We arrived in Cusco after dark after a long bus ride from Arequipa. We were hungry, tired and I did not have high expections of the city. As the center for tourism in Peru attracting thousands of visitors everyday to Cusco, a city rich in history and the gateway to one of the seven wonders of the modern world, Machu Picchu, I thought the area would be overwhemingly touristy. However, from the first moments in the city, I was blown away. The narrow and winding cobblestone streets with colonial style buildings with wooden balconies, whitewashed walls and terracotta tile roofs are lit with the soft glow of yellow lanterns. Cusco was the site of the historical capital of the Inca Empire and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The history of the city can literally be seen in the rocks. The colonial city is built on top of the foundations of the Incan city so you can see the characteristic Incan style walls with large stones fitted so well together that they do not need mortar blending into the mortared stonework of the colonial period and then finally blending into modern cement walls at the top.
The Incans designed the city in the form of a puma, one of the trinity of sacred animals. The condor represented the higher world – the sky, the realm of the sun and moon and the spiritual life – the souls of the dead were believed to be carried into the heavens on the mighty wings of the condor as found at the Condor Temple in Machu Pichu. The snake represented the under world – the realm of the dead, of ancestors and demons but also of new life and Mother Earth. The puma represented the energy and vitality of the present and living in the world. We went on a Free Walking Tour (where the guides work on tips only basis) and our guide described it to us like this: “Big cats are revered all over the world. If you meet a tiger or a puma in the jungle, you know they are the king of the jungle. You will probably piss yourself in terror…and in that moment, there is no past or future, just the present. The puma represents that energy of the present.” During Incan times, the city was in the shape of a puma, with the walled complex of Saksaywaman as its head and the modern central square as part of the torso.
Today, there are puma symbols everywhere in the city if you look carefully including puma heads snarling from lamposts in the central square. The Spanish invaded the city in 1533 and plundered the city for its silver and gold. The stones from its temples and fortresses were then used to build the grand cathedrals and colonial government buildings. However, the Andean influence remains strong in every facet of the city – from the Incan walls that continue to orientate the city streets to puma symbols peaking out from lamposts and embossed on stone streets to the gorgeous art inside the La Cathedral Basilica.
The La Cathedral Basilica on the Plaza de Armas, central square in Cusco, is worthy as an art museum with huge religious paintings decorating every wall, delicately carved wooden alterpieces and mirrors refracting and reflecting light. Jesus on the cross at the main alter is black, supposedly to connect with local populations more, and behind the alter is the huge painting known as the “Andean Last Supper”. Here, Jesus is dining on cuy – guinea pig- and drinking chicha – corn beer sacred to pre-Hispanic peoples.
From Cusco, we booked a four day tour to Machu Picchu. You can do it in a long two days/one night trip, but we believe in taking our time to really experience things. Our tour basically followed the Inca Jungle Trek, except we went by mini van and train. On our first day, we climbed over a high pass and then descended into the humid, mosquito infested jungle at Santa Teresa. It was gorgeous scenery, which we really got to experience in style at a really awesome eco-lodge where rooms were partially tree-houses with open walls facing dense trees and the river below. We also went to the great hotsprings at Santa Teresa with its clear waters. On our drive to Santa Teresa, we wondered why there was whole mountainsides on fire. Farmers will burn their fields to prepare for planting but these fires were across grass covered cliffs. Relaxing at the hot springs, a storm rolled in (which is always delightful to experience soaking in hot termal springs!) and the lighting struck a mountain right infront of us! A wide area of the mountainside, which was already chared from a previous fire, was smoking.
The next day in our Machu Picchu journey was a ride to the Hydroelectric plant where we got a train into Agua Calientes. We seemed to be the only tourists on the 8am train and had the tourist car (tourists have to buy a seat in the fancier tourist cars while the locals enjoy a much cheaper price in the regular train cars) all to ourselves. The train chugged by the river as it winded through tall misty, jungle covered mountains. It was stunning and out of this world.
We then arrived in Agua Calientes, a bustling little tourist town connected only by train at the foot of Machu Picchu.
We went to Machu Picchu the next morning, spending an epic 10 hours at the site from opening at 6am to almost closing time around 4pm. We had a great tour for a couple hours in the morning which really brought the place alive. Like the Nazca lines, there is still more being uncovered at Machu Picchu all the time from new mummies, new technologies to test diseases and diets in skeletons, new Incan roads being found and new farming terraces showing the urban reach of the city all the way down to the river.
Machu Picchu was actually only occupied for a very short time – 1450 to 1540 AD including 40-60 years to build the city so it was only occupied for 30-50 years. In that time, it was a site where the elite in Incan society lived including elaborate temples for worship and ceremonies, observatories to study the heavens and a school for the brightest in the empire taught to be the bureaucrats and leaders for its future. When I asked why here for the city, our guide told us – three reasons – water (there was a natural spring), the rock (the granite used to build the city is found on the mountain) and astronomical qualities. There is a rock southern cross in the main plaza that perfectly aligns south – 180 degrees on the dot using a compass on a iphone. There was a temple district and a residental district and a side where the whole mountainside was carved in terraces. The terraces today are only seen at the top of the mountain but they used to go all the way down to the river making the whole mountain look like a giant pyramid. The farming terraces all the way down from the cold misty mountain tops down to the humid jungle riverside capitalized on the different microclimates and consquently, the city was able to grow a variety of crops. Though the city was never invaded by the Spanish, it was abandoned in 1540. The Spanish didn’t actively invade but the city was already dying from the dieases brought from the old world, especially small pox and chicken pox, and cut off from trade and farming at the lower terraces. The people in Machu Picchu retreated to the top of the mountain, letting the jungle reclaim the lower farming terraces, which meant they only had the crops from the higher climates. Also, Machu Picchu subsisted on corn brought in from the Sacred Valley, which was cut off after Spanish invasion. The ruins today are busy with visitors but it doesn’t substract from the majesty and awe of the city. It is stunning with the two mountains on either side of the city dropping down to a narrow river valley circling it and misty mountain further off.
We hiked up Machu Pichu mountain, the Incan Grouse Grind hiking up ancient Incan stairs all the way up the mountain with stunning views of the city below, and then to the Incan bridge, a precarious narrow bridge tucked in on a cliffside, and finally to the Sun Gate, a little divet on the ridgeline the perfectly cordinates with the sunrise on the winter solstice (our summer solstice in the north) as seen from the temple of the sun in Machu Picchu. The whole city unfolds with the petals of the farming terraces on one side and the structures of the observatory and residential houses on the other side towards the rising sun. From the temple of the sun, there is a window where the sunrise on the winter solstice is seen and another window for the sunrise on the summer solstice. These two dates were especially important for harvesting (June) and planting (December), coordinated with the dry season between June and September and the wettest months of the rainy season in December and January.
From Agua Calientes, we took a train to Ollaytantambo in the Sacred Valley and then a bus back to Cusco.