food / travel

Cuzco, A Living Ode To Peru's Pre-Colonial Past

From architecture to food, history lives on in the Andean city, where residents continue to celebrate their Inca heritage and traditions.

Women in traditional Inca costumes in Cuzco, Peru
Women in traditional Inca costumes in Cuzco, Peru
Rafael Pérez Becerra

CUZCO â€" High up in the Andes mountains is a magical city with a rich history that began long before Peru was Peru. Time hasn't exactly passed Cuzco by. Little by little, the former capital of the Incas â€" rulers of an empire that dominated the range for a century until it was destroyed by Spaniards in the 1530s â€" has modernized. And yet, to a remarkable degree, the legacy of Cuzco's imperial past lives on.

It's no accident. Out of pride and respect for the customs and traditions of their ancestors, residents in Cuzco have engaged in a daily struggle to keep the city's history alive. Evidence of that Herculean effort abound: Even in the most modern hotel, visitors are likely to encounter, in some lounge or lobby, an enormous block from an ancient structure, chiseled as always with millimetric precision.

Carving stones was a specialty of the Incas, who extracted them from revered mountains near Cuzco and shaped them into monumental building blocks. Preserving what is left of the structures is now a cornerstone of Peru"s heritage-preservation efforts.

The country's gastronomy is another living legacy, one that enjoys a fair amount of international acclaim and serves as a magnet for tourists from across the world. In Cuzco, the odors of ancestral recipes pervade the streets.

Traditional dancing un Cuzco â€" Photo: McKay Savage

One very traditional product is pisco, an alcoholic drink derived from grapes. The origins of the drink, which is also of great importance in Chile, are disputed. Peru, for that reason, has sought international certification to establish an exclusive claim on the potent and flavorful spirit.

The Peruvians began making pisco when Spanish colonial authorities forbade them to make wine. It can be made from eight types of grape only, four of which are aromatic and four, odorless, though the particular bouquet and agreeable taste of pisco is the result of its particular process of fermentation and distillation.

Unlike wine, pisco is not left to age. Nor do pisco makers add sugar or dilute it. These were conscious decisions made to distinguish the process from the Spanish wine-making tradition imposed on Peru.

Weathering the elements

One need not venture very far from the city to find more prime examples of Inca construction and development. The massive dimensions of the remains are still, in many ways, a mystery given the limited technology available then to transport the bulky components.

Cuzco's Plaza de Armas â€" Photo: Christophe Meneboeuf

Even more mysterious, perhaps, are the rigorous construction techniques that allowed these monuments to survive for hundreds of years and withstand earthquakes like the one that shook Cuzco on May 21, 1950. More than half the city was destroyed before the impassive gaze of historic edifices that had already witnessed the depredations of the Spanish soldiery.

That, interestingly enough, was the year that authorities began thinking of the area's tourist potential. Faithful to their traditions and culture, Cuzco's residents restored the city using the same massive stone foundations that had withstood the earth's movement. The quake shook with such violence that a black Christ statue made by a city artisan, then buried 10 meters underground for displeasing the Church, rose to the surface in the city square. Locals claimed the shaking stopped and there was a tense calm when the statue emerged. It can now be seen in Cuzco's cathedral.

The "Lord of the Earthquakes" statue in Cuzco's cathedral â€" Photo: LopeHope

The cathedral, located in the main square, is one of the city's main attractions for its paintings, sculptures and images. The hybrid style of the artwork indicates a determination among local artists to retain their aesthetic traditions. Joseph, Jesus and Mary are shown wearing indigenous garb. One of the dishes shown on a picture of the Last Supper is guinea pig â€" a local delicacy â€" accompanied by vessels that would typically contain chicha morada, a traditional drink made from corn.

Into the Sacred Valley

The Incas believed death was not the end of life, but a point of passage. For that reason they had strict funerary rites that historians have deciphered only with difficulty, due to the Spaniards' eagerness to destroy all traces of Inca veneration for the deceased.

Tombs located in the mountains flanking the Sacred Valley of the Incas (a 30-minute drive from Cuzco near the famous Machu Picchu) were closed, then ransacked for the gold and jewels adorning their mummies. They were practically destroyed. Today, visitors must look to discern the mountainside orifices that are the remains of those mystical resting places.

The valley was one of the empire's main sites of agricultural production, thanks to its climate and soil quality. Stone structures located some 3,500 meters above sea level were used as store rooms. Nearby are the modern-day remains of spacious buildings that housed the day laborers who created the stairway structures above rocks, designed to maximize crop yields.

To further fortify its cultural revival, five years ago the city began teaching Quechua, one of the region's main native languages, in schools and colleges. To graduate in university courses like medicine, law, social sciences and of course anything related to tourism, one must obtain a certificate of fluency in Quechua.

*Written at the invitation of Avianca airlines and Peru's tourism agency PromPerú.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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