Our stop in Cusco came at a point in our South America travels where the novelty of colonial architecture surrounding a leafy and lively central square – in this case Plaza de Armas – had begun to fade. Though we have mostly only nice things to say about the city – it is walkable, attractive, welcoming, and has the requisite excellent market for snacking and shopping (San Pedro, for those who wish to know) – the particulars of what sets Cusco apart aren’t coming to me easily.* That is, except for a wonderful experience we had one afternoon near the entrance to some Incan ruins on the outskirts of town.
After a walk across the main part of the city – which sits on a valley floor (if you can call it a floor at over 11,000 ft) – we made our way up through the hillside neighborhood of San Blas. Beautiful cobblestone streets and staircases led us up towards Avenida Circunvalación, which, as its name implies, hugged the northern perimeter of the city (and would later be the road we took out of town to the Sacred Valley).
We stopped for a selfie at the eight foot high Cristo Blanco – a gift from Arabic Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco after World War II – and found some nearby trees to sit under and share our picnic of Peruvian bread, salty cheese and Botija olives.
After lunch, we wandered down the road to Saqsaywaman, one of the better-known Incan ruins in the Cusco area. With a (relatively) high entrance fee and threatening rain clouds gathering in the middle distance, we opted to remain on the exterior of the grounds to enjoy the perimeter’s stonework and begin our descent back into the Cusco Valley. We paused for a moment so I could tie my shoe, and Drew could check out some birds in the distance through our binoculars.
Just then, three young boys in school uniforms walked up to us and, knowingly eyeing Drew’s neck candy, asked if they could look through the binoculars. They each took turns, patiently helping each other see through the lenses. After a few minutes, they thanked us, reluctantly handed the binoculars back, and kept walking home.
Behind them, another, younger boy was lingering shyly on the other side of the path, clearly wanting his own turn, but too afraid to ask.
I offered him a chance to look in, and when he first held the binoculars we realized he’d never used them before. We explained how to look into the lenses and adjust them, and Drew helped him get them working. As soon as things came into focus, his mouth broke into a huge, open smile. He pointed and with a soft shout, told us excitedly about each of the things he was seeing.
For minutes, his expression went from joy to disbelief and back again, never once daring to remove the binoculars from his eye-sockets. After a stretch of silent, determined looking (in which Drew and I just stood there reveling in this kid’s pure apparent joy) he lowered the binoculars and looked straight at us: “un zorro!” he whispered breathlessly. He had seen a fox.
As raindrops began to fall, we reluctantly took the binoculars back and said goodbye to our new friend. As we parted ways, the temptation was strong to gift him the binoculars – he clearly the more voracious and enthusiastic consumer of their benefits – but as this particular set is a family heirloom, we ultimately opted against it.
We made our way back down to our hostel with big smiles of our own. We spent the rest of our last evening in Cusco on the roof watching the sunlight fade and the lights of the city come on. We cooked our favorite cheap traveler’s meal – pasta with tuna and cheese – and prepared for our next morning’s departure – to the Sacred Valley!
*Important caveat: in fact what sets Cusco apart is that it was the actual center of the entire Incan empire. I don’t mean to overlook the importance of the city, which is obviously quite significant both in history and for its nearly half a million residents today.