After one crazy approach and landing at one of the world's highest commercial airports, we began our explorations of The Sacred Valley and the incredible sights (and sites) of the ancient Inca Empire in Cusco.
WATCH: The most amazing, insanely beautiful flight we've ever taken!
Once inside the airport we were introduced to a few treatments to counteract the high altitude. Seeing as how the salesperson at the Oxy-Shot booth, where oxygen shots were supposed to boost our energy, was out cold we opted to give some of the local remedies a shot instead.
Coca leaves sit in a basket for the guests of our hotel
The locals swear by the leaves of the coca plant, the plant that produces cocaine, as an antidote to the thin air. We had heard about this remedy prior to our trip and were hesitant about trying it.
Veronica calls herself a sea-level gal, and not wanting to miss a thing while we were in high altitude, she overrode her reservations and took a chance.
Coca candy is another way to get your coca fix. We're convinced it and the tea helped.
We started making iced tea for sightseeing, and we'd even taken to chewing the leaves, just like a local! The raw leaves were not tasty, and we learned to soak them first - otherwise the texture was awful.
It's common to see the very-old & the not-as-old melded together
Perked up and ready to rock, we stormed the city. Cusco has been the hub of all human activity in this region for centuries. Not only as the capital of the empire but as the birthplace. Perhaps that is why they dubbed it the Navel of the World.
Around the year 1200 the small city-state of Cusco formed under the rule of Manco Cápac. He can be considered the first Inca, or emperor, over the Quechua people. Then in 1438 AD the Sapa (supreme) Inca (ruler) Pachacuti (world shaker) conquered huge portions of the surrounding area and organized it into four provinces and what we know as The Inca Empire, or Tahuantinsuyu in their Quechua language.
The Temple of the Sun
Legend has it that Manco Cápac was sent to the earth by his father, the sun god Inti, and emerged from a cave carrying a golden staff. He was to build a Temple of the Sun on the spot where the staff sank into the earth, and that spot was none other than Cusco. In fact that temple still stands, so of course we had to check it out.
Because of the incredible stone stacking abilities of the Quechua, the original walls of the Korikancha (Temple of the Sun) withstood two earthquakes that reduced the Convent of Santo Domingo that Spanish colonists built on top of them to rubble. The convent was rebuilt, damaged again, and repaired to its current state as a museum.
The temple's initial construction used the force of gravity to set the stones into each other, which strengthened the structure. Each piece was cut to fit exactly in place and distribute weight so as to hold everything in place without the use of mortar. This gave the walls flexibility and they were also slanted slightly inward to each other using gravity to help negate the destructive force of any seismic shock.
Going from one temple to another, toward the center of the belly button, our next stop was the Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral of Santo Domingo.
As we walked around town, we noticed that many of the buildings in Cusco are built on top of the seemingly indestructible Quechua stone work walls. Cusco is earthquake prone, and these foundations have held time and time again. The buildings set atop have not fared as well.
Outside of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo
Inside the cathedral we saw alters layered with insane amounts of silver, literally tons, but we were on a mission. We had just one goal in mind, find the painting of The Last Supper where Jesus and the disciples are eating cuy. That's right, we heard there's a guinea pig last supper going on in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and we were not leaving without seeing it.
At the very back corner of the Cathedral we found the version of the classic scene, by Marcos Zapata, featuring a platter of cuy and bottles of chicha, the traditional corn beer. No photos are allowed in the church, so we bought the postcard.
Back outside we noticed that this plaza is unique in that it is dominated by two churches because of a falling out between the Jesuits and Dominicans centuries ago. Both were built directly on top of the palaces of former Inca rulers with stones taken from nearby Sacsayhuaman. So we headed over to see Sacsayhuaman for ourselves.
David "models" the enormity of the stones
The ruins at Sacsayhuaman, pronounced very close to "sexy woman" (which proved easy to implant in our memory banks) are remarkable for the size of the stones. Some of the blocks weigh in at around 200 tons and, as with every other site we have visited, they are expertly carved and placed.
A chalkline grid shows the wonkiness of the placement of the gigantic stones
Most of the site was destroyed by the Spanish after their conquest, and the stones removed to be used in constructing new buildings down below in the city of Cusco. Now only the largest rocks remain.
We scrambled up to the top and found a fantastic view of the city.
Sadly, what we didn't find were any remnants of the once splendid temples that used to stand atop Sacsayhuaman.
Only the foundations are left.
"Respect the crosswalk" or you will be whipped
Back down in town, wandering the streets for a little late afternoon shopping, we got quite a surprise.
Bizarre characters were patrolling several of the main thoroughfares, some even armed with whips! Keeping our distance we decided to observe and attempt to ascertain just what it was they were up to.
After watching awhile, and translating the signs, we figured out that they out in force to discourage jaywalking... and put on quite a show.
Having avoided a confrontation, and perhaps a flogging, by respecting the crosswalk, we ducked into a little watering hole for some nerve calming refreshment.
Since 1908, when Ernesto Günther opened up the first non-corn beer brewery in Cusco, Cusqueña has been quenching the thirsts of folks high up in the Andes. A bright, refreshing Pilsner, it certainly hit the spot and gave us the confidence to face crossing the street one more time.
Our morning began with a street food breakfast, a delicious avocado sandwich from a lovely vendor, while a huge procession in honor of St. Jerome was staging right in front of our hotel. Bands were warming up, costumes getting last minute adjustments, and even some attempted llama coaxing to convince him to go along with the program.
The procession included bands, dancers...and very feisty llama...
Then culminated with a huge likeness of the saint carried through the streets on the shoulders of a couple dozen men.
WATCH: The surprise procession in front of our hotel! The llama cracks us up every time!
Each year on the feast day of Corpus Christi the churches of Cusco all carry their patron saints through the streets to the cathedral in the main square. There the huge gathering celebrates in a chaotic battle of the bands bedlam that brings the city to a standstill. Then, on some unknown signal, everyone returns to their home parishes.
Their timing turned out to be perfect, since it was time for us to move on to our next destination as well.
Not that we are saints or anything.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com