Peru is more than Inca resorts...
by SeenThat on February 24, 2011
At first sight, Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is a typical Spaniard colonial plaza defining the center of a sleepy – almost forgotten - town. It takes some time and acquaintance with characteristics of various cultures to find out the violent cultural clashes that defined the shape of this extraordinary place. Flowers, grass, ornate lamps, triangular and round gardens, all these are fine and expected. The first sign of something unusual is two similar cathedrals on adjacent sides of the square. To those unfamiliar with churches it may be even difficult to differentiate between them; both feature two towers and similar architecture. Yet, one is broader and less elaborate in design; its name is Catedral of Santo Domingo. The more dramatic one is the Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús. Even in this short paragraph there are already problems; I mentioned two cathedrals, and yet, the second one is just a church ("iglesia" in Spanish). Yet, I made no error; a complex history generated even more complicated architecture and linguistics."Cathedral" is a term referring to Christian church containing the seat of a bishop or a archbishop, depending on the importance of the "metropolis" (literally "mother city," the geographical area of the institution; sometimes "diocese" is also used for this). Yet, cathedrals are often the most impressive edifices in a city, thus the term is also borrowed for any impressive churches, as the Jesuit one in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, the abovementioned Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús. A cathedral which houses a monastery is also known as minster or abbey. A cathedral which is important enough may also carry the title of basilica, as is the case with St. Peter, the seat of the Holy See. There are several types of basilicas, but this is of no relevance to this article. More often than not, cathedrals keep extensive and important collections of art, especially sculpture, paintings, stained glass and frescos. The art may include both, ecclesiastic and secular works. Many of them took centuries to build and decorate and thus are main destinations also for non-Christian travelers and pilgrims.As said, in Cusco there are two almost identical churches, one of them got the title of cathedral and is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco, while the second is denominated just "church" as if it was a small chapel in a forgotten village. That means intrigues in the hide. Unluckily for the hasty traveler, answers hide elsewhere. For centuries Cusco has been a destination for others and not a source by itself. "Poor Incas!" many tourists say while looking at piles of large stones. Yet, the Incas were neither a people nor a culture; they were a militaristic clan from the Tiwanaku area that crossed the Titicaca Lake westwards, settled down in Cusco and founded a short lived dynasty with the help of Aymara and Quechua slave-work. As with the Incas, the answers with regard to the two cathedrals originated far away. Again, the common perceptions in the actual revival societies of the area are wrong. Nowadays, the Church is linked with colonialism here and blamed for pretty much everything, while even the proudest animist must acknowledge that slavery was inherited from the Inca regime, and that until 1767 the church defended the native people."Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús" literally means Church of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. They were founded in 1534 by St. Ignatius and soon spread out to the whole world. They are best known in education, intellectual research, cultural pursuits, missionary work, giving retreats, hospital and parish ministry, promoting social justice and ecumenical dialogue. Nowadays, the Jesuits form the largest single religious order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church.Jesuit missions in Latin America were controversial in Europe, especially in Spain and Portugal, where they were seen as interfering with colonial enslavement by royal governments; oddly enough all South Americans - more often than not of Quechua and Aymara ancestry - I did speak with on the topic defended the colonial actions against the Jesuits, providing a good example of state propaganda results. Only the Jesuits stood between Native Americans and colonial slavery. The Jesuits formed Christian Native American towns called "reductions" (Spanish: Reducciones, Portuguese: Reduções), within these towns the people were free, while their bothers outside them worked as slaves in mines or farms. Needless to say, European emperors weren’t happy with the Jesuits’ position. The result is known as the Suppression of the Jesuits in Portugal, France, the Two Sicilies, Parma and the Spanish Empire in 1767; they were expelled from the colonies. Since then, they are still strangely seen as an enemy in South America, which apparently still functions on imperial rhetoric.Understanding that, everything begins to fall into place. In 1571, the Jesuits began the construction of the most magnificent church in Cusco, on the eastern side of the Plaza de Armas. Not surprisingly, the Archbishop of Cusco didn’t want a second cathedral in his town. The parties appealed to Pope Paul III, but before his answer arrived, the Jesuit church was finished. A cathedral in design, a church in title. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1650; the modern building was inaugurated in 1668. This is one of the best examples of colonial Baroque architecture in the Americas; a similar one being the San Francisco Church in La Paz. Its interior is spectacular, especially the gilded altar. The golden altar is decorated with wreathed columns, and features a panel of the Transfiguration attributed to the Flemish Jesuit Diego de la Puente, and an image of the Virgin. Other interesting works of art include a Crucifixion by Cristo de Burgos near the main altar and a picture of Saint Ignatius de Loyola – founder of the Jesuits - by Marcos Zapata. Next to the entrance is a painting showing Peru's mestizo character. It depicts the granddaughter of Manco Inca marrying the man who captured the last Incan leader, Tupac Amaru. It is worth noting that "manco" is a Spanish bad transliteration of an Aymara-Quechua title; "mallku" is the modern – and more accurate – spelling.Nearby, the Latin Cross shaped Cathedral of Santo Domingo is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco, on the northern side of the Plaza de Armas. The building was completed a few years before the reconstruction of the Jesuit church ended, in 1654; almost a hundred years after it was began in 1559. The cathedral, has a major collection of art and archeological artifacts and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Wider than the Jesuit temple, the cathedral was built in Gothic-Renaissance style with a baroque influence on the façade that renders it very similar to the Jesuit site. The main points of interest in the cathedral include its two altars, the original alder-tree at the back, and in front of it, a neoclassical embossed silver one, which is currently active. The right tower of the cathedral keeps the Maria Angola Bell. It is 2.15 meters high, and weighs almost six tones. Cast in 1659, it was named after the Angolan slave who threw gold into the casting crucible. The sacristy displays a collection of paintings by Marcos Zapata from the 18th century and a crucifixion painting attributed to the Dutch artist, Anthony Van Dyck. The Black Christ is taken outdoors each year in the Lord of Miracles Procession in October, in commemoration of the 1650 earthquake; it got its color from centuries of candles smoke and dust. The art collection is extensive and worth of a separated entry.Yet, more hides in this entry. Both churches were built on the ruins of Inca structures. The cathedral was built atop Kiswar Kanchar, atemple dedicated to Viracocha. The Jesuit temple was built atop the palace of Inca Huayna Cápac. Other Inca remains can be seen below the modern structures. Judging appearances and façades, most tourists would repeat time and again: "Poor Incas! Bad Jesuits!" Some travelers, would look under the surface and find a complex reality – where façades and piles of mighty stones count for very little - fighting to be heard; a complex reality where the desire for freedom is the only common denominator.
by SeenThat on February 25, 2011
So, Cusco was the capital city and Machu Picchu was its attached oligarchs’ resort. Is that the whole of the Inca Empire? Even that no much was left, there are four sites of ruins between Cusco and Pisac, the market described in my Machu Picchu journal. The closest ruins to Cusco are the ones at Sacsayhuaman, from where Cusco can be appreciated from above. Further toward Pisac are Q’enqo, Puca Pucara and Tambomachay, in this order. The last is just eight kilometers from the city; walking the whole distance may seem a tempting idea to spend a day in nature. However, nature here is full of thieves; sticking to the half-day tours arranged by all travel agencies in town is recommended. Unsurprisingly, all the sites charge entry fees; instead of paying separately, the best is buying a boleto turistico (tourist ticket). It allows entry to sixteen sites (though it doesn’t include Machu Picchu, Corichanca, the Inca Museum, the Iglesia de la Merced and the Museo de Arte Precolombino) and it costs $22. The major sites covered by it sell the ticket, but it can also be found in the downtown area, at the OFEC and Casa Garcilaso offices.Between these four sites, Sacsayhuaman is by far the most attractive one. Yet, one must understand its function and design before falling pray to the local guides’ rhetoric. The site was a hilltop fortress; the surviving walls at its northern side zigzag for some 300 meters. The largest stones in the wall are 8.5 meters tall and weight around 360 tons. A recurring claim (and a good example of the extraordinary imagination powers of the denizens more than anything else) is that since the tools used for the construction of the site were never found, then this is a clear sign of magical events that occurred here. At this point, several versions may be cited. Magic, extraterrestrials, elves, powerful dwarves, mighty ants and what not; people misunderstanding the mathematical term "dimension" proudly speak of "gates to other dimensions" in a dismal attempt to disguise ignorance. The point to keep in mind is that in no city you’ll find the tools used for construction after the process ends. Was the Golden Bridge built using magical powers? Otherwise, how did they put these massive pillars in the middle of such a treacherous current? That’s the kind of ill-logic applied here. Reality is duller and sadder. As commented in the previous entry of this journal, the Spanish colonizers replaced a very short lived Inca Empire, which was run by slightly less foreign people. Those reading about Spanish colonial times will find the term "mita;" this institution was created in 1572 by the Spaniard governor. Once every seven years, every male between 18 and 50 worked in the mines for four months. They were not paid and they often died. In 1638, a monk calculated that each "peso" produced in Potosi’s silver mines cost ten dead men. However, regardless how inhuman this system was, it wasn’t new to the denizens. In fact it was an improvement over the system used by the Inca. Every Inca citizen – slave would be a better definition – had to spend a few months of every year working on public works. With enough slaves one can move entire mountains, as it has been proved time and again all around the world. This place is not different.Yet, the visit is worthy and not only due to the awesome views of Cusco from the site. Sometimes the Inca are seen as a foreign interlude in local history with no clear past, a very short existence and no heritage at all. However, some intriguing details have survived. Visitors in La Paz - which is very close to Tiwanaku, a place which is related to the Inca birth – often notice an inherent irregularity of local constructions. Even short stairs within buildings seldom display steps of the same height. Sidewalks are often slanted due to the steep topography of the city; sometimes steps would be placed at given height differences, sometimes not. Denizens are oblivious to these details; they do not expect regular cuts in the stones surrounding them. Now, looking at the stones at Sacsayhuaman, one can’t help but noticing each one was cut in a unique shape and size. Probably, this isn’t a coincidence.Back at the site, the place looks unfinished, with only large stones forming the wall’s base. That’s because smaller stones were carried away to the city of Cusco for the construction of newer edifices. If arriving in June, then the Inti Raymi solstice festival. Of course, this isn’t the original event. The Inca Inti Raymi ("inti" means "sun" in Quechua) was banned in 1535. In 1944 the modern event was designed. Is it similar to the original? Nobody knows; maybe the answer could be found using one of the gates to other dimension that abound in the area …
by SeenThat on February 27, 2011
Just one kilometer from Sacsayhuaman is Q’enqo, a large limestone structure carved with many steps leading to nowhere, or to a place that doesn’t exist anymore. This is a motif typical of huacas, sacred stones appearing in Inca worship places. Between these two sites, horses can be rented for short rides; if arriving in an organized tour (which is the recommended option due to certain dangers here), ask before booking a place if time is scheduled for this activity.The name of the site means zigzag in Quechua. At first this may seem more appropriate for Sacsayhuaman since this fort was built in a clear zigzag pattern. Here, finding the pattern demands an effort since it was carved within the stone. Apparently, chicha (a fermented corn drink) and llama blood flowed through these canals during ceremonies. The last things of interest in this rock are carvings of a condor and a puma on its highest point. Below the rock are caves with carved niches were mummies were stored. A point of special interest is that Altiplano mummies were desiccated by the very dry weather of the plateau, without the complex processes used in Egypt. Nearby is a small amphitheatre of stone niches with a vertical stone which originally may have been a statue. It doesn’t take long to finish this visit; Puca Pucara is the next Inca ruin in the tours around Cusco. "Puca Pucara" means "Red Fort" in Quechua. The name is no less interesting than the site itself. Across the Titicaca Lake from here, Tiwanaku was probably contemporaneous to Angkor, apparently dating back to the late first millennia. Apparently – again this ambiguous definition – the denizens were Paucara (or Pucara) people, who spoke a language closely related to Aymara. Then a calamity occurred and they migrated across the Titicaca Lake, founding Cusco and the Inca Empire. Accordingly, Pucara (and Paucara) are recurring names in the whole area and were later on adopted as surnames by many.The Red Fort is six kilometers away from Q’enqo. Despite its name, the site was probably a tambo. This is a Quechua word used to design storage facilities. Even nowadays, many markets in La Paz include storage areas called "tambos." Here, many partially surviving rooms of regular size and no sign of fortifications occupy a modest hill. The most interesting sight is the terraces on adjacent hills – some of them in advances stages of decay that were used for growing corn and tubers.Nearby - practically across the road from Puca Pucara - is the last Inca attraction in the area, known as Tambomachay. Despite called "tambo" this is not a storage facility, but an elaborate bath; thus it is often referred to us the Inca Bath. A natural spring was channeled here through three waterfalls, a wall with niches surrounds the complex; this beautiful piece of engineering still works perfectly well.Is a tour of four sites in half a day in the company of too many tourists worth the effort? After all, this is neither Machu Picchu nor Cusco. I had my doubts before the tour. Yet, these humble sights provide additional angles to few experiences of the Inca Empire still available to us today, and as such, they are recommended.
by SeenThat on February 28, 2011
As mentioned in another entry of this journal, beyond its obvious Peruvian topics, it also deals with appearances. The rich local imagination contributes into making appearances more important than reality. In the context of Cusco, is the presentation and marketing of the city as the capital of the Inca Empire. The claim is real and false at once.Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire. Then, what was left of it after the Spanish conquest was destroyed on March 31, 1650, when an earthquake destroyed much of the city. A new city was constructed then, but it was a Spanish colonial town and not the Inca capital, the small Inca "canchas" were replaced by the much larger Spanish "manzanas;" this is how city blocks are called in Quechua and Spanish respectively. Then, on May 21, 1950, another earthquake stroke and destroyed much of the old structures. After that an effort was done to reconstruct old Inca ruins. This is what visitors see nowadays.An inner city within the South American colonies, Cusco had little military value; thus the city is characterized by its Christian architecture. I already dedicated one entry of this journal to two of the most important temples in town – which show a different type of make-believe facades. This one is dedicated to another important temple, namely the Templo de la Merced del Cuzco. The actual temple was the one restored after the 1650 quake, though the Orden de la Merced (Order of Mercy) arrived at Cusco before that.This is a fascinating fact; few would imagine such an order would have a presence in South America. Formally named Orden de Nuestra Señora de la Merced y la Redención de los Cautivos (Order of Our Lady of Mercy and Redemption of Prisoners), it was established in the year 1218 in Barcelona, Spain. Its monks and nuns sacrificed their lives by offering them in exchange for Christian prisoners in the hands of the Muslim; redeeming thus the prisoners lives. Since then things changed and the order reacted by expanding the definition of "captivity" so that it would fit other social roles.Located one block from the Plaza de Armas (Cusco’s central plaza, see that entry in this journal), this is one of the largest and most important churches in the city. What distinguishes it from the two other major temples (the Jesuit and the Cathedral on the plaza) is that this one functioned as a convent. It is widely considered the most magnificent such structure in South America. The reason for this fame is the wonderful wood carving works and the sumptuous columns in its interior.Every year, the Black Christ is taken outdoors each year in the Lord of Miracles Procession that commemorates the 1650 earthquake; it got its color from centuries of candles smoke and dust. The procession leaves from the Cathedral and arrives shortly after at this church. However, if not arriving at time to witness this event, the visit is still worthy, since the interior displays a very rich collection of colonial art, including a rich depiction of Our Lady of Mercy.A sign of the temple’s importance is the fact this site is not included in the boleto turistico (tourist ticket) giving access to 16 museums and sites in Cusco. The entrance is a steep $2; yet, it is completely worth it.
Maybe because of its fame, I wasn’t expecting much of the Inca Trail. An intricate network of thirty thousand kilometers of trails connected the corners of the Inca Empire, from Colombia to Chile. "Corners" is the correct word, despite the territory being rather elongated in shape. The Incas called their home Tahuantinsuyo, literally "The Four Corners." The modern city of La Paz is located in what used to be the "Kollasuyo" quarter. The roads served to move Inca armies, and were wide enough for at least two warriors to walk abreast. A system of runners stationed at tambos (see the Q’enqo entry in this journal for this term) communicated messages along the roadways. The trail was designed to be walked; the Incas didn’t possess any implementation of the wheel even in the mid of the second millennium. Many claim that’s because their territory was in a mountainous area; yet, the Altiplano is large and flat. Half a millennium after the empire disappeared; little is left of this network.The trail in the immediate vicinity of Cusco became a modern travelers’ attraction by itself. All the travel agencies in town offer treks ranging from two to seven days. It soon became obvious that most tourists booking these treks were not acquainted with trekking in other places. In the past I trekked extensively in Nepal, including the long version of the Everest Base Camp Trek. The Andean High Plateau has several similarities to the Tibetan Plateau, which is just north of Nepal. People in both countries look similar and both build their homes with uncovered red bricks. Soon I found that the similarities were just that. Nepal is superbly organized for trekking. Guesthouses are available in most villages and teahouses split the distances among them; a bed in a guesthouse usually costs around a dime, with the condition that the guest eats at the same house. Superb maps and guidebooks are readily available. It is possible to trek while carrying very little equipment on the back and enjoy complete freedom among the highest mountains on earth. The Himalayas are higher than the Andes; its local cultures are richer and older than anything available in South America. Yet, if judging by the external appearances of the industry, the situation is different. This is not the first time I report on these South American oddities. Everything is derived from the fact you can walk through the Inca Trail only if booking a tour through a licensed operator. The operator must provide the list of trekkers to the local government five days in advance and there is a limited quota which counts also the porters and guides. The minimum price is imposed by the government and stands at $350 dollar. In comparison, entrance to the Sagarmatha Park (where Mount Everest is) costs less than $20; and after entering the park you are free to wander around below the 6000m altitude mark. In Peru, the operators commit to provide guides and porters; you cannot walk alone. The porters are legally limited in the weight they can carry to 25kgs; this is checked by local authorities at specific checkpoints. In Peruvian terms, the entrance fee is a small fortune. In Himalayan terms, it ranks as the fee for a Trekking Mountain permit; i.e. a permit for walking and climbing peaks above 6000m (but not special peaks like the Everest).Trekking with a guide is opposed to the spirit of the sport. It implies a carefully planned trajectory, coordination with endless official bodies, choosing paths suitable for the accompanying mules. Moreover, it does not allow spontaneous changes in the route and it brings the constant presence of a sometimes unwelcome guide. Inca Trail treks take the fun out of trekking.Overall, the tours offered are little more than a moving prison closely monitored by local authorities. At first sight this seems surprising and inappropriate, especially after having walked freely through the friendly Nepalese villages of the Himalayas. Then you remember in which place you are. Its recent history, its violence, the endless stories of systematic violent robbery every experienced traveler in the area can tell you. And then, smiling politely at the travel agent, you leave the shop without booking and breathe some still free high altitude oxygen.
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