From golden temples to chicken feet: Exploring Cusco, one step at a time

Soprano high whistles direct traffic from narrow, stone-slabbed streets. There’s a screeching of breaks and honking of horns, but our taxi driver is undeterred. Afterall, it’s just another hectic mess of organized chaos for him in the ancient Incan capital of Cusco in Peru.

Through the rolled-down window he motions to “the crown jewel” of the city on our right called Coricancha. Before the Spaniards discovered Cusco in the early 16th century, there were sections of this temple painted in sheets of pure gold. The temple, dedicated to the Incan sun god Inti, is believed to be the holiest structure in the Incan empire.

I envision the golden courtyard in all its former glory, bathed by the sun and aligned with the mountains. The Spanish stripped and melted the gold in the temple to be sent back to their homeland, and then constructed a cathedral on top.

But my concentration is stolen from the stone mason ingenuity, of a city believed to be built in the shape of a puma with Coricancha as the tail, by the pounding heartbeat gathering in my head. We’re at an elevation of 3,399 metres, the highest I’ve ever been.

Our driver locks eyes with us from the centre mirror and boldly asks if we feel the effects of the thin, dry air. My husband Terry and I gulp shallow breaths, crack a smile and nod with the unspoken words of agreement while lost in a surrealism.

To the left, there’s a traditional dressed Quechuan woman pushing her fluffy-white alpaca onto a narrow ledge and out the way of oncoming traffic. Alpacas are raised to provide clothing, food, transport, companionship, and an opportunity for tourists to take pictures for a small fee. I watch the two slowly move, until out of sight.

The final leg of our ride takes us through the main square called Plaza de Armas. It’s the central nucleus of the city, which is nestled on a former marsh. I notice there are two landmarks that tower this space; a sandstone cathedral and the Company of Jesus church.

The square, thick with crowds, is lined with a combination of Hispanic and Andean architecture, and home to travel agencies, restaurants, cafes, and stores that sell everything from alpaca clothing to trinkets. It’s a lively kaleidoscope of colour, combining both the traditional and tourist.

Terry and I are staying at the Aranwa Cusco Boutique hotel, located on the outskirts of this square, before our four-day/ three-night trek we’ve booked with a tour operator through the Andes and to the masterpiece of Machu Picchu.

On arrival, we’re transported to the 16th century. “Aranwa” in Quechua means “legend,” which seems fitting for this hotel-museum.The walls are decorated with more than 300 pieces of art, including carefully placed sculptures and exquisite colonial furniture. The hotel-museum offers tours for a small fee to those not accommodated. We settle into our room and rest for a moment while sipping freshly boiled coca tea to help acclimatize, before setting out on foot to explore this bustling city.

At the top of our ‘things to do’ list is discovering San Pedro Market (Mercado Central de San Pedro). This sprawling authentic maze is the hub where all the locals flock to catch up on the gossip, stock up on groceries, clothing, have lunch or a freshly made smoothie – minus the ice.

Inside this market, Terry and I are greeted by thick buttery fumes from an aisle laden with baked goods. Bread, buns, and pastries cover every square inch. Down another aisle, fruit of every shape and size you can imagine and equally as pleasant to inhale with all the citrus scents.

All stalls seem manned by women on stools that sell everything from; vegetables, coca leaves, overflowing sacks of beans, purple, white and gold corn, herbs, spices, potatoes, including cheese, meat, and eggs.

There are no rigid health and safety standards here, like you would expect to find in Western countries. I stroll past the carcasses of chicken lying dormant in the warm sun while gathering hungry flies. Guinea pigs (and not the pet kind), chicken feet, lamb, pork, sliced red meat, and other organs laid out on display.

I’m both intrigued and repelled, but excited to comb through more of this incredible traditional open market – observing as if through a child’s eyes.

Families gather for lunch in one section where piping-hot soups are spooned onto plates with rice and served with a cold Cusquena beer, coca tea or Inca Kola. There’s a stream of vendors nearby selling a variety of fresh fruit smoothies. I question Terry if we should get a smoothie, but he still feels the altitude and food is the last thing on his mind.

We weave our way to another section of textiles, ceramics, jewelry, ponchos, rugs, hats and gloves, including Andean instruments, and souvenirs for tourists. It’s a tapestry of colour from the ground to the ceiling. What an incredible market, a whole sensory experience.

There are smaller markets tucked behind Incan walls and steep cobbled streets. San Blas Market (Mercado San Blas) is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Cusco. The market is in the plaza that faces the Church of San Blas, every Saturday.

I find alpaca toys, contemporary and traditional textiles, art that highlights the tops historic landmarks in Peru, including jewelry, clothing, and even live music with a group playing traditional Andean pan flutes. The day passes too quickly.

In the evening, we meet with our tour operator to go over the itinerary for our Lares trek. The next few days are going to be difficult. Hiking in the remote wilderness will test our perseverance, resilience, and optimism.

But thanks to the vibrant market culture we soaked in earlier today, Terry and I are ready for the next leg of our journey – to be tested by the natural world. We sign a waiver with the tour operator, and then conclude the day with the “clink” of our glasses filled to the rim with Pisco sours, Peru’s signature drink.

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