The taxi pulls sharply down one of the many narrow cobblestone streets that all converge at the central Plaza de Armas in the heart of Cusco, Peru. I pass him several coins and get out, my backpack already heavy on my shoulders. The giant cathedrals stare down at me with a reverence that has lasted for centuries, and I’m perpetually impressed by the blend of cultural assimilation. The history of a people who experienced Spanish invasion has mingled almost imperceptibly with deeper rooted beliefs.
As I make my way across the plaza and head north, following another steep road toward my hostel, I see several signs and tourist agencies offering “Ayahuasca Ceremonies”, the sacred plant of the shamanic people inhabiting the Amazon basis. As the capital of Peru, Cusco sees an influx of travelers, and its tourist industry is geared toward trying to introduce people to ‘authentic experiences’.
After I drop off my backpack I head back into town and walk into one of the larger churches. The inside is almost more staggering than the outside – huge golden vestibules and ornate stained glass ornament the interior, and everywhere there is a sense of opulence. And yet, among the paintings and architecture there is also a latent sense of humility, one which has been spawned from a very strong Christian theology. Just past the plaza is the famous temple of Quirikancha, an ancient Inca structure that has been modified over the years, but still retains its sense of grandeur. Giant stones fit together with an almost unreal precision, speaking to the engineering genius of Peru’s ancient people.
Outside I head up toward the hills where another ruins, Saksaywaman, is an even better example of the sort of masonry prowess that once existed here. Massive stones, hundreds of tons, line the fields in walls. Here and there groups of alpaca graze happily on the grass.
I make it back to my hostel for a quick nap and check my email at a local café. My friend from Ecuador has arrived separately with her boyfriend and we’d planned to meet up before I took off south toward the Chilean border. We end up meeting at a smaller plaza on the steep eastern side of the city.
“I have the perfect restaurant,” she says, leading us through a number of winding passageways to a side restaurant. The daily special says ‘alpaca steak’, and she gives me a wink. I think of the docile creatures I’d seen earlier that day.
Cusco, although perhaps relatively sleepy in the daytime, come alive in the night. Dozens of bars line the perimeter of the plaza (usually strategically placed near the hostels, where young travellers can easily access them). But it’s not confined to merely bars – there are a number of excellent and eccentric clubs, including the Fallen Angel which sometimes features themed parties, and the Casino Babliona is always full of travelers and expats alike. We bustle into an art-deco club with a blue neon sign and stake out a couch in the back and order three pisco sours, a drink made with the country’s favored liquor.
“I’m glad we got to see you before we left,” my friend replies, and her boyfriend nods and orders a second round. “This is the best part about travelling, meeting up with friends,” she says, and I have to agree.
Loneliness is a symptom of the traveller, and the opportunity to rejoin friends at the most unexpected times during one’s journey makes that journey all the more special. I nod again and give her a hug as the second round of pisco arrives.