In possibly one of the best lessons that I have ever had, I left my little classroom at Mundo Antiguo Spanish School at 11am, Tuesday. It was sunny and my teacher, Empe led the way up Calle Triunfo and into the heart of Cusco’s artesian neighborhood called San Blas. Art galleries and stonewalls lined the narrow thoroughfare. Small rocks sat atop large boulders creating an intricate cross hatch of roadways which reminded me of Kyoto, Japan. Empe pointed up the cramped street. “They were built before the Spanish came, when the Inca used llamas and there were no cars.”
For three days, my Spanish classes had focused on verb tenses, grammatical structures, and imaginative scenarios in which to employ them. But on Tuesday, Empe was showing me around San Blas in order to practice my Spanish and also to have something to write about
in my travel articles. Most importantly, she was eager to show me the artwork of two prominentart families from Cusco. Taking a right out of our school, we headed up the stone steps of Calle Triunfo.
The Mendivil Family, Artists of San Blas
White tiles and blue letters decorate the threshold outside a tiny art gallery. It’s almost Roman-esque. Inside Mendivil family members showcase paintings and sculptures that mostly focus on Catholic imagery. The nativity scene is interpreted in several modes and representations, from Peruvian country folk to Afro-Latino figurines and bronze-gilded statuettes.
The Coca Shop
This little café is a nice stop along the avenue to catch your breath at the high altitude. As soon as I walked in, the smell of baked goods and melting chocolate wafted against my face and I was in heaven. Coca leaves are blended into every product from herbal mate tea to the sweet chocolates and hefty brownies. Natural coca leaves are sold loose here but the prices in the open market of San Pedro will probably be better. Coca are sacred leaves used to battle altitude sickness and energize the body. The Inca had used the plant for hundreds of years and now tourists drink the medicinal leaves all across Cusco.
Merida Art Gallery
The highlight of the field trip was our stop at the Merida Art Gallery. Opened to the public and with free admission, the gallery showcases some of the best work of Eldibert Merida. Sculptures and paintings line the walls and focus on campesino life, country living. Hands and feet are accentuated in almost every picture, illustrating the extent to which countryside Peruvians work with their hands and walk for hours to finish their daily jobs. A celebrated artist, Merida has been photographed with world leaders over the past decades, including with the queen of Spain.
A small yet famous neighborhood of Cusco, San Blas is one of the best walking neighborhoods that I’ve ever visited. Artwork adorns almost every shop, nieces and nephews tend to customers as elder relatives create moving masterpieces of pastoral and expressive scenes. Barter carefully and enjoy some of the most unique artistic pieces that Peru has to offer. Between our volunteering in Cusco and these spanish lessons, Neil and I have shifted our plans to visit Machu Picchu. Life in town is relaxing and the pace so easy that we’re in no rush to change anything.