Like everyone else, we came to Cusco for Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is the item on everyone’s bucket list. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a Unesco World Heritage Site. It gets all of the attention and is the focus of most tourists to Peru. As many as twenty five hundred people a day make the trip to Machu Picchu, but only a lucky 200 hundred of them actually get there by hiking the traditional Inca trail. With numbers like that it is easy to see why Machu Picchu is the star.
But, as we quickly discovered, Cusco is so much more than Machu Picchu. We checked into our hostel and made our way to the historic city center called Plaza de Armas. As with most plazas in South America it is anchored by a large Catholic Cathedral and is surrounded by restaurants and businesses.
The owner of our hostel was a little old lady who told us that we were now family and that she would take care of us during our stay. We picked her hostel because it was rated highly and advertised excellent wifi. When we walked out of our room, the little old lady had already arranged for a tour operator to meet with us and plan our entire stay. It was a little awkward as we wanted to explore the town, but we thought that she was being kind.
Jose, the tour operator, explained that he could arrange different tours for us on each day of our stay. He gave us a list of prices which were significantly lower than anything that we had seen online. Jose told us that we should purchase a tourist ticket which covers admission to practically all of Cusco’s attractions. The price of the ticket was $130 soles or about $35 USD and it was good for ten days.
We signed up for the four hour city tour the next day ($6 USD, $46 on-line). The tour promised to take us to the most important archeological sites surrounding Cusco, the capitol of the Incan empire.
As our group gathered on the square to await the rest of our group, we were pleased to meet a nice young man from Louisiana. Since it was Thanksgiving day we wouldn't hold it against him that he went to LSU. We were just thankful to be spending the day with a fellow American.
The city tour began at one of the city’s 16th century Catholic churches, Santo Domingo. The first impression is that the church is ancient and beautifully decorated with exquisite works of art. However, after our guide began to explain the history of the church, the impression quickly changed.
The church was actually built on the site of an Incan temple, The Temple of the Sun, Qoricanchaa. The Catholic conquistadors destroyed most of the temple and used the ancient hand hewn Incan stones to construct their church.
About twenty percent of the Incan temple remains and is incorporated into the church. The finely carved stones were actually covered in gold and precious stones by the Incans. The gold and jewels were looted by the Spanish.
It is difficult to describe exactly how skilled the Inca builders were. They exhibited such advanced building skills that they are almost impossible to replicate today. The Inca used engineering methods that allowed them to precisely fit extremely large stone together without mortar.
The designs were such that they can withstand large earthquakes and other natural forces. The Inca used extremely precise and polished stone walls for the most important temples. The temple in the church was considered one of the Incas holiest sites.
Next, we boarded a bus to visit some of the archeological sites surrounding the city. The first stop was Sacsayhuaman, an ancient citadel overlooking the city of Cusco.
The site was originally constructed around the year 1100 by a civilization predating the Inca. The site was added to and expanded by the Inca and used as a sacred temple.
The Catholic Church demolished the pillars of the temple and used the perfectly cut stones to erect the Cusco Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas.
Next, we visited Puka Pukaraa, a military site used by the Inca to defend Cusco.
It consists of large walls, terraces, and staircases and is an excellent example of military architecture.
Next it was onto Qenqoa one of the greatest holy places in the Inca capitol.
It is based upon a naturally occurring rock formation. The large rocks actually form a labyrinth that leads to a natural room deep inside the formation.
The temperature inside is several degrees cooler than outside. The Inca brought their dead to this place where they began the mummification process. The cool rock formation was perfect for preserving human remains.
Finally, we visited the site of Tambomachay which is a series of aqueducts, canals, and waterfalls that runs through the terraced rocks. To this day, the local population consider the water from this site to have medicinal properties which cure all sorts of ailments relating to fertility. It is also known as El Banyo del Inca, the Bath of the Incas.
After a full afternoon we returned to the city. We were a bit overwhelmed. We invited Ming to join us for Thanksgiving dinner. We couldn’t find a traditional Thanksgiving meal so we settled on a nice Italian restaurant and had pizza, pasta, and gnocchi. It was wonderful to learn about Ming’s first International job in Chile as a chemical engineer and his family in Texas. When the check came Ming totally surprised us by picking up the check. After all, sharing a meal with friends is what the spirit of Thanksgiving is all about.