Monday, April 16, 2012

Center of the Inka Empire

Cuzco is the most visited tourist spot in all of Peru, and as such, it didn’t exactly bowl us over with charm. The main Plaza de Armas, while manicured and architecturally well-designed, was lined with overpriced restaurants, overpriced souvenir shops, massage parlors and tour agencies. Not only the main plaza, but every road leading to the main plaza, had the same toxic combination. The buildings and streets were quaint and well-maintained, but the repetitiveness of the shops and the constant product hawking by vendors got old quick.

That said, after we got past the touristy facade, there were some highlights of our time in the Inca’s center of the world. Our hostel, Resbalosa, took quite a hike to get to up a steep set of stairs from the plaza, but as a result afforded us spectacular views from our room of the city. The owners, a wife and husband, were attentive and friendly, and the hot water and plentiful wool blankets were much welcomed as the temperature never got above 60 degrees.

Plaza de Armas from our hotel room
We ended up having to get a Boleto Turistico, or tourist ticket, that was good for 16 different sites in and around Cuzco. At S.130 it was really expensive, but absolutely necessary since many places included either don’t sell separate tickets or are so expensive separately that it’s worth it to the boleto if you visit at least two places. We took full advantage of the ticket, visiting all the main museums in the city including an evening theatre show of traditional music, costumes and dance routines which was entertaining and fun.

Traditional carnaval dance
Our ticket included some archaeological ruins outside of Cuzco so one day we took a ride into the country to see them. We started at Tambomachay about 10 km from the city, the site of a royal bathhouse for Incan rulers. From there we walked to the nearby Puca Pucara, a more crudely built fortress that housed the army while the ruler was in the bath. We were able to walk, all downhill luckily, through the gorgeous mountains to the next site, Qenqo, admiring llamas and the local flora on the way. There, the Incas had carved caves and ritual chambers into a huge megalith. The last stop was Sacsayhuaman, a major ceremonial center on a scenic point that overlooks Cuzco. They had an impressive plaza with a series of three terraces formed from massive stone blocks fit perfectly together, a building design and style that the Inca’s invented. Some were over 15 feet tall and weighed many tons – hard to imagine how they were so precisely moved into place.

Still functioning ceremonial springs at Tambomachay
Peruvian woman tending her llamas
Pretty big stones
Interestingly, the Spanish were sort of lazy and just built their buildings on top of the original Inca (or in some cases Pre-Inca) stone foundations downtown, also stealing many materials from surrounding ruins, effectively destroying them. In many of the buildings, like the Church of Santo Domingo built on the Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun), you can see the well-fitted bricks below the stucco walls in two distinct layers. The Inca architecture is actually more earthquake resistant, having remained intact after hundreds of years of quakes the Spanish buildings couldn’t handle.

Amidst the hundreds of pizza places in town, we found two great spots. The first, Bodega 138, had a tasty pizza with real prosciutto which came with a free appetizer of warm garlic bread and herby olives. The second, Pizza Carlo, had only 4 tables, so we cozied up to the owner, cook and two fellow diners for an egg and sausage pizza that was equally delicious. There also must be a large Israeli contingent of residents or visitors, because there were many Israeli restaurants, one of which, The Bagel Café, served huge tasty sandwiches on fresh bagels that gave us a much needed break from the local fare.

Of course we tried some of the local dishes too. We enjoyed lomo saltado, which is basically a stir fry of beef, veggies and French fries that was allegedly created by Chinese immigrants to Peru. Lake trout is also common locally, so we tried it both grilled and with garlic sauce and enjoyed both. Alpaca is a popular local protein, so we headed to one of the nicest places in town to try a grilled steak – tender and delicious! Corn in many forms is a popular snack. Boiled ears of corn (choclo) are served with a slice of fresh cheese. Toasted gigantic corn kernels with a sprinkle of salt are a crunchy alternative to chips. And they make a fermented corn beverage, chicha, which is sold on many street corners. Potatoes are also a staple, usually served as French fries that are more like grease boiled potatoes, but still somehow tasty. They also do boiled potatoes with a spicy pepper sauce that is amazing.

Alpaca steak with cabernet quinoa
Cuzco is pretty much a must-stop destination if you are headed to Machu Picchu, so it’s inevitable that most people end up there. But to be fair, the city, if you can get through the tourist crap, is really a remarkable testament to the power and organization of the Inca Empire who ruled from Ecuador down through Bolivia and Chile from this very city center. Their leaders, namely Pachacutec, developed a system of roads, city planning and social organization that was unmatched in their time. Seek out the less traversed spots, and the city will surely please.

Fountain statue of Pachacutec

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