Jesse Chehak
February 15, 2015

The old woman elbows me in the ribs, hard. She is small, Peruvian, her face heavily creased. Black hair hangs in a braid to the middle of her back. She is without a hat. When I meet her dark eyes she nods in the direction of something over my shoulder. I swing around and see mist, rays of sun, clouds, glistening rain, a rainbow, all mingling, dispersing, re-forming, vanishing, and reconstituting again while racing before the nearly sheer, deep-green mountain face across the valley. I turn back to the woman and we both smile. She has far fewer teeth than I. We sit together on the bench and watch the singular, eternally repeated, show—I don’t know for how long.

I hadn’t even planned to be at Machu Picchu again. I had experienced the mountaintop Shangri-la with the mysterious past nearly 20 years earlier. I watched dawn break from the Temple of the Sun, I hiked up Huayna Picchu, I sneaked into the ancient citadel at night. I had what I came to understand was a typically memorable experience. And like nearly every foreigner who comes to Machu Picchu, I based myself in the city of Cuzco, almost 75 miles down the Sacred Valley. I had expected to be—and was—awed by Machu Picchu, but Cuzco caught me off guard. Peru at that time was emerging from a long period of insulation: the communists of the Shining Path were still holding out in the mountains around Ayacucho and tourism was not the national engine it has since become. But despite being a sleepy city, Cuzco felt young, vital. I had always wanted to return.

The longest-continuously-inhabited city in South America, Cuzco sits more than 11,000 feet above sea level, high in the Andes. It was the center of the vast Inca Empire in the 15th and early 16th centuries. The arrival of conquistadors, in 1533, changed all that. The Spanish quickly laid siege to the city’s riches, squatted there briefly, then moved on to the coast and the newly formed colonial capital of Lima.

Walking the cobblestoned streets today, the past pushes itself up into the present, asserting its contemporary relevance. In building after building, intricate and subtle Incan stonework visibly supports more-recent colonial structures. Cuzco is not unique in building upon its distinct cultural phases (think of Seville’s wedding of Catholic and Moorish influences), but this melding of ancient Incan and colonial architecture helps give Cuzco an air of mysterious and living antiquity.

The Plaza de Armas was, and still is, the center of life. Colonial arcades frame the landscaped square, surrounded by the sprawling cathedral and its neighboring churches—all built on Incan foundations. Red-and-white Peruvian flags fly beside rainbow-colored banners of Tahuantinsuyo (the Inca Empire). Two decades ago I noted that the Cusqueños took pride in the glory of their Inca heritage—in the intervening years they have learned to market and exploit it.

When I was here the first time, a few storefronts on the fringes of the plaza offered white-water rafting trips or occasional excursions to the Amazon basin. Now, it is difficult to walk far without being handed a flyer for an “exclusive” tour of the Sacred Valley, or receiving an offer for a massage, or a proposition to get my photo taken with a woman in traditional dress beside a snow-white llama. Five-star hotels converted from monasteries and convents—including the elegant Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, where I’m staying—are now easy to find. There are very few traffic lights, and cars often choke the streets.

“We are a city of 500,000, and growing fast—maybe too fast for my liking,” Cuzco native Carlos Unda Cano tells me. Unda Cano, an affable outdoorsman, is a professor at the Andean University of Cuzco, but like so many here, he also works in the tourist trade, specializing in eco-tours and biking adventures. “When I was a kid, if we saw a blond person we would stop and point. Only alpaca had blue eyes. Now….” He shrugs. “Seventy percent of the people here are directly or indirectly involved in tourism. In the last ten years, high-end tourism has exploded.”

While the top of the market has skyrocketed, most residents of Cuzco live much closer to the ground. Down on Calle Mantas, under yellow streetlamps where the scent of eucalyptus mixes with the smoke of wood-stoked fires, a typical scene plays out. A grouchy woman is working late, adding a savory smell to the night. I buy a bag of her freshly popped corn, then feel someone shadowing me down the street. When I turn, the small boy behind me stops. Our eyes meet. I reach the bag out toward him. Without delay he accepts his prize and is gone into the night.

The contradictions that come with a place at once historically poor and newly prosperous go a long way toward defining Cuzco today. The posh restaurant Cicciolina, with artwork adorning the walls and bundles of dried peppers and garlic hanging from exposed beams, serves up delicious trout ceviche and duck prosciutto, while just outside a small woman wearing a bowler hat sits beside an open fire in the gutter, selling fried guinea pig—nose to tail, claws and all—on a stick.

Young street boys lugging wooden boxes offer shoeshines to strangers in patent-leather loafers. Weathered women weave on straining wooden looms beside a shop that sells alpaca sweaters for more money then they will earn in a year—or five. Against the wall of the convent of Santa Catalina, an old lady in a colorful poncho sells cigarettes one at a time. And a block away a Range Rover drops off a well-heeled foursome outside Paddy’s Pub, where, up a flight of steps, tiny Peruvian women barely able to see above the bar draw pints of Guinness for an expat crowd watching soccer on a giant flat-screen TV. On any other day, the same crowd might be sipping cocktails at the sleek Museo del Pisco, more bar than museum.

It’s easy for outsiders to decry a destination that has become a victim of its own success, but as Gabriela Guillen, a Cuzco native and student at the university points out to me, “Cuzco is growing up. It’s cool. Maybe we lose some customs.” She shrugs. We are sitting at the bar of Norton Rat’s, an expat hangout just off the Plaza de Armas. “People pick up customs from foreigners. And we have a cinema now,” she says, beaming.

But over at the Mercado San Pedro, there is nothing new. This is where the locals shop—for everything. Pig heads hang in a butcher stall beside a woman selling concoctions that she promises will cure diabetes and arthritis, gastritis and gout. Nearby are barrels of cacao seeds for chocolate. A wire-thin man sags under 10-foot-long stalks of sugarcane he shoves into an antiquated grinder. The vine of the hallucinogen ayahuasca is piled high. Women work sewing machines hard. People sit at makeshift tables and slurp soups and stews prepared on portable stoves by busy men and women. The sensation is one of chaotic familiarity among the regulars—I see no foreigners. Fresh juices from fruits I don’t recognize are squeezed and offered in tall glasses. There are love potions for sale, and red huayruro seeds for luck. And of course, there is coca leaf.

Any frank discussion of Cuzco—or nearly anywhere in the Andes—must include the coca leaf. I encounter clear plastic bags jammed full of the green leaves in abundance at the Mercado San Pedro and I see respectable-looking men walking down the Avenida El Sol with cheeks puffed out, gnawing on wads of the stuff. Even my refined, American-centric hotel offers arriving guests maté de coca, a soothing tea made of coca leaves, designed to alleviate altitude sickness.

Just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas is the small, comprehensive Museo de la Coca. Inside are various works of art in praise of the leaf, including a painting of the Blessed Virgin holding three leaves aloft, a sly smile on her face. There is a large panel describing the nutritional properties of the plant—its high levels of protein, vitamin C, potassium, beta-carotene, and calcium, as well as its benefits for pregnancy. Up on the second floor are clear instructions on the intricate process of creating cocaine from the leaves. And finally there is a room depicting the evils of the drug, with photographs of its victims—the singer Amy Winehouse (who actually died of alcohol poisoning), soccer superstar Diego Maradona—and a mannequin sprawled lifelessly on a bed with a needle sticking out of its arm and a toe tag dangling from its foot.

In the museum’s small gift shop, Angela Rodriguez is brewing a pot of maté de coca. “In its natural state, it is pure and for health,” she promises me. Rodriguez is a typically small, middle-aged Peruvian woman with a warm, open face and an easy smile—the furthest-looking thing from a coke fiend. “Only because people use it the wrong way does it have a bad reputation. Any product mixed with chemicals becomes a drug. It is one of the reasons the museum is here, to help people to understand.”

The shop sells all things coca: cookies, toffee, energy bars, and endless assortments of teas as well as loose leaves. “All the farmers in the fields are chewing. It gives them energy, and keeps them from getting hungry.” Rodriguez smiles. “I chew every day,” she tells me—and she certainly seems very happy.

As I am taking my leave, she has one final point to make. “It is safe to say that without the aid of the coca plant, Machu Picchu could never have been built.”

This statement isn’t surprising given that sooner or later, nearly every conversation I have in Cuzco turns to Machu Picchu. It is impossible to overstate the effect the ancient Incan site has had on the city.

Built in the mid 15th century, “discovered” by Hiram Bingham in 1911, accorded World Heritage status by unesco in 1983, Machu Picchu has become a must on many a bucket list. To get an idea of the ever-growing import of the Incan ruins, a few numbers are helpful. In 1992, only 9,000 tourists made the trip to Machu Picchu. In fewer than 20 years, that number had swelled to more than 850,000 annually.

When the Urubamba River flooded in 2010 and washed away the railroad tracks, access to the mountaintop was cut off. Machu Picchu closed for more than two months and, according to the ministry of tourism, Peru lost $200 million in revenue. Cuzco was hit hardest.

“Everyone realized how dependent we are,” Unda Cano tells me as we walk across the Plaza de Armas. “Restaurants, hotels, everything closed.”

Perhaps I was naïve in thinking that I could return to Cuzco and skip what many consider South America’s greatest draw, but then I didn’t fully understand how linked the two cities have become—how in death one has given life to the other. To truly experience Cuzco today, I also had to see Machu Picchu. This time I do it in style.

The Belmond Hiram Bingham train pampers a few dozen passengers in two Pullman-style cars done up in 1920s décor. The train slowly winds 68 miles through the Sacred Valley, passing through rolling plains, descending into Pomatales Gorge beside a roiling river, chugging through the town of Ollantaytambo (with its own vast Incan ruins), past the hanging glacier on Mount Veronica, before the ecosystem changes from Andean highland to jungle and cloud forest.

The journey is undeniably posh; the arrival is anything but. Aguas Calientes is the kind of ragged, opportunistic village that springs up to capitalize on a nearby tourist destination. The quicker dispensed with the better. Machu Picchu sits on the saddle ridge atop jarringly steep mountains, a half-hour bus ride up scores of switchbacks. Even on a repeat visit, the first glimpse induces head shaking. How did they do it? How did they even think of it?

Similarly goofy and unanswerable questions come to my mind often during the two days I spend at the site. There are countless stories and theories about the Incas and why they built Machu Picchu. Who lived here? Why? Was it really a sanctuary for virgins? (No, it doesn’t seem so.)

The experience lodged so deep in my psyche during that first trip 20 years earlier that the white granite ruins feel deeply familiar—if much more crowded. I revisit the Hitching Post of the Sun, hike to the top of the terraced agriculture sector to the Watchman’s Hut, and hunt out the Temple of the Three Windows. Over the years—and even while at the site— I have heard so many theories as to why Machu Picchu existed (to determine winter or summer solstice, for human sacrifice, for astronomical readings, to house precious gems). At some point I leave my active mind alone and simply wander, letting Machu Picchu wash over me.

New rules are being introduced that will restrict independent movement throughout the citadel, but I find more than one empty corner and sit alone as mist descends and lifts. Hummingbirds zip past. Orchids grow wild and sway in the breeze. A hiker is visible high up on Huayna Picchu. Eventually I make my way toward the exit, then decide to sit just one last time.

That’s when the older Peruvian woman elbows me in the ribs. It’s then that I turn to take her in, and look off in the direction she indicates—to the mix of mist and clouds and rain and sun. We watch together and when she finally rises to leave, we nod farewell. I sit awhile longer, looking out. A falcon circles high above. I follow his improvised course, only the tips of his wings adjusting in the breeze. Then he swoops and dives, banks hard to the southeast, and is gone over the next peak—toward Cuzco.

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