City of poverty - and majesty. Cuzco, Peru, is beautiful, but solemn and poignant too

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From the plane you can see the blessing of these bright green hills - emerald under a cobalt sky gleaming with fat, white clouds. The ancient city is a maze of red-tile roofs, nestling in the folds of the mountains. The air is sharp and cool in Cuzco, near freezing at night. The sun can be very hot, and in the afternoon it's liable to rain for half an hour without warning, only to dry up quickly in the piercing sunshine.

Cuzco is beautiful, but it's a solemn, poignant city, too. It's a city of the poor who come in from hungry villages, hoping to sell their handicrafts to a dwindling number of tourists. Yet amid the poverty, the ageless majesty of the Incas echoes off the very cobblestones. Their presence is felt because they are literally still here: The little girl selling woven belts in the Plaza, the wizened old man in sandals with a load of potatoes on his back - most of the people one sees are direct descendants of those proud, brilliant rulers of the Andes.

Cuzco was founded in about 1100. Its name means ``navel'' in the Quechua language, and its builders must have thought it was the center of the world. It was the center of an empire that stretched from present-day Argentina in the southeast to present-day Colombia in the north. The empire was at its height in 1533 when Francisco Pizarro arrived in Cuzco and sacked it, putting an end to the Incas' sovereignty and claiming their territory for Spain.

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In spite of centuries of construction in baroque-colonial Spanish style, and two devastating earthquakes, the massive stone foundations of Inca palaces are still visible at the base of many buildings. No mortar was used between these giant blocks; they fitted together with mathematical precision. This people's command of technology enabled them to hoist huge stones like these up a 2,000-foot peak at Machu Picchu 50 miles away, creating a fortified city the Spaniards never conquered.

Today the look of Cuzco is romantically Spanish-colonial. High stuccoed walls hung with carved wooden balconies line the narrow, cobbled streets. Arcaded loggias provide shade along the large, square Plaza de Armas. Baroque churches abound: Cuzco has more religious buildings than any other city in Latin America because, say historians, the Spanish were so intent on replacing the religion of the Incas with their own.

Sit on a bench in the cool air and hot sun of the Plaza de Armas. In no time you will be surrounded by people, many of them children, all of them trying - at first gently, soon more desperately - to sell you something. Women and girls wear the traditional full skirts of brightly colored wool. Babies are strapped on their backs with finely woven shawls striped in electric colors. On their heads, atop shining black braids, sit the somber bowler hats characteristic of Andean women.

They speak in soft voices, with flowery politeness, yet their Spanish is imperfect and heavily accented. Among themselves they speak Quechua: Fluent Spanish is a privilege of the educated, the urbanized, the elite.

Cuzco is at its saddest late at night, when old women huddle in the narrow streets beside tiny stoves on which corn is roasting. They are nodding off, but they don't go home because they need to sell their corn.

Under the loggia of the plaza, a small child stares into the darkness, rocking her baby brother in her lap. In front of her on a cloth is a neat display of knitted goods, small clay pots, and wooden Andean flutes. No one has bought anything for hours. It is very cold, and she is having trouble staying awake.

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