Cusco, Peru; Valle Sagrado de los Incas

Latitude 13.51685°S Longitude 71.97637°W

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

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We arrived in the lovely colonial town of Cusco early on Christmas Eve morning.

The Plaza de Armas in the center of town was transformed into a huge market place where peasant farmers from villages miles around had gathered to sell nativity handicrafts. In stark contrast to the joyous Christmas festivities were scenes of heartbreaking poverty however. The majority of these campesinos and their children were illiterate and desperately poor. Most were in very bad physical condition too. On Christmas Eve, when the markets were all done, they all slept outside, exposed to the bitter cold in the plaza, families huddled together with blankets to ward off the frosty air. Many of the hotels in Cusco had a Christmas tradition of providing a warm meal for these villagers, and all around town long lines of sad, bedraggled men, women and children could seen, eyes hopeful for a meal before the food ran out. This, and many other scenes we encountered in Peru, made very evident the plight of the overwhelming majority of the people of this poor country. Such a stark contrast to Christmas Eve in our home towns.

We ended up staying in the Cusco area for two weeks in total, during which we used Cusco as a base for visiting all the sites in the Sacred Valley as well as Peru's jewel in the crown, Machu Picchu. In addition, our close friend Radhika Reddi joined us in Cusco on the 29th on her annual vacation, and we all travelled together for 9 days.

Cusco, the capital of the ancient Inca civilization, and the surrounding Sacred Valley, all proved to be fascinating places to visit.

The town of Cusco was a captivating mix of Inca and colonial Spanish architecture. Perched high in the Andes at an altitude of 3300m, it took all of us several days to acclimatise to the thin but crystal clear air. Walking around the town, we saw many colonial buildings which were erected on foundations of original Inca stonework, whose unique style and craftmanship has endured the ages and is still a marvel today. Strolling around the frosty Plaza de Armas at night, surrounded by towering cathedrals and monasteries all lit up by magical lights, was an enchanting experience we will never forget.

Keiko and Radhika went crazy buying up handicrafts in Cusco and nearby Pisaq, many made from the fine (and expensive!) wools of llamas, guanacos, alpacas and vicuñas - curious animals which are all members of the camel family. The llama has played a prominent role in the Inca society for thousands of years, used in sacred rituals, for its wool, its meat and fat, and as a beast of burden.

Opting out of the handicraft shopping sprees, Nick retaliated by exploring the local culinary offerings to their fullest, which included the Peruvian highland delicacies of alpaca steak and cuy (roasted whole guinnea pig - and in case you're wondering, no, it most definitely did not taste like chicken!).

The sites of the Sacred Valley: Saqsaywaman, Q'enqo, Pukupukara, Tambomachay, Pisaq, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero ranged from the mundane to the completely mind blowing. We hired a driver and guide for a day and set out to explore them all. The highlights were the ruins of Pisaq and the ancient city of Ollantaytambo, which our guide explained was a portal to the even more amazing Machu Picchu 30km further to the west. The scenery of the Rio Urubamba winding through the base of countless rugged, soaring peaks was simply spectacular.

Photos: (click on images to see full size)

Cusco's charming Plaza de ArmasThe CathedralLlamas in the Plaza, Xmas EveSpinning llama woolHandwoven tapestries in the Cusco marketplaceHandmade dolls
Cusco street sceneAncient Inca stonework, CuscoCusco street sceneA lovable llama!Who's cuter?Keiko at the Cusco Artesanias market
Weaving cloth the traditional wayThe Pisaq Valley, location of the Pisaq Sunday marketsMarket scenePeruvian girlOn the way to the marketThe Cool Dude from Pisaq
Cuy (roasted guinnea pig), anyone?Even the stuffed ones are cute!Colorful maizeCoca leaves - chew to relieve those cocaine blues!Pisaq market chicKeiko and Radhika, shopping in Chinchero
The Inca ruins at PisaqAncient Inca stonework at SaqsaywamanNico rests on sacrificial altar at the Templo del Luna

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