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by Ted Cookson
Published in April 2010
Cusco from the air, 31-second video clip
Colorful local woman with llama in Cusco, 32-second video clip
Colorful local woman and child with llama in Cusco, 43-second video clip
Barbara and I found that we had three days and two nights to spend in Peru
during a cruise turnaround at Lima's port of Callao 22-24 November 2008. On
previous visits to Peru we had toured archeological sites in northern and
southern Peru and we had previously explored the world-famous Inca ruins at
Machu Picchu. So this time we elected to fly to Cusco and use that city as a
base for visiting the Urubamba River Valley, commonly called the Sacred Valley
of the Incas.
Cusco, founded about 1100 AD and with a population currently approaching 300,000, is one of Peru's major tourist attractions. One of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the Americas, Cusco was the religious and administrative capital of the vast Inca Empire which once stretched from southern Colombia down to central Chile.
Because Cusco is situated at an altitude of 3,310 meters (10,857 feet), visitors who are not acclimatized should plan to spend a minimum of half a day resting after arrival. It's also a good idea to avoid alcohol, smoking and the eating of meat. Furthermore, the consumption of carbohydrates and plenty of clear liquids is recommended. As I well recalled the splitting headache from which I had suffered in Cusco when I first visited that city in 1980 en route to Machu Picchu, I was careful to rest for most of the afternoon on 22 November after taking the 75-minute flight up to Cusco from Lima, which lies close to sea level.
Meaning "navel of the earth" or "center of the empire" in the local Quechua language, stately Cusco contains a mixture of colonial Spanish architecture and Inca remains. Colonial-era churches and monasteries plus walls and doorways of stones smoothed and fitted by Inca craftsmen are juxtaposed with hotels and restaurants, the trappings of the modern tourist trade. A great number of buildings in Cusco are built atop foundations of ancient Inca masonry.
In pre-Columbian times the square in the heart of Cusco was called Huacaypata, "the place of tears." Huacaypata, surrounded by palaces, was where assemblies were held. Furthermore, it was to Huacaypata that samples of soil from conquered lands were transported so they could be blended with Inca soil, signifying the incorporation of these territories into the great Inca Empire. In modern times Huacaypata is called Plaza de Armas. Nowadays the square contains four churches and a multitude of colonial-era arches. The seventeenth-century baroque cathedral, built on the site of an Inca palace, is also located nearby.
In addition to well-preserved colonial architecture and fine Inca masonry, Cusco offers a wide selection of handicrafts, Andean music, opportunities for fine dining, and plenty of bars and coffee shops. There are two notable upmarket hotels in Cusco. The first, the 5-star Hotel Monasterio (www.monasterio,orient-express.com), was built in the restored Seminary of San Antonio Abad, a Peruvian national historic landmark. Featuring its own gilded chapel and eighteenth-century art collection, Hotel Monasterio is as much a museum as a place of accommodation. Too, the hotel's Illary Restaurant is reputed to be Cusco's best and most expensive. The second notable property, La Casona Inkaterra (www.inkaterra.com/en/cusco), is a small boutique hotel. Both hostelries were created from colonial-era structures that had been built on Inca foundations, and both are situated on Plazoleta Nazarenas, only a short walk from Plaza de Armas.
In the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which lies 15 km (9 miles) northwest of Cusco as the crow flies, is a charming string of small villages and ancient ruins spread over a broad plain and up the adjacent slopes of rugged mountains. The villages stretch nearly 100 km (62 miles) from Pisac in the east to Ollantaytambo in the west. Some of the greatest temples and palaces in the entire Incan empire were built between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Their quality of construction testifies to the great ceremonial importance of the Sacred Valley. Consequently, the Incan ruins seen today between Pisac and Ollantaytambo are among the finest in Peru.
A day trip through the Urubamba River Valley, lying at 2,800 or 2,900 meters (from 9,184 to 9,512 feet), comes as a relief to travelers after the steep descent from Cusco. A typical day tour by taxi involves a round trip drive from Cusco to Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo. The road between Pisac and Ollantaytambo follows the north bank of the Urubamba River. The Sacred Valley of the Incas boasts lush green crop terraces, snowcapped mountains and class III rapids in the Urubamba River, which the Incas believed to be the earthly equivalent of the Milky Way. In the fields and terraces of the fertile Sacred Valley the Incas grew native Andean crops, including coca, potatoes and white corn. Today the valley still serves as Cusco's breadbasket, with grains and fruits being cultivated. Nowadays the outstanding attractions are the ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo and the intervening markets and villages.
In Pisac, 32 km (20 miles) north of Cusco, there is a very extensive and colorful Sunday morning market which is deservedly popular with tourists. I went crazy with my digital camera there. It is thought that Pisac began as a military post and later grew into a commercial center. A steep path leads up to a hilltop fort, which is one of the most significant Inca ruins after those of Ollantaytambo. Weather permitting, it is possible to view some of the local snow-capped Andean peaks from the town of Urubamba, which lies at the center of the valley, 40 km (25 miles) from Pisac. Finally, 21 km (13 miles) down the road at Ollantaytambo we were enthralled by the impressive fort and temple above the town. There are also long stone terraces of excellent construction and a rock-cut irrigation canal. The stone used to construct the monuments was hauled from a quarry 6 km (3.6 miles) away on the opposite side of the valley. Ollantaytambo, laid out in a grid pattern, is the best-surviving example of Inca city planning. This is also the site of the greatest Inca victory over the Spaniards, even though the city was reconquered soon afterward in 1537. Inhabited since the thirteenth century, Ollantaytambo remains a living Inca town whose residents still till the fields with primitive foot ploughs.
The best times to visit the highlands around Cusco are April-May and October-November. On the other hand, the high season for tourists is from June through September. Prices are reduced during the rainy season, which stretches from December through March.
Round trip restricted economy class airfare from Cairo to Lima begins from EGP 8,850 on Iberia via Madrid, and round trip economy class airfare from Lima to Cusco begins from 1,920. This makes EGP 10,770 the cheapest total round trip restricted economy class airfare from Cairo to Cusco via Madrid and Lima.
ABOUT TED COOKSON: Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world! He has also visited 314 of the 320 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club). A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi. Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at: Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301. Fax 2359-1199. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.eptours.com.
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