With the Incas of Cusco - South America: a first time for everything - CycleBlaze

September 2, 2013

With the Incas of Cusco

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WE ARE NOT, it is true, the first tourists to visit Cusco. It distinguishes itself by the variety of acceptable ways to spell its name, by its history as the capital of the Inca empire, and by the way it has grown - largely acceptably - to accommodate the millions who have been here over the years.

You get pestered, of course. There are street vendors with woollen hats with flappy ears, strips of postcards, coca leaves and cheap sunglasses. And short, bow-legged women roam the place in traditional dress while carrying a baby llama and demand money to be photographed - but no worse than anywhere else and certainly more peaceful than in China.

Have dirt, will play...
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It is hard not to like the Incas. Here you had a nation that worshipped nature, who understood the stars in a way that later generations struggled to match, who worshipped the earth and the rain that fell on it, who recognised what sustained both them and the land on which they lived.

Then along came the Spaniards, the conquistadors, the conquerors. They were preceded by adventuring sailors - pirates, really - who found the Incas had amassed large quantities of gold and silver but who seemed simple folk in need of civilisation.

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Cusco traffic cops have a glamour of their own
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They took the news back to the king in Spain, who listened with particular interest to stories of gold and silver and schemed as he learned that these primitive folk who hadn´t yet heard of Catholicism. What better, then, than to ask the Pope to bless an expedition and allow him to plunder - and to civilise, of course - in the name of God?

We have been told...
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We left our bikes and toured the cathedral. There on the wall was the wooden cross the Spanish had held at their first formal meeting. A huge painting on the wall depicts the moment. But there was misunderstanding from the start.

"This is the voice of God," the Spanish said, and they held up a Bible. Unfortunately the Incas had never found the need to read or write and they took the statement literally. Their leader put the Bible against his ear and looked disappointed.

"I can't hear a thing," he said. "With our religion we can feel the warmth of the sun, we can drink the rain that falls and we can touch the earth. But with this, I can't hear anything."

And he threw the book on the ground.

Which was the last thing calculated to please the Spanish, and they set about the Incas and murdered the lot and pretty much carried on the same way for a century or two.

They weren't as clever as the Incas, though. Their buildings fell down when the Earth trembled but those of the Incas didn't. The Incas used no mortar, as the Spanish did, but they did cut their stones to precise geometrical shapes that would hold them together. And to this day, many buildings in the city have the original Inca walls, the Spanish having learned to pull down Inca churches but use their foundations and the lower walls to build anew.

Tomorrow, we meet the rest of the group. We're pleased to be here a day ahead of them because we are at around 3 000m and it's hard to climb steps or even gentle slopes without breathing hard. The air is thin and it has that pure coldness you associate with snow. Except that it rarely snows here.

We set off from here to climb the final hundred metres into the sky. The prize, on our first day at altitude, was for Steph to be sick.
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Incas built with stone that they spent days or weeks cutting to precise, interlocking shapes. Then they moved them by hand - there were no horses until the Spaniards arrived - and heaved up to 100 tonnes at a time into place. Result: their buildings stayed up in earthquakes but Spanish constructions didn't.
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We walked up to 3 890m this afternoon. And paid for it. I was dizzy and Steph was sick. It wasn´t a good start but we know it will get better. Although, to be truthful, we´re worried about our first day of riding, because we´ll go up to a little less than 4 000m.

But what the heck - many have passed this way before.

What will they think of selling next?
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[] I asked a Peruvian guide whether his countrymen felt bitter about the Spanish slaughter and slavery. He thought and said: "It was all 500 years ago." Time heals wounds,

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