Cuzco – the navel of the world

Cuzco is still one of the great cities of the world. It’s nestled in a valley in the south of Peru and situated within a few hours of one of the “new” Seven Wonders of the World. It’s an historical, intriguing, mystical and spiritual city, a go between to an old world that kick starts the heart, races the mind to places that you knew you needed to go.

It had been twenty years since I’d been there. Two decades since I’d queued for tickets on the train to Kilometre 88, the starting point of three days of hiking across original Inca stone paths, up passes, down valleys, through tunnels and ruins until coming upon the incomparable Machu Picchu. Nowadays thousands of people visit the site in any one day. I thought Cuzco would have lost its charm, independent travel a by-word of a past era. It was good to be wrong.

The streets are still steeped in nostalgia, Quechua the principal language, the culture proudly celebrated. I’d come in from Bolivia, taken the train from Puno on Lake Titicaca. The train had changed hands, become private, commercial. The first class ticket cost an unaffordable price for most Peruvians but a few “backpacker” class carriages remain on the eight hour trip up to the one time Inca capital.

Cuzco’s central point, the Pla<!–[if !supportAnnotations]–>za de Armas, hadn’t changed. A huge plaza surrounded by Colonial buildings and churches, it’s a meeting place, somewhere to gather around a flamboyant green fountain. It’s been the central point of Cuzco for close to a thousand years. Streets running away from the plaza have elaborate Inca walls, perfectly placed together, still standing where they did when the Spanish arrived in the early 1500’s. The combination of the 16th century cathedrals, colonial buildings and Inca remnants make you want to wind the streets, looking for surprises that don’t take long to arrive. There is almost too much to absorb, it soaks into you, like you are walking through time. If Peru is the Egypt of the Americas, Machu Picchu is the Pyramid at Giza. But Cuzco is not like Cairo. It’s a small city of less than 300,000, easily negotiated on foot. Car horns are banned around the Plaza del Armas. And it’s not all archaeology. There’s good coffee and pastries in stylish cafes. Restaurants serve trout, baked llama, and guinea pig, for those willing to try something different.

Cuzco was the “navel of the world” to the Inca people for the 500 years pre-dating the Spaniards arrival. Even when the Incas spread their dominion from Colombia to Chile, Cuzco stayed the capital. The culture’s achievements were brilliant. They planned elaborate societies that cultivated potatoes, corn and other food products used extensively in the world today. Their architectural feats were even more outstanding. Forts and spiritual centres were elaborate stone constructions, more often than not built on mountains with commanding views. Huge stones were cut with precision, and there are examples everywhere. It’s impossible to slide a piece of paper between the tight joints, fitted dry, without the help of any binding material. Their agricultural terracing was superb.

It’s legendary that when the Conquistadors arrived, Inca society was in decline. And yet the ruthless and gold hungry Spanish never found Machu Picchu, discovered in the early twentieth century, reclining on a precipitous mountain.

But if crowds are not your thing, there are endless options, all easily reached from Cuzco. The Urubamba Valley, also known as the Sacred Valley, is an intriguing place with several notable sites. Colectivos, small minibuses, are cheap, leave when full and locals like to chat, ask where you’re from, what you think of Peru, which country in South America is your favourite. They’re confident they’ll like your reply, super friendly, noble people, with a good sense of humour.

Ollantaytambo is a couple hours out of Cuzco, a village with good restaurants and hostels around a square. A walk through the market opens up to the foot of an Inca site, built around 1450, spreading up onto a hill with excellent stone steps, through the still perfect agricultural terraces, ragged craggy mountains jutting up around the valley. At the top, a good climb to an altitude around 3000 metres that quickly gets you puffing, are huge stone blocks, a temple to the sun, impressive enough in themselves.

Worshipping the sun, the Incas devised means of understanding the solstice, mindful of the power of nature. Ollantaytambo spreads round the mountain, the Urubamba River flowing fast, even in the dry season, across the valley below. It was an administrative hub, which probably doubled as a fort, and the only place where the Incas defeated the Spanish before fleeing further up the valley, apparently to Vilcabamba. This site is also reachable, though this requires lots of time and loads of stamina.

The Incas were also irrigation experts, aqueducts evident at many sites. Ollantaytambo has grand examples, water still flowing from 14 kilometres away, down channels carved into the rock, dropping into pools and flowing underground before emerging onto terraces.

Halfway back to Cuzco lies Chinchero, Sunday market day an excellent time to visit, food and crafts available from local Indian woman. The town is home to a white colonial church with a magnificent painted ceiling, built on top of an Inca site, the stone work clearly visible in the surrounding walls. Women dry potatoes in the sun while men thresh wheat with the aid of horses. Traditional daily life continues in all of these villages.

There are other sites too in the Sacred Valley, not least Pisaq, only forty minutes from Cuzco. From the village it’s possible to take a taxi. A short, but steep, climb reaches the ruins. More dramatically, you can go straight up the mountain, as I did, panting, gasping for air along a narrow path that reaches a surveillance outpost with spectacular views of concentric terracing, the river and town below, the sheer drop staggering. The ruins are in an excellent condition, spread over a huge area where narrow Inca steps lead around the cliffs. The Incas clearly did not suffer from vertigo.

And then there’s Sacsayhuaman, a half hour walk from Cuzco itself, sprawling over a mountain that overlooks the capital. It’s a massive site with huge blocks and impressive architecture. A spiritual place, where the Incas worshipped the sun, moon and stars, every 24th of June still plays host to a Festival of the Sun. Sacsayhuaman is said to be the head, the zigzagging 200 metre long walls of gigantic curved stones, the teeth, of the puma-shaped Cuzco, which lies below the site, a snow capped mountain glowing beyond the horizon.

There are a plethora of other Inca sites to be explored, more still being discovered. And Cuzco, the navel of the world, is still the gateway. It’s an extraordinary place to return to, after a day, or a decade, away, a city that tugs at you, won’t want you to leave. And you have the same respect for it and just know you’re going to return.

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~ by Drifting, Rambling on April 15, 2008.

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