Arrival in Cusco - walking into an Andean Folk Festival
Five minutes after settling into my hostel in Cusco and meeting up with an international contingent of newly found friends from the prior week in Lima, we made our way toward the Plaza de Armas, center of the gone but not forgotten Inca Empire. As we turned onto Calle Santa Clara we were greeted by the kaleidoscope of colors and sounds that is folk festival in the Andean Highlands, in this case it was Carnivales. The parade was just beginning, so we found a good vantage point along the crowded edge of the plaza to take it all in alongside the local revelers. Every minute or so I kept checking back over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t blocking the old woman’s view, who had settled in directly behind me. I’d turn around and smile and she’d respond with a toothless grin of her own as we watched the parade roll by. Local marching bands made their way past in the procession playing tunes with old, rusting brass horns and drums while men, women and children all danced along behind in their colorful, traditional costumes. To add to the energy and excitement, gangs of the local children ran around with buckets of cold water and canisters that sprayed a soapy foam, similar to silly string, which they were all too eager to use on us gringos. The sun was out and it was a beautiful day so no one seemed to mind, we just took part in the celebration along with everyone else in the old city and soaked up the moment, along with the buckets of water.
Plaza de Armas
Almost every Peruvian city or town, no matter how small, has a main square, usually called the Plaza de Armas. Cuzco’s is the center of the city in every sense, and in the time of the Incas, was connected to Plaza Regocijo. The square’s a beautiful place to stroll. While you’re there, visit the cathedral, known for paintings by native artists trained in what is referred to as the Escuela Cuzqueña, or Cuzco School of Art. Of particular note is a distinctly Peruvian depiction of the Last Supper—with a guinea pig as the main dish.
Heart of the City
The flags of both Peru and the Inca empire fly above the Plaza de Armas, Cusco's central square and busy hub of activity. Come during the day to visit sites like the 16th-century cathedral (built using stones from the Sacsaywamán site, and housing a notable collection of colonial art), stroll through the colonial-era arcades, pop into the shops, or lie out in the central park. Then be sure to return at night, when the lighting gives it all a magical glow and there's an energy in the air from the nightlife-seeking crowds.
By Sandra Ramani, AFAR Contributor
Cusco Starting Point
Plaza De Armas lies in the heart of the old city of Cusco, Peru. The architecture here is a wonderful mixture of Inca and Spanish Colonial. Most buildings have large stone bases, and stucco walls above. Everywhere, there is a reminder of Peru's past, and its culture. Even grand staircases, such as this one, mimic the terraces of many Incan sites, including Machu Picchu. The Plaza is a hub of activity, with many people flocking to its fountain, or the two cathedrals facing it. There are also many restaurants that are located along the plaza, but most are over priced and not very authentic. Go a block or two back from the Plaza to find the real culinary delights! This is a good place to start on a visit to Cusco. Most of the main attractions can be accessed from here, and there are numerous taxis ready to take you anywhere you'd like to go! Cusco is a wonderful town, and very accomodating to tourists.
By Blake Burton
Friends in far-off places
On a two-week expedition through Peru last April I spent a day in Cusco photographing and talking with the street vendors, who are in great supply here, competing for tourist dollars. Venancia, a woman from the countryside selling handmade alpaca sweaters, was thrilled that I bought two of her pullovers for 50 soles (about $20) each—her first sale of the morning. I made friends with one young sidewalk art vendor, who, contrary to most of his peers, didn’t claim to be named Michelangelo or Picasso. His name was Cesar Sotomayer, and he was intrigued that a U.S. Supreme Court Justice shared his surname. The two charmers photographed—Frank and Luis—convinced me to accept a shoeshine by insisting in Spanish, "Only one minute!" "Pay what you want!" and "Everyone has to eat!" Having once been married to a former shoeshine boy from the Dominican Republic who used the same truthful line about eating, I consented -- then protested when they tried to charge me twenty-five soles. We shared a laugh and I paid them five soles each. Not bad for a minute’s work. Peru is rightfully known for Machu Picchu and other marvels of the Incan Empire, its Amazonian jungles, its multi-layered cuisine, and its colonial architecture. Yet it was through the street people of its cities, towns, and villages that I felt as if I had a knowledge of—and connection to—the heartbeat—of the place.
Plaza de Armas- La Compania- Light Bursts
It's hard to predict the weather of Andean afternoons in Cusco, Peru. The skies were capable of rapid change- clouds suddenly split open to allow for cascading bursts of bright light, then just as quickly seal back together to encompass the Plaza de Armas in a somber shade. This church, on the Southeastern side of the Plaza de Armas, Cusco's town square, is often mistaken for the city's main cathedral, due to its ornate architecture and twin bell towers. With the clouds encircling the spires, it can be a cause for pause for believers and non-believers alike, as it invites the curious traveler to enter. What awaits inside are layers of artistic and architectural influence left by the Spanish conquistadors and intertwined with the native Indo-Andean cultures, creating a unique religious decor as host to Catholic services. Beware, by the time you re-enter the square the skies will surely have shifted.
Coca Tea at the Plaza Cafe
Grab a balcony seat and teapot of coca tea on a beautiful afternoon and relax while adjusting to the attitude. You will get a great view of Plaza de Armas and still feel a part of the bustling town center.