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Inside Inca Land
Text and Photographs by D. K. Bhaskar
Published: Volume 15, Issue 5, May, 2007

Cusco, the ancient Inca capital, with its splendid temples, grand palaces and majestic ruins is a fascinating mix of Incan and Spanish heritage

Lima may be the capital of modern day Peru, but its ancient Inca capital is Cusco, situated at a height of 11,000 ft in the south-eastern Andes mountain range. If you are a history buff and have had your fill of Europe's historic cities, Cusco with its mixed Inca and Spanish heritage, and its spectacular location, is the place to head to.

The ancient Inca civilisation has produced architectural wonders that tourists from around the world come to marvel at. Even though the most precious artefacts and sites have been thoroughly plundered in the best European tradition, there is still much to see and appreciate here. The Spanish, who conquered the region in 1533-34, brought their own style and culture.
To get to this mountain perch, the modern-day air traveller flies over the most spectacular mountain scenery, soaring over the 6,700 metre high Salacantay peak, and then almost plunging into the deep valleys in between. Air drifts created by the highs and lows can be a serious threat to aviation safety, but finally we made it down safely and I heaved a sigh of relief.

Outside the airport, it is absolutely chaotic as competitive hotel representatives try to corner business and taxis zipped by with alarming speed. But soon I am travelling through a completely different part of the town where stately Spanish-style buildings lined the stone-paved streets, their foundations dating back more than five centuries.
From the balcony of my hotel room in the centre of the megalopolis, I can see the mountain ranges, cobbled streets, the locals and the buzzing shopping complex below. The city looks promising, but first I have to grapple with a problem that is bigger than I had anticipated. Technically known as hypoxia, altitude sickness (we were at 11,000 ft) can manifest itself as nausea, dizziness, and as in my case, an intolerably painful headache. Symptoms pass after a day or so, though it takes longer for smokers, I am told. The hotel management serves coca tea, made from the cocoa plant, which is supposed to help.

Whether it did or not, I am soon fit enough to set off on an exploratory walk and I find myself in the middle of the Plaza de Armas, the most famous square in the city. Earlier the centre of the megalopolis, today it still remains at the heart of modern Cusco. Its Inca name is Huacaypata and it was here that ceremonies and military parades took place. Legend has it that when the Incas conquered new lands they would bring back some of the soil to be mixed with the soil of Huacaypata, as a symbolic gesture to incorporate the newly gained territories into the Inca empire.
Every visitor to Cusco eventually lands up here to relax on its benches and stroll under its arcades that are dominated by shops, bars, restaurants, travel agencies and internet cafes that serve the large numbers of tourists who outnumber the locals and give this ancient city a surprisingly dynamic feel.

As I sit in the square looking at the magnificent carved balconies of the surrounding buildings, which had been turned into restaurants, vendors try selling me everything from reproductions of paintings to hotel rooms, tours, treks and trinkets. I meet Eleanor from Ireland who has a host of travel tales and tips to narrate. There are tourists from Europe, Australia and the United States whose customs have ensured that Cusco is the only province in Peru that is not mired in economic crisis. Most of the colonial houses have been converted into cafés, hotels and discothèques, and Cusqueños are pleased to receive international visitors who make their economy thrive.