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Cusco, navel of the Inca world

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After a full day of lurching across the barren alpine desert of the Altiplano our train crested the 14,000 foot divide and began its long descent down the valley leading to Cusco. It was early morning when we boarded the Peru Rail coach at Puno, on the west shore of Lake Titicaca, but 44 stops and 330 km later it was dusk by the time we finally rolled into the station at Cusco. Our journey had taken us from the desolate brown upland of the Peruvian Andes down into the lush green world of the Sacred Valley. The contrast was both sudden and dramatic.

The Altiplano, that vast rolling upland along the spine of the Andes, is too high to support anything but scrub grass and small herds of llama and hardy sheep. Scattered clusters of thatch-roofed adobe huts and miles of low rock walls are the only evidence of human habitation, yet the Altiplano is home to thousands of native Andean people. At each of our many stops they appeared out of nowhere to sell their handicrafts through the train windows – alpaca sweaters, hats, gloves, furry llama slippers and an array of hand-woven fabrics in vibrant colours that contrasted with the drab brown landscape.

Beyond the divide the hills become a patchwork of terraced fields in multiple shades of green and yellow. Shrubs and eucalyptus trees crowd into ravines between steep grassy bluffs and, as we approach Cusco, the valley widens out into cultivated fields. White, red-tiled buildings of the city sprawl across a broad fertile basin and creep up into suburbs on the surrounding hills.

By the time we found the Hotel Andenes de Saphi the short-lived tropical sunset had plunged the hills into darkness. But the streets of Cusco were alive with tourists, musicians, hawkers and vendors – a reminder that Cusco is officially the "tourist capital of Peru".

Looking for a place to eat we strolled down a narrow walkway dubbed Gringo Alley, ducked into a tiny restaurant advertising pizza and ordered a beer. Not your usual Pizza Hut. The chef spun the disks of dough into the air in an act worthy of La Cirque du Soleil, slid them into a charcoal-fired clay oven in the middle of the floor, and delivered them to our table sizzling hot. And while we ate a band played the haunting melody of Simon and Garfunkel's Sound of Silence on pan pipes, Andean bamboo flute and a couple of steel guitars - an intriguing blend of Spanish, Quechua, and North American culture.

Walking through Cusco's narrow cobblestone streets, past colonial buildings built on Inca foundations, is like a stroll back through time. Considered to be the oldest living city on the American Continent, Cusco has been the site of continuous occupation for about 3,000 years. Little is known about the cultures that flourished there before the Inca conquest began about AD 1430 but after the massive expansion of their empire Cusco became the religious, military, and administrative capital of the sprawling Inca Empire – "the navel of the earth."

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