I arrived at the Hotel Monasterio mid-morning on Friday and was overwhelmed by the charm and beauty of this former monastery. Built in 1595, the hotel has two large open courtyards with perfectly manicured lawns and flowerbeds and a gorgeous stone fountain in the middle. The courtyards are surrounded by two story structures with the hotel rooms above and hotel amenities below. I’m sitting in the courtyard post breakfast (on Sunday) listening to the fall of the water and the chanting of monks playing discreetly over the sound system. Not a bad way to start my morning alone in Cusco. But I digress.
On Friday I met up with my family and after lunch at the hotel we went on a city tour of Cusco, the capital of the short-lived Incan Empire. The weather in Cusco is unpredictable to say the least. Sunny and blue skies transitions to downpour in a flash. We discovered this upon arrival at Saqsayhuaman, an Incan fortress and UNESCO archeological site overlooking the city of Cusco. Dressed in sandals, shorts and a windbreaker with my “durable” New York City umbrella, I shortly became the owner of a fabulously chic purple poncho. While not the ideal conditions, we trudged through the mud admiring the monolithic structures of this famous fortress. How the Incans were able to move these gigantic boulders and then shape them to fit seamlessly is a mystery to most. Given that the Incan history is predominantly oral, the hypotheses of historians are the base for our contemporary understanding of their history and culture.
From Saqsayhuaman, we went back to Cusco to visit the Templo of San Blas (the original church of the city), the Cathedral, and Qorikancha (the Convento de Santo Domingo). The Killke (900 AD) and Incan (13th century – 1532) people, the original settlers of Cusco, were later joined by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1530’s. In the architecture and paintings inside the churches a unique blend of the Incan religion and the Spanish Catholic influence is present. The Incans were great artisans and were commissioned by the less artistically adept Spaniards to paint the murals and carve the ornate baroque altars in the churches. Unbeknownst to the Spaniards, the Incans incorporated images of the sun, moon, stars, mountains and other elements that are representative of their own religious beliefs into these works. The Spaniards, seeing the Incans openly worshiping in their newly constructed churches, ironically thought they had successfully converted the Incans to Catholicism.
In order to build these new churches and convents, the Spaniards tore down existing Incan temples and buildings and built on top of their foundations. The most impressive of these new constructions was the Cathedral. Built in stages (the first Cathedral wasn’t substantial enough so they tore down an adjacent Incan palace to build a larger principal Cathedral – the first attempt relegated to an ancillary chapel), the final product contains the main Cathedral, the chapel of Our Lord of the Tremors (theorized to have minimized damage to the Cathedral in a disastrous earthquake in 1650), the Royal Chapel, and the Iglesia del Triunfo. Having lived in Spain and traveled extensively, I have seen a LOT of churches, but this is by far one of the most spectacular. The baroque church has an extravagant altar of carved silver and gold plated cedar wood, an ornately carved cedar choir with rows of saints and religious figures, and a multitude of chapels with distinct saints. The most comical was the patron saint of amorous affairs – stacks of papers were left at the foot of the saint and supposedly if you put in a request for love it would likely come true. As our guide explained this supposed phenomenon, I could see my mom getting out her pen and paper on my behalf. Still waiting.
Our evening culminated with pisco sours and cocoa sours in the former chapel at the Hotel Monasterio. Seemed slightly incongruous to be imbibing in the former house of God, but we made it work. Classical Peruvian dancers entertained us during dinner, the perfect end to our first day in Peru and a solid preparation for our full day trip to Machu Picchu the next day.