Cuzco was an exceedingly picturesque city. The center of the Inca empire, it was considered the ¨navel of the world.¨Interestingly, Easter Island also had a ¨navel of the world.¨
Cuzco must have been very beautiful in Inca times. Much of the city was composed of fine stonework; flat, interlocking stones with no space between. No one knows how they did it.
The Spanish wrecked all the buildings, leaving only the foundations and some partial walls. They then built their own structures on top. The strategy was to demoralize the population, and stamp out their religion. This was partly successful. The combination of Inca and Spanish architecture was actually quite beautiful. Even our hotel had some Inca walls.
The cathedral was located on the site of an important Inca temple. Some walls and even rooms of the temple remained, and it was really strange to see a building that combined so many Inca features with Renaissance architecture. It contained many paintings of the "Cuzco style." We were a little surprised by the paintings of Jesus breast-feeding with the Virgin.
The architecture museum was quite good, and helped prepare us for the Sacred Valley of the Incas and Machu Picchu.
Local food was great. Favorites like corn pie, Aji de gallina (chili chicken in a creamy yellow sauce with walnuts), and alpaca steaks were hearty and filling. And there were many varieties of local corn — I ate this ear, which had really large, starchy kernels, like a mix between potato and corn.
Like the kangaroo, alpaca and guinea pig also present the "pet it or eat it?" dilemma. Actually, with alpaca, one can also ask, "wear it?" And yes, Jason did try the ¨cuy,¨ or guinea pig finally.
Traveling through South America, we were often surprised that it was more difficult than Southeast Asia, for those not fluent in Spanish. In Southeast Asia, people are so determined to earn North American and European business that they’re learning all the English they can. In our South American travels, most people we’ve talked to haven’t known English. We theorize that there are so many Spanish-speaking tourists in South America, that those in service businesses don’t always need to learn English.
However, Cuzco was different. Most people we spoke with knew some English. Also, there were tons of touts on the street, badgering us to eat at their restaurants. In Cuzco, like in, say, Chiang Mai, tourists can basically get anything they need — sunscreen, massage, banana pancakes, replacement backpacks. There were good and bad sides to all this. It was harder to have a normal interaction with locals, when the center of their town is a little like a gringo ghetto. But it was nice to be able to get proper eye drops, or a cappuccino. And I’m sure the locals feel that way too — it’s no fun to have your local square dominated by backpackers, but a boost to the local economy is always welcome.
Near Cuzco is the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which includes multiple Inca temples and massive terraced farming sites (they were incredibly prolific). Inca architecture is fascinating because it combines geometric precision with a sensitivity to nature. Their buildings and landscape design have a minimal elegance, and the use of stone and plants humanizes it. They also worked with existing features of the landscape, to great advantage.
Moray was an amazing site that incorporated natural valleys into stepped, inverted domes. The large-scale geometric patterns were stunning. To give an idea of scale, those little diagonal lines were actually stair steps going from one level to another, which we descended. No one knows exactly what this site was used for, but it´s theorized Moray was an agricultural laboratory. The temperature lowers a full five degrees with each descending terrace, and they may have been simulating different agricultural conditions.
Looking like a porcupine-mule hybrid, a mule carried a heavy load.
A nearby village had beautiful Spanish doorways.
A small community´s livelihood was collecting salt from a salinated mountain stream. Each year they build hundreds of salt-collecting terraces down a hillside, and do the backbreaking work of collecting salt.
The terraces were so graphic with their white edges, and each had a slightly different color of water. We´ve encountered a lot of salt-collecting communities in South America, though the others were on salt lakes.
Lunch was a surprisingly great buffet, in a colonial house. This fantastical flower was in the garden, with a bee trapped under the stamen (?). Jason assumed the flower was adapted to trap bees for a while, so they´d collect more pollen.
Ollantaytambo was one of our last stops. It was an Inca town, and these giant terraces were designed to protect the temple and royal residences up top. There were also temples to the sun and moon below.
The view from atop the terraces was dramatic, looking down on the town, and across to a steep mountain. On the mountain were remains of more plebeian dwellings — the townspeople lived all the way up there. In Inca days, no one lived on the valley floor; it was too valuable to agriculture.