“At 3,310 meters, Cusco ranks within a thousand feet of the highest and most inhospitable cities on the planet. The settlement drapes over the mountains like an impaled victim being pulled to the valley floor. It’s a remote land that time should have forgotten. Yet everyone from the millennia-old Killke culture to modern adventurers the world-over has somehow made their way to this mountain Mecca.
The Inca erupted from the region like a lava flow and made Cusco ground zero, physically, politically and spiritually, for their up-and-coming kingdom. They gobbled up territory and made defiant neighbors cry uncle until they amassed the largest empire the Western Hemisphere had ever seen. Centuries later, the Spanish somehow managed to cross the daunting Amazon and the impassable Andes to descend on the Inca capital with a crushing fist. They did this barely a quarter decade after Christopher Columbus’ first voyage and personally delivered to the Inca their comeuppance. While Conquistadors left a bloody scar they didn’t extinguish the resilient Inca spirit. Today, in the shadow of an ever-shrinking global frontier and the wake of increasingly accessible travel for the masses, the world has come to see what the fuss was all about.
That fuss presents itself as a mash of many pieces that never properly intermixed, like a ball of leftover Play-Doh. It’s an unlikely hodgepodge of ingredients that should never have been married in the first place. Cusco is where an ancient language called Quechua still dominates, defying the odds and surviving a gauntlet of invading threats. Its citizens, with their high cheekbones and broad noses, show remarkably little or no signs of mongrelizing with waves of warring armies and centuries of foreign occupation. It’s a place where Catholic cathedrals dominate yet concede to the ancient Inca deities.
Cusco has managed to remain expectedly sheltered while the modern, sometimes cruel world lives hundreds of miles away on the tropical beaches of Lima. However, it supersedes all as the undisputed spiritual and cultural capital of Peru, similar to other great former capital cities like Krakow, St. Petersburg or Philadelphia, proving extraordinary things happen at 11,000 feet.”
My Peru travel narrative: The Travel Companion From 11,000 Feet