Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Weekend exploring in Cusco!

I had the opportunity to travel to Cusco for my second time since arriving in Peru.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, Cusco is the historical capital of the Incan Civilization.  It is a historical city with all of its original buildings being around 500 years old or more.  Cusco is also the destination city closest to Machu Picchu.  Machu Picchu can be accessed from Cusco by a 3 1/2 hour train ride through the Sacred Valley.  For this reason, Cusco has really developed into a home point for tourists traveling to the nearby Incan Ruins.  Luckily, the tourism hasn't transformed the city too much, many of the original old buildings have been restored and turned into hotels, restaurants, museums, or other tourist friendly stops.  All of the roads in the old downtown are cobblestone, with hardly enough room for one car to fit through.  As the city is constructed in the mountains, the streets are uphill everywhere you go - making both walking and driving around the city quite the challenge.  (This city was definitely not made for cars!)
The history of Cusco goes back a couple of thousand years even before the Inca Civilization exhisted. However, it really was developed into a lively capital city with the rise of the Incan Empire. Around the year 1250 AD, Manco Capac founded Cusco as the capital city of the Incan Empire. During this time the Incan Empire was very strong and growing, covering a large area of South America at it's peak. During the Incan Empire's most prosperous years, every aspect of the culture was advanced far beyond it's time;  construction methods and architecture of the ancient cities, development of new textiles and agricultural methods, the social organization of the community, advanced science and astronomy, deep religious beliefs, etc...   The Spanish invasion of the city happened in the 1530's, which was eventually the fall of power of the Incan Empire.  However, Cusco remained a central and important part of the development.  The Spanish brought new ideas of religion and construction, which you can see incorporated in the city of Cusco today.  Much of the stone work on the buildings in Cusco was done by the Incan culture, but you will notice a destinct line in most buildings where the construction style changes.  The bottom half of many buildings were constructed by the Incans, and later the buildings were restored or completed with a very evident Spanish influence.  Cusco continues to be very cultural influenced city today.  It is evident that craftmanship, art, construction, preservation of the culture, and community development are still important to the people.

My favorite place to visit in the city of the Cusco is definitely the main Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas.  This building is unbelievably massive and an obvious central point of the city.  Inside the cathedral is really beyond words.  There are so many little niches with seperate alters set up for different prayers or different saints.  Each individual one is unique and an intriquite work of art.  The alters are constructed from wood and beautiful metals - gold and silver.  There are also beautiful tapestries, paintings, sculptures, and mirrors - each with it's own significance and placed in it's exact position for a specific reason.  There is a large mix of the Incan and the Spanish cultures within the cathedral - you can see it in the pictures and figures carved or drawn.  There are two points I think are the most impressive in the cathedral - the organ and the main alter.  The organ is constructed of wood with such detail and the main alters are massive works of art in both wood and gold. 

There are of course an endless number of other places to visit in and around the city, but I won't go into such detail about this.  Some of the most famous places are Koricanchi, Monasterio, Sacsayhuaman, and many other historical cathedrals, plazas, and museums.  The historical sights really only begin within the city, as the entire Andes region around Cusco is full of Incan history.  You will find worship grounds, ancient cities, temples, agricultural terraces, burial grounds, fortresses, and a number of other sites all located within the vicinity.  Machu Picchu is definitely the most well known, accessible, and probably most significant of these sights; however, other cities just as massive have been uncovered in the region as well.

Now to talk about my weekend.  I traveled with Julio again, so that was very nice.  We left early on Friday morning and came back on Monday afternoon - so a fairly quick trip.  The first day we spent our time taking care of business to get that out of the way.  I had 3 meetings set up and also some hotels that I wanted to visit.  So the first day was pretty hectic, but we got everthing done and out of the way.  I also met with some pretty cool people that I am excited to hopefully be working with very soon.  In the evening we went out for a nice dinner and enjoyed some time with Julio's sister, Jocelyn.  She works with the government on development projects, so she gets to spend a lot of time working on different projects through regions in Peru.  It was very nice to sit down with her and enjoy a nice evening in the city. 

On the second day, Julio and I got up early to head out on an adventure into the Sacred Valley.  We had hoped to be able to rent a car, but as none were available, we rented a taxi driver to take us for the day.  Surprisingly this is actually quite a bit cheaper than renting your own car anyways.  We headed out of the city with a brief stop at Sacsayhuaman (Ancient Incan Ceremonial Grounds - famous for Inti Raymi Festival), then continued through the Urubamba river valley onto the city of Pisaq - one hour away.  We enjoyed a nice lunch in Pisaq and walked through the local market before heading up to the ruins.  The ancient construction of Pisaq is a site above the city within the mountains.  The city is gaining more popularity as a tourist destination as it is a large city with 3 seperate and distinct parts connected by Incan Trails.    We walked through the first site which is largely used for agriculture and some housing complexes, then continued along the trail to the main religious center where the temple and worship sites are constructed.  The worship grounds are always constructed with the utmost skill and perfection - the massive rocks are cut and carved to interconnect perfectly and form skillfull designs and construction.  The citadel is really very similar to Machu Picchu in the way it is constructed and the significance of each building.  The trail then continues on to the final stop of the city - the community.  The granite stone buildings were constructed to house the majority of the people in the city and provide a central point for community activities and work.  After the somewhat strenous hike back - I was ready to head back home.  (Either I am really out of shape, or the altitude was getting to me.  I am not sure how the Incan people ran up and down these trails, stairs, and cliffs every day!)

On the third day, we finally were able to rent a car!  I don't think Julio has ever been so happy as he was driving the car through the Sacred Valley.  The reality is Julio has never had a car and therefore loves to drive every chance that he has!  I must admit it was pretty fun to just have the freedom to go where we wanted, drive on the open, and stop in little villages along the way.  It definitely provides a more intimate experience and time to really enjoy.  After a couple of merely scenic stops, we eventually reached our first destination - Maras.  Outside of this little, untouched by the modern world, city, are two famous incan sites.  Moray is a natural circular indentation in the ground formed by the different sediments in the region.  The Incans constructed perfect circular rings into the ground in this region and used it test crops - it was an important agricultural development.  The second destination was the nearby Salineras - salt mines.  This salt mines were first harvested by the Incans, but continue to grow and are active salt mines today.  It is a massive system of pools set up along the mountain side where the salt is collected. 

After enjoying the two stops, we continued on our way and happened to come accross a local festival taking place in one of the villages.  We of course decided to stop and enjoy the fun!  It was a comunity festival with games for the kids, lots of food and drink stands, a stage set up for a beauty contest, music, and native dance performances.  It was fun to stop and take part in the festivities - I even got to eat some cotton candy - who would have thought!

Our final destination of the day was Ollantaytambo.  This fortress was built by the Incan's in a strategic point along the river valley blocking access to Machu Picchu.  The massive construction above the Urubamba River gave them both a lookout point and an advantage over anyone trying to cross.  The fortress if most famous for a battle with the Spanish army led by Pizarro.  The Incan's defeated the Spanish from this point and in that moment kept the Spanish from continuing to conquer the region.

The trip to Cusco was definitely fun, and different for me this time.  I got to get off of the traditional tourist path and explore some of the lesser known regions.  It was a full and productive weekend - definitely a nice a get away for Julio and I.  I would sure love it if we could do this every weekend!

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