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Full Circle

Day 185: Cuzco

La Raya, Peru 
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Over the Andes watershed. The Urubamba River will eventually become the Amazon.
Michael Palin - Full CircleBreakfast time in 'the navel of the earth'. Cuzco is the Oxford, Cambridge and Bath of the Andes, a cultural city not to be missed. I know this because someone is reading it out over their orange juice and croissant in a distinctly international dining room. And in case I should forget, it says so on luggage labels and city maps available in the tourist boutique in the foyer. The Inca Empire may have been seen off by the Spanish four and a half centuries ago but it is big business now. Which is perhaps curious as its heyday lasted little more than a hundred years, from about 1430 to 1572, and two previous and much more successful civilizations - the Chavin and the Tiahuanaco - are almost forgotten. But they left little behind them, whereas many huge Inca constructions are still standing in Cuzco five or six hundred years after they were built.

These form some of the unmissable sights of the city Cuzco and I sally forth from my handsome but lifeless Spanish colonial hotel to scout them out. As I get close to the Plaza de Armas, the very centre of 'the navel of the earth', I can hear a growing din of music and a jumble of voices and, turning out of a stone-flagged arcade, find myself in the middle of a great procession. A fifteen-foot effigy of a saint - Sebastian, I assume from the pin cushion of arrows and the leafy tree he's tied to - is being carried out of the doors of the baroque cathedral and down the steps to the cobbled square below. The palanquin on which he is set is covered with four tiers of gold above which the saint nods and wobbles glassily. It is clearly very heavy indeed and is borne, with much grunting and grimacing, by at least fifty men, many barefoot. A very amateur band leads the procession, playing with more noise than tune. Behind them come the most interesting figures in the procession. Twenty dancers wearing sombreros and masks of grinning faces, with long noses, red cheeks, beards and moustaches. They brandish beer bottles and execute a drunken knees-up routine. I ask someone what they're meant to represent.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 185
  • Country/sea: Peru
  • Place: Cuzco
  • Book page no: 250

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