Day two of our vacation started pretty early in the morning. I hate to waste a moment, especially when there are things to see and photos to take! It didn’t hurt that we gained two hours and that the sun rises early in the Peruvian summertime. Yes, did I forget to tell you? It is summertime here in the Southern Hemisphere!

Early morning on back street in Cusco

Welcome to Cusco, Peru – Part 2!

I woke my eldest, hoping we could take advantage of some early morning light for photos. We weren’t the only ones up and about. We saw stray dogs enjoying the fresh air, young boys walking to school, wool-capped men on their way to work, and women young and old opening up the shops for business. A few customers were already up and out after newspapers and their daily bread. We saw nary a tourist other than ourselves… that’s another reason why we like to get up and out! You really get a feel for a location when it’s not in midst of putting on a show for the tourists.

I unfortunately discovered my first symptoms of altitude sickness. For future reference, it’s a good idea to turn around and go back to the hotel, not climb more steps for views of the city, when the nausea hits. For those of you who have experienced morning sickness during pregnancy, all I can say is that the nausea from altitude sickness is even worse. I would have never thought that possible. And that getting sick is a good thing because you finally feel much better.

Walking to school through Plaza San Cristobal.

After a recuperation break back at the hotel, a little breakfast, and massive amounts of motrin and coca tea, I was ready to follow the rest of the family out the door of the hotel and back onto the cobbled streets of Cusco. There was no way I was missing any part of this trip. Our first stop of the day was the Pre Columbian Art Museum.

This museum should be on everyone’s list of things to do in Cusco. Their collection is well-preserved, beautifully presented, and extremely well organized by era and by tribe. The maps in each room allowed us to follow the progress of each successive group of people that conquered the tribe before it. It seems that it wasn’t just the Spanish who built on top of prior cultures in South America but that the Incans themselves did the same thing. The pre-Incan cultures were rich in ceramics, in wood carvings, and in jewelry made from shell and from stone. They had an impressive collection of nose rings and of weapons made from metal. The museum opened at 8am but no one else knew that but us; we basically had the place all to ourselves!

The museum also offered a bonus we hadn’t expected, The Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, located just off the inner courtyard. As we were leaving the museum, the Center was about to open for business. I tried speaking to the artisans out front but they were eating breakfast, getting ready for the workday and not ready to deal with a tourist.

Samples of Work

We found out from the man in the front that they would open for business in half an hour and that we could come back. That settled it… we found our mid-morning cup of coffee and snack at a nearby cafe on the Plazeleta de las Nazarenas, the same place where I was bombarded by sales people the day before. The difference between Sunday afternoon and Monday morning was amazing – it was quiet, still and calm and there were zero people trying to make a sale. It was a wonderful place to enjoy a peaceful moment. All vacations should have time like this.

Using 5 Needles

When we returned, the two artists were hard at work. The gentleman was sitting in a chair up against the wall and was knitting a cap using five needles and several different colors of yarn. The woman was seated on the ground in front of a large backstrap loom, working on a piece about the width of a table runner, but potentially much longer. Both were dressed in brightly colored, local costume. I know that their items of clothing and the style of weaving could tell another local a lot about where they came from and if I ever had the chance to stay longer in Peru, I would like to learn more about each region and the weaving techniques they practiced.

Inside the store, we spoke for a long time with the shopkeeper and learned that the Center purchases the pieces directly from each artist. They don’t have to wait for their piece to sell before they see any profit. Each piece is marked with the name and the picture of the artist who made it as well as their date-of-birth and the location where the piece was made.

Using a backstrap loom

Detail of a table runner

Please consider visiting the website as they have stunning pictures of the art work, the artists, and the communities supported by our purchases. Each community has a very different style of work and all are worth seeing. Prices on the site are in US Dollars.

I like finding places like this. The artwork is often more expensive than that found in touristy stores but I know that the artist is making a fair wage. I might have found cheaper on the streets of Cusco, maybe even items made by the person selling the piece, but probably not. Certainly not with guarantees. For me, this kind of non-profit organization is part of the answer to some of the questions that I asked in my earlier diary, especially, How can a community get maximum benefit from the tourism industry and still manage to retain true to itself and its people?

After the museum and a light lunch, it was time for our scheduled tour of the city of Cusco and some surrounding Incan sites. It was part of our package deal, something we have rarely signed up for when we travel. We are generally not the types you would find on guided tours and our single experience on a bus trip to Amsterdam had scared me off them for a very long time. This afternoon had those moments that we would have loved to avoid – crowded spaces, limited time, and the rushed feeling of always needing to get to the next location. But the tour had its benefits.

Detail of the Iglesia del Triunfo

Our guide was Rómelo Valencia, a well known figure around Cusco. His great uncle was the Quechua founder of Machu Picchu years before Hiram Bingham came to Peru. Rómelo has been a guide for more than 20 years and has studied languages at the University of Qosco and has an advanced degree in tourism. He knows more about the local area than he could tell us in a lifetime. He also had some unique views that served as window into understanding the local Quechua people.

The tour started at the Iglesia del Triunfo and continued to the adjacent Cathedral of Cusco. Both Spanish churches were built upon Incan sites, the Iglesia on a ceremonial building called Suntur Wasi and the Cathedral on the temple, Kiswarkancha. Cusco was the center of the Incan Empire and by building on top of their important structures, the Spanish invaders sent a powerful message to the local Quechua people. They had hoped to replace the native beliefs with Christianity. Many believe that they failed and only managed to create a religion that combines elements of both Christianity and the ancient deities of the Incans. Rómelo liked to point out what he saw as the Church’s failure – evidence that the locals retained their beliefs even while adopting Catholicism. He was not the only guide to point this out during our trip and it became a theme almost every time we walked into a Catholic church.

Detail near the Cusco Cathedral

Even with a few elements of Incan design, the Cathedral of Cusco is very much Catholic. The space inside is large, with huge columns to hold up the tall ceiling, stained glass windows, altars covered in gold that came from Incan sites, statues of various saints, including multiple of the Virgin Mary. But the most stunning items in the church were the paintings. There were hundreds of them. The Spanish priests who had settled in Cusco taught the local Quechua how to copy the great European masters. Their students became so adept that their artwork is worth remembering on its own. Their work and their style has become known as La Escuela Cuzqueña, or the Cusco School. Although many of the works of art are notable and of museum quality, the vast majority of them are by unknown artists and are unsigned. Rómelo told us that was because the native Quechua people were considered unworthy by the Spaniards but Wikipedia claims pre-Columbian tradition considered art communal implying that the artists chose not to sign.

Example from the Cusco School, wikipedia commons

One of the exceptions is a painting of the Last Supper by Marcos Zapata. It is a marvelous piece that inserts Quechua culture into a Catholic context; the food on the table is that of the local area and the main dish is the famous cuy or guinea pig. We were also told that Judas is painted in the image of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador who captured and killed Atahulapa, the Incan Emperor.

As we toured other sites in the city, we saw more paintings from the Cusco School. Rómelo pointed out a detail that kept occurring in many of the paintings, a branch or two of small, white, lily-like flowers. He told us that the Quechua artists found this method to identify their paintings. Brand new artists would not paint a white flower at all but artists who had finished one whole painting would paint a single flower. If they had other paintings that they had begun but were as yet unfinished, they would paint a flower bud. Some paintings we saw had as many as 5 or 6 full flowers and many buds; the quality of the work was obviously better, adding proof that the flowers symbolized the prior work of an experienced artist. I’ve looked for references and can find nothing mentioned online about this tradition.

The gardens at Qoricancha/Santa Domingo

We visited another famous site in the city, Qoricancha. Here is a description from Wikipedia:

The Spanish colonists built the Church of Santo Domingo on the site, demolishing the temple and using its foundations for the cathedral. Construction took most of a century. This is one of numerous sites where the Spanish incorporated Inca stonework into the structure of a colonial building. Major earthquakes severely damaged the church, but the Inca stone walls, built out of huge, tightly-interlocking blocks of stone, still stand due to their sophisticated stone masonry. Nearby is an underground archaeological museum, which contains numerous interesting pieces, including mummies, textiles, and sacred idols from the site. The site now also includes the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo.

Replica of Incan plaque

The Church and Convent of Santo Domingo is not to be confused with the Cathedral of Santo Domingo that we visited earlier. Inside the building, we could photograph a replica of a golden plaque with images important to the Incan religion, but little else. Seeing the plaque was a reminder that many of the ancient temples were covered in gold and the walls would have shone with the same splendor as this plaque. At this site, it is believed that the gold was collected as part of the ransom for Atahualpa, gold that the Spanish took willingly yet they failed to return the Emperor to his people and instead, executed him.

Rómelo was full of stories like this – he also told us that when the Spanish first arrived and wanted to purchase land from the Quechua, they proposed that a single cowhide be used to determine the measurement of the land. The Quechua believed that a single cowhide meant its area. The Spanish, however, took that cowhide and cut it into a single long strip which they then used to mark the area of land they wanted to purchase. The longer we stayed in Peru and the more guides we met, the more we realized that history in this country depends very much on the person telling the story. Rómelo is Quechua and from his day guiding us, I would guess that he is not Catholic. He held obvious contempt for the actions of the ancient Spaniards and even more obvious pride in the culture of the Quechua. We were soon to learn that other invaders had earned his disrespect.

The ancient stone walls of Qoricancha at the base of Santa Domingo

My favorite part of the tour came later in the afternoon… we hit the Incan sites outside of Cusco. My favorite and the most famous, Saqsayhuamán, is stunning. I could have spent hours roaming the site but that is the main disadvantage of taking a tour, you’re on your guide’s schedule, not your own. And the word is pronounced just as you think it might be, sexy woman, or, with a slight twang, sexy wow-man.

Some of the many walls of Saqsayhuamán

Perspective at Sacsayhaumán

This is also the place where we began to learn even more about Rómelo… he told us that the stones at this site could not have been moved without extraordinary powers. No, he didn’t believe the aliens came to earth, as has been proposed by Erich von Daniken. Rómelo called the man crazy. However, he did believe that the ancient Incans, and maybe those before them, were able to access additional human senses that we no longer have, such as telekinesis. I don’t know if other Quechua would agree with Rómelo, but there is a great sense that the people of the area feel a connection with the earth and with the spirit world around them. It is easy to understand why they might feel something has been lost, beyond the Incan Empire, since the time of the Spanish conquest. Obviously, there is great debate among scientists about how the stones were actually moved but none of them propose telekinesis as a possibility. But the scientific community would have little disagreement with the rest of what Rómelo shared. The stones were carved offsite and each stone had a unique and specific place in the wall. The stones are often multi-sided, not a simple square, often a complex polygon. Sometimes the stones’ outline make life-like shapes; at one point, Rómelo pointed out a llama shape within a large wall.

Saqsayhuamán with statue of Jesus in the background

It seemed impossible to escape Christianity even in this ancient site of the Incas. Nearby, on a hillside overlooking Cusco but easily viewable from Saqsayhuamán, is a monument to Christ, similar to Christ the Redeemer found in Rio de Janeiro. Furthermore, the ruins themselves are a reminder of the Spanish conquest… walls that were built to survive massive earthquakes did not survive the Spanish need for building materials. The site became a quarry for the colonial city of Cusco and many of the stones were cut and removed to build the growing Spanish empire.

After Sacsayhaumán, we headed back to the bus, to head to a couple of last sites before we lost the sun. We briefly stopped at an old fort, Puca Pucara but only with enough time for a photo from the bus window. If I were to do this trip again, I would schedule much more time for these ruins because part of the adventure is walking among the stones and feeling the passage of time while standing among them.

View of Puca Pucara

Terraces at Tambomachay

We did walk more at the next site, Tambomachay. The trail from the parking lot led past emerald green terraces with grazing animals as well as vendors selling brightly colored blankets and warm sweaters, mittens, and gloves. The feel was more pastoral than any we had felt so far. Rómelo told us that those of us hiking the Inca Trail would find locations like this again and again and again. We would be hitting the trail the next day and I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than to hike in this landscape.

Vendors at Tambomachay

Fountains at Tambomachay

Tambomachay is place that honors water – the ruins consist of a serious of aqueducts and small fountains but the purpose of the site remains unknown. It seems elaborate to have only served as a place to water animals. Rómelo told us of its possible religious significance. The uppermost wall has four niches built in the classic style, a building style reserved for royalty and temples, and most likely held icons of great importance. Again, imagine them covered in gold. Water was also greatly revered by the ancient Inca and its special presence in the form of three fountains only add to the sacred feel. The sacred Trilogy of Puma, the Condor, and the Snake is something we will visit again in future diaries. It is also common to find references online that this site may have served as royal baths to the Incan emperor and his family and close staff.

View of Tambomachay

As Rómelo told us a little about these ruins, he also took the opportunity to tell us more about his personal story. He shared with us a book that he helped co-author with American Carol Cumes called Journey to Machu Picchu which tells even more about his family, specifically his great uncle, Agustín Lizárraga:

In 1900, Agustín began to clear land by burning the dense vegetation at Inkarakkay, a valley at the foot of Waynapichu. One day after burning a great stretch of plant growth, he climbed the cleared slopes to explore an area he’d never entered. There, Agustín found an ancient stairway rising from the banks of the Urubamba River, west of the mountain and leading to a place that is known today as the Sacred Plaza of Machu Picchu.

Our guide, Rómelo Lizárraga Valencia

Rómelo told a tale of how Hiram Bingham, the American who claims to have discovered Machu Picchu, was offered tea in gold cups and he realized that the family who invited him to tea had a story to tell. He convinced them to take him to see the ruins where the gold had been discovered and the rest is history. Rómelo told stories of Bingham’s looting and of his lack of respect to both the Incan site and to the Quechua people working in the area. His co-author, in the latest edition, gave Bingham’s grandson the chance to refute the story. Rómelo is trying to bring the history of his family into the common history of Machu Picchu. Guides still don’t mention the discovery of this ancient sight was made by a local man. The subject of Hiram Bingham is one of great ambivalence for Peru. He helped make Machu Picchu famous but he also took thousands of artifacts out of the country and Yale University, today, is still coming to terms with his legacy. The government of Peru claims the items were on loan and the University of Yale swears this is a contractual misunderstanding, even as they are returning some items. The anger of the Peruvian people is understandable.

Site of Q'engo

Our last site to tour was Q’engo, a site with an interesting underground space holding a stone shaped like an altar that could have been used in preparing bodies for mummification. Rómelo was quite clear that no sacrifices took place, not only here, but within the Incan religion at all. Either way, the place felt dark and damp and the standing pools of water on the stone platform reminded us of blood. The aura was uncomfortable but that could have been the setting of the sun and the foreboding rain clouds in the distance as much as my feeling for the place.

Stone at Q'engo

For our final surprise, we visited a tourist trap, one of those locations that the tourist bus pulls up to and the vendors are all expecting you with open wallets in hand. Rómelo had told us repeatedly that we did not have time to buy from the vendors at each historical site and now we understood better why. And the questions started in my mind again, about sustainable tourism, about fairness to those who live in the area and what profit motive is at work.

Rómelo took us to one shop in particular so that we could learn the difference between acrylic, llama, and baby llama wools. Not a bad thing to learn, to tell you the truth. But the entire visit felt fabricated for the sole reason of profit, not for our edification. Rómelo stood by the cash register and made sure that each purchase from one of his customers was marked down so that he could get his percentage. This was no fair-trade store where I knew that a portion of the profit was going to a fairly paid artisan and I found myself uninterested in making a purchase. In the end, my son asked for a pair of knitted mittens (he had forgetten to pack a pair and summertime in Peru still means cold nights, especially on the Inca Trail) and I bought some. We found the same pair the next day at a village miles from Cusco. They were probably made in a factory setting where the salaries are low and the employers have little incentive to make any changes.

Upon returning to the city, we met up with our guide for the next day and that experience is best left for the next diary… after all, he was our guide for the 4-day Inca Trail hike!

In the meantime, if you would like to see some of the interiors of the locations that we saw and were not able to photograph, you can check out this short video:

Three years ago, my family was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We took the time to travel and managed to see a good part of Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Bolivia. This is one post of many from that time period that originally appeared at Daily Kos. FYI – a diary is the same as a blog post in that forum.