Cuzco – Colonial Europe with a South American Twist

Busy day on the Plaza

Well…seeing as we did not in fact need to get up at 4am to catch our flight from Cuzco to Lima (en route to Santiago), we have plenty of time to give you a brief glimpse into our time in Cuzco. Turns out what we thought was a 7am flight is actually a 3pm flight. Lesson learned: Check flight times more thoroughly. Ah, the woes of travelers. But hey, better this way than the other way around, right?

Anyways…Cuzco.

Another view from the square

Hands down, Cuzco is one of our favorite cities visited on this entire trip. It has such a unique vibe. Think Colonial Europe with a South American twist. The European influence, especially in architecture and urban layout, is due to the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire. Despite the gloomy and violent beginnings of present day Cuzco, it is a beautiful, thriving, and exceedingly interesting city to wander about.

The expertly shaped 12 angle stone

Alleys so tight that cars’ side view mirrors threaten to catch on the age old buildings. Big central plazas complete with fountains and an assortment of benches are reliably full of locals and tourists alike at all hours of the day. Cobblestone streets twist and turn their way past the many colorful vendors selling their handicrafts. Llamas are ready for their close up at every corner. At night the lights of countless households dot the hillsides surrounding Cuzco much like Christmas lights twinkle on the tree. Overlooking it all is the cross with risen Jesus perched atop the highest point serving as the Christmas tree star. Cuzco, a city steeped in both history and beauty, truly sweeps you off your feet from the moment you arrive. You can’t help but fall in love.

The streets downtown feel almost European

While in Cuzco, we spent the bulk of our time just wandering. Rather than pack our schedule full of guided tours and worry about hustling from one point to the next, we really wanted to soak up this alluring city and enjoy just being present. We stumbled from the big central market to Plaza de Armas (the main square) just admiring the life surrounding us. We popped into local bakeries and sampled their yummy pastries. Delicious food was plentiful and easy to be found, albeit most of the recommended places were Western food joints. (Slowly, but surely we have come to terms with the fact that Peru is just not known for its culinary genius.) The highlight for sure was the post-Inca Trail burgers, literally the size of our faces, that we devoured. We ate sandwiches on the park benches, sipped Pisco Sours (the national drink made with special Peruvian grape-based brandy and egg whites that tastes remarkably like a margarita) while listening to live music, read books at the little hole-in-the-wall cafes, and drank beers on the balconies just looking down at the scuttle of people below. If you ask me, our Cuzco experience was perfect! I would not change a thing.

Staircase at the church

Don’t get me wrong. We certainly still managed to work in a couple of Cuzco’s main attractions. Probably our favorite was Qoricancha Temple and Santo Domingo. This special place vividly illustrates the ancient Andean culture’s collision with the European influence brought by the Spanish. What was once the impossibly important Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, the capital of the Incan Empire, was looted during the Spanish invasion. The gorgeous, polished stone walls of the temple ruins then served as the foundations of the Dominican Convent of Santo Domingo. The contrast found in this one-of-a-kind sacred place is unreal! As you stroll around, you find yourself in front of stunning Baroque-style paintings and intricately decorated ceilings one moment and then face to face with the seamless stonework and temple remains of the Inca’s, such as the king’s throne, the next. It was fascinating to walk around the grounds and constantly be surprised by what you found around the next corner, seeing just how intertwined these two extraordinarily different cultures and religions were brought together here to create this spectacular, yet borderline ironic place.

The other tourist attraction we visited upon our Inca Trail guide’s recommendation was the Inca Museum. While it was neat to see some of the relics and artifacts found from both pre-Inca and Inca times, we were slightly underwhelmed by this museum. I think that we were both hoping for more of a detailed history of the Incas and their way of life rather than a collection of rocks, ceramics, and spearheads that to the untrained eye all look more or less the same. That being said, there was still a shining star to be found among the monotony of glass cases. Our favorite exhibit was a photo wall featuring images from Machu Picchu soon after its discovery by Hiram Bingham in 1911. To see the ruins as they were first uncovered after just walking by those same ancient walls ourselves was really something. I honestly cannot imagine clearing away 400 years of jungle overgrowth, but at the same time, what I wouldn’t give to be there as the mystery of what lay beneath those layers of jungle was uncovered to reveal Machu Picchu in all its majesty. Wow! What a humbling place!

What is that you ask? Would we come back to Cuzco? In a heartbeat!

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