Day 1 — A Stroll in Cusco

Friday — April 3

The damp clothes I set out earlier to dry have been put away. We had planned to dine at El Patio, the onsite restaurant at Los Apus, but we’re simply too tired to do food justice. I’m snacking on some crackers as I write this blog entry, trying to stay awake until 9:00p to get my body in sych with local time. Not that there should be any jet lag — Perú is in the same time zone as Washington DC; except that Daylight Saving Time is not recognized here.

Having last eaten a small snack on the Lima-Cusco flight, we were starving by the time we were ready to set out for our stroll around Cusco. Thus, the first item of business when Vidal came to pick us up was to get a bite to eat in order to recharge our fast-waning energy.

Leading us to Siete Culebras (seven snakes), a narrow alley just down the street from Los Apus, Vidal took a shortcut to the Plaza de las Nazarenas. Oh boy — the walk up the alley was short, but the slight uphill grade quickly left us breathless, reminding us of the necessity to slow our pace while at altitude.

Siete Culebras is named for the nearby House of the Serpents. The structure is what is known as transitional architecture. That is, it was built by Inca masons working for the Spanish conquistadors. The masons carved reliefs of snakes, considered symbols of wisdom in Inca mythology, into the Inca wall that forms the base of the house. We took a few moments to search out and find the reliefs before turning our attention to a nearby church that was a later addition to the Seminary of San Antonio Abad (built in the late 1590s). Any other time, we would have stayed longer to explore the church and get acquainted with the llamas that were seemingly guarding the entrance to Siete Culebras, but something more important was distracting us — namely, lunch.

Can you find the seven snakes of Siete Culebras?

Going down a steep, narrow, cobblestone street that anywhere else in the world would be pedestrian-only, but which we shared with vehicles, we made our way to what used to be called Wacaypata (Weeping Square, supposedly so named for the grieving that was done here when the ruling Inca died). Today it is the hub-bub of activity known as Plaza de Armas. Vehicles zooming by at a dizzying speed; locals and tourists crowding the stores, visiting the great stone edifice that is the Cathedral, sitting on the benches in the park; vendors hawking their wares — Welcome to Cusco!

Expertly, Vidal guided us to Yaku Mama's Grill, one of the many eateries rimming the controlled-chaos that is Plaza de Armas. Seated at a small table on the narrow balcony overlooking the plaza, we ordered a simple, yet tasty meal of sandwiches as we weren’t feeling adventurous enough to try Peruvian fare yet. In no time, what should have been a 15-minute lunch stretched to an hour as we feasted our eyes on the imposing Cathedral and the Iglesia de la Compañia (Church of the Company — a Jesuit church built over the ruins of Amarucancha, the palace of Wayna Capac, the last Inca to preside over a united empire.)

View of Plaza de Armas from our table on the balcony of Yaku Mama's Grill.

(Taking handheld photos for a stitch is not easy; forgive me for messing this one up. Nonetheless, it gives you an idea of what Plaza de Armas looks like. The building in the center is the Cathedral; the building at the right edge is the Jesuit church.)

As interesting as the magnificent edifices were, though, what really captured our attention was all the people in the plaza — street cleaners sweeping away trash; ice cream vendors doling out sweet treats; businessmen hurrying across the traffic-laden streets, briefcases securely clutched in their hands; mothers with their kids bundled on their backs; school children in colorful uniforms skipping around the park, delaying that moment when they have to go home and do homework; people sitting on benches, resting for a bit before resuming their walk towards unknown destinations; locals walking their dogs; women and girls in colorful costumes, baby llamas cradled in their arms, crying out “un photo, un sol.” And so much more!

Street scene — Plaza de Armas.

We could have stayed on the balcony at Yaku Mama’s for the rest of the day, but we had things to do, not the least of which was exchanging some dollars for nuevo soles, the Peruvian currency. Leading us down Calle Loreto (which took longer than one might expect because we frequently stopped to admire the incredible workmanship of the Inca walls on either side of us), Vidal took us to a reputable cambio. It felt odd to be exchanging money in what looked to be a camera shop, but as we later saw, this was not all that unusual — cambios seem to be located in just about any type of establishment.

Seeing as we were not far from the Qoricancha (aka Korikancha), we headed in that direction next. As it was nearing closing time, however, Vidal suggested that we enjoy the site from outside so as not to waste our ticket on a quick visit. We did not oppose this recommendation. From the front garden, we admired the imposing sight of the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo that sits over the ruins of the Qoricancha, the Court of Gold — one of the most important temples of the Inca empire. Dating back to around 1200 AD, the temple was also the principal astronomical observatory of the empire.

It is said that the walls of the Qoricancha, which was dedicated to sun worship, were sheathed in gold and silver that was removed to pay the ransom the Spanish demanded for the release of Inca Atahualpa. It seems that the golden disc of the sun, the holiest of the religious symbols of the empire, survived the initial looters, but eventually that too disappeared. Some historians believe that it was taken away and hidden before the main party of Spaniards arrived in the 1530s, but this is all conjecture. There has been no sign of the disc to this day.

The Church and Convent were consecrated in 1633. However, Santo Domingo was heavily damaged in the earthquake of 1650, making it impossible to inhabit. Interestingly, the Inca walls upon which the buildings were constructed suffered no damage from the quake. The current buildings are the result of the 1680 reconstruction efforts.

Just as I clicked the camera shutter one last time, the heavens opened up in a deluge. We’d been watching the storm clouds gathering, providing a dramatic backdrop to the brilliant white walls of the convent, and had hoped to escape unscathed, but Pachamama (Mother Earth in Inca mythology) had other plans. Putting away the cameras, we walked back to our hotel, unfazed by the liquid sunshine pouring down on us. We’d had an excellent afternoon and a little rain wasn’t going to deflate our spirits.

The Convent of Santo Domingo sits atop the ruins of the Qoricancha.

Tomorrow, Vidal will be picking us up at 7:30a to take us to some of the sites on the outskirts of Cusco. Time to put the Boleto Turistico to work. (The tourist ticket provides admittance to many of the sites in and around Cusco.) Until then …

Next Up: Day 2 — Tambomachay

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