Stan and I have snagged two seats in the second floor window box of Cappuccino Cafe that overlooks magnificent Plaza de Armas – in the heart of the Old City of Cusco.
At the plaza’s center atop an impressive two tiered fountain, stands the Statue of Pachacuti, the emperor who expanded the small Inca kingdom into a vast empire. His bronze cloak coated with a fine layer of gold shimmers in the gentle late afternoon sunshine. He is a proud, youthful, handsome warrior.
Around the square stand the 7th century Catedral Basilica de la Virgen, and La Compania de Jesús, both built on sites where opulent Inca palaces once stood. Colonnaded walkways – topped by second story balconies crowned by weather streaked red tiles – house an array of boutiques, restaurants, and cafés. The entire setting is wrapped in the surrounding Andean mountains, dotted with houses clinging to their slopes.
Saturday mornings are prime time for weddings in Cusco. Wedding parties fill the basilicas and churches, and there is much photo taking in the flower filled plazas. Pristine fountains dance and sparkle, music fills the air, puffy clouds float across the blue sky, and the air is pure, crisp, and thin. At over 11,000 feet above sea level, Cusco has even the fittest of visitors gasping for breath –– so one is forced to slow down, breathe, and take time to acclimate.
Cusco has a captivating charm with its cobblestone streets that lead uphill from Plaza de Armas, like the multiple skinny legs of a spider. Each one presents entrancing sights: Centuries old Inca walls built from massive interlocking blocks of stone each weighing several tons, still support structures built by the Spanish atop Inca palaces and temples.
Diminutive Quechua women dressed in felt hats, multilayered embroidered skirts, colorful shawls and black stockings, lead their llama and peddle their wares.
Tiny stores are stocked to the rafters with a kaleidoscope of patterned woven goods; charming white-washed irregular shaped buildings boasting bright blue wooden doors and miniscule blue balconies, are capped by well worn terra cotta tiles; cafe owners greet the passersby and offer their menus; and if one listens carefully one can always hear the music of Peru – the sweet sound of a flute – carrying across the Old City.
A walk skywards along Calle Triumfo delivers one to the funky, arty neighborhood of San Blas, which is a magnet for backpackers, aspiring artists, and creative artisans. It oozes charm, has some of the best hostels and atmospheric inns; the finest hole-in-the-wall restaurants and cafés; and an unbeatable panoramic view of the entire city.
The Mercado Central – while now on the itinerary of tour groups – still retains its authenticity.
Wheels of flat, golden, crusty bread, are stacked several feet high; a mouthwatering array of cheeses are on display; fruits give off a sweet, fragrant aroma (no half-ripe saran wrapped fruit here); liquidizers hum producing smoothies in every color of an artist’s palette; artisans sell their wares; shoppers cluster together to socialize; babies snuggle contentedly wrapped in blankets tied to their mother’s backs. The market buzzes with life, energy, and activity.
Evenings in Cusco, when the last golden rays of the sun caress this magical city – the capital of the ancient Inca Empire, and the crown jewel of Peru – are the final gift from a perfect day.