Though it was supposed to have been originally built in the shape of a puma, Cuzco derives its name from the original Quechua Indian name, Qosqo. It means ”Navel of the World.”
Cuzco is guaranteed to leave even the most experienced traveller breathless. Altitude sickness takes its toll on everyone.
With a dose of my trademark foresight, I had booked a hotel that was on a steep road leading up from the main square. The good part is that it is peaceful and is halfway to the ancient Inca fortress of Sacsayhuayman. The bad part is that just a 100-metre walk uphill can make you feel like a marathon runner. (Make that 10 metres if you are lugging your bag with you.)
Like most explorations in major European cities or colonial towns, it makes sense to start at the central square. Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas has less stately buildings lining the square. Little shop-houses occupy large parts of the plaza. Most of them sell woven fabrics, blankets and assorted paraphernalia. The riotous colours on the fabrics attract tourists like magnets. (And yes, the shops sell their fair share of fridge decoration too.) The most memorable items I saw were handcrafted leather-bound notepads adorned with hand-cut wooden crosses or colourful ethnic designs on the cover. There are also numerous merchants for guided tours to Manu, the southern gateway to Peru’s Amazon forest; a travel agency from which you can book your travel to places further out like Lake Titicaca. And, of course, restaurants and watering holes for the leg-weary.
The Cathedral is imposing and far more opulent than the one in Lima. The altar is made of solid silver. Marcos Zapata’s painting of the Last Supper is almost as memorable. In a surprising localization of an ancient theme, it shows Christ and his apostles dining on roast guinea pig, hot peppers and Andean cheese.
Inspired, I proceeded to order Guinea Pig for lunch in one of the restaurants but was thoroughly disappointed. The big price tag is inversely proportional to the tiny guinea pig on the plate. To make things worse, it is full of bones and you can hardly pull out a mouthful of meat without fear of gulping down a bone that would pierce your throat and lead to startling headlines in the Cuzco Times. When you finally manage to get a sizeable chunk without a bone, it isn’t worth the effort as the meat is stringy and lacking in flavour. My advice would be to avoid it and get a few of those delightful leather-bound notebooks instead.
Close to the Cathedral is the quaint Hostal Loreto. It is built using the renowned original Inca stonework of yore and holds the obvious attraction of living in an Inca fortress. The rooms are simple and clean. The room rentals were far cheaper than the price the ancient locks would fetch in an antique shop. (I moved here after a day at my earlier abode.)
Walk through the side lanes from the Hostal Loreto and you arrive at the Iglesia Santo Domingo. This was the site of the ancient Coricancha, Inca Temple of the Sun.
The legendary riches of the temple are said to have sated the avarice of even the most gold-hungry conquistador. Historical accounts have it that when the Spanish arrived, the walls of the temple were covered in 700 sheets of gold studded with emeralds and turquoise. The windows were constructed in a manner that would allow the sun to create an almost blinding reflection off the sheets of gold. The patio was filled with life-sized gold and silver statues of llamas, trees, fruits, flowers and butterflies.
After having paid homage to Cuzco’s jewels, it was time to head out and explore the Amazon jungle. Most of the trips offered by operators on the Plaza de Armas are for 4 or 6 days. I had 4 days set aside for this exotic escape but there was a catch. I was insistent that I wanted to see a patch of pristine rainforest and not the areas close to civilization. I was told that you’d need to drive 2 days in a jeep to get to the more unspoilt parts of the jungle. So 4 days just wouldn’t cut it, as I would spend the days driving to and from the interior without spending any time in it. There was only 1 way. That is to fly in a small twin propeller plane and be dropped into the heart of the jungle. ”Si, gracias,” I said. We had a deal.