Highlights of Cusco

Our first full day in Cusco had us all over the city. We crammed a lot in one day!

Our guide met us at our hotel, Casa Andina, and from there we walked to several stops.

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The first stops we made were for coffee. Several people had requested we bring back coffee for them, so that was a priority for the morning. We stopped in two places, one for the famous “poo coffee,” the other for some fresh ground coffee that had not seen the inside of an animal’s bowels. 🙂

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The second coffee stop was right outside the city market, which was unfortunately closed for cleaning. There were still some vendors set up outside the market, but we didn’t get the full market experience. Maybe another day!

After securing coffee, we went to our first site for the day: Qorikancha. This was the epicenter of the Inca empire at its height. Qorikancha, translates to “The Golden Place,” an apt name considering so much of the site was covered in gold. When the sun would shine on the citadel, it was like a blinding beacon. And an obvious target for Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.

While we so frequently refer to the culture as Inca, that is actually the word for their king. The civilization was actually the Tawantinsuyu, or “four regions.” There were six South American countries that were part of the Inca’s empire, with over 2 million people. The capital was Cusco (translated as “center”).

When the Spanish conquered the Inca and took over Qorikancha, they stripped it of all its gold and silver and it became a Catholic center, indicated by the Catholic dome that was placed on the top of the citadel. Sadly, only 10% of the site is original. The rest was razed by the Spanish, repurposed elsewhere, or collapsed due to the lesser structural integrity of the Spanish additions.

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The museum houses quite a bit of art that was originally created to help convert the illiterate Tawantinsuyu people to Catholicism. The Spanish combined symbols and images from the Inca empire with the images of the Catholic faith to help transition the people to a new faith. The Virgin Mary is often pictured with large robes that make it body look almost triangular—like the mountains the Tawantinsuyu recognized—and her head was encircled with light like a sun or moon, likewise recognizable.

The amazing construction of what remains of the original site is on full display here, with incredible precision considering the lack of tools and technology used to build. Trapezoidal windows and doors ensured structural integrity, and the precision of stones fitted together without mortar was remarkable. These structures were built to last, and what’s been left alone has done just that.

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The precision of three windows almost perfectly framed.

After Qorikancha, we visited Saqsaywaman and Q’Enqo, two archeological sites dating prior to the Spanish invasion. We really only spent around half an hour or less at each of these sites.

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Saqsaywaman translates to “the vulture that God satisfied.” This site was a fortress, protecting the city from other tribes. Several battles were fought here, and the corpses that remained from those battles were consumed by the vultures, giving the place its name. Only 20% of this site is original, as, again, much of the site was used as a quarry by the Spanish, and then used again to help rebuild Cusco after a devastating earthquake in the 1950s.

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Saqsaywaman offers a pretty perfect viewpoint to see all of Cusco.

Q’Enqo was a place of sacrifice where shaman would come to offer black alpaca (the rarest of alpaca coloring) to the gods and to find insights into events that had happened and were yet to come, including earthquakes and other natural disasters. The site is a bit of a labyrinth, complete with narrow passageways to access the sacrifice table where the alpaca would have its throat cut, and the shaman would “read” the blood that drained for answers. Once they were finished, the alpaca was left to rot, and the bones were thrown into a deep cavern just behind the table, as evidenced by the bones that have been discovered there. 

We ended our sightseeing with a stop in Basilica Catedral. Construction of the cathedral spanned from the 1530s into the 1700s, with three distinct sections from each century. No photos are allowed on the inside, but if you visit, you can see where quite a bit of the Inca’s gold and silver went: decking out this elaborate cathedral and the side chapels inside. There was almost too much to see inside, including several statues of Jesus wearing the local soccer team’s colors and insignia. The Basilica Catedral is one of 14 Catholic churches in Cusco, but it surely is the most grand. We could have spent hours admiring the art, statues, and holy relics inside.

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After a busy morning, we stopped for lunch at Pachapapa, another excellent restaurant in Cusco. I had lamb again, and Tim had a delicious chicken dish with yellow sauce. We also saw them putting whole guinea pig into the outdoor oven—but we didn’t partake—you have to order the whole guinea pig 24 hours in advance.

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Whole guinea pig into the oven!

We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering the main square and the surrounding streets in Cusco. There are so many shops, restaurants, and points of interest. The architecture took center stage for us, and we admired the Moorish influences seen on the second stories of so many buildings.

Our last activity in a busy day was a cooking class with Rooftop Kitchen Peru. Tim said he thinks Peruvian food is his favorite international cuisine to date, so the cooking class was a perfect addition to our itinerary.

We had expert guidance from a local chef, Xavier, who owns a quinoa-focused restaurant in Cusco.

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With that background, it was no surprise that the main dish he taught us to prepare was a risotto-style quinoa dish.

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But before the main course, he taught us to make Peru’s national drink, pisco sour, of course.

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Shaking a pisco sour is a real workout!

Then we made a type of trout ceviche. Tim was definitely the star student and was much closer to professional than I was.

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But both our dishes tasted good, even if my presentation left something to be desired.

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The satisfied junior chef.

Such a diverse and fun first day in Cusco!

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