Cusco and the Sacred Valley, Peru

May 27 - June 8, 2007






We landed in Cusco at night, several hours later than expected due to a bus breakdown on the way from Puno. (We spent the afternoon happily waiting for a backup bus at a scenic bend along the headwaters of the Urubamba river.) Immediately, I had a good feeling about this city.

During the 12th to 16th centuries, this was the epicenter of the vast Incan empire that stretched from Columbia to Chile. Although the Spanish conquistadors, and the colonialists who followed, destroyed, looted, and recycled most of the massive Incan architecture in Cusco, many remnants of the exquisite stonework and brilliant aesthetics of the original city remain. Catholic churches and numerous other buildings were constructed on top of Inca foundations. A walk through the hilly cobblestone streets (reminiscent of Granada in Spain) reveals amazingly beautiful details of the masterful stone carving around every corner.

It still blows my mind to see the perfect 500-year-old mortarless stone walls all around the city and at the many nearby Inca ruins. No two stones are identical, and they fit together like an endless jigsaw puzzle. The aesthetic of design would seem to be right at home in today's modern art world, sort of like a gigantic Andy Goldsworthy project...


17th century painting depicting Pizarro's meeting with the last Inca ruler, Atawallpa.








Zigzagging walls at the Saqsaywamán fortress.






Pisaq's magnificent agricultural terraces are a marvel of engineering. Precisely aligned irrigation slots channel the water down vertical rock walls, and each terrace is connected by floating stairs created from diagonal arrays of stones projecting out from the walls. Fantastico!






Something was up in Ollantaytambo. First we noticed little bits of colored confetti stuck between the cobblestones in the Inca-built straight streets; then, we peeked into one of the courtyards through open four-inch-thick wooden doors, and there was a group of men carefully dressing in strange black and red llama wool costumes, their faces covered by knitted balaclavas decorated with eyebrows, mustaches and beards; finally, in front of the tiny Catholic church on one side of the main plaza, a small crowd of locals and a few more costumed dancers lingered by the church doors.



When the church doors swung open, a marching band, with drums, blaring trumpets and tubas, costumed dancers, and humble worshippers crowded into the tiny church. Thus began the evening's festivities honoring El Señor de Choquequilca. Legend has it that, after attending mass in Ollantaytambo, Don Domingo Huillca saw a blinding light as he crossed the river at Choquequilca. He followed the light and, miraculously, found a large wooden cross trapped in a whirlpool. He retrieved the cross, it was installed in the local Catholic church, and has been the focus of Catholic worship in Ollantaytambo ever since. Once a year, the cross is removed from its special chapel and for four consecutive days and nights, bands play, dancers perform, and the whole town parties.

As the sun set, the priest, dancers, band and worshippers emerged from the church, street vendors set up hot drink stalls, a blazing bonfire was lit, and the plaza filled with families. We watched in amazement as pairs of dancers with black face masks whipped each others' legs with long látigos(never figured out why...), egged on by a man dressed like a colonial peasant girl, while the band played a bouncy, upbeat, off tune melody. Later, pairs of dancers with white face masks, a stuffed llama swinging from each of their belts, twirled and whipped each other, occasionally tossing the llama about, or ran into each other, bashing their chests, and all the while the crowd laughed at their antics.

We watched for several hours as the stars came out and the temperature dropped, on a cold Andean autumn evening. Early the next morning, we heard the band playing and there they were again, both groups dancing in the plaza. In what seemed to be the festival's finale, the two groups of dancers took turns transporting the silk robed cross, carefully placed on a flower bedecked platform, to another Catholic church just down the road. As we watched, we imagined a similar festival happening over 500 years ago, with no crosses and different instruments, but the same costumes, stuffed llamas, and excited crowd, presided over by Incan royalty and high priests.






Returning to Cusco, we heard hundreds of firecrackers, the oompapas and drumbeats of marching bands, and realized the grand spectacle of Corpus Christi was about to begin. This is one of Cusco's biggest festivals and the whole town turns out to party. Fifteen life sized statues of saints, each beautifully dressed in silk robes, are transported on huge palanquins from their home churches scattered around town to spend the night in the main Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas. We wandered down to the plaza and joined the elbow to elbow crowd, watching a huge procession of marching bands, priests, masked dancers, clowns, worshippers and joyous townsfolk carrying the statues high above the crowd, up the steps to the Cathedral. We heard the revelers all night long, and on the final day, even more people crammed into the plaza for Mass, and to watch the saints ever so slowly go marching home.









Copacabana, Bolivia (bus) ► Puno, Peru (bus) ► Cusco (taxi) ►Ollantaytambo (train) Aguas Calientes (bus) ► Machu Picchu (train) ► Ollantaytambo (taxi) ► Cusco