We had read very little about Cusco before we arrived there. We had been so obsessed with gathering information about Machu Picchu, Lima and the Nazca Lines that all we knew about Cusco was that it is situated at 11,230 feet above sea level and travellers are advised to spend at least one day there to acclimatise before going onto Machu Picchu. I had in my mind that Cusco would be just a hopping off place for travellers going to Machu Picchu, a “cowboy town”. How wrong I was!
Cusco is a delightful town oozing with character. I realised this as soon as we reached our hotel, which was situated in the centre of the old town. It was built in typical Spanish colonial style, a posada with all the rooms built around a central courtyard. I am lucky that I have not suffered from altitude sickness and I have been over 16,000 feet. However, on that particular journey Farida suffered a little, but after we had unpacked in Cusco she was suffering from a headache and slight dizziness. The staff had the local remedy on hand, coca tea, which is coca leaves in boiling water. I did not think I was having unrefined heroin, I just drunk it out of curiosity and as a precaution against altitude sickness.
After Farida had rested we took a leisurely stroll into town. As we entered Plaza de Armas, which is dominated by the large grand Cathedral and the church of Jesús María, landscaped gardens and a fountain all surrounded by colonial shops, cafés and restaurants, I knew that we were going to enjoy Cusco. I could have easily just sat down and people-watched as there was so much going on, the local women were dressed so vibrantly, the children happily playing in the square and the young romantics lying on the grass whispering sweet nothings to each other. We wandered over to the main cathedral and while I was photographing a procession approached, which was quite incredible.
There were people with brightly coloured masks and with equally brilliant coloured clothing dancing at the head of the procession. Some of the women were throwing leaves into other women’s hair. They were followed by a more orderly group who were carrying candles and framed pictures of whom I assumed was the Virgin Mary. Then the procession became more sombre as a group of men carried a tall structure, which when they arrived at the front of the cathedral was blessed by the priest. It was spectacular, unusual and a mixture of party spirit, dancing and religion. I asked one of the locals what was this occasion, she could not understand and asked the people around her. No one could tell me, so I asked her to write the name of the festival in my notebook. She wrote, “Fieste De la Nativibbb Virgen de los Remadios”, okay, so I was not much the wiser, but what an incredible introduction to Cusco. After an hour at the festival we wandered the narrow streets, passing local women carrying baby llamas no bigger than small dogs, checking out the soft alpaca knitwear and gazing at local Indian art in the street with the pan flute music wafting out of doorways.
As we were walking back through the Plaza de Armas we passed two ladies sitting on a park bench and one of them indicated that I should photograph them. Just as I squeezed the shutter the other lady covered her face with her hands and when I lowered my camera she placed her hands into her lap and burst out laughing. To me it was a brilliant moment, firstly the shyness then the joviality. I was buzzing, perhaps the coca tea had kicked in!
I could go on and on about Cusco, as it certainly is, to me at least, the most motivating and appealing town I have visited and to top it off, it is meticulously clean.
Where else in the world could you see a woman with a llama waiting to cross a cobblestone street as a car gives way to a donkey pulling a cart with all of this surrounded by colonial buildings? In my favourite town, Cusco.
Photograph taken 10th September 2006