CUSCO — In case you didn’t know it, Cusco is the belly button of the world. It is a good sized city with about 400,000 people living in and around the old Inka capital. It is also 11,000 feet in elevation — much higher than what most people experience generally. Most Americans live within a couple hundred miles of the ocean and never have to deal with high altitude.
Cusco Cathedral —
Cusco Cathedral is huge and it is adjoined on each side with two other churches. You can pass through all three through internal doors so you can almost get lost. The cathedral is furnished with gold and silver altars and some rare artwork from the “Cusco School” of 17th century artists. The decoration is an interesting mix of Spanish and Inka symbolism including a large painting of the last supper where Jesus and the disciples are eating a guinea pig.
We wandered down to the Plaza de Armes on Saturday in time to see a wedding party come from the Cathedral to have their picture taken in front of the central plaza fountain. The bride and groom were roped together by a lesso, an over sized rosary.
Alpaca — Alpacas are smaller than Llamas but larger than Vicunas. Baby Alpaca wool is fleece from the first shearing of an Alpaca…after that they only have regular ol’ Alpaca fleece. Alpacas seem to be plentiful and they are a common source of meat. I had some Alpaca meat at one of our lunch stops and it was very good….seemed a little like a cross between pork and veal.
Vicuna – Vicunas are relatively rare and are not domesticated the way Alpacas and Llamas are. They are considered endangered and it is almost impossible to buy (legal) Vicuna fleece yarn. The government tightly controls the sale of Vicuna wool.
Llama – Llamas are the standard beast of burden for the highlands and they are often dressed out in fancy decorations. Every one that we saw seemed to be well mannered and well taken care of. As part of the camel family I expected them to be a little surly and unpredictable.
THE URUBAMBA — The Urubamba River flows through the Sacred Valley and is impressive — not like a little wandering mountain stream, it seems to be a river that means business. It has washed away a few towns in recent years. Apparently the Spanish built their towns close to the river contrary to the way the local native population lived before they got there.
ALTIPLANO — The Peruvian Altiplano is a large elevated plateau surrounded by the high Andes. Where we saw it, it seemed like a large grassland dotted with large and prosperous farms. We stayed in the valley most of the time but crossed over on our return to Cusco. It looked like a huge golf course surrounded by high mountains. I don’t know what the elevation was but we descended to Cusco, which is over 11,000 feet.
Chincheros is an old town on the Altiplano. There is a weavers’ group there that puts on demonstrations of how the llama and alpaca wool is processed. They were very entertaining and even sang a little song for us, typical of what they sing while they do their work. Apparently the song, which was sung in the local Quechua dialect, is obscene and caused a lot of giggles from the ladies while they were singing.
LIMA — Old Spain’s capital in the New World but more than that. Lima isn’t just the place you have to go through on the way to Machu Picchu. Lima is a city of 11 million people and an economic powerhouse. Peru’s economy is booming and that is readily evident in Lima.
Off shore there are a few islands — San Lorenzo islands — where there is a prison and a wildlife preserve. They are barely visible through the sea fog.
Lima is divided into 43 districts and each district has its own mayor. The mayors are in control of most of the operations of their own district and are supposed to cooperate for the betterment of the entire city. There is an over-lying city government that covers the entire region and supplies police and other centralized services. I’m not sure how well that all works.
The Spanish established Lima in 1535 and it was the official seat of the Vice royalty of Peru. The city has expanded over the years to engulf the surrounding farm areas. A city park contains the remnant of a grove of olive trees planted by the Spanish back in the 1600s.
HISTORIC LIMA — The old central historic district is designated a world heritage site. The Plaza de Armes is bordered by significant and historic buildings. There is an interesting similarity in many of the old buildings…especially the pale yellow color.
Lima’s city hall is one of those yellow buildings. The plaza has a fountain that dates back to the 1600s. We visited Lima on the day following the city’s founding date…Lima’s birthday. There had been a large concert in the plaza to celebrate the event.
Lima’s main city cathedral is located on the plaza. Unlike the cathedral in Cusco, you were permitted to take photographs. The building has been destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt several times. The impression that you get is one of brightness and airy-ness but that is primarily an effect of lighting. The ornate ceiling is made of wood. Altars have silver or gold decorations. Many of the altars in the side chapels are made of tropical hardwood imported from Panama because Peru did not have much wood suitable for the purpose. (The eucalyptus and pine trees that you can see in Peru now were introduced to provide a timber source.)
The first side chapel that you encounter contains the tomb of Francisco Pizarro, the founder of Lima and the conqueror of the Inkas. Pizarro was actually assassinated in 1541 by a group of Spanish rivals who wanted to take over his land holdings. He died decades before the Inka rebellion was put down and the conquest was completed. Fighting continued off and on until 1572. There was some confusion over who was actually buried in Pizarro’s tomb…his remains were eventually discovered in 1977 under the main altar in the cathedral and moved to the tomb.
Lady of Candelaria
There are numerous side chapels and each one has an ornate altar as a shrine to a specific saint or group of saints. Our Lady of Candelaria — Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria — is one of the venerated saints and is the patron saint of the city of Puna near Lake Titicaca. The people of the Andes adopted this saint as an embodiment of Pachamama – the old Inka mother earth goddess of fertility.
Another building on the Plaza de Armas is the Presidential Palace. We didn’t get a very close look but it was an impressive baroque building. This has been the governmental residence from the early colonial days and was originally the house of Pizarro. Our guide was willing to share his experiences and talk at length about the political and economic situation in Peru and how things change. The Marxist Shining Path insurgency/terrorists almost brought Peru to its knees but President Alberto Fujimori was able to put down the rebellion and brought economic stability to Peru. He is now serving a prison term in Peru for human rights violations and bribery but he still has a large support base. Another interesting baroque style building is the office of the Inquisition — being a colony far from Spain did not exempt Peru from the Spanish Inquisition.
San Marcos University – 1551 — Lima is also the site of San Marcos University, the first university established in the New World. The university was chartered in May of 1551 by a decree of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and is considered the national university of Peru.
San Francisco monastery — I see dead people — We visited the Convento de San Francisco, the old Franciscan monastery. The exterior is baroque but some of the interior spaces, including the nave, are in a Spanish-Moorish style. It is another one of the colonial era yellow buildings.
We were not supposed to take pictures in the monastery but our guide said it was OK so long as we were alone and not disturbing anyone…he then took our picture. The monastery has a very old library containing many colonial and conquest era books. It was a little alarming to see the books sitting out on tables and on display stands in an environment that seemed open to dampness and bright sunlight. The nave was in the Moorish style. The buildings were built over 100 years beginning in the 1670s.
Bone bins and catacombs — Lima’s catacombs are located beneath the monastery and accessed through the monastery. Local people of Spanish ancestry were placed in the catacombs when they died. Over the centuries, the numbers reached into the many thousands of burials. Periodically the tenders (monks?) would go through and discard the smaller bones and keep the long bones and the skulls piled in large wooden bins. This practice continued well into the 1800s until most of the bones were taken out and buried in a cemetery. There are still hundreds, if not thousands, of skulls and bones remaining in the catacombs. There is no way of knowing who these people were except that the policy was very restrictive and only pure-blood Spanish people could be interred in the catacombs.
Our guide was not eager to go down into the catacombs and he was hoping that we were claustrophobic and would not want to go. We went…but he whistled most of the time he was down there. This is apparently a grisly tourist attraction — we met a tour group while we were down in the catacombs. I’m surprised that the stone and brick passages survived all of the many earthquakes that have destroyed much of the city over the centuries.
HARD TIMES – Bad old days in Peru — Peru has a democratically elected government and is an economic powerhouse. Some people don’t know that and I even had people ask me if I wasn’t frightened to go there. Good grief…we Americans have no idea what is going on in the world.
Jail turned into a hotel
But — Peru has had periods when things were not so rosy. Fifty years ago there were several military coups and things were very shaky. The dictatorships sometimes were difficult and people were sometimes caught in the middle.
The Shining Path revolutionaries tried to take over the country and came fairly close. They were a Marxist/Maoist group that controlled substantial parts of the countryside and even areas close to Lima. There were serious bombings in the Miraflores section of Lima. The terrorists attacked military and police targets at first but eventually just began attacking everyone. Much of the infrastructure was also destroyed, including railroads. The main railway station in Lima was closed and left vacant for many years. It is now open as a shrine or museum dedicated to Peru’s writers. Shining Path was largely destroyed during the Fugimori years but it still exists and flares up on a small scale. Some of the few remaining revolutionaries now are drug smugglers.
LIMA’S GROWING PAINS — Urban problems are common in any big city but Lima has some that seem especially bad. With eleven million people and a really good economy there are lots of cars on the roads. We arrived at the airport around midnight and were taken to our hotel on traffic-clogged streets…even at one in the morning. Traffic is unbelievable and uncontrollable. I never saw anyone…not one…stop at a stop sign. If anyone would have stopped they would have been hit from behind. The only attempt at controlling traffic is the speed bump and there lots of speed bumps. There are very few freeways that we could see and most major streets are divided avenues or wide boulevards. Drivers make U-turns in the middle of traffic or turn right from a left lane. There seems to be a horn-honking/lights-flashing communication system among the drivers and we did not see any accidents and only a few cars with scratches or dents. If people drove in the US like they do in Lima they would be in prison. I’ve been to Milan and Rome where the traffic is legendary but it is nothing to what Lima is like.
Lima traffic – buses at the city market
Public transit is in the hands of 464 privately operated bus companies. Yes, that’s companies…and every bus looks different. There is no subway system and only a rudimentary rapid transit bus system that is just starting. There are plenty of taxis but they are not reliable and you have to negotiate a price before you get in the taxi.
Lima’s shantytown — South of the city, rising up the slope of a prominent hill, is Lima’s shanty town. When people abandoned the countryside and flocked to the city to get away from the Shining Path violence, they didn’t have any place to go so they became squatters on the hillside. I don’t know how many thousands (or millions?) of people are living there but it looks huge. We could only see it from across the city…we didn’t go near that area…but it seems to have some city services. It is lit up at night so there are apparently streets or alleys and street lights. Shanty towns are a common sight in many developing countries so there is nothing unique about this and I suspect that La Paz, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, and Bogota all have similar, and maybe larger, shanty towns. In Lima, at least, the shanty town residents have a million dollar view of the city and the Pacific Ocean.
Miraflores — The divide between the rich and poor is striking. We stayed in Miraflores which is one of the high rent districts and life is good and easier for people than in the poor sections. It is noteworthy that many of the larger private residences in Miraflores have full time security guards stationed on the grounds. Our guide told us that in the recent past kidnapping was a problem along with home invasion robberies and wealthy families are easy targets so they hire guards. There are lots of high rise apartment buildings with controlled access so the problem seems to be for people in their own houses.
I’m not sure that having 43 mayors is the way to tackle the city’s problems.
But, when things get too bad you can always find your way to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific and take in the sunset — and hope for a better tomorrow.