Cuzco City and Culture

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Cuzco City and Culture
Cuzco's culture is an eccentric blend of indigenous folklore, Incan ingenuity, and modern mysticism. Discover how these cultures meld through the food, art, festivals, and architecture of the Incan capital.
Photo by Toño Labra/age fotostock
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    Walking Cuzco's History
    Cuzco's historic center is a fascinating blend of Incan, colonial, and republican architecture. Incan stonemasonry is everywhere: The most famous example is the twelve-angled stone on Calle Hatunrumiyoc, but an observant visitor will find countless examples of the skill and invention of Incan stonemasons, with serpents, llamas, cuys, and other shapes hidden in the stonework. The old artisans' district of San Blas, a maze of stone alleyways and steep climbs, is a favorite haunt of Latin American street musicians, and the elegant Plaza de Armas makes a lively base for people-watching.
    Photo by Toño Labra/age fotostock
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    Inside the Incan Empire
    Museo Casa Concha was opened to house some 4,000 relics taken from Machu Picchu by explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911 and kept at Yale University for a century. The museum is well-organized and informative, providing excellent insight into the history and excavation of Machu Picchu. The Museo Inka provides a slightly more chaotic introduction to Incan culture. A few blocks away, the Museo de Arte Precolombino (MAP) holds a small but delightful collection of pre-Columbian art. The Museo de Arte de Niños Andinos (Museum of Andean Children’s Art) is an oft-overlooked gem, displaying works produced by indigenous children in remote communities, introducing visitors to the worldview and symbolism of Quechua culture.
    Photo courtesy of Dr. Jean-Jacques Decoster/Museo Casa Concha
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    Cuzco's Own Ruins
    Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Qenko, and Sacsayhuamán all played important roles in pre-conquest society and are an easy half-day excursion from Cuzco. The furthest from Cuzco, Tambomachay, features natural springs channeled and refined to create the Bath of the Inca, devoted to water worship. Puka Pukara was a checkpoint, resting place for travelers, and part of the city’s defenses. Qenko's enormous limestone monolith holds religious significance. Sacsayhuamán looks down upon Cuzco itself and is a fascinating site of uncertain historical purpose. It may have been a fortress, temple, or center of administration; legend claims its rocks represent the head and teeth of the sacred puma, with Cuzco below forming the body.
    Photo by Ritterbach/age fotostock
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    The Sacred Valley of the Incas
    The Sacred Valley of the Incas, formed by the Urubamba River, is magical at dusk when day-trippers retreat to their buses and quiet falls. It's worth spending at least a night or two. In Ollantaytambo—the site of Manco Inca Yupanqui’s last stand against the Spanish conquistadores before he fled into the jungle—Incan canals run along the edges of most of its narrow, high-walled streets, ensuring the sound of water is everywhere. Before exploring the ruins, look for the profile of Wiracocha, the Incan creator god, scowling down from the ridge above town. Close by, the photogenic salt mines of Maras cling to the steep mountainside, and Moray’s concentric terraces form a deep bowl, thought to have been a kind of agricultural laboratory.
    Photo by Camden Luxford
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    Machu Picchu
    Located in the Sacred Valley, about a three-hour train ride from Cuzco, Machu Picchu was introduced to the world by Hiram Bingham in 1911. The citadel was built in the 15th century and abandoned in the 16th when the Spaniards conquered the Incan empire. It still guards many of its secrets, though visitors can get a sense of the Incan astronomical and agricultural mastery: The Hitching Post of the Sun allowed for the prediction of solstices, and the elaborate terracing and the ceremonial baths are all-important features of the site. Like much Incan architecture, Machu Picchu responds to the surrounding environment rather than seeking to dominate it. The citadel, hanging above a surging Urubamba River and cloud forest, is breathtaking.
    Photo by Joan Wharton
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    The Colonial Era
    Qoricancha, the Incan Temple of the Sun partially destroyed to make way for a Dominican convent, is a marvelous place to explore Cuzco's curious blend of colonial architecture and Incan foundations. Close by, the baroque Cathedral houses Cuzco's patron, the Lord of the Tremors, a dark-skinned Christ venerated for saving the city from an earthquake in 1650. Other important colonial buildings include the House of the Four Busts, the House of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, and the Archbishop’s Palace. In Andahuaylillas, 25 miles from Cuzco, the church of San Pedro Apóstol—the “Sistine Chapel of the Andes”—is a delightful surprise of colorful murals and gold-leaf altar work.
    Photo by Camden Luxford
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    Contemporary Indigenous Culture
    The coca leaf is an integral part of the culture of the Quechua-speaking indigenous communities of the Andes. The mildly narcotic leaf is chewed or made into tea in order to suppress hunger, mitigate the symptoms of altitude sickness, or provide energy for long laborious days. It also possesses ritual significance as part of the offering to Pachamama in a payment to the earth, or, tossed into the air by a shaman, as a means for reading the future. The Coca Museum has a useful exhibit on the cultural significance of the sacred leaf. Weaving plays an important role in indigenous culture; the Center for Traditional Textiles supports traditional weavers and introduces visitors to the intricacies of traditional patterns and techniques.
    Photo by Camden Luxford
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    Varied Peruvian Flavors
    Peru’s cuisine is strikingly diverse. In the Andes, the key ingredients are quinoa, guinea pig, alpaca, and the ubiquitous potato. Try a pachamanca of meats and herbs cooked in the earth on hot stones, or olluquito con charqui, a stew made of a native tuber with alpaca, llama, or mutton. Pachapapa in San Blas serves up traditional food, while MAP Café puts a modern twist on the classics. Coastal dishes rely heavily on the zing of lime, coriander, and ají chilies: Ceviche, Peru’s iconic dish of flash-marinated fish, embodies this style. Try it at LIMO or Chicha. Lomo saltado is a beef, onion, and tomato stir-fry, and is the flagship dish of chifa—a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian cuisines.
    Photo by Camden Luxford
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    Warrior Angels: The Cuzco School of Painting
    After the conquest, European painters introduced their techniques and religious iconography to indigenous artists. The Cuzco School emerged: baroque and mannerism blended with the freer hand and distorted imagery of New World artists, and rendered in vibrant red, yellow, gold, and earth tones. The familiar biblical scenes are subverted by local touches: native flowers, Andean landscapes, and colonial-era firearms in the hands of the Archangels. Marcos Zapata was an important artist, and his Last Supper—in which the disciples feast on guinea pig—can be found inside the Cathedral. The Archbishop’s Palace also has an interesting collection, and other works are scattered through the various museums and churches of Cuzco.
    Photo by Yadid Levy/age fotostock
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    Andean Festivals
    Cuzco’s syncretism of Incan and colonial folkloric culture is most apparent in its festivals. The Spaniards adopted the sacred spaces and dates of the Incas, channeling pre-existing faith towards the Catholic church. Likewise, indigenous communities adapted the Catholic celebrations imposed by the conquistadores to their own needs. Traditional dance is the most visible manifestation of this. Masked characters represent figures from pre-Columbian history or poke sly fun at colonial social structures. The multi-day Virgen del Carmen festival in Paucartambo (July) draws dancers from across the region. Within Cuzco, the feast of Corpus Christi embodies Catholic tradition in Peru, while Inti Raymi in June recreates the Incan Feast of the Sun.
    Photo by Camden Luxford