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Past and present in the city of Cusco

Written by Emmy on 6 March 2013

We disembarked off of the Peru Rail train from Machu Picchu in the little town of Oyantalltambo and piled back into our van to drive to Cusco. However, we encountered a slight roadblock along the way. Turns out the typical-of-rainy-season rain we had experienced earlier that day was actually quite significant; one bridge on our planned route had collapsed and another was looking shaky. We cautiously detoured, and arrived in Cusco long after the sun had set.

We didn’t have much time in the city — which most locals would tell you is more exciting than Lima — so we used our limited stay wisely. Of course that meant starting off with a solid meal. We dined at Chicha, a recommended favorite of all those we spoke to.

The restaurant was somewhat tapas-style, intended for familial sharing, and so we obliged. We started with grilled octopus with tomatoes, quinoa-crusted shrimp, mushrooms baked with cheese, and a salad. I continued to find strength in Peru’s seafood dishes, preferring the first two appetizers.

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We split four entrees among the five of us: roast chicken with fried polenta, teriyaki salmon, fettuccine with mushrooms and chicken, and trout with fried gnocchi. The trout was my favorite; the fish had been cooked in a Thai style, with lemongrass and curry, and was very spicy. It helped cure any sense of the bland blues I might have been feeling.

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We went to bed full, but arose early the next morning, determine to make the most of our single day in Cusco.

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We met up with our guide for the day, Fernando, and set off for a whirlwind tour of the area. (I had a hard time asking our guide any serious questions. All I wanted to ask was, “Can you hear the drums, Fernando?”)

Once I was able to stop miming my favorite Swedish pop band, I returned my attention to the sites in front of us.

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Our first stop took us high above the city to the ancient site of Sacsayhuamán. The Inca and other ancient tribes designed Cusco to be in the shape of the puma, and this site was built to be the puma’s head. The ancient rock formation was used for special ceremonies, though the specifics have been lost to history. Some of the stones used in the structure weigh over 100 tons, but similarly, no record exists of where the stones came from or how they came to be placed in such a way.

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Like much of the other Inca construction, Sacsayhuamán was constructed to withstand earthquakes. As the city of Cusco was repeatedly devastated in the 19th and 20th century, residents of flimsy homes came up to the ancient site to poach rocks to build new homes. Sacsayhuamán used to be several layers taller than it is today. Only within the last 50 years has the Peruvian government begun to protect the site.

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We came back down the mountain and made our way to the highlight of every Liss family adventure: the local market. Cusco’s municipal market was at once organized and chaotic; there were people everywhere and the sanitation was somewhat questionable, but the market was systematically organized with an area for each type of food labeled in three languages. How else would we have known to avoid the innards section?

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We were surrounded at every turn by yellow flowers, which symbolize luck for the new year. And despite it being firmly breakfast time, locals were slurping down roasted chicken soup at long tables amid the market stalls. Similar to what Chaz and I found once upon a time in Singapore, the Peruvians seem to avoid distinguishing between which foods are appropriate for which meals.

The most bizarre thing we found in the market clearly illustrates the blend of the native and conquistador religions. While locals passing through the market would likely visit the enormous church nearby, they would also be sure to visit their favorite market stand for an important purchase: a llama fetus. The disturbing-looking carcass is used as a sacrifice to Pacha Mama, especially around the new year. Given the rapidly approaching festivities, the eerie-looking items were in hot demand.

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We did not make any carcass purchases. However, we did stop by the older women selling funny-shaped breads on our way out and picked one up.

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We spent the rest of the morning exploring more of colonial Cusco, the open plazas and churches that so clearly indicated the Spanish influence. Much of the beautiful tile work remains, and in certain more artsy neighborhoods, the old mansions have been turned to galleries and shops. Some of the older buildings still maintain their original shape and stay open to show visitors a glimpse of the past.

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Cusco was a much more beautiful city than Lima, built into the rolling hills, and simple in its layout and architecture. From high above, it almost made me think of Florence, with its low buildings and perfectly monochromatic roofs. The city stretches for miles and miles; urban sprawl dates back to the Incas, after all, who thought building out was the surest mechanism for protection.

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After running around the city for a few hours, we were ready for lunch. At Fernando’s suggestion, we popped into Inkaterra Grill, a restaurant serving local specialties just off of the central square. Sure enough, we were immediately greeted by more of the local mint we had come to love, this time as a dip for homemade chips.

I tried a dish that I could not identify based on its menu description, but decided was safe regardless since it was cleanly on the vegetarian side of the page. Tacu tacu, as it turns out, is a dish typical of the region, and it can be served with vegetables or with any of the local meats, like alpaca. The base concept of the dish is a large rice formation, made thicker by being cooked with pureed lima beans, and cooked plaintains flanking the rice pile. In the center of mine was a serving of very nicely stir-fried vegetables. The vegetables tasted a bit Asian, but the presentation and the starches were 100 percent Peruvian.

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That did not hold for all of the lunches on the table.

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