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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."

Although most of the Inca structures were torn down or built over by the Spanish some were simply too big to destroy. Sacsayhuaman, a huge ruin that sprawls across benchlands above the city, includes rocks weighing more than 300 tons. Following a set of steep steps, we climbed up to the old zig-zag battlements and spent hours marvelling at the Inca stonework and pondering how it could have been done without machinery or even steel tools. On one of the huge stones I counted 12 facets, each fitted to a neighbouring rock with a jeweler's precision. The geometry alone is mind boggling.

Despite its impressive legacy the far-flung Inca Empire survived for little more than a century. It began in Cusco with a victory over the Chankas – and Cusco is where it ended. In 1532 the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, taking advantage of an Inca civil war, marched into Cusco virtually unopposed. The city was captured, looted, and gradually rebuilt as a Spanish colonial town. The Inca structures became a source of stone for building the cathedrals and villas of Spanish Cusco. In 1650 a violent earthquake destroyed almost every colonial building in the city, and again in 1950 Cusco was severely damaged by a magnitude 7 quake. But the Inca structures survived, unharmed, to become the foundation on which much of modern Cusco is built.

Today the Plaza de Armas, a spacious courtyard in the centre of town, is the heart of Cusco. Its broad green lawns and gardens are surrounded by ornate cathedrals, museums, and lesser colonial buildings that house all manner of tourist shops and services. We climbed a narrow stairway to a third-storey barato with small tables set on arched balconies overlooking the Plaza. The beer was cold, the nachos spicy, and the view of the twin-towered cathedral and people in the plaza totally absorbing.

Refreshed, we strolled across to the cathedral, gave a few pesos to a beggar on the steps, and entered the cool interior of the massive stone building. In the dim light filtering through high stained glass windows it took our eyes some time to register on the glittering opulence of our surroundings. Although the juxtaposition of gold-plated religious symbols and the beggar on the steps is disturbing, the Catholic church still has enormous support in Latin America, even among the indigenous people, many of whom combine Catholicism with their traditional culture.

Begun in 1550, the Cusco Cathedral took nearly a century to complete. Its ornate colonial design shows little evidence of the many Inca stones mortared into its structure. The gold-encrusted stations of the cross, the alters, the stained glass, and ornately framed dark religious paintings are typical Catholic symbols. But the many indigenous craftspeople who helped build the cathedral left subtle traces of their own native tradition. On a prominent wall of the cathedral a huge mural of the Last Supper depicts Christ and his disciples seated at a table of roast guinea pig, a Quechua delicacy called cuy, still served at better restaurants on the Plaza de Armas.

Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas – the indigenous people of the Andes, form a large proportion of Cusco's population and that of the surrounding area. They are the herders, craftspeople, and farmers, many of them working the same fields and terraces built and irrigated by their ancestors more than five centuries ago. During Inca time the Rio Urubamba valley, a few kilometres north of the city, was the "breadbasket of Imperial Cusco". Known locally as The Sacred Valley, it contains the remains of numerous Inca religious and agricultural centres including the mysterious ruins of Machu Picchu and the huge agricultural terraces of Pisac.

Pisac, 32 km northwest of Cusco, is now a quiet colonial village near the river, but once each week it comes alive as tourists and locals throng to the famous Sunday market. We took the local bus from Cusco and spent most of a day wandering through its labyrinth of canopied stands where local craftspeople display their wares – jewelry, decorative metalwork, and an endless variety of brightly coloured hand-woven fabrics. The market offers everything from the most trivial souvenirs to such practical items as small blankets used by native women as carry-alls. Fresh produce, in bulging gunny sacks or piled on the cobblestones, is tended by brightly clad native women with bowler hats and thick black braids. Here business is done through a time-honored system of bartering. And the shoppers are as diverse as the merchandise – Quechua women with children slung on their backs mingle with Spanish locals and visitors speaking a chatter of languages from around the globe.

In a corner of the market a group of brightly costumed musicians spin out a tune on traditional Andean instruments. A couple of bakers, labouring in the searing heat of a huge brick oven, toss their small flat loaves onto a pile that smells too good to pass by. We buy a couple and climb up to a balcony overlooking the market. I'm not a shopper, but Pisac, so much more than just a place to buy things, is a vibrant mix of cultures, customs, and traditions. I could happily have spent several more Sundays there but it was time to move on and get ready for the long hike to Machu Picchu.

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