Navel Gazing in Cusco, Peru

Dubbed the Navel of the World, Cusco is an amazing blend of the very-old and the not-as-old.

Join your GypsyNesters as we see the sights (and sights) – see ancient ruins, a street festival with an ornery llama, crossing guards that threaten you with whips  and the weirdest rendition of The Last Supper you’ll ever experience.

At over 11,000 feet above sea level, flying in takes steely reserve and handling the altitude takes native remediesCONTINUE READING >>

Cusco Peru

After one crazy approach and landing at one of the world’s highest commercial airports, we began our explorations of The Sacred Valley and the incredible sights (and sites) of the ancient Inca Empire in Cusco.

WATCH: The most amazing, insanely beautiful flight we’ve ever taken!

Once inside the airport we were introduced to a few treatments to counteract the high altitude. Seeing as how the salesperson at the OxiShot booth, where oxygen shots were supposed to boost our energy, was out cold we opted to give some of the local remedies a shot instead.

a booth with something called Oxyshot. But wait, the clerk is out cold, must be the thin air.

Coca leaves
Coca leaves sit in a basket for the guests of our hotel

The locals swear by the leaves of the coca plant, the plant that produces cocaine, as an antidote to the thin air.

We had heard about this remedy prior to our trip and were hesitant about trying it.

Veronica calls herself a sea-level gal, and not wanting to miss a thing while we were in high altitude, she overrode her reservations and took a chance.

Coca Tea in Peru at Posada del Inca in Yucay

The most common way to serve coca is in a tea. It’s everywhere.

Coca candy in Peru
Coca candy is another way to get your coca fix. We’re convinced it and the tea helped.

We started making iced tea for sightseeing, and we’d even taken to chewing the leaves, just like a local! The raw leaves were not tasty, and we learned to soak them first – otherwise the texture was awful.

Click here to learn how we dealt with altitude issues while in Peru

Cusco, Peru
It’s common to see the very-old & the not-as-old melded together

Perked up and ready to rock, we stormed the city. Cusco has been the hub of all human activity in this region for centuries.

Not only as the capital of the empire but as the birthplace. Perhaps that is why they dubbed it the Navel of the World.

Viva El Peru on a mountainside in Peru

Around the year 1200 the small city-state of Cusco formed under the rule of Manco Cápac.

He can be considered the first Inca, or emperor, over the Quechua people.

Then in 1438 AD the Sapa (supreme) Inca (ruler) Pachacuti (world shaker) conquered huge portions of the surrounding area and organized it into four provinces and what we know as The Inca Empire, or Tahuantinsuyu in their Quechua language.

The Temple of the Sun, Cusco, Peru
The Temple of the Sun

Legend has it that Manco Cápac was sent to the earth by his father, the sun god Inti, and emerged from a cave carrying a golden staff. He was to build a Temple of the Sun on the spot where the staff sank into the earth, and that spot was none other than Cusco. In fact that temple still stands, so of course we had to check it out.

Window and niches in the Temple of the Sun God, Cusco, Peru

Because of the incredible stone stacking abilities of the Quechua, the original walls of the Korikancha (Temple of the Sun) withstood two earthquakes that reduced the Convent of Santo Domingo that Spanish colonists built on top of them to rubble. The convent was rebuilt, damaged again, and repaired to its current state as a museum.

A double doorway leads to a sacred place

The temple’s initial construction used the force of gravity to set the stones into each other, which strengthened the structure. Each piece was cut to fit exactly in place and distribute weight so as to hold everything in place without the use of mortar. This gave the walls flexibility and they were also slanted slightly inward to each other using gravity to help negate the destructive force of any seismic shock.

Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Cusco, Peru
Going from one temple to another, toward the center of the belly button, our next stop was the Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral of Santo Domingo.

Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru

Building atop ancient foundation in Cusco Peru

As we walked around town, we noticed that many of the buildings in Cusco are built on top of the seemingly indestructible Quechua stone work walls.

Cusco is earthquake prone, and these foundations have held time and time again.

The buildings set atop have not fared as well.

Street shot in Cusco, Peru

Cusco Cathedral
Outside of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo

Inside the cathedral we saw alters layered with insane amounts of silver, literally tons, but we were on a mission.

We had just one goal in mind, find the painting of The Last Supper where Jesus and the disciples are eating cuy.

That’s right, we heard there’s a guinea pig last supper going on in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and we were not leaving without seeing it.

At the very back corner of the Cathedral we found the version of the classic scene, by Marcos Zapata, featuring a platter of cuy and bottles of chicha, the traditional corn beer. No photos are allowed in the church, so we bought the postcard.

Last Supper with cuy or guinea pig in Cusco, Peru

Click here to see how Guinea pig is served in The Sacred Valley

Cusco, Peru Money Exchange

Back outside we noticed that this plaza is unique in that it is dominated by two churches because of a falling out between the Jesuits and Dominicans centuries ago.

Both were built directly on top of the palaces of former Inca rulers with stones taken from nearby Sacsayhuaman.

So we headed over to see Sacsayhuaman for ourselves.

The Sacsayhuaman ruins in Cusco, Peru

David "models" the enormity of the stones at Sacsayhuaman
David “models” the enormity of the stones

The ruins at Sacsayhuaman, pronounced very close to “sexy woman” (which proved easy to implant in our memory banks) are remarkable for the size of the stones.

Some of the blocks weigh in at around 200 tons and, as with every other site we have visited, they are expertly carved and placed.

The Sacsayhuaman ruins in Cusco, Peru
A chalkline grid shows the wonkiness of the placement of the gigantic stones

Sacsayhuaman

Most of the site was destroyed by the Spanish after their conquest, and the stones removed to be used in constructing new buildings down below in the city of Cusco.

Now only the largest rocks remain.

The Sacsayhuaman ruins in Cusco, Peru

The Ruins of Sacsayhuaman in Peru

We scrambled up to the top and found a fantastic view of the city.

Sadly, what we didn’t find were any remnants of the once splendid temples that used to stand atop Sacsayhuaman.

Only the foundations are left.

View of Cusco from the Sacsayhuaman ruins in Cusco, Peru

See more about the Sacsayhuaman site

Crossing guard in Cusco, Peru
“Respect the crosswalk” or you will be whipped

Back down in town, wandering the streets for a little late afternoon shopping, we got quite a surprise.

Bizarre characters were patrolling several of the main thoroughfares, some even armed with whips!

Keeping our distance we decided to observe and attempt to ascertain just what it was they were up to.

Crossing guard in Cusco, Peru

After watching awhile, and translating the signs, we figured out that they out in force to discourage jaywalking… and put on quite a show.

 

Cusquena, the beer of Cusco

Having avoided a confrontation, and perhaps a flogging, by respecting the crosswalk, we ducked into a little watering hole for some nerve calming refreshment.

Since 1908, when Ernesto Günther opened up the first non-corn beer brewery in Cusco, Cusqueña has been quenching the thirsts of folks high up in the Andes.

A bright, refreshing Pilsner, it certainly hit the spot and gave us the confidence to face crossing the street one more time.

Avocado sandwich in Cusco Peru

Our morning began with a street food breakfast, a delicious avocado sandwich from a lovely vendor, while a huge procession in honor of St. Jerome was staging right in front of our hotel.

Bands were warming up, costumes getting last minute adjustments, and even some attempted llama coaxing to convince him to go along with the program.

The procession of feast of Corpus Christi in Cusco, Peru
The procession included bands, dancers…and very feisty llama…

St. Jerome being carried through the streets of Cusco, Peru
Then culminated with a huge likeness of the saint carried through the streets on the shoulders of a couple dozen men.

WATCH: The surprise procession in front of our hotel! The llama did NOT want to be involved!

Corpus Cristi Procession in Cusco Peru

Each year on the feast day of Corpus Christi the churches of Cusco all carry their patron saints through the streets to the cathedral in the main square.

There the huge gathering celebrates in a chaotic battle of the bands bedlam that brings the city to a standstill.

Then, on some unknown signal, everyone returns to their home parishes.

Their timing turned out to be perfect, since it was time for us to move on to our next destination as well.

Not that we are saints or anything.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Delve Deeper:
Click here to learn how we dealt with altitude issues while in Peru
Click to see all of our adventures in Peru!

Click here to see our full adventure with Road Scholar – a not-for-profit organization – through Ecuador, Peru, The Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu and much, much more!

15 thoughts on “Navel Gazing in Cusco, Peru”

  1. I’ve often wondered what it would be like flying into a high altitude location from my home in the flatlands of coastal Florida. Nothing here above 25 feet above sea level. I would probably opt to try the local remedies that y’all tried. Don’t know whether the oxygen fix would be long lasting. The tea and candy definitely sound better.

  2. Great pictures, one of our very favorite experiences. We are thrilled we were able to share it with our four kids – and yes, altitude sickness got the better of at least half of our family. It affects different people differently. Those kids raised there would make incredible soccer players back at sea level!

  3. HA! I love that salesperson photograph. I don’t think I would want their product either to stay awake and have high energy. I’m really enjoying reading about your travels in Peru. I definitely want to see the ruins at Sacsayhuaman. Amazing!

  4. Cool post! I always love reading you guys’ articles, you get a lot of info in in a not boring way. I loved Cusco, it was a really cool city to explore. You can definitely tell that most of the city was built before anyone had even begun to think of cars! I’m glad you got an avocado (palta!) sandwich, they have delish ones there in Peru. When I was working on a dig in Pucara we ate sandwiches with palta, canned tuna, queso and mustard on local pita bread (can’t remember what that was called) every day… it sounds weird but I still miss it!

  5. Another great posting. Did you guys get any vaccines (yellow fever or maleria) before your trip? I did get some altitide meds and some seasickness patches just in case. Can’t wait!
    Rosalie

  6. Great photos, guys! Cusco has been one of my favorite places we’ve visited so far. We tried all the various coca options, too — glad we did! We got pretty sick one day. Lost a whole day of exploring. 🙁

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