Cusco Stories and Tips

Old is the Future

Cusco Photo, Cusco, Peru

Old is the Future

Talking with Andean denizens may be confusing. The very concept of time in Aymara and Quechua is strikingly different. Some time ago I was talking with a local friend about an event in her far past and she told me in Spanish: "It’s too ahead, I don’t remember." The sentence doesn’t make sense in Spanish, but it’s perfect in Aymara.

Simply, in the Andean cultures, the past is ahead of us, because we can see it, i.e. remember it. The future is backwards, because we don’t see it. The result of this worldview is that the future is never taken seriously. Don’t expect to meet people on time even if it was agreed several times (another local cultural point is that only things repeated three times are agreed upon; note the excited "Si! Si! Si!" in local conversations). Combine that with a lack of historical writings from before the Spaniards arrival and speaking with locals about their past may get complex. Especially with regard to certain adjectives. "It’s old," somebody told me shortly after I arrived at La Paz for the first time. Seeing my sudden interest on the detail, he added: "maybe 300 years."

"Oh, that’s nothing for you," he added after he saw my reaction.

New is Cusco

If Machu Picchu was the oligarchs’ winter retreat, Cusco was the imperial capital, second only to Aztecan Tenochtitlan in this side of the world. As everything here, there are no exact historical records, though the city is not very old.

Tiwanaku was probably contemporaneous to Angkor, apparently dating back to the late first millennia. A baby. 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. Many Bolivians still like telling stories about secret passages underneath the Titicaca Lake. The crossing happened likely in the 12th century, with Manco Capac and Mama Oclla as leaders. "Manco" is a Spanish distortion of the term "Mallku," a type of leader in local cultures. Overall, there were only 13 Inca emperors, a short lived empire which began the destruction of local cultures; later, the Spaniards took over and almost finished this task.

Under the new colonial masters, the area and its main city began a slow but sure decline. Its luck changed in 1911, when the ruins of Machu Picchu were found after having been forgotten for a while. The term "discovery" is weird while used in the Americas. After all, the people living there obviously knew about the place. Even the Spaniards knew after it; records show the ownership of Machu Picchu reached local courts in the 16th century. So in 1911, the English speaking world found Machu Picchu and Cusco entered a revival period.

By then, Cusco was almost purely Spanish in style. Then, in 1950, an earthquake destroyed much of the downtown area and created the opportunity to restore Inca structures. As of today, Cusco still looks like a Spanish town, though it is clearly sprinkled with Inca ruins.

The Empire’s Nouns

Fit of the two belligerent empires which used it as an administrative center, the town’s focal point is named "Weapons Plaza." It contains two extraordinary structures which link it in spirit and shape with another important (and nearby) city of the colonial period: Potosi. The beautiful cathedral was built in baroque style, while nearby is the not less impressive Iglesia de la Compañia, the Jesuit epicenter in the area. The Jesuits held an important position in colonial South America until they were expelled in the late 18th century for defending the original denizens’ rights.

Left of the cathedral (Ataud and Tucuman corner) is the Museo Inka, which is more interesting than its parallel in Agua Calientes, near Machu Picchu. Its collections of metal artifacts, mummies, qeros (wooden cups) and other Inca artifacts are by far richer. Close and related is the Museo de Arte Precolombino (Plaza de las Nazarenas), which offers collections predating also the Inca empire. The museum is closely related to Museo Larco in Lima, which is responsible for the displayed objects.

I do not want to make a complete list of the local museums; there are plenty of them. For a traveler rushing through town, the ones mentioned in the previous paragraphs are more than enough, especially since they are the most closely related to the core reason for a trip to Cusco and Machu Picchu. For those who are not in a rush, there are obviously more attractions; including Inca related ones, like the impressive Sacsayhuaman ruins. On these important issues, in a future journal.

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