Cusco, a City of Ambivalence

A breathtaking window in the clouds revealed the first glimpse of the red roofs of this city, swallowed in mountains. After the airplane circled twice over the thick labyrinth of cobblestone streets, we landed at 11,000 ft, somehow retaining the impression of being above the earth—or at least of being closer to the sky than ever. The fact that this feeling is more than mere poetic imagination was confirmed by the price of vertigos and dizziness. In my case, the adjustment to the altitude turned out to be quite brutal, and during my first night, under the blankets of a fresh bed, I burned with fever.

I entered the reality of Cusco while slowly coming out of my delirium, and I was gently welcomed by the spirit of holiday. The Corpus Christi celebrations were coloring the streets when I first walked them, and I could not help feeling that those smiles, those rough delicatessens roasting on skewers and those immaculate dark hats moving on Cusquenan heads had partially been set up for our arrival. Or, rather, that we were active fragments of the warm feast surrounding us, under the benevolent towers of the cathedral. Our experiences of the following days confirmed this visceral sense of being engulfed by this golden city.

Following the advice of local friends we took part in the weekly Saturday market, unknown to other travelers, and dived into the rainbow of its natural products. We deliberately got lost in the narrow stretch packed with blankets and stands and bags, where elderly Quechua women made sculptural by their disproportionate hats addressed us as “papacito” and “mamacita”, pointing at their goods without anxiety or malice. We enthusiastically filled our bags with a colorful variety of plump products of the earth, covered in dust but promising the most genuine flavors. We let the waves of vendors, buyers, babies carried on women’s backs, carts, stray dogs, and stand-builders carry us among bunches of fresh pineapples, juicy oranges, ripe avocados, bloody meat, fragrant herbs, medicinal roots from the jungle, live chicken, salted fish, muddy potatoes, unpasteurized cheese, freshly picked quinoa, roasted guinea pigs, dark pure cocoa paste. At night, we cooked for hours and produced a succulent dinner for our friends, and sighed at the memory of the United States’ shiny and savorless fruits.

One morning we were casually walking home, when the primordial rhythm of percussion and the sinuous notes of a Pan flute guided us to a little square filled with the Dionysian frenzy of ancient Inca moves. We sat on stone steps to watch a group of men and women rehearsing for a traditional dance to be displayed the following night as part of the religious festivity. The men were wrapped in red-feathered costumes, the women were wearing a simple colorful skirt which would open like a fan at any movement of theirs, as they were hissing whips in the air. Highly erotic, explicitly about sexual domination, the performance unfolded before our eyes the bare elements of an ancestral drive that is shared by contemporary and ancient peoples all over the world. Some Peruvian teenagers in the distance mockingly re-enacted the moves, and clumsily disappeared behind a corner. Sweating under the sun, the dancers turned the vaporous mountain air into fire, entrancing us for enough time to have our skin burnt by the sun and our stomachs growling for papas a la huancaina.

One night we decided to mingle with the Western expats and the urban Peruvians at the tables of the most amazing Italian restaurant tried in months (being Italian, I claim the right to assert so): Cantina Vino Italiano. We spoke Italian to the waiter, a giovanotto who moved from Lima to Verona to Cusco, while we sipped the best Tuscan Sangiovese wine and frantically ordered a variety of bruschette and cheeses and charcuteries.  Finally, we sealed our stomachs with a perfectly thin-crusted oven-baked pizza. Overwhelmed by the richness of the flavors, produced by the combination of a savvy host and of delicious ingredients, we headed out on the cold cobblestone streets. Someone ran after us, returning a one hundred soles note we had dropped on the way, and in the momentum of self-indulgence we decided to invest that lucky money in a nocturnal massage. For one hour and 40 soles we were brought to an unbelievable state of physical relaxation, with all the little pains caused by hiking fixed by perfumed oil and hot stones. Wearing our clothes again and facing the cold starry night, our limbs seemed to be melting with the shadows dancing on the Plaza de Armas.

One early morning, looking for a short hike to train our compressed lungs, we climbed the steps of San Blas up to the bright Cristo Blanco floating over the city. Chatting in Spanish with a teenager wearing branded shoes, we were convinced to board a rattling collectivo driving higher up on the mountain, until we reached a marvelous slice of valley surrounded by mountains of red earth and massive stones. Here the youth provided us with mild horses, the saddles and bridles of which were embroidered with colorful strings and leather fringes. We rode among thorny bushes and wild flowers, passing slender Eucalyptus trees and fiery quinoa fields, until we reached the ruins of the Inca Templo de la Luna. Surrounded by a centenary peace, we tried to read the vague signs left in the tall grass by the perfectly squared stones, feeling the presence of a sacred past without being able to imagine it concretely. We consumed a tasty picnic of fresh goat cheese and whole wheat bread, counting the different varieties of green that the landscape generously offered in its magnificence: there were twelve. Riding back on a light trot, in the wilderness above the roofs of Cusco, we smiled to each other, sharing the joyful sense of freedom that any little adventure confers to those who dare to explore- well worth the $45 we had spent.

One evening, we decided to join the Cusquenan community for the evening Mass in the Cathedral. The decadent Baroque building was pouring rivers of golden light, reflecting on its complex decorations. Lulled by the monotone sweetness of the priest’s voice, we sat comfortably on the cold wooden benches at the back of the aisle. Suddenly, we realized that all other attendees were wearing extremely formal suits and dresses, and that a proud bride was walking towards the altar. Her father, shining with happiness, was accompanying her and did not notice our unplanned presence. As the congregation of friends and family closed around the altar, we decided to preserve the deep intimacy of that moment, and silently stepped outside of the sacred building.

I had been warned that I would have found Cusco a city of contrasts, juxtaposing centenary cultures and wild tourism, civilization and barren mountains, sincere kindness and sly tricks. I won’t deny this descriptive generalization, but the impression sharply forming in my eyes was one of a city of ambivalences, where the past and the present and future coexist, as well as beauty and wounds. Less abstractly, in my wandering in this land, in this town, every different day at every different hour, I would be aware of the coexistence of three powerful cultures equally living in the city: the Inca, the Spanish, the Western. The solid dark stones mysteriously cut by the conquered Inca shine under the sun from every wall, and seem to be shouting out loud that they were once covered in gold, then in blood. The elegant architecture of the many churches, as well as the intimate plazas disseminated in the city, tell about the transplantation and celebration of Catholicism and of the charms of the Renaissance in a completely foreign context. The blackboards signaling the presence of wifi in restaurants, the cell-phone stores and the Internet cafés, the touristy shops selling the same goods over and over again and the advertisements for “real Peruvian meals” reveal the attraction that Cusco plays on western tourism, and the digital technology that this latter is bringing. All of these stories and images perpetually mingle into a unique, complex reality, which one can either try to dissect and analyze or decide to embrace and experience directly. We opted for the latter, and sought to capture the convoluted essence of the city itself rather than to romanticize only one of its characters. The intrinsic power of the history and culture of Cusco, as well as the incredible wealth of the land it occupies, will never allow such simplification, and will never be reduced to a merely touristic destination. The vibrant feelings conveyed by any detail, simple or complex, of our adventures in Cusco tell us that in a couple of weeks we experienced a lifetime rather than a simple visit, and that this place is a resource of eternal discovery, a place where to come back.