Cusco attracts millions of people every year – and usually they are on their way in and out. They want to visit nearby Incan ruins, see Machu Picchu (mind = blown, it’s worth every second), or they’re off for some shamanic tourism, or hiking the Inca trail.
Cusco is a hub. But it’s also so much more.
Hints of History
Cuzco is the spelling in Quechua – which is one of the most common languages spoken in South America after Spanish and Portugese, in fact (commonly spoken in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru). Even the city’s name carries its history.
It’s over 11,000 feet in altitude. It’s the former capital city of the Incan Empire. It’s built in the shape of a giant Puma (my first thought: OMG how did they do that), which was a sacred animal to the Incan people.
The heart of the puma is the central square, Plaza del Armas. That square is where Tupac Amaru, the last indigenous king of the Inca state, was killed – he was quartered in front of his family before they were also killed. His wife was tied up and whipped, then they cut out her eyes and tongue, and hung her upside down. The Spanish conquistadors demanded submission from the Incan people.
(One realization I had in Cusco: As much as I love how the Spanish language and culture unifies so many millions of people today, the bittersweet truth is that this happened thanks to violence and bloodshed many years ago. Spain showed up and said “we live here now” – and that was that.)
The giant “white Jesus” or Cristo Blanco overlooking the city was built in 1945 (rivaling the one in Rio de Janeiro, which was built in 1922 – in case you were wondering, the largest one is in Cochabamba, Bolivia). Once that symbol of religious dominance was fully erected – perhaps ironically – the city became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1946. That gave rise to some rules: For example, buildings over 4 stories cannot be built. So the tall buildings are always historic cathedrals and monuments, and you can see the mountains and the sky everywhere you go.
Everywhere you walk, you see the patched-up scars of the past – places where a temple was destroyed, so the masterful Incan stonework makes up the bottom half, and shoddy modern construction makes a poor imitation on top of it. You see Incan temple construction – sacred buildings were marked by precise stones and rounded walls – turned into modern Catholic churches or mixed-use buildings.
You see streets that are not really wide enough for two cars – they just weren’t built in the age of the automobile. You pass by Quechua street names – like Plaza Kusipata, which means “Happy Place.” You can also visit Amaru Kancha, or the “enclosure of the snakes” / “field of the snake,” a historic palace courtyard, at the south side of the Plaza del Armas. The stones that built this place and others like it are perfectly placed.
Inside the courtyard of Amaru Kancha, tourists visit with llamas and alpacas, and they can also hear local traditional music, played on instruments made of animal bones and other natural materials, by this man in traditional dress.
La Piedra de Doce Angulos, or the enormous 12-sided stone located in the San Blas neighborhood, was part of the Palacio del Inca Roca made for the king in the 14th century. The building later become the Archbishop’s palace, and is now part of the Museo del Arte Religoso.
No one can figure out how they put that stone in place per se. But according to my tour guide, many Incan stones used an inclination of 8 to 12 degrees from the inside, and an interlocking system, to protect structures from earthquakes. (In other words: Incan builders were the original Ikea.)
A World of Opposites
Beyond all these fascinating structures and pieces of history, stones touched by men 800 years ago, and so on… Cusco is magical precisely because of what’s there, and because of what is not there.
What amazes and excites me about Cusco is that it isn’t trying to be something it’s not. For example, many capital cities in South America seem to be imitating places like Miami and San Francisco more and more. Each year, they get a little more modern, a little more “western,” a little more technologically sophisticated. The middle and upper classes in Costa Rica access San Jose in a similar way that we Americans might access and interact with Miami or San Diego. But Cusco isn’t like that – it isn’t deconstructing itself in the name of modernization.
It’s wifi and modern gym memberships, passed by women in traditional dress from nearby towns like Chinchero and Urubamba. (In case you were wondering why women dress alike, many towns have a traditional attire that they follow – so you know a woman from one town versus another.) It’s televisions playing modern shows, American cultural references and music, surrounded by artisanal markets and cobblestone streets. It’s mass-produced conveniences and plastic souvenirs surrounded by handmade leather goods, and buildings that never tower more than four stories overhead.
It has colonial charm and old-world magic – even as it is visited by modern people with backpacks and iPhones, like myself. It isn’t trying to alter its identity – rather, it seeks to preserve it. Cusco is a symbol of history and pride with an energy all its own. They fit modern nightclubs into old, traditional architecture – it’s almost like these things shouldn’t go together, but they do.
While tourism generates plenty of revenue each year, other industries are less developed, and it is certainly isn’t a perfect place. Local people struggle like they do in other places in South America. Meanwhile, the energy there is a special mix of old and new, ancient and modern, fixed and evolving.
I met a man during my trip there who said he had visited many places in South America, but “Cusco is hard to beat.” I agree wholeheartedly.