In the beginning, there was Inti, the Inca sun god. He looked down upon the earth and saw that the people needed someone to lead them. So he created the first Incas, Manco Capac and his sister-wife, Mama Ocllo. This was good. Then Inti saw that Manco and Mama Ocllo needed a place to live, an Eden. He gave a golden rod to Manco and instructed him to strike it into the earth and where it disappeared, he and Mama Ocllo should settle. The place was called Cusco, “the navel of the region.” This, too, was good.
Since the 12th century, Cusco (qosq’o in the native Quechua language) has been the oldest, continuously inhabited city in South America and the continent’s acknowledged archeological capital. Everywhere there are signs of Inca life: the ashlars that form the base of Qorikancha, the richest temple in the Inca empire, the trapezoidal doorways built of stone, and the cobbled streets that are barely wide enough for a car to pass through.
Mike, Mikayla and I set out early from Hotel Girasoles ($45 per night for three) in search of Cusco’s colorful history. A boleto turistico del Cusco (about $45US for adults; $24US for students) gave us entry to 17 historical sites. We started with the easy ones, the museums within walking distance.
The Museo de Arte Popular offers a collection of art dedicated to Christmas. Every year artists submit their work–whether in clay, ceramic, metal, oil or wood–for consideration. Most of the works are dedicated to the Nativity. Some use simply three pieces to convey the birth—Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Others use a Lilliputian ensemble of people, animals, carts, heavenly bodies and allegorical figures to tell the birth story.
The Museo de Arte Contemporaneo was sparse. We could have skipped it. About half consisted of pieces that have not advanced much stylistically since the early Incas. The remainder was someone’s private collection available for sale. The Lonely Planet Guide to Peru suggests that the privately owned Museo Quijote has a much better collection of contemporary art.
Next came the Museo Histórico Regional. It’s housed in the childhood home of Garcilaso de la Vega, one of the early historians of the Inca civilization and the city’s favorite son. His mother was an Inca princess and his father was a conquistador.
The collection is organized chronologically more or less and begins with arrowheads, followed by ceramics and jewelry from the Wari, Pukara and Inca cultures. There’s a Nazca mummy and a scale model of the Plaza de Armas.
Our next stop was the Iglesia de Compañía de Jesús. It was built by the Jesuits in 1571 upon the palace of Huayna Capac, one of the Inca rulers. Its construction launched a battle among the local Catholic churches. The archbishop of the cathedral diagonally across the Plaza de Armas felt threatened by the Iglesia while under construction. He fretted that it would outshine his own cathedral, so he petitioned the pope to mediate. The pope’s decision came down in favor of the cathedral but by the time the news arrived the Jesuits had already completed their cathedral. It has Peru’s largest altar, a glitzy, detailed affair in a baroque design.
After so many artifacts, we felt old ourselves and returned to the Hotel Girasoles for some soothing mate de coca, coca tea, and the arrival of the Huffords, our travel partners.