Cuzco is a great city. We were here in 2009 for just a day, part of a tour to hike the Inca Trail. We were enchanted and knew we needed to come back to do the city justice.
What’s so great about it? Well, for one thing it’s the belly button of the world, or at least so the Incas believed. It was their capital from the 13th century until the Spanish overthrew them in the 16th century. The conquering Spaniards, led by Francisco Pizzaro, were astonished by the city’s beauty, according to one author, and they made it the capital of their Andean empire building beautiful churches and other important buildings. Sitting a little over 11,000 feet above sea level (thank goodness we’ve had weeks at relatively high altitudes to prepare us) Cuzco is a center for great hiking and other adventures and just an all around beautiful city.
There’s a fun story about the great churches in Cuzco. If you go to the central square, the Plaza de Armas, there are not one but two giant churches. One, it turns out, is the Cathedral as is typical of Spanish colonial squares, built in the 16th century only a couple decades after the conquest. The other is the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, the Church of the Society of Jesus, built by the Jesuits also in the 16th century. (As though it’s not odd enough having two huge churches on adjacent sides of the square the Cathedral complex is actually made up of three separate-but-connected churches.)After the Jesuit church was substantially damaged in a 1650 earthquake they decided to rebuild it as the most magnificent church in Cuzco. The Bishop, ensconced in the Cathedral, objected and complained to the Pope himself that the Jesuits should not be allowed to outshine the Cathedral’s splendor. The Pope ruled in the Bishop’s favor but by they the Jesuit church was nearly complete, and magnificent it was.
So there you are, two grand churches just a stone’s throw from each other. And grand they are. The Cathedral compares well with nearly any of the great European churches and has an enormous collection of colonial art from what is known as the Cuzco School. The favorite is a local rendition of the Last Supper, with Jesus and the Apostles all prepared to dine on a roasted guinea pig, a local favorite. Meanwhile, the Jesuit church nearby boasts the city’s biggest altar, a huge dome, and a beautiful baroque facade. Enough church to go around for everyone.
Oh, and one other great thing about city: Cuzco’s flag is a rainbow flag, pretty much identical to the gay banner used in much of the rest of the world. What could make us feel more welcome than seeing rainbow flags flying over so many restaurants and bars and public spaces?
OK, then, if it’s such a great place why do I call it a missed opportunity. To start with, we came here right after a tough two-day hike down into and back out of the Colca Canyon and our legs just hurt. We can both climb uphill pretty well, but those downhills – thousands of feet down into the canyon – were killers. Every step for the first couple days was painful not unlike, I would guess, someone who’s just run his or her first marathon.But then to add insult to injury – or greater injury to injury, as the case may be – a pinched nerve, last observed in France nearly two years ago, reappeared. I had felt a bit of pain before starting the canyon hike but decided to do the hike anyway. In fact, it gave me no problem whatsoever; it seemed to go away on it’s own. In Cuzco, though, it struck back in some force. Not the same lying on the floor screaming in agony as I experienced in Poitier, but really painful. Enough so there was no way I could enjoy exploring the city or even thinking of going on another hike. Instead I spent part of all three full days we were in Cuzco in a 24-hour clinic getting shots, an IV, and some anti-inflammatory medicine. Apparently, though, prescriptions for pain are unknown in Peru, or at least unavailable. Sad, because while I didn’t need morphine or anything that strong I could definitely have used something for a couple days.
So that was Cuzco, a city of great architecture, beautiful churches, amazing restaurants, and at least one clinic where the staff spoke English. A great city that we just didn’t get to enjoy that much. From here we’re headed deeper into the Sacred Valley – as this part of Peru was known to the Incas – to Urubamba, and then on to Lake Titicaca. Stay tuned.