Exploring Cusco City’s Streets

We decided that it would be fun to sign up for a city tour to learn, first hand, a little more about what we were seeing and experiencing as we walked around the city of Cusco. It is a city full of churches and ancient Inca walls. It is a city rich in colonial and ancient history. It is a city still coming to terms with Spanish and Catholic domination, even three centuries later. We wanted to learn more, to understand and heighten our experiences here.

In order to do the tour, we needed to go down into the city square and find the government office that sold the Boleto Turístico, sort of an all-city pass to the archaeological sites in and around Cusco.

On the way back we tested our altitude acclimatization by adding on an a walk to the neighbourhood of San Blas with its artist shops and then, thanks to the tip from a painting seller, a long hike up through the neighbourhood to take in the views of the city.

Here are some of the things we saw along the way that give a sense of the daily life in this part of town.

School children the world over have an insatiable sweet tooth and will rush to buy candy. Opportunistic vendors are here not just to satisfy the tourist trade, it seems. We happened to walk by just as recess was out. These elementary school children came from the playground on the other side of this metal fence at recess to make their hasty purchases from a school that was established in 1641.

These boys were not so lucky, it seems and were watching the girls make their purchases from inside the school’s fenced yard. Look at the looks on their faces!

The neat thing here is that so many of the buildings, or should I say city blocks, are built on ancient Inca foundations: great boulders of hard volcanic rock, carved so incredibly precisely that they fit together with no sand, no mud and no mortar. Ofttimes you can’t wedge a knife, let alone a fingernail or a piece of paper between them, despite the effects of erosion and the passage time. They have withstood many earthquakes. Here, men do a little repair work on a wall that holds up a large city bank. I think though, from what we learned later in the day, that these stones needed repair because these particular blocks were made out of limestone. Remnants of these walls are everywhere.

Traffic here is a little chaotic, and like it is in many countries in the world, developing or not, lanes are often only a suggestion, making for a strange sense of chaotic order amongst the locals that somehow works. Add in tourists, however, and the scene devolves. Around the high tourist traffic areas there is a very strong police and traffic police presence that tries to maintain some semblance of order.

By and large, most of the transit police, and the police keeping the beggars and trinket hawkers from pestering the tourists, are women. We asked at our hotel why this is so, given that it still seems to be a very male-dominated society that loves its regimented order (we are getting used to sounds like the daily gunshots that mark the raising of the flags at local schools and mark other celebrations that occur at sunset or random times throughout the day). The response? “Women are less… how do you say?… corruptible.” Such a fascinating, revealing answer.

The streets radiating away from the main square and up into the hillside are steep and narrow. The steps along the side of this street make it a bit easier for pedestrians to navigate because the cobblestone roads are made of highly polished, quite slippery stones. This is a street that leads to our destination: the Cuesta San Blas area, as it is a place where artists gather.

Heading up there, along the Hatun Rumiyoc, we passed countless artist shops, some so small they were like closets. We have this tradition of collecting small paintings by local artists, where we can, in the places we travel. We are always on the lookout for one that catches our eye, and that features something that reminds us of something we have seen or experienced while exploring.

This is the Plazoleta San Blas, the central square of the neighbourhood. It is home to several artisan families that have been selling their art here for decades. There is a gallery there that hosts their work, and there are other artists that walk the square with their leather portfolios bulging with works in acrylic, watercolour and oil that approach tourists to strike up conversation, and hopefully a sale.

This was an interesting gallery with some really lovely work. We poked around in there for a bit, and have our eye on a couple of paintings that we might revisit, and then we headed back outside.

One of the wandering artists approached us to sell us his wares. His paintings weren’t quite our thing (especially the horny alpaca painting! ha!), but he was an affable fellow and chatted to us for a while, telling us about the ancient church on the square that dated back to 1563. He gave us directions for a way to leave the square, enter the neighbourhood proper, and get up to some great views. It was an excellent tip.

This was the day that we really turned the corner in terms of our altitude acclimatization. Walking up this set of stairs, we had no idea what we were in for, but it went really well. The stairs went up and up and relentlessly up, past very small homes, very tiny doors and through the occasional ancient retaining wall. It reminded us a bit of the Plaka in Athens, only more run down.

Clearly there are attempts to clean up this neighbourhood and keep it safe for the families that live there, as this sign at a popular lookout spot attests (“No more robberies, no more alcohol, no more drugs in our neighbourhood.”).

We did pass a beautiful scene on the way up, but I didn’t take a photo to respect the family’s privacy. A mother was sitting on a low stone wall outside her variety store (selling pop, water, chips, etc.) with her young (maybe 4 year old?) daughter, reading to her and getting her daughter to identify images in the book. It was clearly an alphabet book and the scene was just delightful as the two went back and forth, with the mom softly encouraging her daughter, with shy glances up at us, and the daughter learning her way through the experience. It was a beautiful moment.

These stairs just didn’t stop!

Some of the homes were really run down, and still very much occupied.

DSC_8507Some were under repair and construction. What do you think of the views from this work site!?

Here workers are constructing a second story on a house, high above the city centre. How’s that for workplace safety? Can you make out the worker walking along that resting plank? And how’d you like to tap your home into that jumble of wires? Yikes!

Here Bill is grinning. Despite going up and up and up, the effects of altitude are no longer wreaking havoc on our bodies. Trudging up this hillside felt like a regular slog!

Here are some of the views looking back down on the city, but you lose the sense of steepness and height with the way this panorama shot turned out. The steps Bill was on in the photo before this run beside the pink house, slightly to the left in the foreground of this photo.

From the top of the hillside we could see the city spreading out below and filling up the valley. The guidebooks say that the city is supposed to be shaped like a gigantic puma, but modern development and shanty sprawl has obliterated all trace of that from above.

At 30’ in height, and like a mini Rio’s Christ The Redeemer, Cusco has a huge Cristo Blanco statue that overlooks and blesses the town from high above its buildings. We walked up there to take it in and to see the views. It is a recent addition to the city, being built in 1949, but it is not exactly what you think it is. It was actually given to the city by Arabic Palestinians after World War II as a thanks for the refuge, relief and shelter they received in Cusco. Of course, like virtually all of the Catholic sites here, it is built on top of an ancient Inca holy site. Called Pukamoqo Hill, it is said to hold soil samples from each of the 4 quarters of the Inca Empire.

From that site a dirt trail led us to this archaeological site (Sacsayhuamán sounds like “Sexy Woman” ha ha!). It was a back way in! Oops… but we felt no guilt as we would be going there on our official city tour in the afternoon. Built like a huge amphitheatre and staging area, it had remnants of those incredible Inca walls.

We walked down one of the ancient stone roadways to head back to our hotel for a quick lunch. These cobblestone roadways are amazing. The Incas were known as the Romans of South America for the approximately 60,000 kilometres of road they built, connecting the 4 quarters of their kingdom, radiating out from Cusco to places as far away as Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile and parts of Southern Colombia.

On the way down we stopped at this roadside stall where we bought some corn & cheese for a light lunch. This is a very typical Peruvian street food, called Choclo con Queso. The corn has very large, plump, almost white kernels and is slightly sweet, though nothing like our Peaches ’N Cream variety in Canada. It is topped by a slice of fresh cheese that is very mild, but quite salty (a little like halloumi or feta). The corn is served, piping hot, out of a big pot of boiling water, on a “plate” of a corn husk leaf, and topped with the cheese which softens, slightly.

The idea is that you take a nibble of cheese and then a bite of corn so that you mix the salty and the sweet together in your mouth. The fruit beside it here is called granadilla (aren-a-dee-ya). Similar to passion fruit, it’s like an orange on the outside. To eat it, you peel it, halfway, forming a rustic cup of sorts. Then you break open the white pith inside, enough to dip a spoon in. Then you scoop out the slimy coated, crunchy seeds inside. It’s super yummy… with a flavour like grapefruit-meets-papaya, it’s refeshing and delicious and the crunch of its seeds adds something really interesting to the effect in your mouth. I loved it.

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