Urchins to art

Urchins to art

Revisiting history

Urchins to art

The flight from Lima, Peru’s modern seaside capital to Cuzco — the ancient Inca capital, takes an hour. With great expectations, we arrived in the high Andes, where we would tread on the vestiges of another civilisation, learn about its language and eat its food.
Our group of six landed around 10 am, on a day of crystalline clarity. Everything looked clean and in sharp focus. We were driven to our hotel where our guide ordered us to drink coca tea. Ordered, not suggested.

For denizens of sea level, adjusting to the altitude of 3,400 metres can be exhausting or worse. Thankfully, coca tea – the pleasant herbal tea brewed from the leaves of the coca plant is ideal for altitude sickness. It is available free in many hotels and I gulped down a few cups after reaching the hotel and was already feeling lightheaded and breathless.

Age-old homes and buildings
Cuzco proved to be one of the most wonderful places I have ever visited. Clinging to the mountain sides, its perilously steep cobbled streets are lined with pretty 19th-century houses with blue doors and balconies. The foundations of many of these buildings are huge, Flintstone-style rocks which once formed part of the earlier Inca city upon which Cuzco was built.

What else made the place so special? Its pretty garden squares and rococo cathedral and churches. Then, there were the brightly dressed women down from the villages, leading a recalcitrant llama or two and carrying a baby (child or sheep) in a papoose over their shoulders.

The outline of the old city, some say, was deliberately done in the shape of a puma when Pachacutec, the ninth Inca ruler, expanded the empire in the mid-15th century and consolidated his power in Cuzco. Most of the streets are laid out on a grid that was established when the Incas began building the city in the beginning of the 13th century.
We started our trip from Plaza de Armas, Cuzco’s heart. All of the city’s sights are within walking distance from here. In Inca times, the square was mainly used for ceremonial purposes and was known as ‘Huacayapata’, which means warriors’ square. Now, women in layered skirts and wearing stovepipe hats over long plaits chatted in Quechua on the Cathedral steps, both fragments of the past hovering in the present. Quechua is the Inca language that is still spoken in the Andes.

Poverty is rife in Peru despite the tourist boom. A couple of street urchins started pestering us, hanging on to our clothes and demanding soles in exchange for crudely made drawings. We fled into the safe confines of the Cathedral, where we found to our dismay that photography was prohibited. Construction of the Cathedral began in 1560 but took almost 100 years to complete. Two auxiliary chapels sit on either side. The Cathedral’s Renaissance façade is in contrast with the lavish Baroque interior containing colonial gold and silver and has over 400 Cuzco School paintings.

Museums galore
Our next stop was Museo de Arte Precolombino. This sophisticated and sumptuously designed archaeological museum features part of the vast collection of pre-Colombian works belonging to the Rafael Larco Herrera Museum in Lima. Housed in an erstwhile Inca ceremonial court and later colonial mansion of the conquistador Alonso Diaz are 450 exhibits dating from 1250 BC to 1532 AD.

Beautifully illuminated halls carefully exhibit gold and silver handicrafts, jewellery, ceramics and other artifacts depicting the rich traditions from the Nazca, Moche, Huari, Chimu, Chancay and Inca cultures. Although, the number of pieces isn’t overwhelming, they are all beautifully displayed.

Scattered around are comments by major artists such as Paul Klee. Deviating from the museum’s main thrust is a room of Cuzco School religious paintings. The place is especially worthwhile for anyone who is unable to visit the major museums in Lima.
Hall of prayer: The Cuzco Cathedral near the main city square.Photo by Indranil Choudhuri The massive Inca walls are one of Cuzco’s most striking features. Francisco Pizarro and the small band of Spanish adventurers invaded and subdued the mighty empire in 1532,  thanks to their horses and guns, which marched into Cuzco the very next year. They had little respect for the various landmarks, and stripped the temples and palaces of their lavish gold ornamentation. But, they did not completely destroy the amazing walls.
Heading northeast, away from the Plaza de Armas uphill along Calle Triunfo, we soon came to the street of Hatunrumiyoc, named after the well-known 12-sided stone. The stone is on the right and can usually be recognised by the knot of tourists who stand next to it, to be photographed.

Shopper’s paradise
However, the short uphill walk left me breathless. It is best to move relatively slowly around Cuzco. The shortage of oxygen makes those who are not used to life at high altitudes, tired easily. I wandered into a shop to catch my breath and spotted a well-crafted retablo. Retablos are filled with figures made of potato dough and they portray bull fights, dances, condor hunts, markets, religious festivals and scenes showing the making of musical instruments and hats. Later I departed for San Blas District.
Once the domain of Quechua nobility, the narrow streets of San Blas are now home to workshops of Cusquena artists who practice metalwork, stone and wood carving. The place is swimming with art galleries and ceramics shops. It’s convenient to do your shopping here, but if the sellers think you’ve just arrived in Peru and don’t know the real value of items, your price is guaranteed to be higher.

Although bargaining is acceptable and expected, merchants in the centre of Cuzco are confident of a steady stream of buyers and, as a result, they are often less willing to negotiate than their counterparts in more out-of-the-way places in Peru.

I wrapped up my day’s sightseeing with a visit to an alpaca goods shop. Almost everyone in Cuzco will try to sell you what they claim to be 100 per cent alpaca scarves and sweaters, but many sold on the streets and in tourist stalls are of inferior quality. So, what is described as ‘baby alpaca’ might be anything but it.

People head to Cuzco because it is the gateway to the spectacular ruins of Machu Picchu, the abandoned Inca city which lies four hours away by train. If much of Peru is dusty, chaotic and polluted, Cuzco is a beautiful little enclave whose serenity enraptures you upon arrival and then does the very worst thing it can do to a homebound traveller — it tempts you to stay.

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