The Surroundings and the Region of Cusco

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The Surroundings and the Region of Cusco

The region of 72 000 square kilometers of the same name as its capital city, was the geographic core of the great empire of the Incas. After 500 years, Cusco still represents and shows that ancient power. All this in a scenic setting of strong contrasts, where elevated alignments of mountains combine with dilated highlands and plateaus of gentle relief, deep valleys, canyons of mountains, valleys, streams and rivers. Geographically the Cusco region is located on the eastern slope of the Andes and is marked by the Cordilleras of Urubamba, Vilcabamba and Vilcanota, whose waters mostly flow into the Amazon Basin, elsewhere also into the Lake Titicaca. Compared to the Andean side facing the Pacific, the side which is facing the Amazon, counts on climate benefits such as humidity and as well pleasant living conditions or better environments for agricultural production. The mentioned cordillera mountain chains and their main snow-covered mountain peaks, such as Ausangate, Salcantay, Callangate, Chumpe, Alcamarinayoc and Veronica, all with altitudes between 6’384 und 5´682m, make up the second largest glacier system of the tropical Andes and one of the most important in the world. Further down, below the mountain ranges and the higher Andean valleys, the geography and its relief turn into abrupt forest covered slopes, followed by extent plains of tropical Amazon forest.

Due to the great altitudinal diversity the Cusco region has a great variety of climates, ecologies and landscapes. Those provided support for the development of important cultures such as Wari and Inca. The great development of these cultures, especially of the Incas, makes the region with its thousand archaeological sites, the most important archaeological one in the county and even in whole South America. Among these sites the most remarkable ones worth visiting in Cusco include Qoricancha, Sacsayhuaman or the sanctuary of Machu Picchu. There are many others such as Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Moray, Yucay, Zurite, Quillarumiyoc, Choquequirao and Racchi, which you should not miss either. All these historical sites shape a heritage of an invaluable wealth and each site represent a special architecture, which is harmonically integrated into its physical and natural surroundings. Each landscape, within the Andean cultures reflect so much more than only physical or functional use. For those cultures each landscape formed a space with sacred components, such as earth, mountains, rocks, rivers, lakes and water partings, plants and animals (both domesticated and wild), human-beings (alive and dead), as well as the sun, moon, stars and lightning. This sacred and profound vision of nature manifests in the interrelationship, interdependence, complementarity and mutual respect that these cultures showed for their surroundings. It is also reflected in the multiple functions their architectural work has had. This multifunctional use was at the time sacral, productive, for soil and water conservation, administration and for habitation as well as for human services and articulation. The harmonious interaction of the architectural creation with the landscape is supremely expressed in the citadel and the landscape of Machu Picchu (one of the most beautiful and attractive places on the planet), but also can be admired in the town of Ollantaytambo, with its large archaeological complex, still reflecting the life of the Incas. The streets and houses of that Inca town are still inhabited by the descendants of this great culture. The majority of the archaeological sites in the Cusco region are located along a well-constructed trail network from the Inca times, with a length of over 50,000 km. The so called “Qhapaq Ñan” or Inca Trail network connected the various parts of the empire. Several parts or routes of this network (because of preservation and restoration) are still in use and highly appreciated for hiking and trekking. Using those Inca trails allows us to receive an unforgettable impression of that natural beauty and historic monuments, away from the noisy vehicular traffic. The most famous of these is the “Inca Trail” which leads to legendary Machu Picchu.

The beautiful highland scenery with its slopes and valleys of great archaeological diversity, wildlife and nature (e.g. more than 850 bird species and over 400 species of orchids) complement each other in many parts of the region with its unique and ancient cultural landscapes (still cultivated areas of traditional agriculture and livestock breeding). Many of these areas are marked by extensive, well-built terraces which can be seen in many places, such as in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. An extensive and sophisticated network of ancient aqueducts with ditches can be found in Moray (above the Sacred Valley). This functioned as a stunning center of agricultural experimentation. In Raqchi we can see a complex system of ancient grain silos, which helped to ensure plenty of food for the population in Inca times. Until today the traditional production systems complement each other harmoniously with the natural landscapes. That way the Incas left a great legacy of physical testimonies as well as knowledge systems to the present generations. Those latter ones are expressed in different beading types and raising systems for camelid animals (llamas, alpacas and vicunas), as well as an enormous spectrum of different varieties of crops. Nowadays, facing the challenge to maintain the world’s population with healthy and sustainable food, many scientists are fascinated about the traditional agricultural systems of the Andes. They admire these highly sophisticated systems which made it possible to cultivate a great diversity of food crops and varieties in the most different ecological and climatic conditions. All these combined together with a traditional community organization, based on reciprocity and mutual cooperation (Ayni, Minka, etc.) and a cosmovision with great respect. This integration and interaction with nature should serve us as a brilliant example and inspiration of how we should shape the future of our planet. Thanks to this, the Andes are one of the major centers of origin of food plants in the world, such as potatoes and corn. One of the ancestral breakthroughs in the history of agriculture of Cusco is the white corn of Urubamba, which is considered to be the world’s biggest maize grain.

Another astonishing historical achievement in the region is the great development in textile art, especially in the wool of alpacas, llamas and vicunas. The exquisite shawls of indigenous women are woven with the use of filigree and complex ancient techniques. These shawls are made of yarn, colored with special natural dying substances and have very specific and rare designs. Their patterns vary from village to village. Highly popular and well appreciated souvenirs are the beautiful and precious textiles from the historic town of Chinchero. This picturesque spot with a mix of Inca and Colonial architecture is harmoniously embedded in a beautiful and natural landscape close to Cusco. There are many spectacular towns like Chinchero, all allotted through the territory of the region. The most notable ones are Pisac, Yucay, Ollantaytambo, Maras, Andahuaylillas, Huaracondo and Paucartambo. In many parts of the region other towns and indigenous communities exist where the locals still maintain their native way of life, as they have experienced little influence of the European colonizers and the modern world. All these represent a rich ethnological heritage with interesting cosmovisions, religious expressions and forms of life. Part of this is also the rich culinary spectrum and a diversity of marvelous and colorful costumes which people wear, as well as authentic music, expressive and unique dances. We can witness many different types of celebrations, both, those that are purely ancestral and those that mix ancestral and colonial elements.

The most notable dances are the “Saqra Kachampa” , “Sijlla” (or the doctor’s dance), “de los Chunchos”, “los Pusamorenos”, “los Llameros”, “los Camiles”, “los Negritos”, “la Contradanza” and “el Saqsa”. These dances are common in numerous festivals and rituals that take place throughout the year. Most of them are in honor of a patron saint and are part of the Christian calendar adopted in colonial times, although they have been strongly influenced by ancient forms of worship. Some of these celebrations are: the Lord of Choquequilca in Ollantaytambo, the YawarCelebration in Combapata, the fair of Tiobamba, the pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Lord of Huanca, the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the celebration of the new born child. A very spectacular one within all the celebrations in the region, due to its originality and beauty, is the Feast of the Lord of Q’oyllur Ritti (cultural Heritage of humanity), which is held in the months of May or June on the slopes of Mount Sinakara, in the Cordillera of Ausangate. Also the feast of the Virgen del Carmen which takes place in Paucartambo on July 16th is of great originality and beauty.

In conclusion, the region of Cusco offers an approach to a past with a magnificent culture as well as an expressions of life, production and folklore that are testimonials of a great past. All within a setting of amazing landscapes and an impressive ecological diversity it touches our soul with its profound beauty. It is the place for those who love history and culture, spending time with contemplation and nature but also for the travelers who love exciting adventures.

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