En route to Machu Picchu we spent two nights in the Incan capital of Cusco, Peru. After checking in at the Novotel Cusco Hotel http://www.novotel.com/es/hotel-3254-novotel-cusco/index.shtml, we sipped a little coca tea in the lobby and hit the cobblestone running. We had an advantage—we had already acclimated to the elevation, having been in Bolivia for several days. Many arriving to Cusco seek hotels with piped-in oxygen or they simply underestimate the effect of 11,000 feet about sea level on their bodies and then go down in flames.
Not us, we were off to explore this historical gem of the Andes. We wandered in and out of museums, ruins and churches, taking in some awe-inspiring Incan (Quechua) artifacts and even more impressive architecture—the famous Incan walls. These ancient stone walls have withstood earthquakes for centuries. When the Spanish arrived here they laughed at these walls, either tearing them down or building their own walls on top of them. But the joke was on them when the earthquakes and tremors came and the only things left standing were these famous, mortar-free walls. Needless to say, the Spanish stopped tearing them down.
Speaking of walls—even more impressive walls can be seen on the edge of town. Down some more coca tea (the best deterrent of altitude sickness) before heading up the grueling climb to the site of Sacsayhuaman, more or less pronounced “sexy woman”. This unbelievable place high on a hill overlooking Cusco features more un-mortared walls, but with huge boulders weighing between 100 and 200 tons each stacked upon each other.
The questions evoked from this place are endless. How was it even possible hundreds of years ago to move these boulders not just up this hill, but on top of each other? I imagine there are alien theories galore, but after seeing all the things the Incas made that are still standing, it seems anything was possible for them. I couldn’t resist a photo op in front of “Sexy Woman”, just for the puns alone.
Back down in the city center, my husband Russell and I went out to El Tupay Restaurant in the Hotel Monasterio http://www.belmond.com/hotel-monasterio-cusco/ for a romantic candlelit dinner under the cloisters. Sipping our pisco sours, we perused the menu and decided to try something we definitely could not get at home: guinea pig, or cuy in Spanish. While some might be horrified, this delicacy of the Andes has been enjoyed for centuries and it shares its taste with roast pork. The ambiance of the restaurant, the courtyard, and the hotel itself combined with the Andean fare of guinea pig, quinoa, and alpaca steak made for an unforgettable dining experience.
On our final day in Cusco we were lucky enough to be there for a small festival and a parade mixing military, Inca/Quechua, and Catholic elements.
After the festivities, we took one last stroll through the cathedral, appreciating the unique altar. Whereas most Catholic altars are guarded over by the standard Christ crucified, this altar was backed with a prominent statue of Virgin Mary that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Incan goddess of Earth, Pachamama. Hmmm…. I guess that’s one way to convert the Quechua people to Christianity. In a way this statue is the symbol of Cusco, my favorite South American city: a perfect blend of Spanish and Incan.