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Travel Story

Cusco, navel of the Inca world



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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.