Friday, July 1, 2011

Cuzco - Day 2

By comparison to the past two days, today was downright calm.  We slept in later than usual (getting up at 9am) and spent the rest of the day taking care of basic needs (laundry, some groceries), additional travel plans (bus tickets to Lake Titicaca, our next destination), and sight-seeing around town. 

In particular, we went to the Sacsaywaman ruins that sit on a hill above town.  These were part of an enormous military fortress built by the Incas in connection with the town of Cuzco (which was their capital city).  We learned that the city was laid out as the head of a puma, with the zig-zagging walls of the fortress representing the teeth.  The ruins were unfortunately little intact due to cenuries of pillaging of stones for building materials in other structures, but even so they were impressive.  The sheer size of the stones that remained and the scale of portions of the walls that still stood were pretty awe-inspiring.  It doesn't surprise me that the Spaniards had a hard time believing that they were built by human hands.

There were llamas grazing around the ruins
We also visited a museum of pre-columbian art, which turned out to be a real jewel of a museum.  It's housed in a former colonial mansion built around an internal courtyard, and it contains a small but well-curated collection of very fine artwork from the various Peruvian civilizations that preceded the Spanish arrival.  There was an array of materials, ranging from ceramics to wood to various metalwork.  By far the most impressive collection was the ceramics collection, which had some astonishingly beautiful and imaginative pieces.  There were also some really lovely pieces of sea-shell jewelry.

We had meant to spend the rest of the day visiting the famous cathedral and other churches in town, as well as a few more museums.  When we arrived at the Plaza de Armas, however, we found ourselves in the midst of a massive celebration.  Hundreds (probably thousands) of people thronged the plaza, many marching bands played loud and brassy tunes, and -- most surreally of all -- giant gilded saints floated through the crowds on the backs of teams of men.  We had walked into the middle of a procession of the major Catholic saints and were witnessing as they processed around the square.

I knew that these processions have been a Catholic tradition since the middle ages, and I had seen them represented in art many times, but I had never seen one in person before.  It was amazing!  Each saint had its own standard-bearers with banners declaring the name of the saint (we saw Saints Pedro, Jose, Ana, Barbara, Sebastian, and a few more that I can't remember), a live marching band, and a band of followers, all of whom were generally in coordinating outfits.  The saints themselves were gaudy, over-wrought, life-sized statutes standing on platforms, some of which required more than 50 men to carry (and even then the burden seemed significant -- many of them appeared to be struggling). 

These guys had the good idea of resting the beams on
padded bags around their shoulders
In addition to the spectacle of the procession, there was also the spectacle of the crowd.  There were ordinary Peruvians, of course, as well as tourists, like us.  But there also were hundreds of campesinos who had clearly come into town for the occasion -- and they were dressed in their finest.  The women in brightly-colored skirts and the iconic hats and braids, many with brightly colored woven cloths binding children or other burdens to their backs.  It was fun to see such traditional clothing being worn by everyday people for a real-life event in their lives -- they weren't doing it to please the tourists; this is really how they look! 

Since the procession was coming out of the cathedral, we knew there was no way we were going to get in for a tour, so we plowed our way over to the neighboring church.  It was built in the 16th century and in many ways (architecturally, artistically) outshines the technically more important cathedral.  It's a gaudy baroque church on the inside and out, with gobs of gold and some very gruesome crucifixes (all of which I was forbidden from photographing)

Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus
One of the creepier crucifixes
To our pleasant surprise, we found that we could watch the procession from the window of the choir loft overlooking the square.  So we stood up there and watched until the sun went down and we were too hungry and cold to continue.

At that point we walked over to some street-food vendors and got some skewers with chick and potatoes that were really delicious.

The street-food solved the hunger problem, but we were still freezing.  The temperatures, which had probably never gotten much above 60 all day, had dropped rapidly once the sun went down.  The last we checked, before coming in for the night, it was 46 degrees and forecast to get down to 35 over night.  I guess that's what we get for coming on vacation in the middle of winter!  (Oddly, these cold temperatures, with the rain and cobblestones, made this place feel very much like some of the cities I've visited in Europe.)

Now it's time for bed.  Tomorrow we get up early to catch the bus for a 6-hour trip to Lake Titicaca.

More photos

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