Monday, January 23, 2012

The Food Issue

Now that I'm back in the States, I have a moment to put Peru's food in perspective.

What I've decided: it's really, really good.

Whether visiting a luxury restaurant or a cevicheria counter in a downtown market, Peruvians have an obsessive relationship with food. The indigenous ingredients are a point of national pride -- I was told by over a dozen people how many types of potatoes grew in the country; although the number fluctuated between 300 and 5,000.

Roadside Attractions

We found papas in nearly every dish we sampled, no matter what region we were visiting. Its simplest form was in potato soup, the best of which I snagged at a truck stop in Cuzco. Roadside stops dot the route leading out of the city, playing host to dozens of van drivers and tour leaders, all sitting down to slurp up a quick meal. Two plastic tables sat in front of a cinderblock house, where an old lady stood next to a knee-high pot, stirring her soup.

I meant to say, "is it alright if I sit for breakfast?" I'm pretty sure I said, "can I please eat?"

"Si, claro," she said with a smile. "Tenemos sopa de papas y meflurgagurk con piflurgagurk." She spoke really quickly, so the second half the sentence might be a bit off, but nevertheless I pulled up a stool next to a young shaggy dude with a toothpick. Teresa, the abuelita who had been renting this storefront for the past few years, poured some soup and explained its contents: potatoes seasoned with chilis and cilantro, along with the cream of more potatoes. The sopa was indicative of the Peruvian taste bud -- spiced, but not heavily so. As my neighbor with the toothpick packed up and left, an old guy quickly took his place. Other drivers took their soup in their cars, as nearby women with crochet needles called out to them.

Teresa was working overtime, but kept coming back, asking if I liked it. Responding enthusiastically, she quickly served up the second course -- fried alpaca with salad and, you guessed it, a boiled potato. After one bite and an "mmm" sound, she tossed another piece of alpaca on my plate. We continued chatting about life in Cuzco and the sights of the Sacred Valley, which despite its mind-boggling number of tourists, locals still refer to with reverence and appreciation. I finished the meal with a warm stomach, a full wallet, and a grandmotherly plea to bring my friends next time I was nearby.

Old School Meets Escuela Nueva

If boiled potatoes are the classic Peruano dish, then I'd like to see how Teresa felt about Fusiones, an upscale restaurant perched in the heart of Cuzco. Its eclectic mix of Japanese, European, and modern takes on classic Peruvian food sends the papa to new heights -- in the form of sweet potato ice cream. The concoction chills the chilliest icon, a succulent trout ceviche. Add a potato gnocchi with grilled alpaca meat, and you have perhaps the ultimate blending of old versus new, modern versus fine dining.

While Fusiones served up my favorite meal of the trip, it carries little of the international prestige of its neighbor, Chicha. The posh upstairs lounge in Plaza Regocijo owes its notoriety to two words: Gaston Acurio. The South American sensation, whose Lima rendition of Tanta served as my mouth-watering introduction to Lima, opened his first Cuzco venture in 2009, and served as our "treat yourself" dinner of 2012. While the menu features some items you might find in New York, such as grilled octopus and lamb ribs, we opted for some classy renditions of Peruano classics: a sopa de gallina with handmade chicken wontons, and the granddaddy of them all -- cuy.

Guinea pig, or cuy, which is way simpler to say, has been a part of the national consciousness for a long time -- I saw two different paintings in Peruvian churches that depicted Christ serving cuy at the Last Supper. Traditionally, it's served whole, with the head on, teeth in, under charred skin. My experience at Chicha was a bit less daunting, as the guinea pig came served only in the form of golden meat over a bed of onions and plum sauce. The taste was somewhere in the neighborhood of dark meat on a turkey, moist, rich, and fatty. Served with a glass of purple chicha, the ancient Inca corn beer of the gods, it was a meal worth drawing up on a cathedral wall.

The Lima Lunch

Patricia felt like she was going crazy. "I'm telling you," she said, "I've been to a zillion Peruvian places in the States where they roast a bunch of chickens on a spit and serve them with french fries. Why haven't we seen any?"

We'd been in Cuzco for a week, and had yet to encounter a single roast chicken. We'd seen plenty of land mammals on local farms, but hardly any birds. Certainly no french fries.

Enter Lima. As soon as we entered the city limits, Peruvian fast food places like Pardo's and Bembo's started springing up like daisies, displaying rack after rack of pollo a la brasa. The shocking thing about these chains was not how good the food was -- we expected succulent, juicy chicken, and that's what we got -- but how little it cost. For six soles (about $2.50) you can treat yo'self to a quarter of a chicken, crispy yellow potato fries, and a small salad. If you're not feeling fowl, go for a chicharron sandwich, piled high with thick slices of grilled pork. I'm telling you. If you're forced to be in Lima for more than a few days, get fat and while the time away here.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


The city that took so much time for us deserved a second look. After days' worth of canceled flights to its chalk-colored garua, or fog, Lima had a lot of explaining to do. Luckily for us, there was hardly a cloud in the sky for our final two days in Peru.

Nearly every tourist we met said the exact same thing: get into Lima, look around, and get the hell out. On the drive from the airport, it's easy to see why. Rebar sticks out of half-built apartment buildings like porcupine quills, cars honk with an aggressive impatience that puts Manhattan to shame. But as our car entered the middle-class neighborhood of Miraflores, the air warmed; the edges softened. And while Patricia wound down in the city she had very complicated feelings toward; I was able to meet up with another friend from New York who happens to be from Peru.

Sergio, now an acting student at the Atlantic, where I work, is a shaggy-haired, flipflop-wearing dude who belongs in California more than I do. He carried a bottle of pisco into our hotel room, and asked if I wanted to go see Lima's beaches. I accepted, not knowing that we would kill the bottle in a matter of hours.

We visited Larcomar, Peru's own version of the California outdoor mall. Arcades, shoe stores, and restaurants abounded -- it even has a Tony Roma's. After a quick lap and a quick smooch with some of Sergio's friends (he's basically the mayor of Lima, based on the number of friends we ran into), we walked down to a park, lined with light-filled silhouettes that populate Lima's zoos. We sat in the middle of the hummingbird just west of this frog.

After awhile of discussing acting, Peruvian politics, and meeting more of Sergio's friends, we departed for Barranco, the hipster haven of Lima. The look was completed by bars that looked like train cars and teenagers that looked like professors, thick rimmed glasses and all. We paused on El Puente de los Suspiros ("The Bridge of Sighs," to romantic Peruvian ears) to take in the positively perfect atmosphere -- Limenos walking about, chatting, drinking -- before heading to get some food.

It being my last night in Peru, I was determined to eat something weird, and Sergio knew just what to get me. Anticuchos are a classic Andean street food, consisting of the cuts of meat Americans often aren't privileged -- or brave enough -- to see. We started with skewered chunks of beef heart, packed full of flavor, and purportedly nutrients. The heart was served on a bed of chicken stomach, beef intestine, and bits of a chicken', lady parts. Sergio and the waiter used different, more graphic words, but the taste was colorful enough. We drained the last of our pisco, and I staggered to my hotel.

Despite a late start and a bit of a headache, Patricia and I were able to spend almost the entire day walking around Miraflores, exploring department stores, chocolatiers, and the tragically cool cafes that line the main drag, Parque Kennedy. Most luckily of all, we found a local bar that was playing El Clasico: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. We found the last seats before the street got busy, as school got out and word spread of Cristiano Ronaldo's sweet golazo early in the game.

After one last meal of pollo y papas, or chicken and potatoes, we were on our way to Chavez International Airport. After a week of exploring Cuzco, city of the ancients, we had spent two days getting back up to speed in the hustle and bustle of modern Lima. I'm back in New York now, feeling much like Hernando Pizarro during a mid-year trip back to Spain. I might be in the center of the universe, but my mind is filled with thoughts of "the bellybutton of the world." I've been dreaming of temples inhabited by ancient gods, of streets paved with gold.


After the exhilaration and immensity of Machu Picchu, it's a bit difficult to sit back down and write about anything else. But on a short timetable, this duo of intrepid travelers didn't have the luxury of soaking up the next few days in peace. So we woke on the bright, hired a cab, and headed back out over the hill to the Sacred Valley to see the last great ruins in the area.

The town of Pisac is known for two things: its ruins, which at one time played host to all that made the Inca empire great, whether agricultural, residential, military or religious; and its craft fair, which crowds the main square three times a week. We wanted to see both of them, and we found the perfect way to do it. If you ever find yourself in Pisac, here's a step-by-step guide to getting everything in.

1) Don't walk to the ruins. I'm serious. It might sound like a cool idea to hike up this tall hill where Inca temples survive, but it'll take more time and energy than a mortal has time for. We saw families in turmoil halfway up the mountain, debating whether to turn back or to risk further punishment from the 3 hour hike. For reference, this photo was taken three quarters of the way up. Pay your cab driver the extra 4 dollars to drive to the top of the hill, and walk down to town.

2) Only invest in a guide you like. Pisac is large, and every guide we talked to insisted that we couldn't see it in less than 2 hours. Unfortunately, these explanations took 5 minutes in broken English. So with perfect weather beckoning, we decided against hiring someone whose existence we would resent for half a day. But if you find the dude we noticed picking flowers and medicinal herbs for his guests, by all means, grab him.

3) Don't spend too long near the gate. At first glance, Pisac is...boring. Not because it's not amazing, when you think about it -- the steep rise from town is stepped by agricultural terraces, used to grow the same corn and potatoes that Peruanos eat today. These give way to sacred bath ruins, and a cluster of residential buildings that served as lookout towers in this military-minded city. But all of these look like smaller versions of what we've seen before: the terraces don't compare to Moray, the baths are better at Machu Picchu, and no fortress is as intimidating as the site of Manco Inca's lone victory, Ollaytaytambo. We spent 30 minutes hanging around, quietly wondering, is this it? Instead...

4) Head straight for the cliff. Finally, we noticed the flower-gathering guide shepherding his flock toward a sheer rock face. Looking closer, we realized they were heading up some stairs built into the cliff. "Absolutely not," Patricia said. "Those stairs are sketchy as hell." As we passed through the Gate of the Serpent, typical for its perfect construction and awesome name, we realized the higher, sketchier set of stairs was an abandoned experiment -- rather than continue up the cliff, the Incas created a tunnel that went through the mountain. Had we snagged the flower-picker, I would have asked him how in the name of Atahualpa they did this without iron or explosives.

5) Get hiking. Now the real walk begins. Luckily for you, it's all downhill. A narrow path takes you downhill, away from the cliffs, and towards Pisac proper, before descending straight down the agricultural terraces. Imagine walking down the 8 foot segment of stairs, made out of stone, erected over 500 years ago. With no hand railings, one false step could send you sprawling down toward the steep mountainside below. Now imagine this doing 10 times in a row. Luckily, at the bottom, you'll be greeted by some incredible architecture.

6) Use your imagination. As you arrive at Pisa's religious structures, remember that people use to actually build and use this stuff. Check out the water canals that flowed through religious monuments, before trickling down to the crops below, before considering that Inca workers had to trek hundreds of miles to find mountaintop springs, redirect them toward their city, and cover them, creating some of humanity's first underground irrigation canals. A staff of Inca astronomers gathered every day to observe the sun's arc, measuring its shadow in the Sun Temple. Farmers gathered hundreds of pounds of crops into bushels, before beginning the long walk home, up the stairs you just jogged down. The real life stories hidden in these immaculate stones must be mind-boggling.

7) Wash up. It'll take another hour and a half to walk down from the ruins, but don't worry: the views only get more and more jaw-dropping. After you bid good luck to some scared-looking hikers just beginning their ascent, splash your hands in the conveniently located waterfall before heading into town. Find this guy if you're looking for $1 empanadas, straight out of his wood-burning stove.

8) Shop till you drop. The wiser option is probably "shop until it starts to get dark." Taxis and buses in foreign lands look a little bit more intimidating after the sun goes down, so either arrange your ride beforehand, or just ask when dusk sets in. In the meantime, scour the main plaza for an array of handcrafted items, including scarves, jewelry, and ceramics. One thing to keep in mind -- while everything is negotiable, citizens of the Sacred Valley are proud of their work, and are not natural extortionists. So don't expect them to quote outlandish prices, only to sweeten the deal at half the asking price. When Patricia asked a woman to include a handmade hat with her purchase, the woman laughed, as if to say, "yeah. I'm going to throw in something that took me 3 days for free. Get real." It was a refreshing reminder of local tradition, and Peruvian pride.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Photo Montage. It's the best I can do tonight.

It all happened. And it all came together in the most perfect, unforgettable way possible. I've just arrived back in Cuzco, after a two day tour through the Sacred Valley, with Machu Picchu as the cherry on top. A few stats at the end of two days: over 22 miles of walking, over 150 flights of stairs climbed, over six thousand calories burned. So...I'm tired. Adding photos of the most mind-numbingly awesome weekend ever, then going to bed.

The bus, on the way to the Sacred Valley. And we're not talking no Greyhound. Like South Africa, the favored method of transport in most Peruvian cities is the combi bus, which operates somewhere in that gray area between private taxi and scheduled bus. Six soles (about $2) and the hour-long ride can be yours.

The salt pans at Maras. After arriving at Urubamba, a small town within driving distance of all the Sacred Valley sites, we secured our new best friend, Peter, as our cab driver. Our first stop were these outrageous salt licks, which have been in constant use for hundreds of years. Because there are no access roads besides the foot-wide precipices between each pan (many of these paths also contain an elaborate drainage system that sends just the right amount of water to each shallow pool), workers still carry the salt up the mountain in sacks on their shoulders. They do it a lot, too, since each lick produces over 100kg of salt per day. Incredible.

Maybe the best 15 minutes of the trip. On our way toward the highway, we stumbled across a Saturday street party, which included Peruvians from all the surrounding towns. The highlight of the event was the Tug of War Tournament, which pitted women from different towns against each other. Each team, occupying staked out spaces around a basketball court as if the Sharks and Jets were on their way, had its own colors. The largest, and most intimidating gang, was the Pink Ladies of Urubamba. They sent their six strongest ladies, average age about 65, into the ring. No one else approached, until the ragtag crew from Yucay ran in. I'll let you see the video someday, if you're good.

The terraces at Moray really don't photograph well unless there are people inside, to give you an idea...oh wait. There are people there. Well, that's how effing big it is. While the space looks like a big amphitheater, historians noted that each section within each bowl had its own microclimate -- it's really warm in one area, really cool in the next, windy in another, et cetera. They now think the site was used as a botanical laboratory, where they could experiment by growing different crops in different conditions.

The view from the fortresses at Ollantaytambo, where Manco Inca made his big stand against the invading Spanish. I don't have a good picture here, since Patricia brought the fancy camera, but will eventually be able to show you the steep walls on all sides of the plateau. Imagine Spanish conquistadors charging up the cliff faces, arrows and lances puncturing their fancy uni's, and saying "forget this, ese. I'm outta here. Paz afuera." I don't know why these conquistadors became Mexican in my mind, but it was a crazy colonial time.

Our train trip, which barely happened. As we arrived at Ollaytaytambo, we checked in with the ticket counter, which informed us that all the tickets had sold out. But with a little determination, perseverance, and ass-kissing, we managed to score two last-minute tickets on PeruRail, the finest monopoly the government could privately contract. Since there are no roads in or out of the closest city, Aguas Calientes, the train was a must. Here's us making the most of our time. Notice the Advil next the pencil, which are still being popped pretty regularly to cope with the altitude headaches.

Annnnd...we're here. This picture is my first good look at a Wonder of the World, taken at 6:41am. We'd been awake since 4:30. But with only a few dozen other people who made it up the hill that early, we were treated to some pretty baller scenery, and with some gentle mist and low-hanging clouds to add to the ambience.

Don't worry, I'm not going to show you all the ruins. But here's an example -- the Temple of the Sun. See that circular room? See the trapezoidal window? On June 21st (the winter solstice in South America), the sun peeks up over the mountain, through a huge stone structure on the horizon, through the window, and onto a ceremonial stone that still resides in the middle of the room. And crazy enough, this stuff still happens. Those Incas. What will they dream up next.

There I am. In one of the most magical places in the world, on one of the most magical weekends of my life.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Finally had some guinea pig. Good travel.

I've rapidly latched onto Patricia's inside joke with her sister, whenever they vacation together. If one makes a solid move, like taking a screenshot of gelato translation, or asking a waiter how he spices his own meal before loading up yourself, the other uses the best new compliment you can get: "good travel."

Today was a day of smart decisions -- many good travels. First off, I ate some guinea pig at Gaston Acurio's local restaurant. But I think I'll soon blog about my food adventures, so I'll let that marinate for awhile. Back to the day.

Despite a late night of schedule-making (more on that later), an early morning start was key. It got us to Cuzco's cathedral with plenty of time to spare for our tour guide, Gorky. Yes, like the Russian political activist. He didn't explain, and we didn't ask. What he did do is show us the most famous painting in Cuzco, which appears next to the altar. In it, Jesus is clearly celebrating the Last Supper, although a few things are different. Instead of fruit, there's a stack of potatoes. Instead of bread, there's a guinea pig, feet obediently up in the air. And clutching a sack of silver is Judas...whose face looks suspiciously like the feared conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. Even the affable Gorky couldn't find a nice thing to say about Pizarro: "he's...not a very good person," he admitted reluctantly.

Our next good travel was grabbing a cab to Saqsaywaman, which lies only half a kilometer away, but over 1,000 feet above the Plaza. And with two of us, cabs costs are cut in half! Good travel. After serving as a stand-in tour guide, and after sliding down some big rock formations like slides, and after getting unnecessarily close to some alpacas and their shaggier cousins, huanacas, we were able to quickly walk down the path back home.

While we saw a few more sites -- the slightly smaller yet far prettier church on the Plaza, the Qorikancha museum of precolonial artifacts -- the best find of the day was an outdoor basketball arena, tucked away in a courtyard and complete with stone bleachers and soccer-style bench covers. In the afternoon, some basic after-school coaching was going on -- boys and girls, having a total blast. But our best travel of the day was returning to the courts after a bizarre Peruvian dance show (here's a link, but it doesn't include the dance where dudes act like alpacas mating), was sticking our head back in the stadium at night. A game was going on. We found seats next to a woman anxiously watching by herself. I asked who she was rooting for.

"The blue team is winning," she said, glancing at the scoreboard, which read 14-3. "But I cheer for the yellow."

The yellow, it turned out, were a local club team that included her sister, a 25 year-old Cuzqueno. She was currently riding the bench, watching her team get annihilated by a much taller, more skilled team of university students.

According to Patricia, a former basketball player, they were very decent. "Great passing, good vision," she said. "But will someone please teach these girls to shoot." It was true. The girls could juke each other into the popcorn machine, but would then throw the ball at the basket in manners reminiscent of chest passes or discus throwers. Before she could go down to center court and offer the coaches her services, our neighbor grabbed our arm.

"There she is," she said excitedly. "Numero quince." Number fifteen was Paula, our friend's younger sister. She barked into her phone. "Que tal? Donde estas?" she demanded. Paula strode on the court, the arena silent except for her one fan. "Vamanos, Pau!" it rang.

We joined in the cheers -- a rebound here, a nice defensive read there. "Nice rotation. Up to the high post," Patricia observed as Paula moved up to the top of the key. Suddenly, for the first time, someone passed Pau the ball. She turned, and shot.


After a night of worry about the state of Peruvian shooting skills, Paula had put them to rest with a beautiful jumpshot. The ball rolled off her fingers, effortlessly, as it should. We freaked out -- screaming, fist pumping. When I say "we," I mean all three of us. The rest of the stadium was still bored with its 25-8 blowout. Good travel.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Day 2 in Cuzco -- Sexy Women

Still playing catch up, since Patricia is alive and well and watching the Gonzaga game on her computer. But that won't be revealed until later. Read on.

Without knowing if or when my friend would make it Cuzco (she revealed to me after arriving that one more day of delays would have sent her packing back to the States, so thank goodness), I went for broke and decided to see the stuff you have to see: the ruins. To do it, I had to get there in a van. And just like the van, I needed fuel. That's where the local cafeteria comes in.

I decided to stick with a rule today: eat where it's crowded, preferably with locals. So upon finding an outcropping of taxis and buses, I checked near a ramshackle doorway: plastic buckets to sit on, surly men eating piles of food. Check.

Most Peruvians living on lower incomes eat out more than they cook at home -- since the average three course meal, called the menu, costs two to three dollars, it's often more economical to let a little old lady do the cooking. And I found one. Her name is Teresa, she's five foot nothing, and she loves to make fun of taxi drivers after they leave. I can only imagine what she said about me. In my presence, though, Teresa was everything you read about. She insisted I clear my plate, otherwise she's be insulted. She asked me how everything was the second it entered my mouth. She taught me about the different varieties of potatoes she cooked with (there are over 500 in Peru). And she kept piling on extras if I complimented anything.

Today's menu: coca tea, made with coca leaves that provide a mild narcotic boost and allegedly resistance to altitude sickness; potato soup made with yellow potatoes and potato cream, along with perfectly spiced salsa; alpaca meat served over rice, with -- you guessed it -- more potatoes. "The Peruvian breakfast is the best breakfast there is," she cooed in Spanish with a toothless smile, sliding another piece of alpaca on my plate.

After a quick totter over to the next bus terminal, I was on my way to the famous, and conveniently located, Inca ruins of Tambomachay, Pukapuchara, Q'enqo, and the world-famous Saqsayhuaman (it's literally pronounced "sexy woman"). Walter, the guide I found hanging around the entrance, tried to add me to his tour with some Argentians, who then got pissed and left him to give me a personal (and presumably less lucrative) tour of the ruins.

While Walter taught me lots of the Incas religious beliefs and building methods (interesting fact: Incas would cut these massive rocks by inserting heat-sensitive wood into minuscule fault lines, waiting for them to freeze, and force the rock apart), he was most excited to teach me pickup lines -- a phrase he adores, incidentally. While I particularly enjoyed calling women sirenas, or mermaids, or invoking the ever-popular "girl, you have so many curves, and I don't have any brakes," his favorite was the classic four-line exchange:

Woman: So, what do you do?
Man: I'm a student.
Woman: Oh, what do you study?
Man: As of right now? Your eyes.

He told me you could add "sirena" to the end, if you want to give it some maritime flair.

All that talk stopped, however, when we saw the Saqsaywaman herself. Speechless, I pulled out my camera and furiously started pushing buttons as Walter described what I was seeing.

If Qorikancha was the temple of the sun and moon, and if Tambomachay was the temple of water, Saqsaywaman was the most intimidating of all: the Temple of Thunder, Lightening, and Thunderbolts. To pay homage, Incas set up stones in their typical, polygonal fashion -- except these were all over 8 feet high. The largest stone we saw, perfectly sculpted by Incan masons out of composite iron they found in meteorites, stands over 15 feet high and weighs over 120 tons. One can only imagine hundreds of workers pulling the limestone uphill over a mile, using Egyptian-style rolling techniques, then being told by their boss that the stone wasn't smooth enough. "Set it down, get out your sandpaper, and get it right," he'd say. After that rock is done, head back to the quarry and repeat a few thousand times. No wonder the Sexy Woman took fifty years to build.

Upon my descent from the thunderbolt-dominated heavens, I checked the hotel. No sign of Patricia. Looking to drown my sorrows in juice, I told the receptionist I was headed over to the local market. He looked concerned.

"That's where the locals eat," he said, making sure this gringo wouldn't be scared off by Peruvian sanitation standards.
"Si," I said, staring him down, "lo sabe usted." You KNOW it.

After being served the juice of five oranges, squeezed right in front of my eyes, and after buying some trinkets (don't worry, family members, I gotcha covered), I got the word from an internet cafe: she's here. She made it. Patricia didn't die!

Since meeting up at five, we've been chilling in the Plaza de Armas, eating some fine trout and Peruvian pizza, and tasting some local pastry dishes. The tale continues anew tomorrow.

Brad gets excited about history.

I began my education in Qorikancha, just off the town square. Qorikancha, or "golden temple" in the native language of the Quechua, was one of a handful of the Inca's most celebrated religious sites -- and since gold was always used to signify the sun, it was certainly the best decorated.

To understand the whole gold thing, you have understand a few things about the Incas, and a few things about the Spanish conquistadors. Peruvians didn't have a monetary system in the 1500's. People grew surplus crops, and traded them. There was no gold standard. Spain, on the other hand, had a carefully codified system for gold -- a certain weight was worth one peso, more was two pesos, and so on. A certain amount of gold would take care of you for a month, or a year. So when the Spanish took the Inca king, Atahualpa, hostage, his promise was music to their ears:give me my freedom, he said, and I'll give you a room full of gold. Not decorated with gold. Filled to the brim. He even specified the measurements of the room. If he can offer us this much gold off the top of his head, the Spanish thought, how much do these people have?

When Pizarro, the head hauncho, sent three of his men to travel to Qorikancha to expedite the gold gathering, they figured it out. The temple was covered – from floor to ceiling – with gold. Solid gold fountains. Solid gold llama replicas. Even the walls were covered in over 700 squares of gold leafs, that measured two inches thick.

What you see of Qorikancha now is the result of that day. The Spaniards quickly set to work, stripping the gold off the walls, as confused worshippers entered and whispered to each other – some of their first thoughts were that, perhaps, these men who wore beards and rode horses actually ate gold, and needed it for survival. Imagine aliens entering the Vatican and getting really excited over fresco paint, ripping hunks out of walls by the barrel. The Incas saw these walls as a beautiful homage to the rays of the sun. The soldiers saw their retirement funds.

In addition to the colorful story, my tour guide, Caterina, had loads of interesting tidbits about the architecture of the temple. I’ll spare you all of them and hit you with my two favorites.

First: The city of Cuzco was purposefully designed in the shape of a puma, the most powerful animal the Incans knew. The head was the site of the military quarters. The heart was the town square. The tail was where the roads left Cuzco and ran off to other villages. “This temple,” she said delicately, with its tribute to the male and female deities of sun and moon, along with its power to spring the seed of the Incan culture throughout the empire, “is located where the genitals of the puma would be.”

Second: The Spanish were freaking amazed, as I am today, by the Incan’s grip on architecture. They routinely wrote home to their families, describing the stone masonry as unlike anything they had ever seen: every stone, no matter how massive, fit perfectly with those around it. No mortar was used. And miraculously, though the new Spanish churches and markets fell down with every passing earthquake, the Inca structures still stand today.

My dad, a structural engineer who gives lectures on seismically-sound design, would probably be able to point to the thing that the Incas got, and the Spanish didn’t – arches. The Incan architects understood that a trapezoid was stronger than a rectangle. Add that to the fact that trapezoids fit the religion well – they pointed to the heavens, they ran along the earth towards the edges of the empire – and the shape begins reappearing everywhere. Niches to hold bodies are in trapezoidal shape. Walls are built on a slight angle, bracing themselves against quakes. Coolest of all, they build trapezoidal windows in which you could see a hundred yards.

These people knew what the eff they were doing. So did Caterina. She kept calling me Brad Pitt.