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Cuzco's Portals To The Past

Once the capital of Peru's Incan empire, this city high in the Andes basks in a rich culture and history

October 15, 2000|GARY LEE | Gary Lee is a travel writer for the Washington Post

CUZCO, Peru — At 7 in the morning, few places are livelier than San Pedro station, the departure point for daily trains to Machu Picchu. Hurried footsteps clatter along cobblestone streets as travelers carrying overstuffed backpacks rush in, and merchants hawk provisions ranging from bananas to film.

From the crowded sidewalk, my traveling companion, Eddy Ancasi, and I surveyed the scene until the final straggler climbed aboard and the rickety orange and red caboose chugged south into the undulating Andes. Then we sighed with relief.

We had one of the best-kept secrets in South America to ourselves.

Well, almost to ourselves. This southern Peruvian city of 300,000 perched 11,000 feet in the Andes is home to intricate remnants of stonework from the Incan empire, to a grand array of churches and to a dazzling collection of 16th and 17th century paintings. But many travelers still use it as little more than a way station for Machu Picchu, the celebrated Incan ruins four hours to the southeast.

One day here was enough to persuade me that a longer stay was in order.

Like most Peruvian cities, Cuzco has a central square--the Plaza de Armas--but what sets it apart is the collection of striking colonial buildings, mostly constructed on the foundations of Incan palaces. Smaller plazas and narrow side streets, graced with colonial-era buildings and remains of the heavy limestone and volcanic rock architecture that the Incas favored, are scattered out from the center. Red-tiled roofs, whitewashed walls and cobblestone streets give the place the feeling of being well tended. Nothing seemed more than a 20-minute walk away in this compact city.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 22, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Cuzco, Peru--A story about the onetime capital of the Incan empire ("Cuzco's Portals to the Past," Oct. 15) incorrectly placed Machu Picchu southeast of Cuzco. It is northwest.

A stroll along Calle Loreto, a narrow side street lined with Incan masonry and jutting off from the Plaza de Armas, was a dramatic reminder that, for at least a century (from 1438 to 1532 and probably far longer), this was the capital of a mighty Incan empire of an estimated 12 million subjects. The majestic cathedral dominating the plaza is a stark symbol of the Spanish conquest of the city in the 1530s.

A retreat to the bar of the Monasterio, a deluxe hotel richly transformed from a hostelry for monks on the Plaza Nazarenas, gave me a chance to sip an outstanding pisco sour (a mixture of Peruvian brandy, sugar, lemon and egg white beloved in these parts).

And that's about as much Cuzco as most visitors manage.

But Eddy, a photographer and writer who grew up in the Peruvian city of Arequipa and who had visited Cuzco (often spelled "Cusco" or sometimes "Qosqo") three times, persuaded me that limiting ourselves to those attractions would be like glancing at a couple of jigsaw pieces and trying to visualize a whole puzzle.

A longtime student of traditional cultures, I had come here on vacation in August, drawn by stories of the city's unique mix of all things indigenous and colonial. (The weather was not part of the lure. August is winter here; winds were brisk, and temperatures in the 40s and 50s.) In all, we devoted four days to exploring the city. On the fifth day we toured the surrounding Sacred Valley, a stretch of lush farmland dotted by Incan ruins and sprawling for more than 150 miles toward Machu Picchu.

D uring our stay I followed Eddy's lead and sampled the best of local cuisine. We tried hearts of beef washed down with Cerveza Cusquena, a sweet local beer, at El Meson de los Espaderos, a cozy restaurant with a romantic view of the Plaza de Armas. One evening at El Truco, I had a mouthwatering bowl of ceviche and a tasty platter of grilled trout and roasted potatoes. At the warmly welcoming Cafe Roma, we had a soup of potatoes, a toasted corn dish called cancha, and a rocoto relleno (spicy bell pepper stuffed with ground beef). At Georky's, an unassuming eatery a block away from the Plaza de Armas, we dined on charcoal-grilled chicken, beloved throughout Peru.

Together we wandered into the intimate courtyards hidden behind many of the storefront businesses, and we mingled with mestizos, the mixed-blood Peruvians with the dark eyes and jet-black hair of the Incas and the narrow noses of the Spanish. Throughout South America, Cuzquenos have a reputation as a naturally hospitable folk who give visitors a gracious welcome, a reputation they easily lived up to. Restaurateurs were ready to appease our every request; hoteliers were eager to help resolve even the smallest problem.

We spent one night in the Monasterio, whose elegant decor was matched by an equally gracious staff. For variety, we moved to the Royal Inka I, a more intimate hotel decorated with wood-beamed ceilings, handmade pottery and stunning photographs of Andean villages. Both places are just steps from the Plaza de Armas.

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