Creeped out in Cusco


It must have been on one of those mornings while walking along the trecherously steep lanes of San Blas with their speeding rusty deathtraps and lack of sidewalk that I began to realise all was not well with this great Andean city. It could have been the scene of a backpacker ogling the plain, grey Incan walls on Hatunrumiyoc or the tortured expressions of a toothless beggar lurking in the shadow of the Templo de la Compañia de Jesús. Maybe it was the brightly colored pebbles and voodoo dolls on sale at the Witch Market or the advertisement for a lobotomized skeleton being displayed at the Inka Museum. It could have been while brushing off agressive-looking girls handing out flyers for massage or staring up at the twisted statues of Christs-in-agony clad in makeup and bouffant wigs that first sent a shiver down my spine. Like all great tales this imperial city too has a darkside and while trying your best to avoid it, in the end it will draw you in adding to the mystique that is Cusco.

Lovers in Cusco

lovers infront of the Sagrada Familia

The city is a paradox. Crumbling away in it’s pained beauty it’s impossible not to fall in love with it; like Isfahan, Delhi, Lisbon and New York easily joining the list of my greatest cities on Earth. If you ever walk through the main square Plaza de Armas sit on a bench and absorb the incredible Latin American streetscapes going on around you to a backdrop of church bells and hawkers, shoeshiners and beady-eyed cops, monks, nuns and struggling artists with their briefcases of tumbling canvases their watercolours seem to contrast sharply against the mammoth grey stones the relics of the Inca and the foundations of every building. Look around you and realise you are in the Bamiyan, the Palmyra of the 16th Century. A city blown to pieces by an incoming people with a surreal ideology and a concept called Christianity these invaders had a penchant for gold. Later Raqqa-esque horrors were played out on this very square when the rebel leader Túpac Amaru II was tied to four horses before being ripped apart and later beheaded his limbs sent to the four corners of the empire as a warning. The fort looming in the distance, Saksaywaman, was stormed and destroyed too by the marauding carriers of the strange flag. It was easier for them to destroy it claiming such megalithic wonders could never have been constructed by the peoples of the Andes but had obviously been made by the hands of demons. That glint of gold above the fountain blinding you on the main square, that is a recent addition, a statue of the Incan Sapi Pachacuti and a source of friction within the city of now. Some say it ruins the Colonial vista of the Plaza de Armas while their opponents argue the statue has a right to be there a representation of the Incan history and the former city. Then there is the Iglesia de El Triunfo, named in celebration by the Spanish of Incan defeat. Walk the other way along Mantas towards La Merced and stare in awe at it’s 25 kilo sparkling jem encrusted monstrance then wonder about the origins of it’s gold which seem rather conveniently shrouded in mystery. You might leave with a sour taste in your mouth.

Cusco statue

I was born like a lily in the garden

and like the lily I grew

and like the lily I will wither and die.

– Pachacutec

Sagrada Familia Cusco

detail of the Sagrada Familia

Priest in Cusco

walking in Cusco

Street sign Cusco

award for the world’s most beautiful street signs goes to Cusco

Street Cusco

typical Cusco, just beautiful, Incan foundations under Spanish buildings

Cusco was already a legend before the Conquistadors arrived. A mystical place full of palaces and gold the streets were planned out in the shape of a puma, an animal sacred to the Inca. Even today climb to the top of Pukamuqu and stare down towards the roofs of the old city and tilting your head you might be able to make out the shape of the predatory mammal. The view from here is incredible with it’s sea of sloping roofs of glistening ochre that seem tangled up in the wires of telecommunications and electricity of exhaust fumes and neon, the redstone church towers act like lighthouses to guide the lost and the pretty squares the islands of life. There in the space the reserved Peruvians move carefully like yachts on a stormy ocean their sails are bright, rainbow coloured and vibrant the souls they confine distant and mysterious.

Quechua and Colonial

Quechua and Colonial

Cusco Cathedral

Cusco Cathedral and a section of Iglesia El Triunfo

One morning I walked across Cusco invigorated by the fact that I was finally over altitude sickness. As I walked while listening to Gato Barbieri’s song “Túpac Amaru” on my iphone I felt both so far from home yet relaxed as if I was lounging through my own neighbourhood on a summers day. Infront of the Cathedral there was a hive of activity. It’s huge sluis-like seaweed-colored doors were thrown open and awash with humanity flowing out into the square while others worked their way upstream and towards the shimmering cove of candlelight and perfume while a sermon blared out from huge speakers. A beggar with pleading eyes knelt at the door and tried her best to block the pious flow but seemed to spend most of her time trying to conceal the coins that were being tossed into her lap literally by the second. To the congregation it seemed she had nothing when infact I worked out she was probably earning more than the parishers. Cusco Cathedral was quite simply gorgeous. Often described as less ornate that the other great church on the square it was the theatricals of the Cathedral that had me in awe. Definitely my favorite church in Peru with it’s blackened Christ cloaked in centuries of soot from burning rose petals it in turn was being watched by large doll-like statues like Barbies from the dark ages turned out in kaleidescopic colors and costly textiles adorned with flowers, jewels and dripping with rosemary beads reminding me of the cities flamboyant style of art, the Cusco School, or from modern times like a drunk Liberace who had haphazardly got caught up in a display at the Vatican. A sucker for the camp, movies of the thirties and the repartee of Quentin Crisp with his fleeting fads it was only destiny that I would be drawn to the high drama of the Cathedral like a moth to a flame.

Iglesia Compania de Jesus

Iglesia Compania de Jesus

Cusco altar

Martin de Porres

Across the square on the steps of the Andean baroque Templo de la Compañia de Jesús an angelic cloud of white cloth hovered. A group of girls in Communion dresses milled around looking bored the way you would waiting for a delayed train a Clapham Junction. The girls seemed oblivious to the pride that surrounded them, their family and friends wiping away tears of joy. The perplexed expressions of the girls is one of the things that remains with me the most from Peru. Like a Punjabi girl leaving her parents home for the last time on her wedding day I wondered if here too these girls too were expected to portray expressions of heartbreak or maybe they just wanted to be at home dressed in jeans while scrolling on Facebook I’m not quite sure. As mysterious to me as ancient Andean rituals those bored girls will be a conundrum forever unbroken. Nearby was an altar of Martin de Porres, a Saint who had lived in Peru and was said to have performed miracles. Even a quarter of a decade after death the legend goes that his corpse still smelled of sweet flowers. Devoted he had suggested his elders sell him when their monastery was experiencing financial difficulties describing himself as nothing but a “simple mulatto”. Today he is the patron saint of the mixed races. A lesson in humility for us all.

Cusco Communion

sad girls and crying relatives at Communion

Company of Jesus

the 8.57 delayed again…!

My favorite square was the Plaza Regocijo with it’s lush greenery it seemed quieter than the Plaza de Armas but just as magnificent. I walked into the nearby Convento de San Francisco and seeming like the only visitor there wandered around impressed by the cedar altar and stone cloister while marvelling at the ornate paintings from the Cusco School, those ornate garments and floating angels taking me to the ethereal. In a far-flung corner of the Convent I noticed stone steps leading down through a hole in the floor into what could only be described as the pits of hell; nothing but an eerie black void you would expect more in line with Amityville than a religious building. I decided to walk down the steps anyway just to flash my camera to see what was down there and to my horror while fumbling with my camera settings in the dark I could hear something shuffling around me scraping metal on stone. The hairs on my neck stood up and I ran back upstairs questioning my sanity for even wanting to go down there in the first place. It didn’t help that I then stumbled into an alcove to be confronted by a skeleton peering out of an open coffin with bones decorating the wall. I half expected the mummified grandma on a rocking chair like that scene out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I wondered what sort of weird rituals were going on there at night as the bones had candles around them but decided I didn’t want to hang around to find out. It reminded me of the last time I was that scared while walking alone around an empty Auschwitz in the middle of winter (I know, what was I thinking?) when approaching the small wooded area where the ashes from the crematorium were thrown into the grey pool of water I could sense children whispering and giggling as if playing hide and seek behind the trees and the feeling of eyes watching me filled me with dread. Auschwitz is huge but as I walked and sometimes ran to find the exit I never looked back once.

Skeleton Cusco

Convent of San Francisco

beyond the creep factor – it was time to leave

I had once read somewhere that in Latin America images of the suffering of Jesus are to our eyes disturbing, mangled, crushed and over-the-top and the reason being that there the people suffered more than we could ever imagine, their depictions of suffering increasing tenfold. In Europe we suffered too but still there in Cusco the churches did have an intensity and the people a religious fervor far more than where I live. As if struggling for answers and reassurance they seemed to hold onto God more than what we do. These days in Europe churches are closing at an unprecedented rate and sadly children are being tucked into bed with ipads instead of prayers.

Suffering. As the bus climbed up into the shanty towns and made it’s way out of the city I peered out from the window down towards the Centro Histórico absorbing my last glimpses knowing I would never see it again. Suddenly like being struck by a bolt of lightning I saw a middle-aged man squatting down in the busy street using the gutter as a toilet while looking broken, ashamed and helpless. There is something really sobering and upsetting about such a scene. As if seeing your dad cry for the first time my raw instinct was to burst into tears, for him, for humanity.

I had felt so gullable believing a local who told me people had it good living in the houses on the hill. I had slept well on my boxspring mattrass in a protected bubble living the life of a gringa believing that the Peruvians had it good. How ignorant I had been. As the city slipped away behind the snowcapped mountains I realised I knew nothing of those beautifully soft spoken people, of their suffering and of Cusco itself.

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Enduring Machu Picchu.


Cusco from Plaza San Blas

Bleary eyed and muddled after an overnight journey from the capital Abril and I grabbed each other as we made our way through Cusco’s bus station disturbed by the image that lay infront of us. Cusco bus station, Terminal Terrestre, was not a forgotten backwater like I had expected but a chaotic jumble of long distance coaches, some with complementary smashed windscreens to a backdrop of burning trash, stray dogs and red brick walls topped off with upright broken bottles acting as a deterrent. Inside, the windowless terminal was no better. A drunk man made his way through the waiting passengers insulting anyone who made eye contact with him while others (who set off alarm bells in me) lurked, their only interest the luggage of others. In the middle of all of this a young woman with expressions of suffering and silence lovingly pushed one of her breasts into the mouth of a wailing infant, like two fallen angels the scene and it’s beauty seemed out of place in the battered bus station. On a large flatscreen television above their heads Peruvian music blared out, the singer rapping while pointing to a naked woman, the person behind the camera focusing on her twerking plump bottom immodestly covered by the most miniscule strip of cloth. On a balcony above all of this police watched the passengers below, now and again blowing on whistles and shouting at the unruly, giving the bus station the feeling of being a prison that was on the verge of a riot.

Although we were practically strangers who had met during the journey from Lima, passing through the bus station it was comforting to have Abril. An Economics student in her early twenties, bookish and insecure she was typically the type of woman who had in the past latched onto me while travelling solo. Sometime in the night Abril had blurted out her life story while sobbing into a hankerchief, how her youth had been ruined by an overdomineering mother whom she had suspected of being a nymphomaniac and how, feeling insignificant in her mother’s shadow, she had decided to escape, to flee Mexico City overland to Bolivia where she heard that her father, one of her mother’s quick flings and whom she had never met, was working in a mine. I decided not long after meeting Abril that she was not neurotic or unbalanced but had simply snapped due to the endurance demanded of long distance bus journeys, this chance encounter giving her a moment to unload her emotional baggage. Feeling protective and putting her under my wing I suggested we share a taxi up to the neighbourhood of San Blas where I had booked a hotel, maybe she could find a room there we decided.

My first moments driving through downtown Cusco were not staring dreamily out at streetscapes of llamas and cobbled lanes but having a glossy brochure for daytrips to the Sacred Valley rammed in my face by an dangerous looking man dressed sinisterly in a black leather jacket who must have been unsure whether he was a tour guide or a taxi driver. After I politely declined he had continued with his hard sell when (as I was employing him to drive me) I had labelled him as rude and ignored him altogether. Abril on the other hand seemed upbeat and unburdened and began blurting out again, this time promises and enthusiasm her expressions changing to momentary confusion when I told the taxi driver vaguely that I didn’t know where I was staying. Later I advised Abril not to tell so much personal information to people who obviously had alterior motives.


Carmen Alto Street, my hotel has the white flags


View of Saksayhuaman from my hotel room.

San Blas was everything I had hoped for. Bohemian, colourful, eccentric and not quite hippie or hipster. Artisan galleries and artsy eateries seemed to thrive on every street corner, hole-in-the-wall travel agencies offered trips to the Amazon jungle, deserts and mountain peaks while small grocery stores were thankfully targeting the foreign traveller with Western and European products. It had a transient, exciting feel like one of my favorite neighbourhoods, Paharganj, only without the Delhi-belly and food poisoning. Abril had decided at first glance that my hotel was out of her price range and we decided to meet later that night. I never saw her again.

San Blas Church

On the steps of San Blas Church

Most travellers advise taking it easy when arriving in Cusco with it’s high altitudes and spend the first day lounging around the hotel. I knew that I still had enough oxygen in my blood to keep going for a few more hours. I decided I must attempt to get to Machu Picchu, the infamous Incan citadel. Being a thousand metres lower than Cusco it would be an ideal remedy should I be struck with altitude sickness.

Some travellers book a trip to Machu Picchu months ahead worried entrance and train tickets sell out which they often do. Following my intuition and hesitance about what the “World Wonder” was really like I realised I was not so keen on visiting myself. I had decided to leave it in the hands of fate and resigned myself to the fact that if I did indeed find an entry ticket then I must go or forever wonder if I had missed out. I walked into the first travel agency I found and announced that I wanted to visit Machu Picchu the following day. Typing into the computer quite manically the woman working behind the desk looked worried and told me to give her $250 before saying something in Spanish that I couldn’t quite understand and bolting out the door. The travel agency was little more than a desk in a room, the tiny space shared by a currency exchange and another counter selling cigarettes, postcards and other knik-knaks. After seeing the scams in Delhi I did wonder if it was all some sort of elaborate hoax but the woman selling cigarettes assured me everything would be okay. Half an hour later the woman who had my money appeared with a grin from ear to ear proudly waving my train and entry tickets in the air. She told me I had got the last train seat available for the following day and that I should set my alarm for 3am.

1am. I never panic but I did when I woke in my hotel room. The day before had been a daze due to lack of sleep so I don’t think I really had time to process where I was. I remember waking confused, all I knew was that I was in a dark room unable to breathe properly and worried that I might have been in a bar sometime the previous evening where my drink had been spiked. I was aware of lying on a mattrass half naked and unsure if someone else was in the room. Panicking I stumbled around the swaying room trying to find a light switch unable to remember anything about the layout of the room, stubbing a toe on furniture increased my panic even more so. As the memories of the day before began to seep back into my consciousness I realised that the pounding noise was actually a headache, a symptom of altitude sickness along with disorientation and breathlessness. I realised while brushing my hair lethargically that my arms were unnaturally heavy, weakness being another symptom.

6.30am. After a two hour drive in the back of a freezing minibus through charming Peruvian villages on the cusp of dawn the other tourists and I arrived at a town called Ollantaytambo where we would catch the tourist train to Machu Picchu. The trip from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu village is billed as one of the world’s most incredible train journeys but the two German speaking women arguing in the carriage were distracting me from the scenery which was from what I noticed pretty but could not compare to the landscapes the bus had travelled through the day before. At the railway terminus we were led through a tourist market, the stalls stacked high with rainbow-colored textiles to a backdrop of bright Quechua smiles before crossing a rickety bridge and into the village itself. The location of the village, Machu Picchu Pueblo, was stunning. Nestled like a sleeping baby protected in the arms of small but steep sugarloaf mountains the village seemed to exist without a care in the world only now and again stirring to gaze towards it’s magnificent river which was too busy tumbling down from the High Andes to notice anything at all. The barrage of water sped around the rocks like salmon, rushing and glistening like a bolt of lightning determined to follow it’s own course before disappearing dramatically around the base of a mountain. Although the village looked modern I wished I had opted to stay just for the location itself. The bus drive up towards the ruins was one of the most memorable drives I have ever taken in my life. At every turn in the steep switckback road the bus climbed higher before the pueblo and river were enveloped in a thick blanket of mist which was travelling quickly through the valley. My attention was now drawn towards the emerald green birds, swooping through the dense vegetation they would meet on branches chirping no doubt about the latest gossip that was sweeping the jungle and it’s fauna.


Llama Machu

Llama mist

My photos of Machu Picchu

I decided my first view of the ruins would be from the vantage point high above the site with the complete complex below like you see in all the tourism photos so after passing the entrance area I broke away from the crowds and took the narrow pathway immediately to the left slightly concealed between bushes where I started the steep climb. Gasping for air I would pause, clutching onto walls and bushes at one point letting a llama with her cria pass by. At the end of the trail I came out into an area which can only be described as the innards of a cloud, nothing but thick white mist in all directions my only connection to Earth the path on which I was standing. I found a large boulder and sat for quite a while eating a breakfast of apples, Dutch cheese and some Dutch chocolate like an excited child waiting for a pantomine show to start unsure whether the whims of Mother Nature would let it begin at all. Slowly Machu Picchu began to appear like the most incredible theatre production imaginable. Full of suspence a tug-of-war played out between man and nature, mist and stone, before the clouds were shooed off stage and behind the high ridge of Huanya Picchu giving the citadel, a treasure of our world, a chance to bathe in the spotlights. The three excited girls from Uruguay who were sitting near me for once stopped talking and just stared down towards the site. I was aware that we were all taken aback, unsure, awestruck, speechless. Before I could fully process what I was seeing one of the Uruguyans laughed nervously, squealed, jumped up and grabbed her phone with selfie stick. Earlier I thought her quite pretty but now she distorted her face and pouted like a grimmacing, psychotic serial killer, jostling through a French tour group she flipped her hair to the side adamant to show that she was the real star of the show. My view was blocked by the tour group and I knew that the moment was over. Stepping over plastic trash and through rude school groups I made my way down to the site’s central area where a woman lay crumpled on the ground with blood streaming from her nose. Her companion, a middle aged man, helped her to her feet while reminding the unfortunate woman that it was all her idea to come to what he described as “this God forsaken country” and that he would have been happier staying at home in Boise.

I realised with World Wonders that my experience has little to do with seeing them (as their images are repeated everywhere) but has more to do with the experience of being there which often, unfortunately, is like being at a circus full of boisterous testosterone-fueled spectators. As I  passed wardens blowing on whistles and shouting at people who were climbing on the ruins I couldn’t help but admire some of the elder travellers, the ones who oozed elegance dressed sensibly in khaki. Like something out of an old Katharine Hepburn movie they seemed to appreciate and understand the site far more, surveying what our ancestors had left us most probably aware that they were themselves about to bow out of life, leaving everything in the hands of the Instagrammers. Machu Picchu not only has to do with the past but has everything to do with the present. There you begin to understand that it acts like a viewing platform into the society of now whether you like it or not.

I realised that it was time to leave and pausing at the Sun Temple I touched the grey walls one last time remembering that first awestruck, silent, moment I had witnessed earlier in the day. Clutching onto those thoughts like a precious jewel forever saved as a golden moment in my memory, in the timeline of my life, I followed the crowds towards the exit.

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