Cuzco Region, Perú

Cuzco, a World Heritage Site, was the ancient capital of the Inca empire, which lasted from the 11th to the 16th century. The Spanish arrived in the early 1500s and promptly did their best to wipe out all traces of the Inca. Inca temples and fortresses were destroyed and used as building material for the Spanish churches and buildings, many of which stand today on foundations built by the Inca.

The main cathedral in Cuzco houses an ornate altar of solid silver and baroque decoration (no photos were allowed inside). The cathedral also features a painting of the Last Supper in which Jesus and the Disciples are sitting down to a meal of cuy, or guinea pig, which is a traditional dish of the Cuzco area. (Naturally I had to try some cuy. It was good, tasting like the dark meat of chicken, but I doubt it will become an international favorite. Not everyone will find its appearance appetizing: it is served roasted and split down the middle with all the bones and teeth readily visible. It could easily be mistaken for a large rat on the plate.)

High above the city are the remains of the ancient Inca fortress (or religious structure) of Sacsayhuaman Most of the movable stones have long since been pressed into other service by the Spanish, but what remains still hints at the former grandeur of the place. It also offers beautiful vistas of the city below (with its red tile roofs) and the surrounding mountains.

The city of Cuzco has the typical Peruvian noise and traffic. But against this modern backdrop, one sees a great many Indians going about their business in ways that are probably centuries old. Near the railroad station (for the train to Machu Picchu) there is an open air market with all sorts of food, much of which was unrecognizable to me. There are also scores of sidewalk vendors selling every imaginable Inca-related item from T-shirts (which I doubt the Incas wore) to colorful textiles.

Cuzco is at 11,000 feet of altitude, which can take some getting used to. New arrivals are treated to coca tea, which is said to relieve some of the effects of the altitude, but I cannot swear to that. Plenty of water remains, for me, the best antidote. I arrived on a morning flight from Lima (which is at sea level) and after only a couple of hours I went on a tour of the sites in town as well as Sacsayhuaman and other sites outside the city. In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time adjusting to the altitude before undertaking the tour (or perhaps less time drinking and staying out late in Lima)

Outside of Cuzco, one enters the Valle Sagrado (Sacred Valley) where the Urubamba River slices through the Andes Mountains. There are many smaller Inca sites throughout the valley, but the most impressive is Ollantaytambo, a large Inca temple/fortress and the scene of one of the few battles where the Inca defeated the Spanish.

Also in the Cuzco region one can visit Pisac, a small village known for its colorful Sunday market that attracts both tourists looking for souvenirs and locals buying and selling food and other goods. The souvenirs for the tourists are set on tables in covered stalls; the locals generally ply their trade from blankets spread out on the ground under the open sky.

My capacity for local arts and crafts has its limits, and those limits had been reached well before I arrived in Pisac. I still managed to spend some money in the market, however, taking pictures of local children in their traditional costumes. They were eager to pose, for a propina (tip) of course, and I was more than happy to oblige, preferring to make a small payment rather than just sticking the camera in people's faces