Cusco takes a position amongst the clouds as the capital of the mysterious Incan empire. We had learned a lot about the Incans up to this point, but it was in Cusco where the power and sophistication of this conquered empire was driven home for me. This city of just under a half million residents sits at above 11,000 feet and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the early 1980’s. While it has certainly adjusted to its myriad western guests who visit the city each year - luxury hotels and restaurants abound, it still carries with it significant Spanish colonial charm. Cobblestone lined streets, steep hills, and a main square and cathedral rivaling South America’s largest cities, you are immediately possessed by its unique energy. The buzz in the air emanating from both locals and guests reflects the respect and appreciation held for the town and the anticipation of viewing the shining examples of Incan civilization.
During our visit, we enjoyed some of the amazing restaurants and toured sights both Spanish Colonial and Incan. One of the most amazing ruins we toured was just outside of town at Saksaywaman. Built around the 1100’s, this citadel is characterized by massive boulders that measure twenty feet plus in height and width that were carved and somehow fit together without mortar. The fitting between stones is so tight and precise it can hold water. These gigantic boulders formed the protective walls of the citadel and as a rival invader, would have been practically impenetrable. In many ways the site seemed much more secure than the castles of Europe and it is apparent that the location of the citadel was strategically chosen. What is most striking is the fact that to this day no one truly knows how they could cut the stones so perfectly as not to need mortar. Even with modern technology, the cuts could not be duplicated with the same accuracy and at the same scale. Many surmise that these stone cuts were accomplished with a technology forever lost – even well before the arrival of the Spanish. Even more striking is the fact that some walls built on top of the massive stone cut structures are made with much smaller stones and mortar and look vastly more rudimentary than their ancient predecessors. This indicates that whoever constructed the massive stone structures left well before the Incans that occupied the land during the Spanish conquista. Theories abound include aliens, a different culture completely wiped out, or a human migration away from the area, perhaps even off the planet. Regardless of what happened there- it indicates an immensely advanced technology and ability that leaves even modern day visitors awestruck.
The Spanish and Catholic culture is alive and well in Cusco – with a twist. We happened to be in Cusco on Semana Santa – the week preceding Easter. On the Monday following Palm Sunday we were enjoying lunch overlooking the main square and we witnessed an Easter procession we could scarcely forget. It seemed as if everyone in town crowded the square and many of the clubs and organizations got ready for a parade in their respective uniforms. For about fifteen minutes, we heard strange sounds and smelled the faint tinge of incense. Suddenly, the doors of the main cathedral in town swung open and out marches about twenty men holding up a gigantic Christ on the cross covered in red fabric, a red rose crown, and adorned in red flowers. We came to learn this was the procession of the Señor de los Temblores which is known as the Patron Saint of Cusco. Temblor is Spanish for earthquake and the procession is meant to keep earthquakes at bay for the year and to protect the city against them. What really struck me was the adoption of Catholic religion into the narrower lore of the region. While the holiday was Catholic and the leaders of the procession were clergymen, the songs, patron saint, incense and general vibe of the procession had a unique indigenous feel. As the crucifix marched on, the various townspeople followed it through the city. This mixture of indigenous culture and catholic tradition reminded me of the richness of travel and why I am doing it in the first place. It is the unexpected nuance of what you thought you knew well mixing with a world you are just learning for the first time, manifesting itself into something that gives your perception of the world a new meaning. // Jeff