Cusco - The Navel of the World

A truly cosmopolitan city. In Cusco, Spanish colonial churches sit atop ancient Incan stonework. Now backpackers from across the world are drawn by its history.


Cusco - The Navel of the World

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 9, 2006

According to myth and legend Cusco was founded by Manco Capac, son of the Sun, and Mama Ocllo, daughter of the Moon. At their parents' command they rose from the waters of Lake Titicaca and set off on their quest. They would found their city at the first spot where Manco Capac's golden staff could be plunged into the earth up to its very head. That place became Cusco, 'the Navel of the Earth', and Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo's children became the Incas.

Cusco still maintains its Incan core. Supposedly shaped like a puma with its head at Sacsayhuaman, the city was ravaged following the arrival of Francisco Pizarro and the Conquistadors in 1534. The loot hauled from this, the capital of the Inca Empire, can only be imagined. It is said that it took three months to melt down all the gold and silver in just one building, the Temple of the Sun. However traces remain. Many buildings maintain their Incan foundations, typified by the smooth grey stones that fit together so perfectly that they have no need for mortar. Indeed these thick slanted walls have weathered Peru's earthquaked much more successfully than the later Spanish colonial architecture whose churches, squares and palaces now form the backbone of the city.

Start by seeing the historic core of the city, the Plaza de Armas. Once the symbolic heart of the Incan empire, where soil from newly conquered territories was mixed with that of Huacaypata, now the square is home to two of Cusco's most impressive churches.

From there you have to head east to Qoricancha, the Temple of the Sun. Its curved bastions still rise up above the town, the colonial Church of Santo Domingo perched incongruously on top.

Returning back through town visit one of the key museums—the Museo de Arte Precolombino or Museo Inka. Then attampt the climb up through the steep stepped streets to the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, perched high above the town. But take your time!

Cusco is also a good place to explore the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River and the ruins of Ollantaytambo or Pisac (which also has a bustling tourist market). And finally—if you're brave enough—attempt the Inca Trail, a gruelling 3-and-a-half-day slog through spectacular mountain scenery to the legendary Machu Picchu.
${QuickSuggestions} Firstly, take it easy. If you are arriving in Cusco straight from the lowlands (maybe a flight from Lima) you really do need to spend the first day acclimatising to the altitude. Don't do anything energetic. Go at your own pace, and rest often. Stop for a fresh orange juice at one of the many street stalls. It is important that you consume enough liquid—carry a bottle of water and take frequent sips. Also the sun's rays are stronger here. Use sunscreen. Particularly on the top of your ears and the back of your neck unless you have a wide-brimmed hat.

If you are staying for a few days invest in a boleto touristico for 35 Sol. This combination ticket allows you access to a number of sites such as the Museo Historico Regional, Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puku Pukara, Tambo Machay, Pisac and Ollantaytambo. It does not cover any of the town's churches or Qorikancha (though it does cover a disappointing museum *near* Qoricancha), and it does not cover either the Museo de Arte Precolombino or the Museo Inka. It is good value if you are spending a few days exploring the nearby ruins however.${BestWay} The centre of Cusco is fairly compact. However you need to bear in mind that the town sits at 3360m above sea-level, and as a result the oxygen content of the air is much less than most people are used to. Add to the fact that so much of the town is accessed by flights of stairs or steeply sloping roads and you quickly end up gasping for breath. Take it slowly. Stop often to admire the scenery. There's no point in rushing. However, managing the arduous climb up to Sacsayhuaman does provide you with a great sense of achievement. And it's good training if you intend to attempt the Inca Trail.

Taxis are freely available around the Plaza de Armas. If a group of you are visiting sites in the Sacred Valley it can often be more economical to hire a taxi for an afternoon rather than take one of the numerous packaged tours touted around town. Though you may end up sat in the boot, clinging desperately to the back of the seats as your driver hurtles around blind drops on the way to Pisac as I did!

Hotel Garcilaso II

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 9, 2006

My first sight of Hotel Garcilaso came at the end of a long, tiring, all-day bus ride from the Colca Canyon. I was dead on my feet and would have slept in a cupboard if it were big enough. So imagine my surprise when I took in the hotel.

A plain door leads from one of Cusco's gently-sloping main streets. Once through reception is a frankly stunning courtyard. A cedar stood at the centre, and pots decorated the overlooking balcony. To one side an urn dispensed hot water and I helped myself to the complimentary hot drinks (various flavours of teas were available—I stuck to the plain cocoa leaves).

The staff couldn't do enough to help. They can arrange for your laundry to be cleaned and delivered back. They have a secure safe for items of value; they can also store your luggage if you spend a few days out of town (the 4-day Inca Trail for example). On one occasion they even competently called an English-speaking doctor when one of our party was taken ill.

So that's the good news. What about the bad? Well, the plumbing is antiquated and clearly not up to the job. I arrived back on a bus from Machu Picchu and the first thing I wanted was a soothing hot shower to wash away the dirt and sweat and ease my knotted muscles. Sadly, everyone else had exactly the same idea at the same time—all I got was a dribble of cool water down the wall of the cubicle.

Some of the rooms do not have any natural light. Those that do can be worse; overjoyed to have a double window overlooking the Plaza San Francisco I instead found myself woken much earlier than I'd hoped by a raucous babble of voices. From the sound of it a school bus stop was located directly beneath that window.

So, I'd have to give the Hotel Garcilaso II a mixed review. The hotel is convenient to the town centre, it looks stunning, the staff are great, and the rooms are clean and of a good standard. However, the rooms can get noisy in the morning, and the plumbing cannot cope if the hotel is full.
Hotel Garcilaso II
Calle Garcilaso 233-285
Cusco
+51 (84) 227951

Fallen Angel

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 9, 2006

Adjacent to the Museo de Arte Precolombino, Fallen Angel thinks of itself as a work of art too. And the steaks aren't far off!

The restaurant is a funky little place, full of couches in nooks. Trendy art decorates the walls—local equivalents of the British graffiti artist 'Banksy' if you know his work. We were escorted to our table. Well, I say table. It was a sheet of glass over a bathtub. There were goldfish swimming in the tub. All throughout the meal my eyes were continuously drawn down to the little fish swimming unconcernedly just inches below my plate.

We had been recommended the steaks. The recommendation was good. The steaks were even better. Ed sniffly informed us that they do them better in Argentina, which I don't doubt. But, God, they were good. You can have them done to your specification (and the waiter's English was good enough to understand 'medium rare', rather than me fumbling in my phrase book for the equivalent Spanish term ("Inglese" I believe). They come in a range of styles - encrusted with peppers, spicy chilli, in a variety of sauces—and with one of a selection of side dishes. As we ummed and aaahed over the choice of rice, crispy fries, onion rings, mashed potato etc the waiter had a suggestion - instead of getting one each why didn't he just bring one dish of each side for no extra cost? We took him up on that offer.

After the meal I made my excuses and went to the toilet. I could not see any signs denoting which was male and which was female. Instead there was a 'heaven' in light blue, and a 'hell' in dark blood red. I went for hell. Inside the room was painted the same colour, and coils of barbed wire hung over head. "You have to visit the toilets" I told my friends when I returned.

Fallen Angel is one of the more expensive places to eat in Cusco—indeed it's probably the most expensive meal I had in Peru. However, it is still much cheaper than any comparable meal, let alone in a comparable setting, than you find back in the UK. Yet surprisingly it was not monopolised by foreign tourists. When we went the other diners were the cool kids of Cusco, obviously those with a bit of cash to flash. And after four days on the Inca Trail you're gonna want a thick juicy steak let me tell you!
Fallen Angel
Plazoleta Nazarenas 221
Cusco, Peru
+51 (84) 258184

Pachapapa

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 9, 2006

"You must go to Pachapapa" Jonathan said when I mentioned I was visiting Cusco. "It's up in San Blas; it's great".

Three weeks later I was in Peru. Determined to check out his recommendation I gathered four friends and boldly led them across the Plaza de Armas. San Blas is a lovely little square to the north-east of the centre, reached up sloping streets lined with Incan stonework. Thankfully, when we reached the Plazoleta San Blas, huffing and puffing, the restaurant was easy to find—an archway directly across from the modest little church led into a sunny courtyard.

Finding a table in the shade we turned to watch the activity. In the centre of the yard a pit had been dug. Lined with red-hot stones, food was being lowered into the pit—sweet potatoes, vegetables, hunks of meat. The pit was then covered over, the food left to cook underground. I knew of this method of cooking food as a 'Mongolian barbecue'. Here is Cusco it's pachamanca. This wasn't for us sadly. For this treat you need to reserve in advance with a party of at least six.

We didn't miss out though, as the food we ordered was lovely. Pachapapa serves traditional highland Peruvian cuisine. The green quinoa soup was scalding hot. To wash it down I ordered chicha—the local fermented maize beer. It came served in a stout earthenware mug, dirty suds spilling over the brim. It looked like dishwater. Nonetheless I steeled myself and tried it.

'Beer' is a very poor name for chicha. The brew is malty, curiously sweet, and fairly warm. And it's nice. I polished it off and asked for another.

We had seen cuy on the menu. Cuy is something most non-vegetarian tourists try once in Peru. It is roast guinea pig. We ordered half a pig between the five of us. Sadly it came chopped up (we had enviously seen entire blackened guinea pigs, complete with teeth and claws, served up in other restaurants). There wasn't an awful lot of meat on the carcass. To me it tasted like rather greasy chicken. It was an experience not to be missed though.

Also not to be missed was the music. To one side a tall man in red poncho and striped hat who bore a distinct resemblance to a young Christopher Lee was playing the Andean harp. Less polished than its celtic cousin, the sound produced was more...'twangy'. We clapped as he finished a tune and he came over. In halting English he introduced himself as Felix Blanco Monterroso. Would we like to buy a CD? Three of us took him up. Twenty sols, and he signed it too—'Para Liam, Desdecusco Unamigo Felix'. Right now I am listening to the CD. The tune takes me back to that sun-dappled courtyard, the sweet taste of chicha on my tongue, and the scent of roasting meat in my nostrils. You must go to Pachapapa; it's great.
Pacha Papa
Plaza San Blas 120
Cusco, Peru
+51 (84) 241318

Norton Rat's Tavern

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 9, 2006

Norton Rat's (and no, I don't know the provenance of the name) has one great selling point, one of the best views of the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. Entered through a courtyard off Callejon Loreto (the narrow Inca alley to the left of the Compania de Jesus Church) this pub is up on the top floor. Inside, it's larger than you'd think—with a long polished bar, dark wooden floorboards, cable TV, a pool table and a dart board. Wall decorations are themed around 'Explorer's Club' type maps of Peru and assorted motorcycle memorabilia. For my money though you're best heading straight through the bar and out onto the narrow balcony overlooking the Plaza. On a high stool there you can watch the world go by.

The place is equally good for a scenic beer in the evening, the sunset bleeding orange into your eyes, or for lunch. It's central location is a selling point in the second instance. Plus, at around 12-1 the place was practically empty. Recuperate with a thick juicy burger (complete with the ubiquitous avocado) and a glass of icy fresh juice. I recommend the grapefruit—bitingly sharp. If that doesn't pep you up for an afternoon's sightseeing then nothing will!
Norton Rat's Tavern
Loreto 115, 2do. piso
Cusco, Peru
+51 84 246204

Fun Y Fotos

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 9, 2006

All this culture can get to you—stunning ruins, evocative churches, bustling markets. Your heels are blistered from hiking the Inca Trail, and the mosquito bites you picked up in the rainforest are still itching. You want a silly, uncomplicated night out with friends. Where do you go? The answer is Fun Y Fotos. The bar does exactly what it says on the tin. Its biggest draw is its collection of costumes. Women, if you've ever wanted to dress as an Inca brave this is the place for you. And men, if you are harbouring secret fantasies of becoming a Peruvian lady of the night it's the place for you too.

After donning their range of brightly coloured costumes you can have your photograph taken against a mock up of Inca terracing. The staff will take high-quality shots with their own equipment (and then post them on funyfotoscusco.com), or you can use your own camera for no charge.

After that, how about a salsa lesson? The dance space isn't the biggest, but if just a few of you want to learn a few steps, or brush up existing skills, their teachers are great. And then, back to the bar, for cocktails. Their menu is pretty varied, and all the fruit juices used are pulped fresh before you. There are tables in the shaded courtyard in front, and you can go there for a chat, a drink, and a selection of non-trademarked games ('yenga' anyone?). And losers get sent back to the bar for penalties—dangerously potent shots served in test-tubes!

It's a lively little hole in the wall place, with a youthful and fun atmosphere. The only caveat is that the toilets are not that great—best go easy on those test-tubes senor!

Fun y Fotos Coffee Shop & Studio
Calle Marquez 250
Cusco, Peru
+51 (84) 9740828

Paddy Flaherty's

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 9, 2006

Wherever you travel in the world, no matter how far you go, you can be sure of one thing—you are never further than five miles from an Australian backpacker or an Irish pub. In Peru, Paddy Flaherty's, on the corner of the Plaza de Armas, is the nexus that all are eventually drawn to.

Now, I am not a fan of Irish pubs. That's why I like Ireland—they just have pubs there, not 'Irish pubs'. However, when you are far away from home they provide a comforting atmosphere—outside it might be Manchester, Montreal, Moscow, or Mogadishu, but with a pint in your hand it all seems a very long way distant.

This Irish pub doesn't serve pints. No Guinness (not even in bottles), no stouts, no bitters. They have Cusquena in bottles, but so does everywhere else in Cusco. To be fair, they do have bottles of whisky, but for me the only saving grace of Irish pubs is the comforting feel of a pint glass in your hand.

They make an effort with the food—chips, chicken wings, even honest-to-goodness shepherd's pie. However the tables are so cramped it's quite hard to raise your elbows high enough to tuck in.

Obviously lots of people like it. It's busy with accents from all over the world. But for me I would have preferred somewhere more authentic—either Peruvian or Irish. This place sadly falls between the two stools and manages to be neither.
Paddy Flaherty's
Triunfo 124, Plaza de Armas
Cusco
+51 (84) 247-719

Plaza de Armas

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 9, 2006

In the days of the great Inca the heart of the Empire were two great squares divided by the Rio Saphi—Huacaypata, the Place of Tears, and Cusipata, the Place of Happiness. The riverway has now been filled in and the two halves of the square are now separate. Cusipata is the Plaza Recocijo. Huacaypata is Cusco's grand Plaza de Armas.

As an impressive centrepiece to a town the Plaza does its job admirably. Save for the churches (the baroque Jesuit Compania and the Cathedral atop its little rise) the surrounding buildings are no more than two stories tall. This allows the tourist to see the Andean hills rising around on all sides. Sweet as the plastered and balconied buildings are, this is only fitting. Nothing could be more suitable as scenery than the mountains that the Incas called home.

For this square was not only the physical, but also the spiritual heart of the empire. Whenever a new territory was conquered by the Inca, a portion of its soil was brought back and symbolically mixed with that of the Huacaypata. To all sides stood some of the most important complexes of their capital. Now all that can be seen of these edifices are the bottom thirds of the walls, the ingenious Inca stonework having been built on by their Spanish conquerors. The Palace of the Inca Wiracocha is now the site of the Cathedral. The Palace of the Serpents has the Compania atop it.

The square has a fountain at its centre—as with every other Plaza de Armas in Peru, be it Lima or Arequipa. First take a look at the church on the southern side of the square. This is the Compania de la Jesus, the church of the Jesuits. Its facade is a riot of curlicues and carvings - local craftsmen taking the philosophy of the Baroque style and going absolutely mental with it. Compare it to the rather plain and austere walls of the Cathedral to your left. As a 16th century local I know where I'd prefer to visit for my mandatory conversion. Inside there is a magnificent gold altarpiece.

An internal viewing of the Cathedral is more rewarding though. It is actually a complex of three chapels. You enter through the eighteenth-century Iglesia Jesus y Maria, pass through the Cathedral, and exit via El Triunfo, the first Christian church in Cusco. In the Cathedral look out for two early paintings in particular. Marcos Zapata's Last Supper aims to make the gospels understandable to a local audience. Here Jesus and the disciples are enjoying glasses of chicha and a roast guinea pig. El Senor De Los Temblores (Our Lord Of the Earthquakes)shows how a miraculous figure of the Christ saved the town from the fires that raged through the colony following the 1650 earthquake. This is the oldest surviving painting in Cusco.
Plaza de Armas

Cusco, Peru

Museo de Arte Precolombino

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 9, 2006

As you enter the Museo de Arte Precolombino you are presented with its guiding philosophy—to take the relics of the past and display them as the works of art they once were. In other words, this is not just a dry and dusty old museum, filled with minutely labelled shards of pottery; this is an art gallery.

Indeed, the works on display look shiny and new, as if they'd been manufactured in the last century rather than in the first half of last millennium. I found this worrying. I'm not used to seeing pristine pieces of pottery or intact works of cunningly-formed silver in such quantities. Was I missing something in the English translations of the explicatory text? Were these merely pieces *inspired by* the works of the great civilizations that once called Peru home?

A sunny courtyard caters for the tourists with an exclusive restaurant, an alpaca store and a branch of H Stern jewellers. Following the route upstairs chambers exhibit the works of the various cultures represented—Moche, Chimu, Paracas, nasca, and Inca. Continuing downstairs there are further rooms devoted to certain materials—shells, silver, and gold, the latter chamber glowing with warmth.

The museum's aim is eminently laudable. The exhibits are of quite staggering beauty, and they benefit from being showcased in this comparative fashion. They can be appreciated for their artistry and style rather than just as remnants of ages gone. A private museum, your tourist card will not get you in here for free. Instead it is around $4.60. But it is well worth it.
Museo de Arte Precolombino
Plazoleta Nazarenas 231
Cusco, Peru

Sacsayhuaman

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 17, 2006

Where Edinburgh is presided over by its castle, Tokyo by Mount Fuji, and Rio by Christ the Redeemer, Cuzco sits in the shadow of Sacsayhuaman. Atop the hill overlooking the town to the north-east sit great blocks of Inca stonework, some 8.5m high and weighing up to 300 tonnes. Once thought to be a fortress due to its high walls and obvious defensive position (and perhaps due to fact that forces of both Manco Inca and Francisco Pizarro used the site as such in the struggle for the city in the 1530s) its real purpose is now thought to more likely be ceremonial.

Sacsayhuaman (pronounced 'sexy-woman' to my ears anyway!) is easily reached by taxi for about $1.50, though the more rewarding route is to walk up the sloping Pumacurco from Plazeta de las Nazarenas. The road is soon broken up by flights of stairs that leave you gasping in the oxygen-starved air as football-playing boys and old ladies laden down with shopping overtake you. Thankfully I found that you can disguise your collapse as an expertly-timed break at a fresh juice store. At the top it is free entry with a boleto touristico. Guides are available. As are locals with brightly-clothed llamas—you take a photo, you pay!

It is hard now to make out the details of the site. Massive stone bulwarks and bastions surround the central grassy area. According to my guidebook one area served as the Inca's symbolic 'throne' around which ran grooves to funnel liquid - fortunately they reckon the liquid in this case was the maize beer chicha, rather than anything more gory.

My recommendation would be to leave a visit to late afternoon (to climb up at midday in the sun would be the plan of a madman!). At the end of the day the coach parties have left, leaving the site emptier. Admire the views over Cuzco and take some snaps—assuming that your camera doesn't decide to take that moment to break as mine did. Watch the shadows lengthen around town as the sun sinks behind you. Then shiver as the exposed ramparts get surprisingly chilly once the sun is gone. Another friend recommended an early start to see dawn over Cuzco too. And according to some girls at the language schools, if you're sneaky you can evade the guards and reach the floodlit site at night too for a very otherworldly experience!
Sacsayhuaman Archaeological Park
Located On A Steep Hill That Overlooks Cusco
Cusco, Peru

Qoricancha

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 17, 2006

If you have time to see only one sight in Cuzco, it must be the church of Santo Domingo at Qoricancha. The spacious Catholic church sits upon a curved hillock that rises up above the Avenida Sol. The mound looks landscaped, and it is, for this was once the site of Qoricancha, the Temple of the Sun, the holiest site in the holiest city in the Inca World.

When the conquistadores marched in in the 16th century the walls of the temple were reputedly lined with more than 700 sheets of solid gold weighing more than 2kg each. The gardens were also decorated with life-size statues of men, women, children, flowers and animals like the White Witch's castle in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, except that these were fashioned of gold, not ice. It is said that the temple contained so much gold and silver that it took the Spanish three months to melt it all down.

After looting the temple, they then 'sanctified' it of its pagan heritage by building a church over the top, dedicated to local saint Domingo Guzman. The heart of the complex is a spacious sunny courtyard surrounded by courtyard. This sits over where the Temple of the Sun once stood. Rooms mark the sites of the other temples—of the Moon, Lightning, and Venus and the Stars.

Now there are interesting displays on Incan cosmology, which is especially useful if you are spending more time exploring the sacred sites of the Incas. Interestingly the Incas did not associate the constellations with the gods as the Greeks did, but rather they paid attention to the dark spaces between the stars, which they saw as forming the outlines of foxes and llamas. You also get the chance to see close up their ingenious stonework, and to recognise the trademarks of their cleverly-worked doors.

Leaving you walk out over the bastions of curved Inca stonework that are all that now remain of the Qoricancha and down through the gardens.

The site is open from 8am to 5pm, and costs around $1.80. The boleto touristico does not cover entry here. The tourist ticket does however cover the small underground Museo de Sitio Qoricancha on Avenida Sol. If you have a ticket you might as well have a quick browse around the Museo's unenlightening displays of pottery and weaving—otherwise it is really not worth the extra $2 to visit it!

Set aside two hours to take in the site fully. It is a fascinating insight into the religious world of the ancient Inca and should be compulsory for anyone with the slightest interest in their civilization.
Koricancha-Temple of the Sun, Cathedral of Santo Domingo (Cusco Cathedral)
Plaza De Armas
Cusco, Peru

Pisac

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 17, 2006

Pisac is a town of two contrasting halves. One is the bustling market which sucks in busload after busload of tourists. The other is the eerily deserted complex of ruins perched high above, where your only companions are the chilling eddies of wind.

To me the market was not worth the 30 minutes I had spent crammed into the boot of an overloaded taxi, clutching at the back of the seat every time we sped around a blind corner over a precipitous drop down to the valleys below at what seemed to me to be quite unnecessary speed. The stalls all seemed to sell pretty much the same things—alpaca sweaters, ear-flapped woolly hats, ethnic pottery, bead necklaces - as you could get back in Cuzco. My friends who stayed there said that you could get your gifts much cheaper here however—the stalls did not have the same overheads as the shops in the city, and there was such fierce competition that you could get really good discounts, particularly if you were buying in bulk. The journey back was spent being regaled by tales of Olympic-standard haggling.

Much more atmospheric was the fruit market off to one side, where traditionally-dressed locals bartered with other traditionally-dressed locals amidst waist-high stacks of brightly-coloured oranges, melons, and avocados, and big piles of coca leaves. If you continue through here and follow the street round to the right you get to the taxi rank. Here you can pick up a ride up the twisting mountain road, reaching the carpark to the ruins about twenty minutes later.

I should point out that there is a path leading up to the ruins from the north end of the main market street, marked by a couple of ladies hawking fresh orange juice. Apparently it's a lovely walk, but having almost had an aneurysm climbing to Sacsayhuaman the previous day the vertiginous track put me completely off that idea! (I did try to walk back from the site, but the paths are not signposted at all and I soon became lost as dusk fell—I ended up hightailing it back to the carpark while I could still see and paying over the odds for a taxi back down!)

The ruins are incredibly atmospheric, seemingly deserted. You cannot help but feel like an ant picking your way through the maze-like tracks while the sky wheels dizzying around the mountain peak above you. This feeling is heightened by the disorienting lay-out. Trying to descend I kept hitting dead-end walls and sheer drops while at that precise moment a moaning gust of wind would pick up to chill me.

The first part of the site you reach is Kanchiracay, where the agricultural workers were held. Following the top-line of the steep terraces you then come to the route up to the Intihuatana, the religious core of the site, with its labyrinth of buildings. There is also a military area along the tomb-lined valley to one side.

The Vigil of the Cross

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 17, 2006

As I stood in the shower I watched the water swirling around my feet to the plughole. It really does flow the other way in the southern hemisphere, I thought. But what I couldn't understand was why there were multi-coloured streams in the water. Until I put my hand on my head anyway; it came away with tatters of soggy confetti stuck to it. Then I remembered.

I was lucky to arrive back in Cusco from the jungle during a festival. Inti Raymi may be the famous festival in June (when they hike up the hotel prices, or so I've heard), Carnival might be a blast throughout South America, and as a Catholic nation you can never discount the Easter festivities, but this was none of them. The second and third of May sees Cusquenos celebrate the Vigil of the Cross. This involves processing to all hilltops surmounted by a cross. I didn't see any of this, but I did see some of the goings-on.

My hotel looked onto the Plaza San Francisco. Outside the stern grey church a crowd had gathered, so I went over to look. Decorated crosses stood outside the church, and a throng of locals were gathered around a dance troup. The female dancers wore multicoloured hooped skirts, and the men wore stylised shepherd outfits, complete with lariats, stylised lambs hanging from their belts, and full-face balaclavas. The balaclavas were white and depicted faces with curly moustachios. Whether these were meant to represent the white man or not, I could not say.

As I watched the dancers split into two lines and began to trot up and down, while the others made a cat's cradle affair with their ropes. Then two would head up to the top, grip each others hand, then spin around, trying to whip the other with their lariat. The crowd of locals watched them excitedly, clapping, munching on ice-creams, and throwing confetti. One smiling little girl came up and gestured for me to kneel; she then tossed the multi-coloured scraps of tissue paper over my head. This was not one of those 'take-advantage-of-the-foreigner-and-ask-for-money' moments. This was a blessing to wish me good luck.

As the dancing ended the celebrants gathered up their crosses and idols and began to troop from the church. They walked through the outlying sections of the town, before finally heading to the Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral.

Later that day, as I was browsing through the Museo de Arte Precolombino I was disturbed by a noise. A band had gathered in the museum's courtyard, and another group of dancers were performing for the tourists sat at the glass-fronted cafe. Technically they were the superior dancers, and they had a wider range of dances, but I felt that these had just been hired to amuse the tourists - they may perform every day for all I know! But the spontaneous celebration I had seen at San Francisco had been the real thing - locals rejoicing in their traditions.
The Vigil of the Cross
Plaza San Francisco
Cusco, Peru

Machu Picchu - introduction

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 20, 2006

Suddenly the ruins loomed up around me, cracked and deserted. The early-morning cloud drifted like a spectral cloud of wraiths, shrouding the site in an opalescent blue glow. The cool moisture brushed my cheek, stubbly after three whole days hiking the Inca Trail. Dimly I could make out the looming bulk of Huayna Picchu towering above me. In the fog I could have been alone, isolated in the most famous of all mysterious lost cities, the testament of a dead civilisation. Did Hiram Bingham have this feeling, I wondered, this thrill of excitement up the spine mixed with the anxious churning of the stomach as it responded to the sight of the ghost-city, when he first discovered Machu Picchu in 1911?

There are other places for you to read about the background of Machu Picchu much better than I could ever hope to attempt. (Bizarrely enough, just after writing that phrase a friend phoned to refer me to a documentary showing on BBC!). I would recommend the works of Nigel Davies or (particularly) Peter Frost as suitably readable introductions. Suffice to say that the site was of great spiritual significance to the Incas, as evidenced by the outstanding complex of temples and ritual edifices to all aspects of Incan cosmology—the Earth Mother temple, the Condor temple, the ‘hitching-post of the sun’, ritual baths, carved ‘representation stones’ mimicking the peaks that can be seen behind them, the sun gate—as well as the fact that the Inca Trail exists, a great supply and pilgrimage route leading through the mountains. It was never discovered by the Spanish, and languished forgotten and intact, overgrown by cloud forest until a local family of farmers directed Bingham to one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. Hence what I will give you in the two linked reviews are firstly my impressions and then my recommendations.
Machu Picchu Inca Archaeological Site
Above The Urubamba Valley
Cusco Region, Peru

Machu Picchu - My Impressions

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 20, 2006

The Intipunku, or Sun Gate, is the classic entrance to the site, the unforgettable climax to over 3 days of slogging along the Inca Trail. However, when I visited in May 2006 this route was closed. Peru is seismically active, and a landslide had erased a large section of the trail leading from the gate to Machu Picchu—the scar can be seen from the site. This means that all visitors have to come through the main entrance on the road up from Aguas Calientes (entrance is $20). Any backpacks or sticks you might have also have to be surrendered to the left luggage office. However, if you have your passport you can get a very pretty stamp in there.

The first section you reach is a cascade of Incan terracing, the agricultural sector of the city. From here, head up and to the left to the Watchman’s Hut. The classic postcard image of the site can be seen if you head south-west from here following the signs for the Inca Bridge. The bridge itself is not that awe-inspiring, but the vista from the grassy verge across the complex is. From here you can see that the core of the site was carved from the living rock—leading up to the Intihuatana the stairs, the plinth, and the hitching-post itself are all part and parcel of the peak. Then on top edifices have been constructed from locally-sourced stonework. The quarries are on the western side of the mountain, dropping down to the Urubamba valley. In many places the brickwork and great gouts of worked stone coexist, a mingling of the natural and the artificial.

Beyond the terraces the site leads away to the base of Huayna Picchu, which you can ascend to the Temple of the Moon (I forebore, being absolutely knackered from the Trail). A main plaza of short-cropped grass (llamas do the work of lawn-mowers here) divides two sets of buildings. On your right there are living apartments and the ‘Condor Temple’, named after a rock that resembles the majestic bird of prey. To the left there are the main temples, the sacristy and ceremonial baths, some superb instances of Incan stonework, and finally the steps up to the Intihuatana, a finger of rock pointing to the sky, echoing the peak of Huayna Picchu behind it. The gnome, carved from the mountain itself, known as the ‘hitching-post of the sun’, where it is supposed Inca priests used to ceremonially ‘tie’ the sun to stop it getting away is now cordoned off after it was chipped by a film crew making an advert (after a lot of wheedling our guide Julio finally revealed that the advert was for the American Budweiser beer company; they also left potholes from their steadies at Winay Wayna!). From here you get vertiginous views down into the valley that loops around the mountain, and can look across the whole site from its spiritual heart.
Machu Picchu Inca Archaeological Site
Above The Urubamba Valley
Cusco Region, Peru

Machu Picchu - Recommendations

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 20, 2006

My advice would be:

1) get there as early as possible. It is no longer possible for hikers to wander through the Sun-Gate at 6am to get first sight. Instead you have to come through the main entrance which opens at 7am. Buses run up from Aguas Calientes from before the crack of dawn, so if you are not a hiker seriously consider travelling up the day previously and staying overnight in the town before visiting the site first thing. The train from Cusco arrives around 10am—suddenly the place is overrun with tourists around 500,000 visits per year!). The earlier you arrive, the quieter the place will be and the more chance you have of exploring in detail. Once you’ve seen everything from up close you can then wander as you will, or just sit up by the Watchman’s Hut for an hour.

2) Go to the toilet before you visit. The only loos are by the entrance gate, down a steep flight of stairs.

3) Take a tour guide to explain the significance of what you are seeing, otherwise it could all just be chunks of rock to you. We were lucky in that our guide from the Inca Trail, Julio was with us, armed with his trusty notebook. He knew the history and significance of the site off by heart, and was able to answer most any question, but the reproductions he had of Bingham’s original expedition, showing the mountain peak thick with jungle really impressed me. Take more camera film than you think you would need.

4) Take water – the only shop is by the monstrous Hotel Machu Picchu and is terribly overpriced. If staying the whole day you would probably still save money by getting the bus down to Aguas Calientes, eating there, then returning.

5) And finally, if travelling by train, bear in mind that it takes four hours to / from Cusco, but only two from Ollantaytambo, which is a mere hour from Cusco by road. You can save time by getting a bus or taxi to Ollantaytambo, then a train to Machu Picchu, and vice versa.

Machu Picchu Inca Archaeological Site
Above The Urubamba Valley
Cusco Region, Peru

The Inca Trail - Basics

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 24, 2006

The Peruvian authorities are extremely concerned about protecting the integrity of the Inca Trail, and for good reason. The number of people who use it annually create a very great risk of degrading the trail and creating erosion. As a result since 2004 the authorities have imposed a quota of 500 hikers each day (200 trekkers, and 300 guides and staff). You simply cannot hike the trail on your own; those turning up ‘on spec’ and expecting to be able to do the trek will be disappointed. Tickets are only sold at least thirty days in advance, on proof that you have booked a tour with a licensed operator—it's easiest if the tour company itself organises your ticket. As of May this year tickets were $60 for adults, $30 for students and under-15s; these prices are being cranked up every year.

Your guide will arrange a meeting with you in advance to explain the logistics of the trip. You will be provided with a bag in which you are allowed to pack no more than 5kg of gear—this will be carried by a porter. Anything else has to go in your day-check. You should be able to hire sleeping-bags and thermorests direct from the tour company, though these are bulky bottom-of-the-range models. If you have lightweight, professional 4-season sleeping-bags you are best to bring it along; otherwise a number of companies in Cusco can hire them out.

Equipment you will need to bring are good-quality hiking boots. DO NOT LEAVE THIS TO CHANCE. Good boots will save you from a world of pain. Clothing-wise, light-weight removable layers are best. You will be cold at night, and you will be sweating like a carthorse during the day. Zip-off trousers are useful. I found full leg coverage was essential at 7:30am when setting out, but by 8 I needed to be in shorts. Ones with side-zips are a boon, to save you from having to stop and remove your boots. Layers can be taken off and stowed in your day-pack. For your day-pack get a light bag with two shoulder-straps and a waist strap. I made the mistake of having a pack with just one strap that crossed my chest. This meant that with every gasp my chest was having to work against the weight of my backpack. All you’ll need to carry in here are essentials—waterproofs, sun lotion, blister plasters, maybe a torch, your water and any snacks (I’d recommend the little coca sweets you can buy in supermarkets). I’d also recommend at least one, possibly two, stout walking sticks. You can buy these in Ollantaytambo.

The trail is tough, and I found it a struggle at times. However all of our group, which ranged from school-leavers to pensioners, managed it. If you’re not obviously unfit you should be able to make it. Practice beforehand, and acclimatise to the altitude. Keep a positive frame of mind, walk at your own speed, and enjoy the spectacular
Inca Trail
Andes Mountains
Cusco, Peru

The Inca Trail - Day 1

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 24, 2006

We were woken at an unfeasibly early hour at our hotel in Cusco. Onto our coach and out through the shanties of Cusco, and into the Andes. We snoozed or got to know our hiking companions. Julio, our twinkly-eyed guide provided conversation for anyone who wanted it. Even at this early stage his immense knowledge and passion for the lost world of the Inca was clear.

The hour-long drive was broken once for a photo-opportunity, then we continued on to Ollantaytambo to meet the rest of our group. We had a 30-minute break to get breakfast and any last minute supplies—in my case a sturdy walking staff (2 soles) and some knitted gloves (5 soles). I refused to purchase an ear-flapped Peruvian hat, a decision I later regretted when the sun went down. We also had a quick glance at the 16 massive stepped terraces that block off one end of town, and a supposed ‘face’ on the cliff. Then we set off again in the coach along a narrow riverside track for Piscacucho, and KM82.

Most tours start at the train station at KM88. The benefit of KM82 is that you can travel there at your own time, and are not reliant on the train timetable. Also, you get the trail pretty much to yourself. Once at Piscacucho our duffel-bags were weighed and distributed amongst the porters. Time for a quick pose by the Inca Trail sign, and then we were processed one at a time at the waystation where they checked our tickets and stamped our passports. We crossed the Rio Urubamba via a narrow bridge and we were off!

The first morning was unbelievably pleasant, a stroll along the flat above the river. Julio and his other guides pointed out cacti and agave plants. My overwhelming memory is of trees loaded with pink peapods. From our vantage point we could see the tourist train puffing along across the river. Our first climb was up a steep path climbing a valley-wall. From the top we could look down upon the Inca ruins of Llactapata as Julio pointed out its features.

Lunch was a shock. We turned a bend and a marquee had been set up. The staff had reached here first and had cooked us a meal. The meals were uniformly good throughout the trek—soup, salad, chicken and a never-ending supply of coca tea.

The next 2 and ½ hours to our campsite at Huayllabamba were over what Julio termed ‘Peruvian flat’—undulating climbs and descents that had me gasping. The campsite itself was in a valley above the trail, with basic toilets. Again, the porters had reached there first and had set up our tents. There was also a barn serving as store selling batteries and beer. At dinner that night the cooks produced a cake from nowhere to celebrate one of the girls’ birthdays—incredible! Throughout the hike they continued to amaze us with the feasts they concocted, seemingly from nowhere.
Inca Trail
Andes Mountains
Cusco, Peru

The Inca Trail - Day 2

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 24, 2006

Day Two was always going to be the killer. Huayllabamba campsite is at 2950m above sea-level. That evening’s campsite at Pacamayu would be at 3600m. But first there was the small matter of Warmiwanusca, the 4200m-tall ‘Dead Woman Pass’, to negotiate first. This is an excruciating uphill slog. The trick is to take it at your own pace.

The pace-setters went off first—Grant (triathlete, frighteningly fit, and a proper ‘adult’), Gary (footballer, extreme-sports enthusiast),and my mate Ed (recovering from knee surgery and food poisoning, had been advised by a doctor just 2 days previously not to attempt the Trail). I looked at my watch. 7:30. I had a 1250m climb ahead (the equivalent of climbing to the top on Ben Nevis from sea-level). I set myself a personal target of four hours.

The climb hurts. Walking staffs proved their worth here. With every twist of the path new and impressive vistas opened up. I soaked a handkerchief in a sparkling stream and held it in place over my brow with my hat band. I kept getting my ‘wind’ in fits and starts—one minute I would be dead on my feet, the next I’d be powering up through the next meadow. Periodically a cry of “Porters!” would go up and a platoon of men in shorts and sandals would sprint past, a gas canister, a 5kg sack of rice, and two campchairs balanced on their backs, mocking our efforts. After dismantling our camp they had to reach Pacamayu first and prepare our tents and dinner.

About 11:00 we breached the tree line, and could see the pass up above. Up here the sun was scorching, bleaching the earth fawn. At this point all I and Jules who I was walking with could do was set ourselves targets—when we reach that rock we’ll rest for a minute, at that turn we’ll have a drink. I was aware of my target time creeping nearer. Twenty minutes, fifteen. In the end I realised I had to take drastic action. With a growl I forced myself into a sprint, pulling myself up with my staff more than my feet. To peoples’ amazement I made it to the top with a scream of “11.26! Beat that!”

I spent half-an-hour at the top of the pass, getting my breath back, chewing on a cereal bar and cheering those who made it up. Kylie, our guide from Tucan Tours offered around a flask of rum, which was gratefully accepted.

Once over the path the descent was pretty straightforward. The only problem was the glare of the sun directly overhead that reduced me to a walking puddle of sweat. Pacamayu campsite was situated into a bowl beneath the cliffs, looking dramatically out over a cloud-dotted valley. They had a toilet block with rudimentary cold showers, and a tinkling brook for hikers to cool their weary feet in. I just lay out on the grass in the sun, satisfied I had surpassed my expectations.
Inca Trail
Andes Mountains
Cusco, Peru

The Inca Trail - Day 3

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 24, 2006

After the slog of Dead Woman Pass, Day Three was a treat. We woke to see dawn sparkling gold on the clouds in the valley below us, leaving us feeling that we were truly on top of the world. We started off with another hard climb for an hour or so, broken by a stop at the semi-circular Incan tambo (way-station) of Runkuracay which kept an eye out over the pass we had cleared the day before.

From here onwards I really enjoyed the hike. The route was mostly downhill, I had got to know my fellow hikers enough to have some good chats, and Runkuracay proved to be just the first of a series of impressive ruins. The next one we reached was the stunning Sayacmarca, its stone blending in with the mountains as it overlooked the trail and the smaller settlement of Conchamarca. Julio was in his element as he explained the features of the site. Down into the valley, and an early lunch.

That afternoon we followed a stone highway as it curled around the mountains, skirting sheer drops above misty tree-tops, and delving through an Inca tunnel. Humming-birds blurred past. Phuyupatamarca was our next halt, where Julio revealed some important information – this was the only point of the Trail where patchy mobile-phone reception could be obtained. Cue looks of bafflement as the Brits in the party immediately tried to call home to find the final placings in the football league. As the Manchester United and Arsenal fans celebrated and the Liverpool and Tottenham fans cursed an Australian was heard to comment “If they put half as much effort into other sports as they do football, England would be unbeatable…”

Incan steps lead down from here. In good spirits we sang all the way down to Winay-Wayna. From the top of the ruins here we had our first glimpse of the Machu Picchu mountain. The archaeological site itself was hidden around the other side of the tree-covered peak. Then we climbed down past an altar and walked on until we reached a restaurant perched incongruously above the Urubamba valley. Gratefully we rested, used the toilets, and bought ice-cold drinks. Normally this would be the end of Day Three, but with the trail from the Sun-Gate closed by a landslide we had to detour down a side path which zigzagged the 700m descent down the valley wall to Chachabamba, beside the river. There was a tributary we could splash in, and a woman sold bottles of Cusquena, with which we toasted our efforts.

That last night was a blow-out feast. The cooks surpassed themselves. Another birthday cake was produced. We even had table decorations – toucans made from carved aubergines with carrot-beaks. All the guides crowded into the marquee and treated us to a traditional song. We replied with a rewritten version of Monty Python’s ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’, and our heartfelt thanks to Julio, his assistants, the cooks and all the porters.
Inca Trail
Andes Mountains
Cusco, Peru

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