At an altitude of 11,000 feet above sea level, Cusco is seen by most as a gateway to the fabled lost city of Machu Picchu. But it has a lot more to it. One can feel the throbbing energy of millennia; after all it was once the capital of the great Incan empire. It’s the city with a tumultuous history, where locals worshipped mother earth and the sun and sacrificed guinea pigs.
Cusco is an impressionist painting in sepia tones offset by the bright colours of the costumes of the local Quechua women. It was called the ‘navel of the earth’ as the Incas thought it to be the centre of the universe. They say it was built in the shape of a puma. As soon as I reached Cusco, I realised I should slow down. The altitude can give you a headache or make you nauseous. I resorted to using the thoughtfully supplied oxygen cylinders at our hotel, and also the local remedy—coca tea and coca candies.
The cobbled streets and alley ways feasting on the stone entrances, carved wooden balconies and terracotta roofs are a sight to see. At the base of every house in the town are the rough stone foundations of Inca times. The city was built at a place where three rivers formed a triangle and even today the underground river flows below the town. Today the old monasteries have been turned into luxury hotels with high ceilings, period furniture and old paintings on walls. There is symbolism everywhere, which would have been difficult to understand without our guide Alex Silva Medina.
Cusco is home to exquisite Peruvian crafts. Vibrant textiles, alpaca wool scarves, hats, ponchos and carved gourds are offered for a song. Weaving is one of the most important crafts. Alex tells me that as Quechua was not a written language, weaving was the means of passing on knowledge and narrating stories. Craft was an integral part of the cultural identity of the Peruvian people and motifs such as puma, fish, sun and moon were used.
Colours are created by grinding plants and insects to make the dye, which is boiled in pots. After being dried, it is ready for the back strap looms, which can be seen all over the country. Another art that I see is Gourd art (mates burilados), which has been around for more than 4,000 years. The skinned, cleaned and dried gourds are painted intricately with scenes of celebrations, folklore and mythology.
One of the most eye-catching Peruvian crafts is Retablo. This Andean folk art has miniature altar boxes with three-dimensional scenes from Biblical nativity scenes to stories of agriculture, festivals and celebrations and musical instruments; market scenes and healing ceremonies.
The town sprawls over hilly terrain with a cluster of red tile roofs. The magnificent sun-dappled Plaza de Armas is the focal point of the city with huge stone arcades, and buildings with wooden balconies flanked by two churches and dotted with lawns and fountains. Large mansions called the casonas of wealthy Peruvians, with carved wooden balconies line the streets.
On the city outskirts is Sacsayhuaman—the stunning ancient Incan fortress, the ‘Stonehenge’ of Peru, built with gargantuan blocks of granite and basalt, some weighing as much as 300 tonnes that fit together without any mortar. For most tourists, it may be a stopover on the way to Machu Picchu, but for many it can be a window into fascinating Incan history and culture.
How to reach?
The closest major international airport is Lima. Train service is comparatively comfortable for travelling in Peru.
What to do?
Take a private tour of Lima with a local historian
Where to buy crafts from?
- Las Pallas in Barranco, Lima, is the artisan shop-cum-home of Mari Solari with walls lined with ceramics and textiles.
- The Inka Market in Lima has a wide range of crafts.