Cusco - Peru - Heart of the Inca Empire
Cusco (Qosqo, Qusqu, Cuzco) was the capital of the Inca Empire and located at its center.
Qosqo translates as “Naval of the World” in Quecha the language of the Inca.
The city was shaped like a Puma. The shape is still obvious today (see map below).
Cusco claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city. It has been inhabited for at least 2000 years. Cuscos rich history is still evident today. When the Spaniards conquered the city in 1534 the tore down Inca temples and used the stones to built their Spanish churches and mansions. Most of the gold was shipped to Spain. The remaining gold was used in the churches such as the cathedral of Cusco.
Today, Cusco is probably the most famous tourist destination in Peru. From here you can explore the riches of the Inca Empire such as Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Cusco itself has much to offer. Colonial Architecture and Inc Architecture next to each other in perfect harmony, such as the belief of the local people. The best example for this is Coricancha the ancient Inca Temple that now is the Iglesia Santo Domingo. The same is true for the religion of the descendants of the Inca. While most of them are Christians believing in God they also pray to the Earth, the Mountains and the Sky.
Travel to and in Cusco
You can get to Cusco by Bus, Train or Plane. I have tried the last two and recommend both options. Approaching Cusco by plane is, well let’s say interesting, especially when you have a window seat. Our airplane started to descend into a mountain range, then took a wide swing and we watched in horror as our pilot turned directly into a mountain until we could see that he was heading for an opening between two mountains. During the final descend you will be flying through a valley with mountains to the left and the right of the airplane. Since we arrived in winter (raining season) we had the additional thrill of a rather bumpy approach.
Cusco is located in a valley virtually enclosed by mountains from all sides, so put your seat in an upright position and don’t look out the windows if you are scared of flying.
We left Cusco on the fabulous Andean Explorer Train. Follow the link to find out about the train ride (hold on, first read this article!).
At the airport we were picked up once more and shuttled to our hotel.
The best method of transportation in the city is definitely by taxi. Taxis are cheap and can be found everywhere. Nowhere will it be easier to find a taxi. You just have to look at them and they will stop. A ride from the airport should not cost more than 10-20 soles. More interesting things about taxis can be found in my Lima article
On your drive to the city center you will most likely pass the modern statue of Pachacutec, the King of the Inca who was responsible for the great expansion of the Inca Empire. His name can be translated as “world-transformer” or “transformer of the world” which was literally what he did.
When you are in Cusco, you should buy the Cusco Visitor ticket. It costs 70 soles, which is about 20 USD. It will give you access to many Incan sites and museums of Cusco.
Cusco itself is a beautiful city. Due to its location in the valley it receives more rain in the winter than the Sacred Valley. There are many different ways how you can explore the city. You can go with one of the many tours, rent a taxi or start exploring by foot. Once you get used to the altitude, there is no reason not to explore the city by foot, since you will see much more. I have taken some of the best photos while walking around in the city. The choice is entirely up to you though.
You probably already wondered where I got the very first shot on this page. I was wandering around in the city literally crossing it all the way from Coricancha to the San Christobal church where I took this shot (and back). I had to climb up some serious mountain to get up there. If you look at a map of Cusco, you will see that most of the sights of the city are actually concentrated around the Plaza de Armas and the distance is much shorter than that of my little walk.
I admit I didn’t really take the shot next to San Christobal since you will have some rooftops blocking your view. I am sure you can figure it out once there.
Plaza de Armas
You will probably have a hotel near the Plaza de Armas.
During Inca times this place was considered the center of the world. It was therefore the naval of the puma shaped city. It was twice as large as it is now. Soil from each of the conquered areas was brought here and spread out. This was a symbol of integration rather than conquest. The Inca never imposed their religion on conquered worlds.
During Inca times there were two sections of the plaza, Huacaypata (place of tears) and Cusipata (place of happiness). The Plaza de Armas is located at the former place of Huacaypata.
It was a place of military and religious ceremonies and executions.
Today the plaza is one of the most beautiful South American Plazas ever. Flower Beds, park benches and a wonderful emerald green water fountain invite you to sit down and take a rest. Just make sure that the many street vendors and beggars do not immediately jump you. If you send the first away with a determined ‘No’, you won’t be bugged anymore.
Small shops around the square sell handicrafts and tourist books, groceries and other needful things. Restaurants flank the square to either side with someone outside equipped with a menu stalking tourists. I know you are polite, but believe me if your ‘No’ is not determined enough it’s hard to study the menus and compare without being constantly talked to.
Construction on this magnificent building took over a century. It is therefore no surprise that this is one of the most incredible Cathedrals in the world. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside, so I cannot show examples of the interior. The altar is made of solid silver. Originally a gold plated altar was planned and the half completed work is still exhibited, but due to Spain’s hunger for gold, there was not enough left of the precious metal. Once the “replacement” altar was finished, it was found to be so wonderful, that work on the gold altar was stopped. The main part of the cathedral is gigantic. It is hard to imagine how many Inca Temples had to be torn down to build this giant. (Including Sacsayhuaman)
On either side of the Cathedral are two smaller churches. El Triunfo and Iglesia Jesus y Maria are connected to the cathedral. Most tourist groups enter the cathedral through either of them. The gilded main altar of the Iglesia Jesus y Maria seems to want to outshine the cathedrals main Altar.
Countless paintings of the famous School of Cusco are displayed everywhere. The most famous is probably a painting by Marcos Zapata depicting the Last Supper. The main dish is shown as guinea pig. A gallery of paintings shows every single bishop of Cusco throughout history.
The main bell of the cathedral is over 300 years old and made of a ton of gold, silver and bronze.
The cathedral was built on the site of the Palace of Inca Wiracocha.
La Compania de Jesus
This church actually outshines the cathedral, not in size but in beauty. This Jesuit church has the most beautiful façade of all churches. Just like the Cathedral two chapels flank this church. These are the Virgin of Loreto chapel and the chapel of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The altar inside is carved from cedar wood and gilded with gold. The main nave is connected to the two chapels and has a gilded pulpit.
After an earthquake in 1986 another chapel was discovered under the main altar.
If you walk northeast past the Cathedral on calle Triunfo, you will walk past the famous 12-angled stone. This is just one example of the incredible skill of Inca stonemasons who fitted these walls so perfectly without the use of mortar.
The walls are the remains of the palace Hatunrumiyoc. The wall is constructed of green dorite stone. This was one of the largest temples. The closer the temples were located towards the main square, the larger they were and the richer the inhabitants were. In principle this is still true today.
On top of the foundations of the temple is a colonial style building.
If you venture through the city you can find many more examples of Inca stonewalls like on calle Huaynapata and calle Loreto. One of the most impressive Inca Foundation and Ruin is Coricancha.
Coricancha or Koricancha or Qoricancha was the most important and most worshipped temple of the city. Coricancha is another fine example of Inca handicraft, but also of Inca art and Inca gold. The walls of the entire Temple were covered with gold plates studded with gemstones. Windows were constructed to amplify the effect of the gold by reflections of sunlight. A replica of the gold plates is on display inside the temple. When the Spaniards arrived, they had never seen anything like this before. Knocking on the gold plates made it sound as if the whole wall was made of gold, since they only knew gold plating. They could not imagine such fortune. Unfortunately this was one of the reasons that led to the demise of the Inca.
The garden of the temple was full of life-sized statues of animals and trees of the Inca Empire. The garden was watered with water brought in on the backs of worshippers. Even though Koricancha translates as “the Temple of the Sun” other deities were worshipped here as well, like the Moon, Venus and the Earth.
Huge round gold disks representing the Moon and the Sun were used to reflect the sunlight and the moonlight.
Today, Iglesia Santo Domingo stands on top of Coricancha. Nevertheless it looks almost as if both the Church and the Temple are melted to form one unified structure, symbolizing integration rather than destruction. Unfortunately considering how the Spaniards ravaged the city this is not how it happened.
Inside the Temple / Church the same theme continues. Inca Walls complemented by colonial architecture. An exhibition shows some Inca tools and special stones.
San Blas District
This picturesque district house many arts and craft stores, galleries and studios. Steep inclines and narrow alleys with almost no sidewalk and taxis whistling around make the hike up here not too pleasurable but very interesting. Family lodging and a few smaller hotels look very cozy.
The Iglesia de San Blas is not nearly as impressive as the churches near the city center but it has a very elaborately carved pulpit that is definitely worth checking out. It is carved from one huge tree. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures again (possibly so they can sell their postcards).
If you haven’t gotten used to the altitude yet, it may be a good idea to take a taxi ride up here. It is located about 4 blocks east of the main plaza, past the twelve angled stone and a relatively pleasant walk if you decide not to drive.
Obviously there is so much more to see in Cusco.
As I already mentioned a hike up to San Cristobal will give you the best view of the city. It is a steep hill to get up here again. On my way up here I took some nice photos but I also encountered some nasty dogs. Fortunately they found a Motorbike to chase after they checked me out.
The Plaza San Francisco is located two blocks south of the Plaza de Armas with native plants. The Monastery of San Francisco located at the Plaza has a beautiful cloister and a large collection of paintings on display. Somehow it seems to me that all Monasteries in Peru (Arequipa, Lima, Cusco) are named San Francsico.
Cusco has a plethora of museums. Simply put, you can decide what you want to see and there will be a museum (as long as you decide on history and culture).
Lets start with what’s on the visitor ticket. Since you already bought this, you are probably most likely to visit one of the museums, right?
The Santa Catalina Convent and Museum was built on top of the Inca House of the Sun Virgins. It was a house of some 3000 chosen women who dedicated their lives to the sun god. The virgins were taught to serve (see also Pachacamac). Attached to the convent is a museum displaying religious artwork such as canvas and mural paintings.
The Contemporary Art Museum displays modern paintings, sculptures and handicrafts. They show work of Cusco artists.
The Historical Regional Museum shows colonial art. It has a sizable collection of paintings from the School of Cusco, a collection of pre Inca objects, historic documents and textiles.
The Popular Art Museum displays popular regional art (what a surprise). Among them are some interesting masks, images, carvings, handicraft and pottery.
I already talked about the other items on your visitor ticket or will do so in my next article on the Sacred Valley.
The Pre-Columbian Art Museum does what the name suggests. Gold, Jewelry dating back to 1250BC to the Nazca Culture is on display.
The Natural Sciences Museum shows samples of local flora and fauna. The National University runs it.
The Museum of Natural History shows samples of geological and paleontological items of the area such as a mastodon.
The most famous and most spectacular festival is the Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) on June 24. Hotels are booked out months ahead. Actually I noticed a sign in our hotel that it was booked out during the festival and that was in December. Inti Raymi is the celebration of the winter solstice (when the sun is farthest from the earth) that was originally being held on June 21st but got moved by the Spaniards to June 24th. Fearing the lack of sun, the Inca gathered for this festival to bring back the sun.
Today the festival is being held at Sacsayhuaman, but I have heard talks that the masses of people are actually doing a lot of dame to the site. This is why talks are on the way to move the festival. Either way, should you decide to visit during this time you should plan your trip very well.
Means the buying of the Saints. It is held during Christmas Eve (see photo) when natives sell arts, scents and crafts. There is a strong scent in the air, of some weed or grass that they sell everywhere. In some areas it is so strong, that you can hardly breathe.
Food and small gifts are distributed to children of poor families.
During this celebration the statue of Christ on the cross that is on display in the Cathedral is paraded through the streets of Cusco. It is said that this statue is responsible for saving the city during an earthquake in 1650.
No tourist will ever visit Cusco and not visit Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Inca. I will write an article about the two.
The ruins of Pikillacata, a pre-Inca settlement, are not so well known to tourists. The site is located to the east of Cusco (about 30km away). Next to Pikillacata is the Inca Gateway to the Sacred Valley, Rumicolca. These impressive walls were ideal for defending the empire.
Article and Images by Andre Gunther.
Check out his Peru Photo Gallery.