Cusco, I came here looking for your soul.
Perhaps only to feel the echo.
And hear the winds of greatness gone.
To see the erased memories of the fallen.
But a new layer of sod I find.
Over the legend and the story.
New dust has settled in the minds.
Where shouts of those lost don’t praise.
This was the beginning of a poem I wrote when leaving Cusco on my 3rd visit. This was before I realized I was an insufficient poet to properly express how I felt. Perhaps my talent at blogging will prove different.
Modern Cusco is a complete disappointment given its historical context. It used to be one of the most sacred cities in the world, on par with Jerusalem, Mecca, and Bodh Gaya. Now, it is just another Latin American city overcome with urban sprawl. Congestion rules the polluted streets, (pollution in terms of noise, visual, environmental, and spiritual). And feral dogs dominate the living spaces. Where one finds an unpolluted area, vendors come from each direction robbing the city of its sacredness. There is no tranquility or solitude to be found-which considering the value placed on solitude and tranquility in Latin cultures, is odd.
Former Energy of Cusco
The sacredness of Cusco was recognized by the conquistadors before they ruined it. The legend of what Cusco was is recited in the oral histories of the descendants of the Inkas, even to this day. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega tells us in his Chronicles that Cusco’s water was pure enough to drink from the river. He says there wasn’t a piece of trash, nor was there a crime committed in the city. It was essentially paradise on earth. Of course the conquistadors came and did what they do best and trashed it within months. Subsequent wars finished what the conquistadors didn’t, and as the centuries progressed, time mopped up the rest.
Over the past 100 years there has been a renowned interest in Native American culture. All of a sudden the world values what early Europeans
tried to eliminate and destroy: their wisdom, their art, their medicine, their religion, their values and etc. But the people in these glorious places (Native, or of Native descent) often do not restore these places to resemble their former luster.
Don’t think I don’t notice the new museums, or the upkeep of historic buildings and ruins. I notice these things and realize the hard work performed. I also appreciate the access governments have given us to many ancient sites. But, this is hardly a beginning if they wish to rightfully give reverence to their heritage.
During the Inka times Cusco was a city that acted in many functions. It was the capital city in Tahuantinsuyu. It housed an important person from each allyu in the Inka Empire to be used as a bargaining chip, if needed. The most important festivals were centered is Cusco. The festivals were centered around the hundreds of huacas-sacred sites-constructed in the city. Cusco also housed the the mummies of past Sapa Inkas, the living Sapa Inka, their family and nobles.
Not bad for a city of 40,000 people.
Cusco used to be such a sacred city that while traveling there you paid respect to those with connection to it: if you came across a traveler coming from Cusco, you would step out of their way because of their perceived connection with the city. It wasn’t only the city that was holy, but the hundreds and hundreds of huacas-sacred sites-, temples, monuments, and holy places within it.
But nowadays, as a tourist you typically arrive in Cusco by air (The alternative is by bus, which will be another posting in the future). You arrive in a decent sized airpot for a city of 400,000 in South America. After claiming your bags, you go outside, admire the large storm brewing on the horizen, and get in a taxi.
The taxi honks and drives like a maniac through the city to which ever hotel or hostel you are staying. The driver points out several attractions on each side of the non-linear streets and gives you some information. This information you know to be inaccurate because you of the research you performed before you came. The taxi driver doesn’t have access to this modern information, and relies on hearsay.
You think back to the chroniclers recounts of the city and wonder about the sanctity of it. Where is the energy? Its soul—It is not meant to be found in the taxi you finally conclude. Maybe you will feel it outside. You unload your bags at the nameless hotel or hostel you are staying at (You chose the hotel based on one of the thousands of tourist sites about the city), and you go out looking for this feeling it must be here somewhere you think to yourself. The hotel clerk provides a colorful map of Cusco and circle where you are. They draw arrows to the nearby sites, and then they try to sell you a tour package to view the ruins and natural beauty of the area. It costs $49.99 and it would pick you up the next morning at 6am.
You decline because you are there to seek the energy that the Pre-Colombian Natives swore was there. That’s not on the map.
The city is surrounded by green mountains, but resemble large hills. You know they were once covered with forest and terraces, but the conquistadors used the wood for housing and fires. The terraces were neglected and eventually disappeared. Ever since they have been barren pasture land.
You make your way toward the central plaza where you can see what used to be central Cusco. You get lost on the way and get approached by a man who speak perfect Spanish, English, and German.
“Hola, hola,” he says. “Donde de eres? Oh, England! I love England. I can get you the best prices on anything you want. What do you want? Weed, Cocaine, Tattoo?”
You pass up on his offers and instead ask where you can find a quiet meditative spot. He doesn’t understand your question and runs past you to the next tourist.
“Hola, hola,” he says. “Donde de eres? Oh, United States! I love United. I can get you the best prices on anything you want. What do you want? Weed, Cocaine, Tattoo?”
Finally, you make it to the central plaza, there’s a large blue fountain of falling water in the middle of it. You take a seat and soak in the view of what used to be Coricancha-the most holy temple for Inti-the sun god. It was demolished by the Conquistadors and upon its foundation was built the Santo Domingo Church.
You close your eyes to feel the cool 10 Celsius temperature and hear the thunder in the background. That was called Yllapa to the Inkas and was the son of Init-the sun-and the Mama Killa-the moon. You try to catch a breath of the fresh air that the storm is blowing at you.
“Hello, would you like to see my art?”
You tear your eyes open. There’s a youth standing there with a binder of parchments.
“I am an art student at the local university. Please, look at my art. It is free to look,” he says.
Did he just come out of the stone work? I swear he wasn’t there when I sat down 1 minute ago.
And this is how Cusco goes. After days of seeking this famed energy that used to put it above all other places in South America, you board your flight back to Lima.
Peru and other South American countries have gained a lot from the native culture of the area, and continue to do so. The modern Andean cultures have adapted to the native food and export it to the world. They have engrained many of the native cultural norms into their own culture. They are using the ancient sites as a source of income, and not a source of enlightenment. In the age of tourism people come and take. And take. And take.
And give nothing back.
That is why there is not energy left to enjoy. It has been stolen.
The laws of reciprocity that ruled in the Andes for millennia should be restored. These laws were not of the written type nor of religion.. The laws of reciprocity were a way of life like going to work to get money is the law of surviving in the current world.
Modernity has taken Cusco’s energy, its culture, its forests, its clean water, it’s holiness. Modernity has given nothing good back to Cusco. Allow that to continue and what will happen is unknown, perhaps the Native Andeans are correct that a Pachacuti-a cataclysmic event-will occur since the balance of reciprocity is not being followed. But instead of thinking of what Cusco has lost and what we aren’t restoring, think about what it could be if it was able to regain the holiness that belongs to it.
Perhaps its real fate is to be a new Vatican.
A new Himalayas where lost souls can go to find their calling.
A place that in unique in the world, and not another South American sprawling city.
Cusco it’s time to rediscover your soul.