The view from the cheap seats

Cusco Travel Blog

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The Plaza des Armas in Cusco on the 24th. Everyone is gathered for the Inti Raymi festival.

So here we are in Cusco. By far one of the coolest and prettiest cities I have visited. It is situated in a valley high up in the Andes Mountains. The entire city is surrounded by soft Andean peaks. It is simply beautiful.

We arrived here in Cusco on the 24th, in the wee hours of the morning. We had a few hours of sleep before we dragged our weary selves out of bed because the 24th was the day of the big Inti Raymi festival. This is a festival that celebrates the Winter Solstice. According to my research, this festival was celebrated by the Incas as the Festival of the Sun where the God of the Sun Wiracocha is honored.

A view of Cuso rooftops.
The Inti Raymi symbolizes the eternal consecration of marriage between the Sun and his sons, the human beings.

Inti Raymi was the most important festival of the Inca empire Tawantinsuyu which based its religion on the cult of the Sun. On the 24th of June they celebrate the winter solstice, in other words the beginning of the Sun's New Year.

The festival actually goes for about a week, with parades and celebrations every day, but the 24th is the pinacle day with a huge celebration in the main plaza and a ceremony in the ruins of  Sacsayhuamán, (the pronounciation sounds a lot like “sexy woman”), also called the Sacred House of the Sun, which is perched atop a nearby peak.

Our seats for the festival. As you can see we were very very very far away from the stage, which is just visible in the distance.

Chris and I hit the plaza first, but it was packed and we could barely see anything. We talked to some other gringos who informed us that in order to get a good seat in the stadium up in the ruins, you had to have a ticket. A spendy ticket that went for 90 US Dollars. Ha. No way were we paying that. We found out that we could sit on the hillside next to the ruins and watch for free but in order to get a good seat, we should start trekking up the hill now. So we bailed on the main plaza celebration and armed with water, snacks and sun screen, we started the long processional climb up the hillside behind all the other cheapos. The climb was another one of those 45 minute climbs that made me feel like I was breathing through a straw, but I can tell I am getting acclimated because it was a little easier than the trek on Amantani Island.

When we got to the ruins, we realized that the price we had to pay for not coming off of $90 was a seat so far away we could barely make out the stage.

A man selling hats to the crowd out in the cheap seats.
We found a spot among all the other non-paying citizens and settled in to wait for the celebration to start.

I can only say that this experience was incredibly bizarre. It was a bit of sensory overload. We were perched on a slanted meadow, waiting, and we both realized that the stadium was filled with tourists. Tour buses were streaming in and paying tourists who did not have to do the climb piled out and into the stands. As far as we could make out, there were no locals in the stadium. All the locals were back in the hills where we were. We were both a little disturbed by this. It seemed like the ceremony is mostly a spectacular show put on for the tourism industry.

The locals didn´t seem to care in the least. All around us were families picnicking, pedalers selling hats, empanadas, binoculars, toys, balloons, apple pie (yes, slices of apple pie), pop, water, jewelery, etc.

Everyone swarming the "off limits" hill to get a better view of the show.
Kids were playing volleyball and soccer and it didn´t seem like anyone cared about the ceremony that was starting what seemed like seventy miles away. I broke down and bought some binoculars for about $3 and strained to try to figure out what was going on.  

Even as the ceremony started, people who had trekked up the hill were still streaming in and trying to find a spot to sit. One huge hill was cordoned off and was being heavily guarded by the local police. But about midway through the ceremony, a huge faction of rebellious spectators broke through the boundaries and swarmed the empty hillside so they could get a better view. There was tons of cheering and suddenly people were running from all directions to get to the newly opened hill. The police gave up and stood back and the ceremony actually came to a halt while the people found places to perch.

When the ceremony resumed, Chris and I moved closer.

Inti Raymi festival dancers in the ruins.
We were able to follow about 2% of what was going on thanks to an English program I bought. The entire ceremony was in Quechuan, the native Peruvian language. At some point during the ceremony, there was supposed to be a sacrifice of two llamas, one black and one white. I couldn´t see much through my $3 binocs, but I did hear a pitiful squeal that sounded a lot like a pig being strangled and then Inca king held up what looked like a handful of entrails. I found out later that the sacrifice is all for show now.

I have to say I was as much intersted in what was going on around me out there in the nosebleed section as I was in what was happening on stage. It was fascinating people watching and I could barely figure out where to settle my eyes.

After the ceremony, we made the long trek down.

A local woman making her way down after the festival.
The sun was setting and the ruins were stunning. The walls of the ruins are made of enormous stones that are cut so precisely they don´t need mortar to keep them together. They fit  together like puzzle pieces. At one spot, locals were hugging the stones and touching their foreheads to a worn spot. Of course we had to join in. The locals laughed at us but I don´t care.

Later that night we finally decided to check out the nightlife. We hit up an Irish pub of course, because we do everywhere we go. I work in an Irish pub back home and have for some reason worked in a lot of Irish pubs in my life so I like to check them out in other countries. It was exactly like all other Irish pubs in the world. Full of western tourists. We had a beer there but I was more in the mood for something different. We found a nice chill pub where there was some local band playing and it seemed to be less touristy.

One of the festival actors--perhaps the Inca King?
We met a pretty sweet local named Oliver who I sat and chatted with for a while. He is a teacher in Cusco and was originally born in the jungle. We had fun laughing at the few tourists that did wander in decked out in all their Peruvian finery��"woolly hats, alpaca sweaters, knit mittens. Oliver said that tourist dressed more “Peruvian” than the locals. I am not guilt free. I have my own new pair of alpaca mittens for sure. Ha.

We ended the night with way too many drinks and some dancing at a club by our hostel. The drinks hit me pretty hard at this altitude. I stumbled back to my bed in the wee hours of the morning, spent.

We spent all of yesterday in a painful hungover haze. We had to move hostels and we are now at The Point, which is a party hostel.

Chris touching her forehead to the ruin walls while locals look on in amusement.
We napped and spent the day nursing our aching heads. Last night we settled in the TV room with about twenty other hostellers and watched “I am Legend” and “Point Break,” one of the finest Keanu Reeves films ever made.

I have to say, even though I have seen some amazing things over the last week and half, I am very happy to be in one spot for a while. The first bit of this trip we were constantly on the move since we had to get from Lima to Cusco by a certain date for our Inca Trail trek and there is so much to see between those two cities. But now we are just taking it easy, getting ready for our trek on Saturday. We were very lucky to get permits to do the Inca Trail. They regulate how many people can be on the trail at any given time. We booked way back in February. We have met plenty of people who have not been able to get permits because they sold out a few months ago.

Me touching my forehead to the ruin walls. You could just feel all the mystical energy. :)
You can still take a bus or a train to the top, I am not sure which, but the Inca Trail trek is something I have been anticipating for months.  It is four days and will take us over the same trial the Inca used to get to Machu Picchu. I have heard the trek is challening. We start out on Saturday and will trek and camp until we get to the site sometime on Tuesday morning, in time for the sunrise.  In the meantime, we plan to go see some more sites and relax. This is definitely a great city to do both of those things in.

sheffey3 says:
I am living through you guys, as many other people reading the blogs.
Glad you guys are having a great time.
Posted on: Jun 30, 2008
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The Plaza des Armas in Cusco on th…
The Plaza des Armas in Cusco on t…
A view of Cuso rooftops.
A view of Cuso rooftops.
Our seats for the festival. As you…
Our seats for the festival. As yo…
A man selling hats to the crowd ou…
A man selling hats to the crowd o…
Everyone swarming the off limits…
Everyone swarming the "off limits…
Inti Raymi festival dancers in the…
Inti Raymi festival dancers in th…
A local woman making her way down …
A local woman making her way down…
One of the festival actors--perhap…
One of the festival actors--perha…
Chris touching her forehead to the…
Chris touching her forehead to th…
Me touching my forehead to the rui…
Me touching my forehead to the ru…
On the way down from the ruins. Th…
On the way down from the ruins. T…
Parade floats at rest in a courtya…
Parade floats at rest in a courty…
Me in front of one of the floats f…
Me in front of one of the floats …
Cusco
photo by: Vlindeke