Jill Willis

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SOUTH AMERICA > Peru > Cusco

Conch Shells in Cusco

Jill Willis

Article & Pictures © 2009 Jill Willis

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“Photo, lady?” asked the woman in traditional dress, sitting with her llama on the pavement outside my hotel. The llama had no taste and wore shocking-pink woolen tassels in its ears.

“Photo, lady?” asked the woman in traditional dress, sitting with her llama on the pavement outside my hotel. The llama had no taste and wore shocking-pink woolen tassels in its ears. I was staying in San Blas, the old artisan quarter of Cusco, with steep cobbled streets worn shiny over the centuries.

In Hatun Rumiyoc, a narrow street with Inca walls on the way into town, a huge man dressed as an Inca stood beside the famous 12-angled stone while people posed for photographs alongside him. Nearer the main square, young women called, “Massage, amiga?” A teenaged boy clutching a portfolio asked, “You want to see my work?” Irritated at being asked three times in as many minutes, I ignored him, but he persisted. “Do you remember me – Pablo Picasso?” He succeeded in making me smile. Sit down in the Plaza de Armas— the main square in all Peruvian towns has this name — and shoeshine boys swarm around you, even if you’re wearing flip flops. Many of the street vendors are children, some trying to feed their families, others living on the streets. There are several good cafés whose profits support projects working with children or helping young people into work.

Cusco is full of tourists, with good reason. It is a beautiful city of elegant balconied buildings, peaceful squares with trees and fountains, richly decorated churches and more museums and Inca ruins than most visitors have time to see.

A top hat and Manta is traditional dress in Cusco, Peru - click to enlargeCusquenans keep their local traditions and culture alive. Their first language is Quechua and many children don’t learn Spanish until they start school. The older women still wear their traditional dress, with a full skirt and petticoats, and either a trilby or a white top hat. Even young women use a manta, a brightly patterned cloth tied over their backs, in which they carry goods or babies (I only saw one pushchair here). Everybody is friendly and helpful. Taxi drivers would ask where I was from, where I’d been in Peru, where my husband was and my age! The man in the internet café apologised for his lack of English as he patiently helped me upload pictures, and a bank teller chatted with me for several minutes while other customers waited.

I had three hours of Spanish lessons every day for a week, and my teacher became a friend. The school trains single mothers to teach and, by Peruvian standards, they are very well paid. Hilda had been a street cleaner – one of the army of blue-overalled women wielding straw brooms who keep Cusco immaculately clean – until she became a teacher.

Rather than sit in a classroom, we walked, talked and giggled our way around town. We went to the bustling market, with whole aisles of fruit (some of which, like lucuma, I’d never seen before), and others devoted to vegetables, including dozens of different kinds of potatoes. There was an aisle of stalls selling flat, round local cheeses and another of bread; sacks of beans and grains such as quinoa; natural medicine stalls with big bunches of fresh herbs and sinister-looking lotions and potions. The butchery area sold all kinds of animal parts that we don’t eat. (I often saw caldo de cabeza – lamb’s head soup – on restaurant menus.)

We climbed the Pachacutec monument and took in the 360-degree views from the top, and we struggled up a hill to the ruined Inca fortress at Sacsayhuaman, built of immense stone blocks.

We visited a weaving centre with a “how it’s done” exhibition and watched weavers deftly working complicated traditional patterns. I fell in love with one of the alpaca ponchos that were on sale. These are very expensive and Hilda told me I could buy one at a much better price in the village of Chinchero.

Hilda took me to a museum that I wouldn’t otherwise have found as it’s off the beaten track and isn’t in the guidebooks. The Museo de Arte de Ninos Andinos (the Museum of Art of Andean Children) is a delight. It explains the work of an organisation called Ayllu Yupaychay, which takes teachers and art materials out to remote Andean villages for a week at a time. Most of the children have never held a paintbrush, yet they create beautiful paintings of condors, rivers and mountains or reproduce traditional textile designs. Younger children experience play dough and finger painting; the older ones might create a self-portrait or learn about colour mixing. The museum contains examples of their work and a video of some of the children who have taken part in the project. The sheer joy on their faces stayed with me long after I left.

Another museum that I loved was the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, which houses a mind-blowing collection of early ceramics. Many of these are over a thousand years old, but are so technically brilliant that they could have been made yesterday, and most tell a story about the culture that created them – the people, their animals and crops, their music, even their sex lives.

Concho band in Peru - click to enlargeI’d made sure I’d be in Cusco for the Corpus Christi fiesta because I’d read that it’s a stunning spectacle, and I wasn’t disappointed. Effigies of Saints and Virgins were carried from fifteen parishes around the city to the cathedral, where they would stay for eight days before being carried back to their respective churches. Each heavy effigy was borne on the shoulders of a team of men and accompanied by a brass band, masked dancers and colourfully dressed parishioners carrying banners. With them marched a band of men dressed in knitted hats and ponchos, blowing conch shells, which make a haunting and surprisingly powerful sound. The Plaza de Armas was bursting with people, colour and noise and being part of it was a fantastic experience. A nearby square was taken over by stalls selling food (mountains of roast chickens and guinea pigs, crisply fried pork, and vats of beans) and the local beer, and when the processions were over the feasting continued late into the evening, only to start again the following day after a Mass, attended by all the saints and Virgins, on the cathedral steps.

As I don’t eat meat, I didn’t try the fiesta food, but there are plenty of restaurants offering local trout, which is served with a variety of sauces: Dijon mustard and honey, with a touch of rosemary, was absolutely delicious, and elderberry was very good. I also enjoyed filling soups made from quinoa and vegetables, and sometimes went for breakfast to Jack’s, a gringo café that appears in all the guidebooks. They serve buttered toast with elderberry jam, and glass pots of fresh herbal infusions such as lemon grass, as attractive to look at as they are refreshing.

Cusco has a South American Explorers’ clubhouse. This organisation is well worth joining if you’re planning to travel a lot in South America, as they have lots of maps and information. The clubhouses are a good place to meet other travellers, and they have book exchanges, so you need never run out of things to read. They also hold events and I went to a shamanic “Pago a Pachamama” ceremony, which honoured the Earth Mother with gifts including a seahorse, a foetus, flowers, sweets and biscuits, and libations of wine and chicha, a fermented drink made from maize. The shaman gave everyone a handful of coca leaves to chew and said it would be unlucky not to consume them all, but afterwards there were little piles of leaves dotted around the garden. I drank a lot of coca tea in Cusco, because it helps to relieve the effects of altitude, but the leaves, although used in this way throughout history, are unpleasant to chew.

Inca crop circles at Moray, Peru - click to enlargeOne day I visited Moray, where the Incas experimented with growing different crops in skillfully irrigated concentric circular terraces, with rainforest crops at the lowest level, then coastal plants, and crops from the sierra at the top, where the microclimate was drier and colder. The terraces form an extraordinary landscape; unfortunately they are no longer cultivated. From there my guide drove on to Salineras, another bizarre landscape created by the Incas, this time a pattern of salt pans, where water from a salty river evaporates in the sun.

I spent an idyllic weekend at El Huerto Paraiso near Urubamba in the Sacred Valley, an eco-tourism project that helps to support local artisans – weavers, chocolate makers, potters, and a bee-keeper. Visitors can watch them at work and buy their products at very reasonable prices. The pottery is made from clay dug within a couple of miles of the village and decorated with natural glazes, and the rich, dark chocolate is handmade from cocoa beans harvested in the Sacred Valley, which are roasted, shelled and milled on site. The accommodation at El Huerto Paraiso consists of comfortable cabins surrounding an organic orchard of peach, orange and mango trees. Delicious meals are prepared from locally sourced ingredients, and might end with a homemade fruit liqueur.

Numerous travel companies in Cusco offer tours of the Manu jungle (the Manu National Park, to give it its proper name), but only a handful are allowed to take visitors into the Reserve Zone, which offers the best wildlife watching. One of these is Pantiacolla Tours, and I spent nine amazing days on one of their small group tours. We travelled for hours in a motorised canoe along the Alto Madre de Dios and Manu rivers, past sunbathing turtles and cayman and extraordinary birds, with glimpses of shy capybara (sheep-sized rodents). We drifted on rafts on the oxbow lakes while giant otters played and fished, and enjoyed the colourful spectacle of hundreds of macaws at a clay lick. On forest trails we saw monkeys, wild pigs and yet more birds, and on night walks we found tarantulas, frogs and a night monkey. We stayed in comfortable lodges and the cook, with a flashlight on his head, conjured up brilliant meals on a two-burner gas cooker. The whole trip, including the journey over the Andes and down through the cloud forest, was magical.

Thousands of backpackers set off from Cusco every year to spend four days hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I like my creature comforts, so I went the easy way. First, a collectivo – a ridiculously cheap shared taxi – to Ollantaytambo, a lovely flower-filled place, surrounded by mountains. Built on the remains of an Inca city, and using a lot of the original stonework, the village has very narrow streets and trapezoidal doorways. There is a small artisan market, where silver jewellery inlaid with semi-precious stones is keenly priced. Some good-natured haggling made it even better value!

Machu Pichu in Peru - click to enlargeFrom Ollantaytambo a train runs alongside the rushing, rocky Urubamba river, with spectacular views of snow-capped mountains, to Aguas Calientes. This is an unprepossessing little town of hotels and restaurants catering for visitors to Machu Picchu: those who, like me, stay overnight in order to arrive at the ruins at daybreak, and those who have completed the Inca Trail and are desperate for a comfortable bed and a shower. There was already a 200-strong queue at the bus stop when a convoy of buses arrived at 5.30 a.m. to take us up the mountain to the site. The short journey is awe-inspiring as the bus winds its way up through the mist, the mountains looking just like they do in “lost city” films. Although I’d seen countless pictures, I was unprepared for the vastness of the site. I enjoyed wandering around without a guide, free to stop and stare as long as I liked (I spent a long time watching two lizards), and soak up the atmosphere, but most people were in groups with a guide, and I often found myself eavesdropping on them.

I caught an afternoon train and arrived back in Cusco for my final night in this vibrant, friendly city. The next day I flew to the north coast of Peru, but that’s another story . . .


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