Navel of the Universe


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Andean Adventure

Navel of the Universe
October 31, 1997

In its heyday, Cusco was
the Incan version of Mecca

Coming into Cusco, Navel of the Universe and famed Sacred Capital of the Incas, one wonders what the fuss is about.

Cement construction factories, gomerias and auto shops; the tawdy effluvia of a major city line the street into town.

“Plaza de Armas?” we ask seeking a shortcut through the chaotic flow of traffic.

Mas arriba, mas arriba.”

The colonial streets tighten like a corset squeezing us between bumpers and surging cabs, over hills and cobbled streets until suddenly we are spat out into the heart of the city: the Plaza de Armas. A bolt of excitement lights our spirits. We have arrived.

In its day, to have visited Cusco was tantamount to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Rulers and noblemen alike chanced their fortunes for a chance to say they had been within the holy walls.

Today is no different. A lively mix of freshly starched tourists and uniformed school children fill the streets; textile-draped travelers mingle with Peruvian hippy vendors; weathered indigenous men in mushroom-shaped felt caps and women wearing white top hats crowd the cobbled avenues that twist through a labyrinth of Spanish tiling.

Cathedrals adorn the hills and plazas, their structures resting atop the massive stone-cut walls of the Incan palaces. Even after 500 years and several devastating earthquakes the walls still fit to razor-sharp perfection.

Cathedrals adorn the hills and plazas

Incan legend and ambient magic have drawn an increasing stream of visitors to Cusco. The city is undoubtedly the center of Peruvian tourism — and with good reason.

Within a day’s journey lies the impressive ruins of Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo, the ancient fortress and colorful local market of Pisac. To the north Manu National Park stretches across pristine tropical rainforest and to the south the wild canyons of the Apurimac River challenge rafters.

Fertile valleys nestle in the steep canyons above the turgid Urubamba river and to top it off there’s Machu Picchu, the famous ruins of the Lost City of the Incas.

But Cusco’s tantalizing treasures would have to wait. After a long haul of 12 days from La Paz we were looking forward to the artistic excellence of Cusco ubiquitous pizzerias. It was time to gather strength: Halloween had arrived.

Although never an Incan festival, modern Cusquenos celebrate with an inherent sense of revelry. The streets filled with a costumed armada and we found ourselves led to the latest disco.

There, amid the spirits of night, modern Incas threw up their arms shouting the sacred incantations of extasis: Y.M.C.A. … Cusco lives on — whether seat of the Inca, Spanish, or tourist empires.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.