Peru – Cusco Conquistadors, altitude sickness and Incas
It is not often you walk off an aeroplane to be greeted by the passenger in front of you collapsed on the floor.
But then again not everywhere is 3,400m above sea level.
The doorway to the Inca Trail, Cusco is a city that can take a little time to acclimatise to.
Not that there is anything wrong with this Peruvian treasure, it’s just that it leaves you breathless in more ways than one.
The altitude results in the hardiest tourists puffing as they climb even the slightest of stairways, a sobering thought when you know the Andean mountain peaks you can see in the distance are mere foothills compared to those waiting on the Inca Trail.
Once lungs have adjusted and plenty of the local Coca tea – yes, the leaves used are the basic ingredients for cocaine, but don’t let that put you off – drunk, then there is plenty to see and do in Cusco.
The city itself is a tourist mecca; complete with scores of street hawkers, friendly stray dogs that loll in the road or saunter across it whether a car is approaching or not, and restaurants, cafes and pubs by the tonne.
Central to it all is the impressive Plaza de Armas. This main square based on the original plaza Huacaypata was constructed during the founding of Cusco in the 12th century.
These days it is often used by bands or as a meeting place for tourist groups.
Cusco is home to a large number of churches, built after the Spanish conquest. The most famous of these is La Catedral, which overlooks the Plaza de Armas.
Built in 1560, significantly on the site of Inca Viracocha’s palace, it is the Baroque style jewel in the Conquistadors crown.
Inside it is spectacularly decorated, with more than 400 paintings including the Last Supper by Marcos Zapata. An example of the Cusco School of Painting genre which blended local culture with Christian imagery, the Last Supper somewhat bizarrely features a platter of cuy – or guinea pig.
The inside of the cathedral is a welcome escape from the heat of the Peruvian sun, although the richness of its interior is in stark, and somewhat distasteful, contrast to the beggars found on the streets outside.
Away from the colonial influences, the city still contains much Incan and pre-Incan architecture. As well as classic Incan walls, Cusco is home to tight fitting sculpted stone from the megalithic era including one stretch of wall in which even a human hair couldn’t be fitted between the bricks.
Many of the stones in these walls have been shifted around slightly by numerous earthquakes over many centuries, but they are still standing and show no sign of coming down.
One of the most popular sites is the impressive Saksaywaman complex, situated in the hills to the north of Cusco.
The Incan monument – translated as ‘Sexy Woman’ – is considered one of the most impressive ever built. When the Spanish Conquistadors visited the site, they couldn’t work out how the Peruvians had constructed it.
The conquerors blamed demons or maligned spirits, and even today many people believe aliens were responsible.
In fact, it is thought the monument took 50 years to build and was constructed by a ‘crew’ of about 20,000 men, all working on it at various stages and for the common good – there were no slaves in Incan society.
The views from the site, both over Cusco and beyond, are spectacular; while the monument is incredibly constructed, made in the Incan manner with large polished dry stone walls built from boulders carefully fixed together without mortar.
Away from the history, Cusco caters for those with a sweet tooth through its fascinating chocolate museum.
Visitors can chart the chocolate making process from the cacao bean to the chocolate bar, and even take part in workshops where they can make their own chocolate.
These activities barely scratch the surface of what there is to do in Cusco, and that’s before you’ve even thought about launching yourself out onto the Inca Trail towards Machu Picchu.
Wandering the streets will throw a dozen new experiences at you, while there is nothing quite like enjoying a pint of Guinness in Paddy’s Pub – branded the highest Irish bar in the world.
Just make sure it doesn’t all go to your head before you leave the airport.