Cusco, the Inca’s navel of the world

They started their day from cleaning the ruler. Early in the morning, they brought ladders and cloths from the Jesuit church at the Plaza de Armas and began to polish the statue of King Pachacuteca, standing on a colonial-style fountain in the center of the square. This is a compromise that raises a lot of controversy, and which, in a few days, would be broken by the supporters of covering the fountain with a stone plinth which refers to the Inca building tradition. The golden Pachacuteca with a proudly raised hand started to shine in the rising sun. There were only us, an elderly man sitting on the bench talking to a pigeon and a two-year old beautiful mongrel named Shakira – not long time ago homeless – now happily showing off with a chicken bone at the Plaza de Armas.

Pachacuti statue Cusco Plaza des Armas
Cleaning of Pachacuti’s statue.

The beginning of June is the time when Inti Raymi i.e. the Fiesta del Sol or if you like the Sun Festival celebrations begin. The inauguration was marked with the Flag Day. On the stairs, in front of the cathedral, a platform for the local officials would be set up so that they could watch four squads of the Peruvian army marching and saluting. Two different flags would be pulled on the flagpoles: first Cusco flag with the colours of the rainbow which, according to the legend ties o the Inca origins of the city and after that red and white national Peruvian flag.
People gathered at the square would sing People gathered at the square would sing anthem and patriotic songs. Celebrations, street dances and parades would last all day, and the city would turn into a colourful fair.

Cusco Plaza des Armas view from the cathedral stairs
Cusco Plaza des Armas view from the cathedral stairs. Early morning, June 2017.

 

The sun started to blind us. The arcades around the square were so crowded that there was no chance to hide in the shade. So headed for St. Clare’s Gate to reach San Pedro’s market which is just opposite St. Francisco’s convent. Tourists are rare here and even if they decide to visit, they are in small numbers and acting more as viewers rather than customers. Right behind the two rows of stalls, we found four long stalls with freshly squeezed fruit juice. Stands have numbers assigned and names of their owners displayed. Prices are fixed, so the only way to attract customers is to shout loudly in order to advertise juices and encourage potential customers to choose this particular stool, not any other (just a note: all stools look the same at every stall). If you’re hungry, the next two rows offer warm, Peruvian chicken soup, other options include a soup with alpaca jaw or with addition of testicles. It’s only six soles for a plate full of slightly sour soup, thick pasta, cooked vegetables, chicken meat and coriander. Chicken soup is breakfast, lunch and dinner here – it’s up to individual’s preferences when they have their bowl of soup J. Chicken soup stalls are surrounded by chocolate, cocoa and coffee vendors. Half-kilogram, dark brown bars of pure, prime cocoa paste are arranged in equal rows. Between them, sellers set bags of aromatic coffee. The intense flavour of these culinary miracles enters your nostrils and gets you dizzy. A few stalls away you will find women tough as the hardest Inca gold, selling chocolate chiffon cake (at least this is how they would call it in the UK) made of the cocoa paste and, we guess, at least 20 eggs. As a drink, they serve glasses of local unsweetened cocoa drink. This makes the cocoa and chocolate aromas to come out even more powerfully. Behind chicken soup and cocoa stalls, flowers are being sold. High, almost vertically arranged bouquets of Transvaal daisies, tulips, lion’s jaws, ferns, dahlias, gladiolus, glaucomas… all colourful and striking passers-by with unbelievable scent.

Women from San Pedro market in Cusco
Women from San Pedro market in Cusco

 

On the other side of the market you can hear the butchers cleavers cutting meat and bones of animals slaughtered this morning. Customers are shopping around for the best piece of meat. And dogs are patiently waiting for the leftovers. They know that, sooner or later, something will land on the floor for them. Further down the aisle, stalls with seeds take over the space: bags with amaranth, several types of quinoa, mace, dried potatoes, Maras salts, San Pedro cactus powder, which, when properly mixed with water works similarly to ayahuasca, coca leaves, cheeses. Just next to it, farmers are shouting to get people to buy fruits and veggies brought from their bountiful Peruvian countryside. Cornucopia that please our senses.

 

However, true trade and day-to-day Cusco can be found just a block away on the sidewalks and in the narrow back streets of the city. You will find, mainly Quechua women, sitting there with their goods: in most cases vegetables picked up from their little farms. Many of them came here with their elderly mothers and young children. They are multitasking – breastfeeding and weighing potatoes, onions, tomatoes at the same time. Dogs are running around and if they don’t run, they actually look after kids. Some richer farmers came with megaphone and wooden stalls: “Four pomegranates at the cost three, four pomegranates at the cost three. Only today, two kilos of oranges at a price of one kilo, two for one, two for one…“.They shout their promotion lines in a dull, monotonous way just like Polish policemen overseeing traffic near to cemeteries on the 1st of November. The sunshine became unbearable. Meat, fish and cheese slowly started to smell, and mix with the bland smell of fruit from neighbouring stands. The middle of the shopping district unveils the wholesale part of it – here you can find various goods in wholesale quantities. These little storehouses are built along the rail tracks leading to the towns and villages in the Inca Sacred Valley. Goods purchased here will later be distributed to all these places scattered along the famous Inca Rail that goes as far as Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes).

 

Quechua woman selling corn in one of Cusco's sidewalks
A woman selling corn in Cusco

A procession (one of many) is forming in one corner of the main square. The Sun Festival in Cusco combines Inca and Christian traditions. Every pageant has its saint’s figure and a particular theme: happy or sad. Jesus usually heads the sad one as He’s presented on the cross and followed by pilgrims wearing violet, who would always collect donations. Happy cavalcades mean music being played brass instruments, flutes, pipes, chants, dances, confetti, firecrackers, kitsch, colourful costumes and saints carried on flower-decorated platforms. Nearly every crossroads burst at the seams with people cheerfully joining processions. Firecrackers smoke covered up the sidewalk. One went off just right next to us. This was to mark the beginning of a mass. Immediately after the explosion, the organist hit first notes on church organs, trumpets, guitars followed and the first canticle began. People initially crooned the words and suddenly sang powerfully the chorus:

 

Señor, me has mirado a los ojos

sonriendo has dicho mi nombre

en las arena he dejado mi barca

junto a ti buscar otro mar.

 

Children fool around while their parents stood or sat on the church benches. From time to time, church’s naves got flooded with Catholics who either came to join the mass or just popped in to kneel in front of colourfully dazzling saints’ altars, say short prayers and lit a candle. Outside the church, in front of its wide steps two rows of food stalls had been set up. Desserts and fruits on the right and main courses on the left, a great display of traditional Peruvian food such as pickled vegetables, cooked corn-fed chicken, grilled, crunchy guinea pigs and coca leaf tea.

 

Inside the church Prayers in front of the icon of Madonna de Guadalupe Cusco Peru
Inside the church_Icon of Madonna de Guadalupe

In a few minutes, the weekly church fiesta would be held here. Later, some would go back to their homes, others would go to see the army squadrons at the Plaza de Armas, still others would climb to the hills near Sacsayhuamán, where they would gather around small bonfires and eat vegetables and meat cooked using pit technique (called pachamanca from Quechua pacha = earth and manca= pot. It’s a traditional way of cooking that dates back to Inca times). Sacsayhuamán is where the final staging during the Sun Festival take place. It is said to be (one of many) Inca worship places, but the Spaniards dismantled the buildings nearly to their grounds. What they took from that Inca site ended up as building blocks for the Cusco cathedral in the city center. Today, one can still visit the remains of Inca settlement and a the statue of Cristo Blanco, who’s there to look after the city.

Christo Blanco, Sacsayhuamán, Cusco Peru
Christo Blanco, Sacsayhuamán, Cusco

This is, more or less, how every Sunday in June looks like in the joyous Peruvian city of Cusco surrounded the majestic Andes.

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