Planned in the shape of a puma, Cusco was the capital of Tahuantinsuyu, otherwise known as the Inca Empire. Today, it is a city of about 300,000, and serves as the capital of the Cusco Region, as well as the Cusco Province. The first Spaniards arrived to the city on 15 November 1533, and many buildings that were constructed after the Spanish Conquest incorporated elements of both Spanish and Incan architecture. During the Spanish rule, the city was very prosperous thanks to agriculture, cattle raising, mining and trade with Spain. The wealth funded a great deal of Spanish construction atop the foundations of the old Inca city, replacing temples for churches and palaces for mansions for the conquistadors.
Two major earthquakes in 1650 and 1950 led to the destruction of numerous Spanish constructs, such as the Dominican Priory and the Church of Santa Domingo, which were built atop the Incan temple of the Sun – the Qorikancha. Although the Inca were conquered and their gold stripped by the Spaniards, the Inca spirit lives on till this day through their superior engineering.
Christmas Eve Market
We had landed past lunchtime in a dramatic descent past mountain tops down to a narrow airstrip, that has become synonymous with aerial arrivals by tourists thanks to Cusco’s lack of flat land. Upon exit, we were pleasantly surprised to find our hostel owner’s wife waiting outside the terminal and waving a sign with our names on it. Despite spending five days acclimitizing at Arequipa (7,740 ft), we still found ourselves out of breath after a brisk walk from our hostel to Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, the venue of Cusco’s annual Christmas Eve Market.
Santuranticuy, otherwise known as “Saints for Sale”, is a temporary market whose origins go back to the days of the Spanish Vice-Royalty. Today, it is one of the largest arts and crafts fair in the country. On Christmas Eve, hundreds of artisans coming from Cusco and the surrounding towns lay their blankets on the sidewalks – a custom in traditional Andean fairs – and sell a wide variety of handicraft, fireworks and food. Although the fair started as a Christmas-themed fair, over the years it has expanded to include other goods such as antiques, silverware and ceramics from Pucará and Quinua.
I spent the rest of the day roaming the market, observing and capturing its scenes. We had timed our arrival to coincide with this annual event, and boy was it worth it! The square was alive and bustling with activity. Although many of the goods on sale were new to me, after making several rounds, I noticed that there wasn’t much variety in the items. I quickly lost interest in the fair itself, and retreated to better vantage points to continue my photography.
Kids of the Square
While roaming the Square with my camera, I couldn’t help but notice the striking differences between the Peruvian kids with those of Singapore. In comparison, while they certainly weren’t dressed as well as our young Singaporean princes and princesses, they were clearly happier, more carefree and contented with the simpler things in life. Our kids (and parents!) should take a leaf from their books.
We spent the next 2 days visiting places of interests within and around the city. Cathedrals, museums, tasty and cheap food along Gringo Street, nearby ruins and a day trip to the Sacred Valley. We also spent a day touring the town of Pisac, the fortress at Ollataytambo as well as Chinchero, the once-country estate of Tupa Inca, one of the last Inca kings.
While touring the many sights, I grew increasingly sickened by the cultural damage wrought by the Spaniards. The interior of the Qorikancha used to be completely covered in gold and silver. Its garden was once home to life-size replicas of significant plants and animals in the Inca empire – golden llamas and condors, silver trees and flowers – which were stripped and melted down by the Spaniards for use in their cathedrals or shipped back to Spain as ingots. The overwhelming number of cathedrals embodied the Spaniards’ vigorous attempts at promoting Catholicism and suppressing the local religion. Their destructive ways left a bad taste on my tongue, and made me look forward to our Inca Trail hike and the the famed and pristine Machu Picchu.