Cusco’s population is somewhere around 300,000. But population figures give you no idea of what the city is like. On a` busy day, the historic center of Cusco is a hubbub of activity rivaling that of New York‘s Fifth Avenue. Within a few blocks are scores of restaurants, bars, discos, shops and travel agencies. There is an astonishing number of internet cabinas, which all seem to be constantly and fully occupied with travelers and locals connecting with friends and the world at large. On first glance, central Cusco has the look of a typical Spanish colonial city. Most of the central plaza, the Plaza de Armas, has a perimeter of arched colonnades topped with ornately carved second-floor balconies. But if you take a closer look at the lower levels of the buildings, you see here and there remnants of the extraordinary stoneworks of the Incas, those few that were not totally destroyed by the Spanish when they devastated this vast and proud land in the mid 1500’s.
Cusco was the center of a mighty empire that ranged along the Andes cordillera from the interior of Colombia down to the Maule River in Chile. It was far and away the greatest empire of the pre-colonial new world. It was a civilization that rivaled in extent and effective governance that of the Romans at the height of their expansion.
Cusco is a magnet for tourists who are not your typical upwardly mobile wonderbread vacationers. They come especially from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Europe. Americans are in the minority. I surmise that this is because citizens of the United States of America are not so accustomed to world travel as much of the rest of the world, and when they do travel, Europe or the Middle East usually comes first. South America is low on the list.
The travelers I encounter in Cusco are usually a more adventurous sort. I do not include those who come here under the protection of packaged tours, who are herded from bus to ruin to cathedral and offered canned explanations, which are, more often than not, a collection of half-truths about the culture. I also do not speak of those who come here because of a belief that the messiah will land at Machu Picchu in a spaceship and transport them to a safe haven just as this world comes to an end.
I speak more of those who come alone, or with a companion, or with friends they’ve met along the path of their travels. Most of them come with limited finances, often porting only backpacks, often exploring the entire South American continent and making brief stops at this or that reputedly interesting town or ruin.
Sooner or later these intrepid travelers will come to Cusco. Sometimes they are here because this is the first stop on your way to hike the Inca trail or to make a brief visit to Machu Picchu.
But Cusco itself is a cultural and architectural jewel that warrants immersion.
One of my favorite pubs lies atop the remains of the Aclahuasi, the huge building that housed the king’s chosen women. It is made of perfectly cut stones and it housed several thousand females whose sole purpose was to cater to the needs of the Inca, the Son of the Sun. The most beautiful of the women were his concubines. Others toiled daily to brew Chicha, the maize-based beer of the Andes, or to weave garments of Alpaca, Vicuna and Gold for the Inca. The latter was an interminable task, for the Inca wore his clothes for only one day. After that they were incinerated. No recycling, no hand-me-downs. The Inca, the king, was an absolute monarch that made most other monarchs in the history of mankind seem weak by comparison. When the Inca spat, one of his women was there to catch it in her hand so that the monarch’s sputum might not touch the ground.
Cusco is like a village. If you lodge in the historic center of town, as I do, you can easily walk to the source of just about any of your needs. And if you don’t want to walk, you can get a cab for seventy-five cents in the daytime or a little over a dollar after ten at night.
The town is like a village, but it is a fascinating, global village. The continuous traffic of short to long-term visitors offers a vast perspective on the peoples of our planet. They are, by and large, curious, unconventional and ready for action.
Most of the local people, at least those not thieves are gentle and respectful. The young, with their coppery skin, their regal noses and hair the blackest of black, can be exceptionally beautiful. They tend to be shorter than average and the girls have adopted as fashion what might elsewhere be called elevator shoes… shoes of not only high heels, but also high soles. (I am reminded of the very short King Louis XIV, another Sun King, who did the same, only to have this height advantage trumped when all the court followed suit and adopted high heels.) The local girls, the Cusqueñas, tend to favor a clothing style that was popular in the US in the early 70’s: tight-waisted leather jackets and bell bottom jeans. Lately a marijuana leaf has become a design motif. Recently I saw a pair of jeans on a girl with a large cannabis leaf centered on her crotch. A local friend who is a student at the university tells me that the older people have no idea that it is the leaf of the demon weed.
There are thieves here as there are all over the world. But the thieves here rarely use weapons, and almost never firearms. They may pick your pocket. They may slit your backpack or camera strap to rip you off. They may have an accomplice spit on you or throw a water bomb on you so that they can rush in and take advantage of your confusion. If they see you wandering a deserted street late at night, obviously drunk, they may cold-cock you to lift your wallet and jacket. But generally they don’t kill and they don’t maim. As thieves go, they are a refreshing lot. My experience is that if you exercise reasonable caution, you’ll be okay here. I have never been mugged. Knock knock.
Cusco lies in the cul de sac of a valley. It is surrounded on three sides by mountains. In the rainy season, those mountains are several shades of green, some of it neon-intense. The houses are mostly of a deep reddish brown adobe. They are roofed with lighter reddish brown terra cotta tiles. The effect of the various greens and reds is more than pleasing. It is as inspiring as a Vermeer.
The weather in Cusco is benign. It never freezes, never even snows, never gets sticky hot, or even dry hot. It varies from the high thirties to the high seventies. The worst of the weather is an occasional spell of too much rain. Now and then there is a hailstorm. It is an indication of Cusco’s moderate weather that the locals complain of being either too cold or too hot if the temperature gets out of a 55 to 70 degree range.
The stories and sketches that follow began as email messages to friends back home in the U.S. Many of those friends urged me to keep the stories coming and suggested working up a book.
This is the book. It is not a guidebook, not a sociological treatise. It is simply a collection of the observations and experiences of a Gringo who has been hanging out in Cusco for a long time. There is an effort herein to connect present experience with the clouded history of this marvelous place. Most of the characters that run through these tales are real. A few are imagined. In order to protect the guilty, some of the real characters have fictional names. Most of the events recorded here actually took place in whole or in part. Some are entirely fictional, but spring from a kernel of truth.
Cusco is a repository of mystery. How can we know the truth of a civilization that had no writing, that kept the story of their culture in the Homeric tradition of songs-as-history? It has been said that after three generations, oral history has no accuracy. That in itself is enough to cast doubt upon our given history of the Incas. But among oral histories, that of the Incas is uniquely suspect. The Quipocamayocs, those worthies who created and sang the songs of a king’s era, of his deeds, were forbidden to create their songs until after the king had died. Herein, obviously lies a perfect formula for revisionist history.
The first time I saw the mighty redoubt of Sacsahuaman I had a sense of vast antiquity. It was like Stonehenge, only more impressive in its magnitude, mystery and graceful construction. The perfectly fitted stones of Sacsahuaman are all of different sizes and shapes, and most of those in the lower traces of its zigzag walls are huge. One of those stones has been estimated to weigh up to 300 tons. Most of the other walls in Cusco are made of relatively small stones laid in a linear fashion. No matter what the archaeologists tell us, I cling to the belief that Andean America is the site of human history much, much older than they would have us believe. Maybe so, maybe not. But mystery piques curiosity just as curiosity piques exploration. So carry on, dear reader. Explore the people, the lore and the history of “The Navel of the World.”
Richard Nisbet now lives in Cusco and is leading tours of the realm of the Incas. (www.machupicchu.us.com)
"Cusco Tales" is widely available in Cusco and is in some of the Zeta Books stores in Lima. It can also be purchased online through the South American Explorers Club (www.saexplorers.org). A version of the CD that goes with the book can be seen at www.ancientwalls.net.