I am sipping steaming black coffee and eating freshly made chocolates on a sunny balcony. Below me is a small tree-lined plaza surrounded by cool shaded walkways under the stone arches of whitewashed colonial buildings. The rainbow coloured Inca flag – easy to mistake for a gay flag for those not in the know – flutters from the tower of a building opposite and behind it a green hill rises up to the ruins of the enormous Inca fortress of Sacsaywaman.
Welcome to Cuzco.
I expected Cuzco to be a fun, fascinating, buzzing city.
What I was not prepared for is how utterly stunning it is. It makes Arequipa seem pedestrian.
The historic centre of Cuzco is a rambling hilly mass of ankle-threatening cobbled streets, balconied buildings, behind whose wooden painted doors lie secretive sunlit courtyards, and beautiful plazas. Around it gentle peaks rise with the wind-whispered promise of bigger mountains beyond.
The city oozes history from every crevice. Inca stonemasonry is merged with Spanish imperialist architecture. Quechuan and Spanish street names sit comfortably alongside each other.
But the bloody fight for Peruvian independence still holds a powerful place in the collective consciousness of this city and is memorialised in the main square, the Plaza de Armas, where Tupac Amaru II, an Inca descendant who sowed the first seeds of rebellion in Peru, was forced to watch his followers and family killed before himself being hung drawn and quartered by the Spanish imperialist masters.
Modern Cuzco also offers every comforting amenity to the weary traveller with tempting bars, cafes and restaurants littering every street, alongside shops overflowing with technicolor Peruvian knitwear, albeit at prices vastly inflated compared to the rest of Peru, and spas and massage parlours for those seeking to relieve aching muscles after trekking among the nearby ruins.
Its honeypot appeal for travellers is inescapable and you hear English spoken on every street corner but Cuzco is worthy of its international renown – and not just for its proximity to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.
Keen to avoid any overpriced and irritatingly inflexible ‘tours’ I took a local bus for the grand sum of 2.50 soles – about 50p – to the Inca ruins of Tambomachay about 8km outside Cuzco. From there I was able to walk along the road back towards the city passing four other Inca sites enroute. I saw a number of tour buses go whizzing past looking overcrowded and sweaty and felt a sense of deep satisfaction as I strolled along in the shade of fluttering eucalyptus trees. After 45 minutes or so of walking I came across a roadside cafe which sat high above the Cuzco valley and stopped for a coffee. It was really just a little rural cottage whose inhabitants had laid out a few tables and chairs in their garden. I sat in silence admiring the city far below, my only companions, a donkey in the adjacent field and an elderly Quechuan woman tending her crops.
I finished up at Sacsaywaman, whose magnitude is bewildering despite the fact that what remains is only about 20 per cent of the original structure. There are rocks used in its construction which make those at Stonehenge look like child’s fodder. How in god’s name those diminutive Incas hauled them to the top of this hill is beyond me.
In 1536 it was the site of one of the Inca’s final stands against the Spanish when Manco Inca recaptured the fortress and laid siege to Cuzco. His eventual defeat left Sacsaywaman littered with the corpses of his soldiers which attracted fleets of carrion-eating birds. Sacsaywaman allegedly means ‘satisfied falcon’ in Quechuan.
Away from the history, Cuzco is a city where you could, if you chose, party hard. They mix a mighty fine Pisco sour round here and hallucinogenic plants like San Pedro and ayahuasca, traditionally used in Amazonian shamanic ceremonies are now frequently pedalled to tourists for a quick buck. There are posters advertising trance raves in nearby Pisac in the Sacred Valley. Raving among ancient ruins? It’s every new age hippy’s dream come true.
I have not exploited the Cuzco nightlife – my sociable juices seem to have finally been sapped after nearly seven weeks of hostel dormitories and making new – often very temporary – friends almost daily. I just cannot be bothered. I hope this does not make me a terrible person. I am sure it will be short-lived.
Either way, it matters little because his lordship, who will hitherto be referred to as P as he is likely to feature in this blog quite a lot from now on, arrives on Saturday. Aside from my obvious delight at seeing him after a two month absence, I am also deliriously excited that I will be moving to a plusher hostel tomorrow where I have booked a double room.
This will be the first time I have not shared a bedroom with several strangers since I started travelling. Privacy seems like a very precious commodity right now!
It is going to be bliss. I can’t wait!