A walking tour of Cusco

After yet another early night and a good sleep, I awoke early. Disappointingly, Cusco at night was almost as cold as Puno and I had even more blankets! However, it was a beautiful sunny day and just right for walking.

Jesuit Church in Plaza de Armas
Jesuit Church in Plaza de Armas

But first, I had to sort out my glasses. I had managed to break the arm off my last remaining pair and had to have them fixed urgently. Mary Jean came to the rescue and, not only escorted me to a repair shop, but also took me to buy a cheap, spare pair as well. I had tried to do this myself in Arequipa but my very broken Spanish was met with a totally blank look from the shop assistant. So now, I have 2 pairs of functional glasses, thank goodness.

The next item on today’s agenda was to book a trek. I had decided to do the Salkantay, which is 5 days and ends with a dawn walk into Machu Pichu. This means camping in 0 degrees (or maybe even lower) for 3 nights and a night in a hotel before the dawn walk. It also crosses a mountain pass at 4,600 metres and involves quite a steep climb up. I might have bitten off more than I can chew here! Let’s hope the other members of the group and the guides are tolerant.

Sacsayhuaman alongside the communications towers!
Sacsayhuaman alongside the communications towers!

I had a quick trip back to the house for my forgotten sunglasses and then just had enough time for a coffee before joining a walking tour. This lasted nearly 3 hours and included a steep climb up the steps to the Church of San Cristobal, in San Blas, and a bus trip up to the statue of Christ on the hill. Whilst we were up there, we had a look, from a distance, at Sacsayhuaman (commonly referred to as Sexy Woman, due to the pronunciation of the Quechua word), an old Inca site with zig zag walls.

Plant used for blue dye
Plant used for blue dye
The luthier
The luthier

In a craft shop, we were given a demonstration of the traditional methods of dying alpaca wool and a lesson in how to distinguish real alpaca wool products from pretend. (My newly purchased alpaca jersey is quite definitely pretend!) We were then encouraged to purchase something from the huge range of products, which had all been made by local people. Afterwards, we went back on the bus to San Blas and walked through the very narrow cobblestone streets to visit a luthier, who demonstrated his beautiful stringed instruments, as well as the pan pipes. The latter have apparently been played by local civilisations since 2,000 BC but the stringed instruments were introduced by the Spanish Conquistadores in the 15th Century.

Our last stop was at a bar, overlooking Cusco, where we were given a lesson on the correct way to make pisco sour and then given a (very small) drink of said cocktail. The barman was very entertaining and the guide was excellent. They are called ‘free’ tours but, as he said, nothing in life is free so we were strongly urged to give tips. (This was clearly indicated at the beginning though so did not come as a surprise.) Many cities now have these ‘free’ walking tours and I have found that they are a good way to become orientated and usually take in places that may not necessarily be on the tourist trail.

Once we had finished, I made my way back down through the narrow streets, which all had Quechua names, to the main plaza. I was absolutely starving by this stage, but still felt the need to sit and watch the people go by for a while. An English girl came and sat next to me and we started chatting after we had been approached by the umpteenth lady trying to sell us a llama keyring.

One of the members of the procession
One of the members of the procession

I then went and had a very good meal at one of the many small restaurants away from the Plaza de Armas, where the prices tend to be higher. Afterwards, I was on my way home when I noticed a strange procession of dancers and musicians going in the opposite direction. Naturally, I turned around and followed them all the way back to the Plaza where they stopped in front of the Jesuit Church. They were all dressed up with either white or black masks and had stuffed alpacas/llama/sheep? hanging from their belts. Once they had knelt down and prayed, they recommenced dancing, playing the drums and flutes and then started whipping each other! I sincerely hope that they had some very strong padding underneath their clothes as no attempt was made not to hit their adversary. It was all quite bizarre and totally incomprehensible.

When I returned to the house I asked Mary Jean about it. Apparently, it was to do with the pilgrimage to the Ausangate mountain (the highest mountain in Peru after Huascaran) that takes place at the beginning of June. The white faced figures represent the gods of the Ausangate glacier and the black faces are the evil spirits of the mountain. The whipping, from what I understood, was an initiation for new members of the group (which didn’t actually make sense to me). These people will now start walking to the mountain. Over 70,000 people attend the pilgrimage and the festivities last 8 days. People from country areas, far and wide, attend Qoyllor R’iti, as the festival is called, whose origin is in pre Colombian times. It is interesting in Peru that, whilst Catholicism is widely practised, ancient rituals and customs are still observed and believed. (And I have no idea about the significance of the stuffed llamas!)

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