Peru: The El Nino effect

Eleanor Hughes braves altitude sickness and cold weather to experience Cusco’s Christmas market

Despite being at high altitude for two weeks I’m still waking for several hours every night trying to breathe properly. Feeling tired and with rain pelting on the window, staying in bed is tempting. But the annual Santuranticuy Market, with its origins in the 16th Century when the Spanish and Catholicism arrived in Peru, has started and I’ll probably never be in Cusco on Christmas Eve again.

Around 10.30am, I push open the hotel door and pull on my jacket hood. When I get to the bottom of wide, cobbled Calle Saphi, usually clogged with traffic, I encounter a maze of food stalls, tables and chairs. The aroma of barbecuing meat wafts from sizzling anticuchos, skewered beef hearts with a boiled potato on the end. I wend between tables to Plaza de Armas.

My first view of the square a week ago was dominated by the imposing, reddish-brown block, 16th Century La Catedral and Iglesia de La Companía de Jesus. Today, the twin bell-towered churches and the central square blend into the background. As do the mainly white, two-storeyed, colonial buildings with their carved brown balconies, once the homes of Spanish settlers, occupying the western side. Instead row upon row of metal poled, blue and white plastic covered stalls crowd the broad roads flanking each side of the plaza. It looks like a shantytown.

I turn left and wander over worn cobbles past leather goods and handcrafts. The bright pinks, oranges, greens and blues are like a rainbow on this grey day. I pull my hood off. The drizzle has stopped.

“Hola,” says a woman as I stop to peruse silver jewellery.

“Hola.”

She says more. I shrug and grin. “Ingles?”

She shakes her head.

Much of the jewellery incorporates Inca symbols. Ruby red earrings with silver spirals representing Pachamama, Mother Earth, catch my eye. And a turquoise Inca cross pendant with its stepped sides. I’m indecisive… and nauseous. Darned altitude.

Alpaca wool garments, some decorated with lines of llamas, are tempting given that I can see my breath. If my backpack wasn’t already crammed and I wasn’t heading for warmer climates…

A high-pitched haunting tune drifts my way. Andean pan pipes. The piper in candy-coloured striped poncho and chullo (a knitted cap with earflaps) looks as if he has stepped from a hill village. The melody follows me as I wander past pottery, paintings and ceramic figures wearing traditional bright Andean textiles. European and indigenous looking nativity figures and saints are numerous. Santuranticuy, after all, does mean “selling of the saints”. Most common are various sized el nino Manuelito, the baby Jesus.

I stroll between rows. Choir music plays from loudspeakers that aren’t very loud.

Opposite La Catedral I stop at the nativity scene. The life-sized Mary, Joseph and wise men have elongated necks, symbolic of the region’s llamas and alpacas. They look cosy in the stable.

Past La Catedral, at the bottom of narrow, steep Calle Triunfo, I find an area where instead of stalls, rows of blankets and tarpaulins with vegetation arranged on them cover the cobbles. The campesinos, farm people, have come to town. I’m confused at the sight of twigs, leafy green branches, clods of earth and grass, and mosses ranging from yellowish green to forest green. What do people do with this stuff?

There’s also ferns, grey and green bromeliads and straw. Older women, their weathered dark faces beneath a black or brown fedora atop their plaited black hair, keep warm in woollen jumpers, thick socks or leggings and heavy skirts, called polleras. Their clothing is a mishmash of colour. I’m not sure how warm their feet are in open sandals, though. I’d think I’d stepped back in time if it weren’t for the younger campesinos who wear puffer jackets and jeans.

Among bundles, bags and vegetation, younger children sit, play, sleep or eat. A toddler peeps from a brightly striped mantas tied around its mother’s shoulders. A cross-legged older woman looks asleep under her fedora. Another, in a sing-song voice, is perhaps advertising her moss. I have no idea. There are few men; possibly they’re home in the distant hills working the land.

When I come across different sized, miniature, homemade stables I realise this isn’t some sort of garden centre. The vegetation is for decorating or building nacimientos, nativity scenes, an important part of Christmas in Cusco. The stables are decorated with foliage, animals and nativity figures ready for el nino Manuelito to be placed in the manger once he has been blessed at Midnight Mass.

In the narrow Inca-walled alleyway of Loreto surrounded by 16th century architecture, the portable toilets with bright green doors are a stark reminder I’m in the 21st century.

Down from the church in the covered walkway with arches on the street side providing little daylight, I pass cloth and plastic bundles and realise some are sleeping bodies.

Grubby-faced children in stained, worn clothing sit closely on what are possibly piles of bedding. Dark eyes watch as I pass. I smile. They’ve apparently come to Cusco for “Chocolatada”, a Peruvian Christmas tradition when hot chocolate, sweet bread — often paneton, a cake with candied fruit and raisins — and sometimes a small gift are given to the poor.

I step out from the walkway. Two hours have passed and Santuranticuy Market is now bustling. It is Christmas Eve, a time for last-minute shopping and spending time with family. I’m feeling a little lonely and nostalgic.

I pass crowded food stalls and on one table spot a succulent brown pyramid of cuy. The animals’ legs are splayed, bald bodies and heads glisten, eyes… I can’t look, I’m reminded of a deceased pet guinea pig. It doesn’t help my nausea either.

My lunch, once I’ve puffed my way slowly up the hill, will be a coca tea in the hope it helps with altitude sickness.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

LATAM

Airlines flies from Lima to Cusco, with return airfares starting from $370.

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