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Taking a Stroll Around Cusco

Photo: Alejandro Balaguer



Photo: Alejandro Balaguer



Photo: Alejandro Balaguer

Few people are aware that the square originally was twice the size it is now and was split in two by a river, the Sapphi, which leads into the River Huatanay . The River Sapphi today flows beneath the buildings that were built in front of the Cathedral.

Legend has it that the ground of the square was made up symbolically of earth brought from all the regions conquered by the Incas. This was apparently supposed to represent the inter-dependence and harmony between all the regions of the Inca empire.

In the days of the Inca Empire, the square was dominated by an enormous boulder covered with sheets of gold where sacrifices and military and religious ceremonies were held. The spot was called Aucaypata, literally the War Square. Others claim the real name was Huacaypata, literally the Weeping Square, which might have referred to the Inca funerals held in the plaza. In the years following the Spanish Conquest, Cuzco's main square also saw repeated uprisings and cruel public executions such as that of Tupac Amaru II, the most important indigenous leader of the 18th century. Tupac Amaru led a major uprising against Spanish rule until his capture and execution in 1789.

On the west side of the square, the visitor comes across the "Casana", which according to some historians, was the palace of the Inca Pachacutec, the great organizer of the Incas' rule. The building was sacked by the Spaniards who invaded Cuzco in 1533, and its remains can still be seen on the corner where the Roma restaurant is now located.

Construction work on the Cathedral, built on the ruins of Quishuarcancha, believed to have been the seat of Inca Viracocha, began in 1550 but was not finished until a century later. The Cathedral's interior is endowed with 400 paintings from the colonial era, most of them from the Cuzco School, a group of native painters who blended Western techniques with their own artistic creativity to produce some of the most beautiful and at times startling religious works of art: a heavily pregnant Virgin Mary, a choir of roly-poly cherubs desperately clinging to the curtains to avoid falling (the author was obviously unaware that angels could fly) and a peculiar-looking Jesus Christ who shares the uniquely Peruvian dish of roast guinea pig with his disciples at the Last Supper.

The most striking image of the Cathedral is without doubt the "Lord of the Earthquakes", a venerated image of Christ made of more than 50 pounds of gold and precious stones. Visitors should also look into the legend of the Maria Angola church bell, which can be heard over 25 miles away. The bell, largest in Latin America, is said to have received its name from a coloured woman who clandestinely added gold to the foundry when the bell was being struck, which is said to be reason for the bell's strange toll.

To the right side of the Cathedral, behind a colonial arch, lies a section of Inca stonework which is shared with two restaurants and a bank. This was where the Acllahuasi stood, the home of the Chosen, which housed the Virgins of the Sun, women dedicated to religious duties, and made up the Inca's harem.

Ironically, the Spaniards turned it into a convent for nuns.

The Cuzco Art Museum stands in the middle of Hatunrumiyoc, or "Street of the Great Stone", an alley famed for its 12-angled stone. The museum is where the Archbishop's Palace once stood.

Further up, one comes across the church of San Blas, which dates back to 1562. It houses an imposing pulpit, that for many, is the finest example of a carved wooden structure in the world. Chiseled from a single cedar trunk, the pulpit features angels, demons, saints, virgins and other beasts. Its sculptor is believed to have been a native artist by the name of Juan Thomas Tuirutupa.

The church lies in the artist's quarter of San Blas, where one can visit the workshops of the most renowned Cuzco artisans, which include those from the Mendivil dynasty, the creators of the multicoloured and traditional, long-necked angels which have become a symbol of all things Peruvian.

Continuing down Loreto and Pampa del Castillo Street, the visitor will get to the Santo Domingo convent, which was built on top of the legendary Inca temple of Qoricancha, "the Golden Patio", to impose the Spaniards' sense of superiority over the local inhabitants. Qoricancha, one of the most famous temples in the Western Hemisphere, was only seen in all its splendour by Pizarro's soldiers. They were a motley crew of illiterate and rustic characters who set about looting the extraordinary filigree gold ornaments that filled the site, while Inca Atahualpa was being held prisoner in Cajamarca, .

The amount of gold stolen, including the giant disc representing the Sun (which alone weighed more than 200 pounds), is believed to have been more than half a ton. All this booty was melted down and not one of the marvellously crafted artifacts survived.

The thick convent walls was an obvious attempt to bury this fine representation of Inca splendour. However, the Sun God's wrath was felt (slightly late!) in 1950 when an earthquake demolished most of the convent, leaving the Inca stonework intact and exposed to public view.

A more offbeat adventure can be had by plunging into the laberynthian depths of Cuzco's central market. One must bear in mind, though, that this bustling trading emporium is also infested by thieves. But the risk is worth it. The picturesque stalls run by traders from all over the country offer everything from coffee, fruit and jungle spices to fresh fish brought up from Lima. This marketplace is a unique universe in itself, a place where one can really a true feel for the real beat of the city: chaotic, but filled with warmth and colour, a far cry from the shiny, homogenous confines of first-world supermarkets. Above the city lies Sacsayhuaman, the cyclopean fortress that so startled the Spanish Conquerors that they swore it was the work of the Devil. Enormous stones, some weighing up to 20 tons, are dove-tailed together with a precision that would boggle today´s civil engineers. The fit of the stonework is so tight that one cannot even slip a sheet of paper between them. Some historians claim the site was built well before the Incas' time, though judging from the similar stonework in the city below, the Incas obviously took a page out of the ancient stonemasons' book. The Spaniards destroyed what they could, but three rows of walls still stand in a field closeby, where every June 24th, Cuzco locals celebrate the Inca festival of Inti Raymi, a truly colourful event to which thousands of tourists come annually which attempts to recreate the dances and ceremonies from five centuries ago.

Many legends speak of a vast tunnel network beneath Sacsayhuaman, in which, the Incas reputedly used to hide their treasures from the invading Spaniards.

These were sealed off after adventure seekers got lost in this maze hidden in these black depths. Sacsyahuaman, which had protected the Imperial City for so long, was also the last stand of the Inca leader Manco Inca, who attempted to retake Cuzco from the Spaniards, but in vain.

In the streets below, at nightfall, Cuzco takes on an surprisingly cosmopolitan flavour, a lifestyle which it maintains seven days a week. Youngsters from Cuzco and abroad alike, flock to the new "temples" of the City of the Sun: teeming bars now have become the legendary sites and attract visitors drawn by the mysticism of the saya, a traditional Andean rhythm. The bars have bewildering names, such as Kamikaze, Puputis, Ukukus and Mama Africa. These are definitely now the hotspots of the moment for today´s modern tribes. Of course, these "temples" for the dancing crowd are not for the faint of heart! Remember that Cuzco lies at 12,000 feet above sea level, and can literally take your breath away.?

By Peter Frost
Volume I/Issue 2, Page 8
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