Our Favorite Peruvian City – Cusco

Cusco Plaza de las Armas Corpus Christi day

Cusco is full of narrow alleys and cobbled streets.

Cusco is full of narrow alleys and cobbled streets.

 

After our stay in Puno and Lake Titicaca, we took a bus to Cusco.  We didn’t expect to be so captivated! But we managed to spend more than 4 weeks in and around this amazing city.  It is situated in a picturesque valley, with hills all around.  It’s a beautiful Spanish colonial town – red tiled buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, and old colonial homes with inner courtyards that now house offices, restaurants and shops. Cusco is historically important as the center of the Inca Empire and Inca culture.

We stayed in four different hotels and hostels in the historical center of Cusco.  So we discovered an endless supply of interesting museums, restaurants, pisco bars, historical buildings, colorful local markets, and of course shopping.  There are ‘artenesias’ everywhere and a mind boggling amount of merchandise.

Children´s Parade in Cusco June 10

Children´s Parade in Cusco June 10

The biggest delight is that we were in Cusco in early June when there are festivals galore leading up to the winter solstice.  For five days in a row, we watched (along with thousands of Cusquenos) the most colorful parades of groups from local towns who were dressed in traditional Peruvian clothing and doing traditional Peruvian dances.  There is more color here than you can shake a stick at.  It seems that there is a lot of interest in preserving the historical traditions and celebrating them (unlike in the U.S. where we have essentially relinquished Native American culture to the reservations). The following links to 3 videos show what you´d find in the plaza at 10 AM on 3 consecutive days.  If you look at them you´ll see there´s lots of color, lots of activity, and it goes on and on – that´s the point.  Monday June 9 Dances. June 10 Children Dances. June 11 Dances

Inca double doorway, with a Spanish emblem over it and Spanish construction above and  to the right of it.

Inca double doorway, with a Spanish emblem over it and Spanish construction above and to the right of it.

The Spanish sought to destroy the Inca culture through a variety of means.  They demolished Inca temples and built Catholic churches on top of their foundations.  They passed laws that forbade playing Inca music, wearing tradition Inca clothing etc.   But they did not succeed fully, and remnants of the Incas, particularly their building style, survived.   In the end there has been an unusual blend of Inca and Spanish culture. Most people are Catholic, but have figured out how to reconcile Christian beliefs with their tradional beliefs.

The Cusqueno art style is an interesting example of this blending.  The Spanish brought in Europeans to teach local artists to create European style paintings.  The local artists complied but managed to slip in many symbols of their own culture.  For example, a large painting of the Last Supper in the main cathedral features Christ and his disciples eating what looks like a guinea pig (local delicacy).  And Christ is always shown on the cross with clothing (such as a white lacy skirt).  The reason is that the indigenous people did not believe someone as important as Christ

Christ portrayed wearing a skirt

Christ portrayed wearing a skirt

should be shown naked!

We heard many legends and don’t know if they are all true, but one guide told us the reason for the white skirt was that it represented the white snow on the mountains, and the mountains, being the highest points on earth, are very close to the heavens, and the converted came to believe in the Christian faith that Christ is the gateway to heaven.

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The man Dan met on his run, and his Lama

The man Dan met on his run, and his llama Cristobal

Dan´s favorite memories of Cusco are from his runs up into the surrounding hills.  One morning he encountered a man and his llama along the side of the road. The man was rinsing his feet. They got into conversation and Dan learned that the man and his llama friend Cristobal were walking from the Sacred Valley to Cusco to take part in the festival.  This is roughly equivalent to walking from Monterey to Cupertino.  Another morning Dan was running down a very rough dirt road on his way back to the city when he came upon a group of kids in school uniforms trotting down the hill toward school.  One boy in particular took off in a sprint to race Dan, and easily passed him.  The road switch backed down the hill.  At each switchback the boy took the shortcut and then waited for Dan, so he could sprint past.  This 8 year olds speed was all the more impressive because he was wearing a back pack, inflexible leather shoes, and rocks were sticking up out of the dirt road everywhere, increasing the risk of a bad fall.

Saint Santiago is particularly interesting, both because he looks like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Carribean, and because he is portrayed squashing the indiginous people. Photo by Radio Santa Monica Anta

Saint Santiago is particularly interesting, both because he looks like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Carribean, and because he is portrayed squashing the indigenous people. Photo by Radio Santa Monica Anta

We timed our Cusco exit so we wouldn´t miss Corpus Christi. In a city that has a parade almost every day, they pull out all the stops for Corpus Christi.  Our understanding is that Corpus Christi is 60 days after Easter. It literally means “body of Christ” and we were told it is a reenactment of the announcement of Christ´s assention to heaven, or a least a celebration of the body of Christ.  In Cusco, each of the district congregations have a patron saint.  They bring the saints into Cusco city and there is a procession of the saints in the main square.  Generally some public figures go first, then the band and priests, followed by the saint, carried by 30 to 40 men,  and then what looks like a table carried by boys.  When the men need to rest, the boys put their table under the saint to suport it.  When parading, the boys and their table tends to careen all over the place.  Our understanding is that the saints are carried to hospitals and penitentaries.  At the end of the procession, the saints go to the cathedral for a period of time and eventually return to their respective parishes.  A 1.5 minute video of the parade is here.

Here are several photos of this lively city!

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