Cuzco: The City vs. the Ruins

When you visit Peru, Machu Picchu is sort of a staple tourist site. That said, even though it’s just a quick flight out of Lima, it can eat into your schedule: sure, you could hypothetically fly in, go straight to Machu Picchu, see it, and fly back to Lima that night, but the travel would be hell. Even if you could get all the bookings just right, you’d also miss out on all the other insane historical sites that surround Cuzco. When Ivo and I visited Cuzco together for the first time, we stayed for about a week and hammered out a military-style tour of just about every architectural/historical marvel there was to see. It was utterly draining and completely worth it. Thanks to all our hard work last time, on our visit this February with Anna and Ben, Ivo and I were able to send our gringo chums on their way up the mountain while we leisurely enjoyed the actual city of Cuzco.


So while Anna and Ben were busy hiking, Ivo and I slept in at our adorable hotel (Casa Andina, highly, highly recommend). We slouched upstairs for a leisurely breakfast with a view. We sipped coca leaf tea in the lobby to combat the altitude queasiness while we looked at maps, then we slowly but efficiently worked our way around the city, occasionally taking breaks for quality Peruvian coffee and goofing around. At one point, we grabbed light lunch at La Bondiet: Got to recommend them for desserts and espresso, wow. It’s a plain shop in terms of atmosphere, but their chocolates floored me.








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I swear, if I am forced to pose in front of one more KFC sign…

Cuzco is up in the mountains, so there’s less dust and more actual rain than in Lima. We happened to hit the city on a rainy few days, but Ivo and I splashed through to visit most of the major museums and churches in the city. We started off at the Museo Inka (the Inca Museum). It wasn’t flashy, but it was located in a beautiful old Spanish house. That’s worth learning to appreciate. No, it’s not polished or shiny, and the cobblestones are beaten and uneven, but even if there was nothing in it, this could still be a museum. Here’s the catch though: You absolutely must have a tour guide for the Museo Inka. The design of the museum is not intuitive, and there is not enough information readily available (even in Spanish) to really appreciate the many wonderful pieces this incredible and comprehensive museum has to offer. Guides are laughably affordable, they’re available quickly, and they’re available in English: the Internet is rife with poor reviews of Museo Inka. In very large part, it’s because visitors did not have a guide.


My impression is that Peru, especially Cuzco, is still learning how to effectively create museums and display its history.

So, tourism is booming at this point: It’s the country’s THIRD biggest industry. And it’s no wonder, really. With the discovery of Caral too, it’s becoming ridiculous: for anybody in the West, Peru is home to the oldest, the greatest, the grandest, the darkest, and arguably the most fascinating history available without a flight of 8+ hours.

The dedication of staff at most museums seems clear.

Memorably, at one point, Anna and Ben joined us for a tour of the Museo Machu Picchu, where we asked for an English-speaking tour guide. A young man about our age came out to meet us; apparently (he explained in Spanish), the English-speaking tour guide wasn’t available at the moment. Then the poor kid made the mistake of generously explaining the situation to the gringos in English. Ivo pounced: “Hey! Your English is fine, why don’t you give the tour?”  I swear, this guy was a native Peruvian and he turned sheet white. “No, no, I’m still in training, I’m not ready yet!” Whelp, an hour later we’d successfully baptized the new tour guide in fire. There were several stumbles, a few descriptions that dissolved into nervous muttered jibberish, but in short, he pulled it off. Just in terms of raw information, his amount of knowledge was impressive. The fact that he had then converted that knowledge into a second language was staggering.

Though we weren’t allowed to take photos inside most buildings, we were able to photograph some of the beautiful courtyards between rain showers.


IMG_0592 IMG_0591Overall, museums are clean. Models are carefully and intentionally, if not gracefully, arranged. Effort is made to keep things visual and clear, but budgets and/or training often seems limited. English tours are technically available in most places, but they’re usually far from the crisp, clear English available from bilinguals in Europe. English plaques, though often present now, tend to have typos or very poor translations, and sometimes the plaques have even obviously been cut, glued, and matted by hand.

The result is confusing and exciting and frustrating.

Sometimes items that are literally one of a kind, items representative of whole peoples, whole eras in human history, are in displays that look like they were composed by well-meaning college freshmen. And that can be irritating. Sometimes too I feel my heart drop wondering if items are really being preserved, if they’ll survive for the next generation. In several of the churches and convents, for example, fresco murals and paintings remain exposed to the damp, open air. In one stunning convent, we saw one of the gigantic (I’m talking 3 ft. long, maybe 5 ft. across when open) music books originally used for choruses. The book was entirely, painstakingly handmade, each letter, each note, each stitch. Creation of that magnificent book had consumed a human being’s lifetime. And there the book sat, open to a random page. No lasers, no glass, no temperature-controlled box. No guards or sharply dressed overseers. Out in an un-air conditioned stone corner nook, where the wet and heat must blow through on a daily basis. There it was. Just a few unobstructed inches from my hand.

IMG_0596 IMG_0595The thrill of getting to be here is partly because of this openness. I’ve talked a bit about it before. I’ve rarely even seen any rope barriers. When I tour places here, sometimes I leave feeling like I was able to get close to it in a way that I never got to interact with sites in Europe, where the art especially is usually presented in a more sterile atmosphere. And there’s just no denying the magnitude of the history here. The way in which the Spanish decimated the Inca is so tangible, with the Spanish constructions literally planted smack on top of the original, masterful Incan structures. It’s sort of deliciously metaphorical to find that the bones of the Incan temples are literally in the basements of these Catholic structures.

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Cuzco, and even arguably Peru as a whole, is a bizarre amalgamation of traditional native beliefs and intense Catholicism. By the time the Spanish were kicked out some 300 years after they’d started their efforts to scrub out any native culture, I guess it was too late to give Catholicism the middle finger too. So what you have now are things like trash cans full of “holy water” being freely dispensed outside churches alongside what are unmistakably native festivals with a saint chucked in the middle.


Points to Chad for raising the very relevant question of how much holy water it actually takes to achieve “blessed” status.


That’s the kind of place Peru is. Seemingly confused, but in fact somehow confidently (weirdly) cohesive. But really though, all things aside, isn’t the bottom line anyway that Peru has llamas? Look at that llama.* His name may or may not be Carlos.**

*Carlos might be a sheep. It’s pretty hard to tell.
**Carlos might just be “Carlos” for Anna, since it took his owner an awkwardly long pause to come up with his name.


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