The Hassan's

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That appears to be the general consensus of what is happening in Cuzco Peru. From the mid-80's there were few tourists who decided to brave the guerrilla war that was being raged in Peru to see Cuzco and go on to Machu Pichu, which everyone does. Several years ago the threat disappeared and now everyone wants to come here. Arguably Machu Pichu is the most desirable tourist destination in all of South America, but it sits in a location that contrasts markedly with most other great destinations.

The Pyramids have Cairo, Beijing hosts the Great Wall, Delhi is short hop from the Taj Mahal, but Cuzco, though larger than we expected, is straining to handle the tourists who now come. There are 300,000 people living in Cuzco and 300,000 visitors each year. When you arrive in town you are given a picture of the resident of Cuzco that your expenditures will support for the next year, as there is virtually no other industry here except for subsistence farming. When we compared pictures we all found that we either got the little boy with the puppy or the elder with a cane. Of course that is not true but it economically is not far from the truth.

Most tourists arrive in Cuzco by air from Lima but we took one of the four trains a week that run from Puno on Lake Titicaca. It was a motley collection of high end tourists, backpackers and travelers from all over the World. The train was relatively comfortable but it was very slow. The first half of the trip crossed the broad high plain at about 13,000 feet with only small farms and large herds of llamas and sheep to be seen. Halfway through the trip we stopped at a little village in the middle of nowhere. Here many many Indians appeared to sell all kinds of foods and crafts. We waited for more than an hour and finally saw the arrival of the Cuzco to Puno train running in the other direction. Here was the spot where they switched engines so that the more powerful engine could pull us up into the mountains. Think maybe the only reason the village exists is for that one hour of shopping that takes place four times a week.

The rest of the trip was spent winding through mountain valleys along side the small rivers. Here we saw many more small farms and there were some towns to be seen. That of course only slowed us down further and eleven and half hours after leaving Puno we arrived.

Cuzco is a city caught in a transition from historic city to tourist center. It had been the capital of the Inca Empire until the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500's. They took the city and literally used the foundations of the Incan Temples and Palaces to build their Churches and public buildings. The stonework of the Incas is amazing. Huge blocks of stone we cut precisely to fit together with only the slightest trace of separation between them. The old part of the city remains virtually the same as it was in the 1600's. UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site so it has some protection from total touristic destruction.

The Plaza de Armas is a huge square that reminds one of Santa Fe, New Mexico except on a much grander scale. The Indian people surround the square selling their goods while the shops of the square now serve pizza and Guiness. (Lois is out scouting the stalls right now.) We had been forewarned of the danger for criminal activity in Cuzco but it appears that the Peruvian government also reads the guidebooks and possibly the Internet, thus the presence of police is very pronounced and we haven't even noticed the appearance of any shady characters since we arrived.

Sunday we went to the Sacred Valley which is north of Cuzco and housed the ancient Incan settlements. Pisac has been renowned for its Sunday Market, but now this small town is inundated with tourists. Hordes of small children in their native dress clutch puppies or small lambs and lure the tourists to take their pictures. Craftsmen from Cuzco pack up for the day and head for Pisac, so you really see nothing native or new there. However the sites of the market that serves the local population is still very interesting. There are fewer tourists there and the locals seem to appreciate the interaction there much more than in the other parts of the market.

We viewed a number of small farming towns that once were major components of the Incan Empire. Today they subsist on farming and herding but they are no longer prosperous. We spent some time at the village of Ollantaytambo (look for that one in the NY Times crossword puzzle). This village survives intact from the time of the Incan Empire, while all the others had been heavily modified by the Spanish. The Incan streets and houses are still intact. Made in the same stone architecture style as Cuzco, though not as precise, they only require the replacement of the straw roofs periodically. It was  very fitting that we arrived here in a persistent cold rain as it clearly demonstrated the grinding poverty of these people and the harsh living conditions they cope with. Living in the style of the 16th century is not something you would want to experience.

Perched above the town are the remains of one of the great Incan Temples. It was this Temple to which the last Incan Emperor fled to escape the Spanish. It was a mighty climb to the top of the mountain in the rain, fortunately though we were fully acclimated to the altitude by this time. How the Incas managed to get the huge stones up this mountain is still open to conjecture. The Temple did serve an effective fortress and gave the Incas their last victory over the Spanish. The Inca however realized that the Spanish would be back so they fled the valley never to return and the Empire was lost. The Indians take pride in the fact that they never compromised with the Spanish. In the end, though they lost, they did not surrender.

We'll be getting up at 5:00AM tomorrow to get a train to Machu Pichu and will spend the day viewing the ruins before spending the night nearby. That will allow us to see Machi Pichu the following day before most of the train arrives from Cuzco with more tourists. We hope that the weather will cooperate with us. Today has been beautiful so we are hopeful. It isn't supposed to rain this time of the year, but EL NIÑO (wanted to use that key on the Spanish keyboard) has affected weather here also. Not sure if next report will come from Cuzco on the 29th or Lima on the 30th, depends on how tired we are after Machu Pichu. By the way, the computers here are so much better than others encountered.

Take Care


© Copyright 1999 Lois and John Hassan

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