Saturday, January 24, 2009

8 Meditations on Cuzco, Perú

Yes, like all Latin American cities, Cuzco is overflowing with churches. A half dozen grace the borders of the main plaza alone. San Francisco, Santa Teresa, San Antonio, Santo Domingo, San Blas...with their tall towers and crosses caught in silhouette against the midday sky, they serve as magnificent and austere landmarks.

While the abundance of holy buildings suggests subservience to the Almighty, on the ground it's clear that the higher power is none other than the tourist dollar. You'll find them all here, from gap-year backpackers to elderly package-tour aficionados. As a rule, prices for everything steadily rise the closer you come to the central plaza.

The Inca Massage
"¿Masaje, amigo? Inca massage?" I must of heard this pitch 100 times in four days. Who knew the Inca left behind such a legacy of deep-tissue relief?

A Beautiful Plaza
Another Latin American icon, the Plaza de Armas is done in high style in Cuzco. Flanked by churches, colonial building blocks, and a cobblestone circle and containing a lovely variety of manicured vegetation and a terrific fountain, the plaza will turn anyone's impression of Cuzco towards the favorable.

Competing for breathing room with tourist admirers in the center of the plaza are dozens of the city's canine residents. I noticed the dogs immediately on arriving, as in Lima they were conspicuously absent. Whether man's best friend is traditionally well represented in the Andes, or whether Cuzco's canines are an anomaly, I have no idea.

The Mountains
The Andes are starkly evident in the city, rising up on all sides of the valley in rough, green contours. They challenge the tourists newly arrived from lower locales, simultaneously throwing steep sets of stairs in their path and snatching away the oxygen they need to ascend them. At 3,325 meters (11,000 feet), Cuzco's narrow, rising streets refuse to be rushed along.

Socioeconomic Division

Of course, there are those who make their homes high above the city center, in small brick and adobe huts clinging to the steep grades. They are uniformly poorer up here, largely untouched by the rollicking sea of tourist dollars far below them. When the two worlds do meet, as when the train to Machu Picchu inches its way up and over the mountain pass, the result is no better.

City of Lights
This is the memory of Cuzco that will remain strongest in my imagination. At dusk, the entire valley comes alive with flickering pinpoints of soft yellow and blue light. From every mountainside they glimmer, and when viewed from beneath the amber glow of the lanterns in the Plaza de Armas, it's a sight not easily forgotten.


Kathy Amen said...

Great pictures and thoughtful commentary!

JoshJosh said...

You make me want to hop on a plane to Cuzco!