May 24, 2013 by jiejie768
In the late afternoon on Tuesday, April 9, after a rather contentious parting with the duplicitous driver who ferried us from Ollantaytambo to Cusco, Mom, Meg and I found ourselves once again ensconced in the Pieter Room at Los Ninos Hotel, about a 10-minute walk from the city’s Plaza de Armas.
We had about 36 hours or so left in Cusco before flying to Lima early in the morning on April 11, and our to-do list included a visit to the Qoricancha Inca Temple in downtown Cusco, a trip to the series of ruins on the hillside outside the city and a tour of the Los Ninos children’s program operation. Essentially, we needed to either knock out the Los Ninos tour (daily at 5 p.m.) or the Qoricancha visit (closes at 5:30 p.m. each day) that night and save the other for Wednesday evening. Wednesday morning and possibly afternoon would be used to explore the ruins outside of town. Ultimately we opted for the Qoricancha first and the Los Ninos tour the following day.
We made our way to the Qoricancha in the late afternoon sun, which bathed Cusco in a pretty spectacular light for photography. This was now my fifth or sixth visit to the city, so I had no shortage of photos of the areas we were traversing, but still I couldn’t help but snap away as we passed through the town’s always impressive Plaza de Armas.
The Qoricancha was literally at the center of the Incan Empire. The network of religious sites built throughout Peru by the Incas was, unsurprisingly, constructed in the shape of a radiant sun, with the Qoricancha at the center and various other locales situated along the radiating spires of that sun. When the Spaniards arrived and began dismantling the Incan rule they, also unsurprisingly, converted the Qoricancha into their own headquarters and, shocker, a Catholic church.
The result in modern times is a fascinating building that features several hallmarks of Incan architecture (such as the smooth stone walls) alongside a massive Catholic cathedral and abutting a very large monastery. It’s a fitting representation of modern Peru, which is largely Catholic while still clinging to many of the more pagan traditions of the area’s ancestral forefathers.
As the building is still very much in use, it provides a bit of a counterpoint to all the ruins we visited. The ruins, while fascinating, are in various states of disrepair and are being preserved (conserved?) rather than used on a daily basis. The Qoricancha on the other hand is completely in tact (if not identical to how it was in the 1500s) and made for an interesting visit. In addition to the interior architecture and huge collection of conquest-era artwork, the complex is home to a large park-like green space and flower garden.
Also, it featured far and away the most spectacularly appointed and fastidiously maintained set of public restrooms in all of Peru (travel around Peru for nine months and you’ll understand just how amazing this particular feature is. … Meg awarded it an unprecedented 6 stars out 5 on her Peruvian Restroom Rating System).
With the Qoricancha checked off our list, we grabbed burgers (Mom and I) and nachos (Meg) at Paddy’s, the highest Irish-owned bar in the world, then made our way back to the hotel and called it a (very) early night. I’m pretty sure Mom was asleep by 7:45 p.m. The next day provided another opportunity to sleep in a bit, and we took advantage.
On Wednesday, April 10, we rose at about 9 a.m., grabbed breakfast at the hotel and set about finding a taxi to take us to the top of the hillside ruins outside of Cusco.
A few days earlier, while visiting the Pisac ruins en route to Ollantaytambo, the three of us purchased an inclusive boleto turistico (tourist ticket) which provided entrance into about 16 ruins sites and museums in Cusco and throughout the Sacred Valley (this included Ollantaytambo, which we’d seen on Tuesday). The price of the ticket was 140 soles, and the entry fee to each individual site ranged from about 10 soles (various museums, Pukapukara and Tambomachay) to 40 soles a pop (Ollanta, Sacsayhuaman, Pisac). As we’d purchased the ticket already, I was hell-bent on getting my money’s worth. Meg and Mom were less concerned, but having rested up the night before, were willing to humor me in my quest to see even more Incan ruins.
Turns out it was a good decision. The three sites we’d earmarked for Wednesday were Tambomachay, Pukapukara and Sacsayhuaman. The first two sites are located about 20 minutes outside of Cusco near where the highway cuts through the mountains and begins to descend again into the Sacred Valley which is home to Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Machu Picchu. These sites were each considerably smaller in scale than either Ollantaytambo or Sacsayhuaman, but were interesting nonetheless.
Our first stop was Tambomachay, which was located about 500 meters down a dirt hiking path off the main highway. The entirety of the site consisted of a picturesque fountain complex that appeared to have been used for some sort of religious purpose (yet again, we refused the guide out front). It was a pretty cool little complex located along a beautiful hiking trail and charming little creek. Also, there was a llama, which always is a bonus.
Pukapukara, our next stop, is located about 500 meters down the highway back toward Cusco, and was clearly visible from the main road. Meg and Mom opted to walk along the highway, while I followed a staircase outside Tambomachay that ultimately led me along a backroad of sorts to Pukapukara. We ended up in the same place, but I got to see some donkeys, so I figure I won out in the end.
Pukapukara did not have any guides out front for us to refuse (I’m pretty sure the Tambomachay guide would have accompanied us to this part of the tour if we’d hired her), so we were once again on our own.
At this point I could hardly guess what, specifically, Pukapukara was used for. We did, however, learn from a fellow tourist that one of the rocks at Pukapukara was believed to channel positive energy and that we should all touch it for an energy burst and blast of good luck. We also were intrigued by the fact that Pukapukara was obviously the site of continuing archaeological research.
Several of the stones in the ubiquitous Incan walls were marked with chalk, and though no workers were present during our visit, there was clearly some excavation and/or research under way. With two more sites ticked off our to-do list, we set our sights on Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman” according to several tourism pamphlets and guidebooks) and sought out transportation down the hill.
The walk from Pukapukara to Sacsayhuaman appeared to be anywhere from 3 to 10 kilometers, and given the abundance of stairs and hiking in our recent past, we weren’t eager to hoof it. Fortunately we stumbled across a combi (local minivan/bus) just outside Pukapukara and secured passage down the hill for just a sol apiece.
The combi, after picking up a gaggle of schoolbound local children along the way, eventually deposited us at the Cristo Blanco statue that watches over the city of Cusco. During my previous visits to Cusco, I had seen the statue towering on the hillside above the plaza and dreamed of one day standing at its base and taking in the bird’s-eye view of the Incan capital (going to the top of things and finding viewpoints is my absolute favorite traveling pastime). So, after five previous stops in Cusco without paying a visit to the Jesus statue, it was with great satisfaction that I finally summited the hill and looked out upon the city stretching out for miles below us. It offered a pretty spectacular look at Cusco, but you can only look at a view such as that for so long before you’ve seen it all and it’s time to move on. So it was that we headed down the opposite hillside toward the entrance to Sacsayhuaman.
Along the way we passed some American tourists and managed to sneak a few pictures of (yet another) adorable baby llama … yeah, I know, we do that a lot, but I challenge you to come to Peru, camera in hand, and not try to photograph every llama you see. Of the three sites we were visiting that morning, Sacsayhuaman was billed, rightfully so, as the main event.
The complex features some of the most impressive examples of the Inca walls in all of Peru. In most instances the walls for which Cusco is famous feature (relatively) large, smooth stones about the size three of four cinder blocks put together. This is impressive in its own right, but at Sacsayhuaman many of the stones in the wall are the size of a Mack-truck and still fit together seamlessly without any mortar or bonding agent to hold them in place.
At this final locale, we broke from tradition and decided we’d best get a guide as we did want to learn something during our visit to these many ruins. This was a fantastic decision, as our guide, Victor, was among the best Meg and I have had in all of our travels. The man was extraordinarily knowledgeable about the site (it IS his job, I guess), obviously passionate about keeping the site in tact (he frequently stopped during our tour to pick up litter and other detritus — including a moldy orange peel at one point — and put it in his pocket until he could find a trash can) and was an all-around interesting guy to boot (he and Meg enjoyed a long, spirited conversation about the Catholic church’s role in Cusco and the newly elected Argentinian Pope).
Though the walls and structures at the complex are plenty impressive on their own, having Victor along to explain the history of the site was a fantastic bonus. Sacsayhuaman was a fortress that protected the outskirts of the Cusco, the Incan capital city. As impressive as the walls and massive stones we saw were, we were shocked to learn that more than 50 percent of the original fortress is no longer in tact.
For years and years, it turns out, the fortress was used as something of a quarry as first the Spanish conquistadors and then the local people harvested the massive rocks from the ruins to use on construction projects in town.
Turns out the complex’s proximity to Cusco made it easy and obvious pickings. It wasn’t until the middle part of the 20th-Century that the government protected the site as a historical landmark and forbade the further removal of the stones. Victor’s clear knowledge and obvious distress at this fact was one of the many things that endeared him to us.
Without Victor, we likely would also have missed out on a few treasures hidden in the complex’s walls. It turns out the skill of the Incan builders went beyond simply being able to build the walls. They were so skilled in their stonework that they managed to incorporate various designs into the walls using the stones.
Still visible to this day were a serpent and a llama (which we never would have seen on our own) and a puma paw (which we likely would have noticed). I can’t fathom how this was possible, but once Victor pointed it out, it was too obvious to have been coincidence (well, the serpent maybe, but the llama and puma paw are clearly intentional).
After visiting the main walls, and another spectacular viewpoint of the city, we moved to the western edge of the ruins. There, Victor told us how the Incas had made a man-made lake at the complex (no longer present) that had served as a water source for the fortress and city alike. He then took us through a long, very dark tunnel which emerged in front of a tiny Quechua grandma with a llama waiting to pose for a picture with us (OK, Victor didn’t plan that part, I’m sure, but it was a nice touch, and this lady was TINY). The three of us also picked up an unwanted souvenir during the trek thorough the tunnel: the unpleasant aroma of llama dung greeted us about halfway through the journey and accompanied us for the rest of the day by way of our shoes.
After posing for our photo with the llama lady, our tour was at an end. We paid Victor (and threw in an extra 15 soles or so since he’d done such a fantastic job) and headed back into the city via a stone pathway. The walk to town was pleasant and put us in a plaza we’d yet to visit. We grabbed a sandwich at a little deli and considered our plan for the rest of the day.
Honestly, at this point, I’m not sure what we decided. I think we visited the souvenir market and just wandered a bit before making it back to our hotel for the 5 p.m. tour of the children’s program. I know that at some point, Mom picked up gifts for Chris (my stepdad) and Andrew (my brother) and a water-color painting for herself. I’m sure we got ice cream (Bembo’s soft serve) and/or coffee (Starbucks!!!) at some point along the way.
Catch up on all our adventures with Mom: