Cuzco

We’ve now spent a week in Cuzco, once the capital of the Incan empire, now tourism capital of Peru. There’s a lot to see and do but we’ve been taking things at a chilled pace after all the rushing around at the start of the trip…

First up, there are an awful lot of Incan ruins to visit in the area around Cuzco, known as the Sacred Valley – it was one of the reasons that we decided on Peru over other South American countries. However, unfortunately these ruins have been for the most part a big disappointment. Compared to ruins in Europe, Incan ruins are frankly just a bit pathetic. I mean, the Incan heyday was in the 1400s and 1500s but their cities and palaces look like something from Archaic Greece (c1000 BC) – they resemble places like Mycenae and Tiryns. Sure, they built big stone walls – but little in comparison to the sort of palaces around in 15th century Britain. They hadn’t even invented iron smelting – let alone literature or drama! The one thing that the Incas do have on the Europeans is landscape – the mountains are higher, the valleys are greener, and in general the views are more spectacular…

One event that I was looking forward to in Peru was Semana Santa (Holy Week). In Europe, Easter is mainly about delicious chocolate Easter eggs and a couple of bank holidays, but it’s taken much more seriously in South America. Most cities have week long festivities with numerous parades, but Cuzco’s festival is based around the Monday of Semana Santa, when the procession of El Señor de los Temblores (The Lord of Earthquakes) is held. A figure of Christ on the cross is paraded through the town centre with a solemn band, and as it passes, people throw red flowers (symbolising the blood of Christ) down onto it from specially decorated balconies. The skin of the figure is black from all the candle smoke – the reason the Peruvians venerate it so greatly is that it was a figure sent by the Spanish king to help convert the natives, and in the middle of an earthquake they brought it out of the cathedral and the earthquake stopped. I’m not quite sure who it was who in the middle of an earthquake thought of carrying out a statue so heavy it takes 45 men to lift it up (it weighs over 600kg), but that’s the story at least… The weight also means the procession is incredibly slow, and they have to change the bearers every 15m or so – plenty of time to take pictures!

The reason I found the festival so interesting was that although it’s a Christian festival, it has strong Incan roots – the Incas had a tradition of parading the mummies of their ancestors through the same streets and the same type of red flower (called nucchu) was used to worship their rulers… So I’ve sort of been to an Incan festival which is very cool!

By the time the procession reaches the plaza de armas in the evening, the whole city has turned out and the square is packed for a blessing as the Christ figure enters the cathedral. We saw the procession several times in the day and joined the crowd in the evening: the atmosphere was electric, and more akin to the crowd of a music festival waiting for the headlining band than a religious event.

Today we went to some thermal springs – expecting hot springs, they turned out to be lukewarm and rather muddy, but I’ve not been in a real thermal pool before so worth the experience. Tomorrow we set off for the Inca trail, a 4 day hike up to Machu Picchu. People who we’ve met along the way who have already done it have described it in optimistic terms such as ‘living hell’ so we are very excited about it – if you don’t hear from us in 5 or 6 days, assume the worst…904849_10151528708322710_941668164_o

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