but it’s aggravating to think of how much got destroyed.
For example, the old fortress on the hill above town, Saksaywaman, was once a giant, complex structure — and once, it was the site of a bloody Inca last stand against the invaders. (The Siege of Cuzco lasted for 10 months but was, of course, ultimately unsuccessful). Spaniards used its stones to build their houses down below, and now only the big boulders remain. Still, you can see the famous Inca building skill at work.
It’s a popular spot for school field trips. Obviously.
So many angles! and that’s just a random example
Still to come: Coca leaves, eating fluffy animals, mummies and more.