The Washington Times - May 24, 2009, 12:14AM

By JoAnna Haugen

Cusco, Peru…Peruvian women with waist-length braids and bowler hats watch street mimes. Children chase pigeons as backpackers wander by. A cornucopia of languages mingles with the smell of spices and fruit at the local market. 

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As the gateway to Machu Picchu and the heart of the Inca Empire, Cusco, Peru, has the opportunity to be touristy and tacky, but despite being visited by thousands of travelers a year, the city has maintained a personality that is charming, inviting and skilled at mixing the traditional with the trendy.

Fruit MarketOutfitted with park benches and filled with families, Plaza de Armas is in many ways the center of the city. During the time of the Incas, this square was called Huacaypata, and it served as the true heart of the Inca capital. Today two flags fly in the plaza—the red-and-white flag of Peru and the rainbow-striped flag of Tahuantinsuyo (the Inca Empire).

Surrounding Plaza de Armas are some of the most famous sites in Cusco, including the cathedral and the church of La Compañía de Jesús.

The city’s busiest street, Avenida del Sol, is a traffic jam of business, banks, cars and people, all vying for space and volume. The ancient Inca site of Qorikancha sits at the intersection of Avenida del Sol and Puente Rosario, and though it is more enjoyable to approach this site from the back streets, it overlooks the chaos of this busy intersection.

While the archaeological museum beneath the grounds in front of Qorikancha is only accessible via a boleto turistico, the Inca ruins and church itself have an independent fee, and it is worth every penny.

The site was once the richest temple in the Inca Empire; today elaborate stonework, a beautiful rose garden and Christian paintings provide the backdrop to an array of temples for the moon, stars, thunder and rainbow.

An impressive Incan ritual calendar corresponds with the Incan harvest calendar, which complement each other side by side on one wall. Located on Qorikancha’s foundation, the church of Santo Domingo has been shaken by a number of earthquakes over the years but continues to thrive as an active Catholic church and convent.

Many times there are also weavers in the main room, and visitors are welcome to take photographs or videotape the women at work, though a donation is appreciated.

The Plaza de ArmasFor a more authentic artistic experience, move beyond the easily accessible sites of Cusco to the San Blas district, a community of artisans and their workshops. Follow the steep path northeast out of Plaza de Armas and within minutes small clusters of shops and street artists with their wares laid out on the sidewalk appear. Take the time to duck into the dark doorways that appear to open into courtyards, as these are often filled with shops stacked high with sweaters and fringed with jewelry and trinkets.

San Blas is settled around a square near the church. There are a few small museums up this way, but even if visitors choose not to check them out, it is worth savoring the artsy feel in this part of town with the college-age backpackers peddling their beaded bracelets beside old men strumming on guitars.

A number of cafes and eateries also make their home in the San Blas area, and while some cater to the tourist crowd—look for a turistico menu—others are authentic, offering up the local delicacies of alpaca and guinea pig.

The further away visitors walk from the squares, plazas and touristy areas, the closer they move into the Cusco that houses the local character. Wander just a few blocks to find eateries that offer economy meals. These meals—which begin with a soup offering followed up by a choice of two or three main courses and sometimes include a drink or dessert—average between three and six nuevos soles.

The menus are posted outside the door, often written on a chalkboard or whiteboard in Spanish. Know a few choice Spanish words, such as pollo and arroz (chicken and rice respectively), to help determine what is being ordered. Part of the fun in experimenting with local cuisine is taking a chance on the unknown, and in the quest to eat like the locals is the discovery of 20-ounce glasses of freshly made mango juice and fabulously flavored soup for pennies on the dollar.

Local women sit among fresh flowers and produce chatting in Quechua.

Examine the butchered pigs for the choice slice of pork and pick among the skinned frogs for a unique treat. Sample the cheese, taste the myriad of sweet juices and browse the desserts for sale down the center aisle of the market. This space is crowded and alive with young children chasing each other while elders visit as they tend their goods.

Beyond the Cusco city borders lay four ancient ruin sites that serve as a great pre-cursor to a Machu Picchu visit. For those interested in a stroll, take the bus bound for Pisac out to the furthest site, Tambomachay, and walk the five-mile trip back to Cusco while stopping at the other sites along the way.

Q’enqo, located a few miles down the road, is larger and more accessible, which translates into more roadside vendors and tourists, but don’t be deterred. Many of the tour groups file through quickly and follow a set route through the site, so escaping the crowd is possible and suggested.

Q’enqo is a maze of rocks, steps and tunnels, which were most likely used for ritual sacrifices. There are also a number of etchings in the stones, though much of the site has been roped off due to the stress on the area by visitors.

Incan ruins of Tambomachay, just beyond the border of Cusco, Peru.  Photo/Cory Haugen.The most famous of the four sites is Saqsaywamán, a large ruin used for religious and military purposes with two stone structures creeping up the hillsides and a large swath of land separating the two. It is the site of some of the most vicious battles during the Spanish conquest and may have served as a shelter for up to 5,000 warriors at one point in time.

Poke in and out of the rooms, and to escape the crowd, wander to the far end of the ruins where few people bother walking. This is where young local couples enjoy each other’s company and families eat picnic lunches in the sunshine.

The oversized Cristo Blanco is located nearby Saqsaywamán, and while unimpressive in and of itself due to the huge fencing structure that surrounds it, the view of Cusco from this vantage point makes the extra walk worthwhile.

From here, it takes only a few short minutes to walk down the uneven cobblestone walkways to Plaza de Armas.

Visitors new to the city should take their time walking between the sites and back to the city, as the high altitude of Cusco and the extra effort required for a long walk leaves many people winded. Stock up on coca leaves before leaving Cusco to combat headaches or nausea.

The physical factors that force people to slow down in Cusco seem to be nature’s way of encouraging contemplation and time in a place that could quickly become overrun and buried by the bustling tourist industry. Luckily for those looking to enhance their vacation with a few days in the heart of the Inca Empire, it is possible to relax, learn and appreciate the co-existence of an ancient culture through the eyes of today.

JoAnna Haugen is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer with vagabond tendencies. A former Peace Corps volunteer, she can often be found planning her next great adventure. Read more of her work here.

JoAnna Haugen is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer with vagabond tendencies. A former Peace Corps volunteer, she can often be found planning her next great adventure. Read more of her work here and

Photos by Cory Haugen

Photo Captions

1) Fresh mangos, oranges, pears, grapes and other produce for sale at the market.

2) Peru’s red and white flag and the rainbow-striped Inca Empire flag wave side-by-side in the Plaza de Armas.

3) Incan ruins of Tambomachay, just beyond the border of Cusco, Peru.