At 7am I climbed aboard the Inka Express tourist bus. The ride from Puno to Cusco (also spelled Cuzco) normally only takes six hours, but – because we would be stopping at points of interest along the way – our bus wasn’t scheduled to arrive until 5pm. Sitting near me were two American men in their 50s. “Do you happen to know who won the game last night?” one of them asked.
I’d just seen the score on the Internet. “The Heat won,” I said. “They’re up 2-1 on the Bulls.”
A few minutes later I heard two different men whispering to each other in English. “What is this strange obsession American males have with sports?” one asked. Based on his accent I guessed he was an American himself (and probably from the Midwest), although he decorated himself like a Maasai tribesman. Two solid red discs had been inserted into each of his earlobes, stretching them to the size of silver dollars.
“Oh, it’s even worse in corporate America,” said the other. “Everything, I mean everything, is sports analogies.”
I took a closer look at my fellow passengers. Over half of them appeared to be sunburned senior citizens on some kind of package tour, and most of the others were slightly-eccentric middle-aged couples. I’d been around 20-something backpackers so much that it felt strange to be in a group where I was on the young side.
We pulled out of the bus terminal at 7:30am sharp and drove for almost two hours before stopping to visit a museum in a small town called Pucará. Later we pulled over briefly at La Raya, the highest point of the day at 4,318 meters, and then we had lunch at Sicuani. Our longest stop was at Raqchi, where we toured some 500-year-old Inca ruins. The bus rolled into Cusco just after sunset.
Cusco is special. For hundreds of years it served as the capital city of the Incas, who from humble beginnings built an empire that stretched from Colombia to Chile. As the political, military, religious, and administrative center of such a powerful civilization, Cusco was considered by the Incas to be “the Navel of the World” (a popular conceit; Greeks said the navel was Delphi, Jews said Jerusalem).
But the empire of the Incas proved no match for the empire of the Spanish. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and 169 Spanish soldiers – aided by an Inca civil war, the introduction of European diseases, and far superior technology – captured the Inca emperor Atahualpa, which set the stage for Spain’s eventual conquest of the entire Inca Empire. (Jared Diamond’s book Gun, Germs, and Steel paints a vivid picture of Atahualpa’s defeat and then uses it as a focal point for examining why some societies advanced at faster rates than others.) The Spanish wasted little time in transforming Cusco into the primary outpost of Spanish colonization. Pizarro’s men stripped Cusco of its gold, destroyed many of its temples, and used the rubble to build Catholic churches.
As a result, modern Cusco is a fascinating mix of Inca and Spanish culture. The city’s central plaza (Plaza de Armas) is dominated by the Iglesia de la Compañía, a church built by the Jesuits in 1576, and the Cusco Cathedral, built on the foundations of what had once been a temple to Inti, the Inca sun god. Masterfully crafted Inca walls that have been standing for over 600 years still line some of Cusco’s streets, and many of the area’s indigenous people continue to speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. With so much history and substance, Cusco somehow manages to retain a feeling of authenticity despite being subjected to what Paul Theroux has called “the ravages of tourism.”
I first visited Cusco two years ago. With only 10 days of vacation to work with, I flew from San Francisco to Cusco, spent two nights getting acclimated to the altitude (3,400 meters, or 11,155 feet), and then made the four-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. It was an incredible trip, and I knew there was no way a return visit could ever match the thrill of experiencing Cusco and Machu Picchu for the first time. But I couldn’t pass through this part of the world without at least trying to recapture a little bit of the magic.
On my first day in the city I just wandered the streets and let myself feel nostalgic. The city hadn’t changed at all. I stopped to marvel again at the famous 12-sided stone on Calle Triunfo’s Inca wall, and I climbed up to Iglesia de San Cristobal twice – once in the early afternoon and then again to watch the sunset. Two years ago I’d covered most of the big Cusco-area attractions (Sacsayhuamán, Coricancha, the Sacred Valley) and I didn’t feel the need to revisit them.