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By Howard Wolinsky

Happy New Year! It was June 24, 2008. And my wife Judi and I were in Cusco, Peru, part of a special birthday celebration for her in the Sacred Valley.

It was Inti Raymi, the most important festival of the Incan year: celebration of the winter solstice, the beginning of the Sun’s New Year.

Days earlier, we had been to Machu Picchu, a wondrous place that the Spanish invaders and their wrecking balls missed in the 1500s and later. By all means go to Machu Picchu and soak up the spiritual vibe.

But if you’ve made it that far, check out the other places in the Sacred Valley, including the often-overlooked ruins at Chinchero and Piscac.

And if you can, spend some time at Cusco (also spelled also spelled Cuzco, and in the local Quechua language Qusqu). Old Peru hands tell me that back in the ’60s, this city was a major stopover on the hippie trail, with young gringos sleeping the parks. We saw some people rolling their own on the streets of this old Incan/colonial town.

But forget the hammock in the park. Stay in a hostel if you wish. But these days, Cusco is a sophisticated place with fine hotels and excellent restaurants.

Alpaca and guinea pig

Over at the Inka Grill and the Baghdad Cafe, I had an alpaca steak and cuy (guinea pig, which indeed tastes like chicken). I had dishes from Sri Lanka, China and Myanmar at Al Granoand a hard-to-find burger at Jack’s.

There are loads of pizza joints in the Sacred Valley. Not Chicago deep dish. But still very good. I found it curious — and delicious — that Tabasco sauce and mayonnaise were used for seasoning at a restaurant we went to in Ollantaytambo, an Incan town where we caught the Peru rail train to Machu Picchu and also went to an Internet cafe near the ruins. (Sorry. I didn’t catch the name of the pizza place, but it’s just before the market, near the ruins.)

Be sure to try Inca Kola, with its bubble-gum flavor, and Cusquena beer, especially the dark beer which has a chocolaty taste.

It’s not unusual to find Inca walls inside an eatery.

It was Andean winter. We could see our breath in the early morning as we people-watched out on the Plaza de Armas, the central square in Cusco. The temperature was maybe into the 40s and headed to the 70s. The sun was beating down hard, requiring SPF-to-infinity protection. And flowers were blooming as brightly as they were in the flatland summer back in Chicago.

Inti Raymi

Inti Raymi was revived 60 years ago as a Festival of the Sun. Since the time of the Spanish conquest, Inti Raymi had been banned. The people kept the Inti Raymi fires burning in secret.

Under Spanish rule, the ceremony had been shifted from the June 21 solstice to be observed on June 24 as St. John’s Day.

Like Inca walls especially designed to withstand earthquakes that hit these parts, and unlike the buildings designed by the Spaniards, the Inti Raymi celebration has endured. Locals told me Catholicism and Incan beliefs actually blended well.

Now all the wraps are off, and the Inti Raymi celebration starts off at Santo Domingo Church along Avenida El Sol. The church had been built on top of the Koricancha, the Temple of the Sun.

The celebration is aimed at the Quechua population, drawing people from all corners of Peru, from the high Andes and down to Amazon and over to Lima. It was nearly a non-stop party with parades and dancing from late morning into evening. People came dressed in ethnic garb or with floats, with Incan beauty queens and one of which seemed to have an honest-to-goodness mummy.

Our hotel, the Novotel Cusco, was situated a few blocks from the plaza. It was built around a 16th-century colonial residence. Our room was in the old part of the hotel with a balcony overlooking the narrow street. Even though were away from the action, bands would suddenly appear on the street, and we watched from the balcony as they passed, headed to Plaza de Armas.

Cusco’s rainbow flag flew everywhere. Don’t think gay (not that there’d be anything wrong with that.) But the rainbow also is the symbol of Cusco, connecting the various levels of the cosmos, from the condor above, the puma on the ground and the snake below.

To join in the festivities, we wore rainbow bands, cintas, on our hats and rainbow ribbons on our shirts.
There are some downsides to these festivities. Some Americans we met had trouble adjusting to the altitude and had allergic reactions to prescription meds. But they said that coca tea, widely available and served for example in our hotel’s lobby, helped.

Big crowds

Also, the crowds can be a bit much. It was bit like Times Square in New York, only much more stifling and crowded. At the Inti Raymi festivities at the plaza, there was a crush of people. One poor guy fainted and was dragged into a nearby store for some oxygen. You can get caught up in the crowd, like a vertical mosh pit that involuntarily moves you.

We had to fend off vendors selling paintings and Incan crosses and women trying to earn tips for posing for  photos with their alpacas. The vendors seem to latch on to you. One engaging teen when told no, said, "Later?" Toldno again, he said, "Maybe in the next life?" Maybe.

The people were high-spirited and friendly and the pageant was colorful.  All in all, it was a great experience. At the end of a long day of celebrating Inti Raymi, including watching the pageant at the Sacsayhuamán (pronounced something like Sexy Woman) ruins, we headed back to our hotel.

It was New Year’s Eve more or less, but all was quiet, except for some music floating from a storefront along the narrow Incan street.

It sounded familiar. It took a few minutes; then we finally recognized it. It was Auld Lang Syne, the Scottish classic. Played with Andean pan pipes.

Just perfect.

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Howard Wolinsky is a Chicago-based travel and technology writer.

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