One of the main reasons for choosing South America over any other continent when planning this trip, was in part due to the little I already knew about the famous Inca civilisation and a childhood dream of one day visiting Machu Picchu.
After arriving at Cuzco, I soon realised that the little I did know from the junior school history project I had completed over 20 years ago (my god that makes me feel old!) doesn’t even scratch the surface!
Cuzco is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities on the continent and formed the centre of South Americas greatest empires. It’s name comes from the Quechua word qosq’o meaning the navel of the earth.
Following the fall of the Inca empire in 1533, the city had become just another colonial backwater town behind the new capital, Lima. However there is no doubt that it remains the countries undisputed archaeological capital.
The city itself is set within a sacred valley which carves through the surrounding lush green Andes, providing some of the most picturesque and somewhat mystical city scenes we have seen so far.
The city is equally as beautiful by night given that it positively glows, showing off some of the most ornate architectural detail that can revival that of any major European capital.
My first night there was spent at the Loki hostel; those of you in the know will understand why that led me to ending up in a local night club, ‘the Groove’ to do just that until the early morning hours. After actually missing out on a whole night sleep and realising that I was the oldest person in the room by some considerable margin, I finally came to my senses and checked out to join Andre in a more relaxed hostel in the heart of Cuzco’s artistic neighbourhood, San Blas.
The main reason for coming to Cuzco is to begin a trek to Machu Picchu to see the famous Inca ruins. The only problem with this is that so does the rest of the world! The only downside to this beautiful city is that it is simply overrun with two week holiday makers, community gays, fat Americans and loved up Essex couples who will of course return to the UK either engaged or expecting their first child!
The Peruvians have also taken every opportunity to capitalise on this, with just about everyone trying to sell something to the thousands of gringos that seem to only stay within a few blocks of the main Plaza del Armas. It’s this very square that gives the Peruvians the reputation of treating the tourists as ATMs.
The most striking thing for me was the fact that, what remains of the Inca architecture in Cuzco simply bewilders that of the Spanish conquistadors . Its ingenuity and pure simplicity makes for some truly elegant buildings with the most precise stone work I have ever seen.
The city also appears to be the most gay friendly city in the world since every establishment seems to have the gay flag on it!
We later found out that the flag was in fact that of the Incas!
Before beginning the 4 day Inca Jungle Trek (which we just booked once we got there for half the price we were quoted online) I thought it would be wise to do some background reading on the Inca Empire.
Given that I had not heard of any other civilisation in the ‘New World’ apart from the Incas, I was surprised to find out that it was only really in the last 100 years before the arrival of the conquistadors that they had become a truly formidable empire. Up until the reign of the 9th Inca (king) Pachacutec, the Incas had only really dominated a modest area close to Cuzco.
I was also surprised to discover that there were many other local civilisations prior to the Incas that dominated, namely the Chavin, the Wari, Chimu and the Chan Chan to name but a few. The reason why little is known of these other civilisations is because they didn’t seem to actually write anything down and so disappeared once preceded by the next ruling power.
The only reason we have so much information (although by no means complete) on the Incas is because the invading Spanish chronicled everything.
In the most part the growth of the Inca Empire is similar to that of any, in that it involves an awful amount of bloodshed. However, the most interesting part for me is the epic way in which it drastically fell with no real resistance to the invading Spaniards!
By the end of the 11th Inca (Huayna Capac) the empire hand reached as far north as Quito, Ecuador. He unexpectedly died, presumably from one of the many new European diseases such small pox which swept down from Central America, ironically reaching the Incas before the Spanish actually did. Similar to any good Roman Empire epic, the king split the kingdom into two for his two sons to rule over. As with any good sibling rivalry, neither really wished to share power and so an Inca civil war ensued.
Whilst this was going on, Spaniard, Francisco Pizarro had marched into northern Peru and was making his way south to Cuzco without any resistance since the two brothers were far too busy to worry about a small band of foreigners. A fateful meeting between Francisco and the ruler of the south would prove to change the course of South American history.
The brother (Atahualpa) was captured with thousands on indigenous people killed by the superior horses and weapons of the Spanish. Despite offering a room full of gold and silver taken from temple walls, he was murdered anyway. What followed was a series of so-called puppet Inca emperors with a few minor attempts at rebellions until the full power of the was Spanish army was in force and they turned their attention to building their new capital in Lima.
The only other real momentous event that has effected Cuzco was the discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911 which turned the city from a quite provincial town into Peru’s fore most tourist hub.
I can also personally confirm that this is a massive tourist hub since I fell into the biggest tourist trap there is. Being a city boy I couldn´t resist taking a picture with what I thought was a baby llama…it was in fact a goat and this picture cost me more than a meal!