The sky is covered in heavy grey clouds, revealing now and then a snowy peak visible only from the air. With my face pressed against the tiny aircraft window, I’m watching fascinated by this stratospheric scenery so other-worldly in its ruggedness.
The plane tilts sideways and starts following a long ellipse. One of my Eustachian tubes gets blocked, the other filled with a quick popping – we’ve just initiated our descend. The machine’s ploughing through thick puffs of clouds illuminated by arches of rainbows on their edges, shaking and rattling as if possessed by a demon.
Am I imagining it, or is the lady in front of me singing chants?
Deafening bangs of overhead racks answer that.
Suddenly, the sea of mountains opens up, and a wide plain with an ancient city in the middle of it jumps into view.
The mythical Cusco.
The capital of the Inca Empire, the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.
My heart jumps, too – from now on for almost a week, it’ll all be about the Inca, a highland nation that became one of the era’s greatest; about the incredible capacity to thrive at extremely high elevations; and especially about the monumental architecture present at every step in Cusco and its surrounding area: in the Sacred Valley, at Machu Picchu and on the Inca Trail.
Right now, it’s an ocean of red roofs spread out in a vast fertile valley, a perfect chessboard of straight lines running out to all four cardinal points.
Protecting the city on three sides are undulating hills; the fourth is a steep rocky mountain with a tiered fortress on top; the perfect strategic position.
And the perfect example of the ability of the Inca to adapt to a complicated mountain terrain – erected by genius engineers in the heart of the Central Andes at 11,200 feet above sea level, the city took advantage of the valley’s favorable natural features and incorporated them into its own man-made structures, creating a model of symbiosis between man and nature.
A feature typical for all Inca structures.
The city disappears from view as we go in for the landing.
“Thank you for choosing our airline company to fly you today,” a soothing voice reassures us as we start picking up our things spilled all over the floor.
“We hope we’ll be able to welcome you again on board our planes someday soon.”
Like I said, Cuzco was love at first sight.
Getting from the airport to the city center is pretty easy. The surrounding mountains don’t allow the city to sprawl too much, so within 20 minutes, we’d be out again, climbing the steep steps of Inca streets too narrow for our minibus to pass.
Right outside the airport, on the roundabout of Avenida del Sol, the main Cusco thoroughfare, that connects the airport with the city center, stands a striking, 37-foot high bronze statue. It represents Pachacutec, the ninth Sapa Inca, the most powerful and important of Inca rulers.
The name means, “He who shakes space and time,” and really, during Pachacutec’s reign in the mid 1400’s, Cusco grew from a small settlement of secondary importance into a vast empire, the largest in pre-Columbian America. Pachacutec began an era of conquest that expanded the Inca dominion from the valley of Cusco to the whole of western South America.
The impressive stone tower on which the statue stands has a museum inside.
Another larger-than-life sculpture of Pachacutec, indicative of his importance, is situated in the village of Aguas Calientes, the starting point for visits of Machu Picchu, the mountain citadel, believed to have been built for him.
Still on the Avenida, we’re driving past nice hotels, imposing government buildings, offices of tour operators, traditional restaurants, Bata shoe stores, the San Pedro market and a number of fake brand stores (loving my Ray Bans!).
Then, a space opens up, and a massive terraced structure with a green park in front of it emerges. It has a stone citadel on top, crowned with a round tower.
It’s the foundations of this bizarre-looking structure, that first catch my eyes. They’re made from colossal blocks of black andesite, looking like assembled by giants.
We’re in the center of Cusco, and this is Coricancha, the Temple of the Sun, or what’s left of it.
Coricancha was the most important Inca sanctuary, the centerpiece of the Inca universe built at the convergence of four highways, connecting Cusco with the four Quarters of the Empire.
“Coricancha was dedicated to Inti, God of the Sun,” explains Pablo. “The Spaniards tore it to the ground, leaving only the original foundations, since the stones were too large to dismantle, and built the opulent Church of Santo Domingo on top. All the gold sheets covering the original walls, including the giant gold sun disc illuminating the temple, were melted into ingots and taken for the Spanish crown.”
It is sad to see all the damage and destruction, done by a handful of illiterate men run by ignorance and greed.
Connecting the Sun Temple with Plaza de Armas, the main square of Cusco, is Callejón de Loreto, the Loreto street built literally in stone.
All old streets around the plaza look like that. It’s an endless labyrinth of winding narrow streets, steep cobbled staircases and sharp inclines, flanked on both sides by massive Inca walls – the same streets people walked 700 hundred years ago.
Viaducts were built into the floor to allow water to flow downwards when it rains; when that happens, the cobblestones, polished to perfection with hundreds of years of use, turn into smooth glass.
Hiding here are some of the best examples of advanced Inca stonework incorporated by the Spanish into their own structures. The famous 12-angle stone, a huge cube perfectly cut and notched twelve times to fit without mortar with its neighboring stones, was originally part of a stone wall of an Inca palace converted later into the palace of the Archbishop of Cusco.
In Coricancha, there’s an even more impressive stone in terms of difficulty of workmanship, that has 14 angles.
How exactly the Inca achieved that hasn’t been satisfactorily explained so far, and is still a subject of controversy.
These massive, smooth walls are among one of my first instant impressions.
Another one is the local indigenous women, selling hand-made products in front of them. Some of them could be in their 60s or even 70s, their faces dark and leathery from too much high-altitude sun, crisscrossed by deep lines; still, their long black braids bound together at the waist are showing no signs of gray hair!
I found my first grays at 26.
Climbing slowly the smooth ramp stairs, with bags on their backs, are locals jumping out of the way of mini-taxis, the only vehicles that fit in between the narrow streets.
Space is tight, and hugging the walls is unavoidable!
Stumbling into the Plaza de Armas from one of these upper streets feels like stumbling into a nude beach – instantly, you’re out of words.
Nothing can prepare you for the sight of one of the most beautiful colonial plazas in the world.
Soaring to the light-blue sky with its dramatic white clouds are two massive churches of pink granite that, too, were constructed on the foundations of Inca palaces.
Their robust baroque towers, ornate facades, slinky columns, ornamental arches and white domes provide the plaza with an aureole of grandeur and monumentality, making it one of the most photogenic on the continent.
A more playful and graceful style can be seen on the other side where colonial palaces have been converted into cozy restaurants and cafés, whose stone arcades, white facades and blue and brown balconies overlook the plaza’s architectural beauty, ornamental lawns and dark-brown hills rising in the background.
I’ve been to Cusco over 20 times, and the Square never fails to put a smile on my face.
Once, the smile was as wide as the Great White’s.
On one of my later visits, I accidentally stumbled into the square just as a huge procession of Indian tribes, dressed in traditional costumes, were making their way around it, playing music, singing, dancing. I was instantly swept up into a whirlwind of colors, sounds and rhythms.
The electrifying beat of the music, the swaying of the plumes in ornate headdresses, the red, blue, green, and yellow of the elaborate costumes, the solemn war masks, the brandishing of war bows and weapons I’d never seen before … all that gave me a glimpse of a road I’ve never stopped looking for since.
I still don’t know what the festival was.
Maybe the famous Inti Raymi, the Festival of Sun, taking place on the day of winter solstice on June 24, when the sun is the furthest from the Earth and the day shortest. Or maybe some other of the many local festivals.
I’ll never know. What I’ll never forget, though, is the power and joy I tapped into during those 20 minutes, when the distant merged with the present and I was in the middle of it.
Me and Cusco. A life-long affair, despite its dark, cold hotels, bad sewage, chilly rains, gusty winds, pesky touts and tourist crowds.
P.S. Funny how music loses its vibe once you remove it from the source – after blitzing all the music stores in Cusco, spending half my salary on native Andean music I heard at the procession, the CDs at my home have ever since been collecting dust.