The Inca empire was one of the largest empires in history. It stretched from Ecuador to central Chile and included the Pacific coast, the Andes, and the cloud forest on the eastern slopes of the Andes. At the center of this empire was it’s capital city, Cusco, which it’s inhabitants called “The navel of the world” to show it’s center place on earth. Cusco is a great place to visit. It has an Inca and Spanish past and an outlook all of it’s own.
Cusco is in the Andes at an elevation of 12,500 ft., so if you are arriving by plane it is a good idea to take it easy for a day or so. Mountain sickness or ‘soroche’ can happen at any elevation over 8000 ft. Most visitors only suffer a headache if anything at all, but you will notice you are breathing a lot harder in the thin mountain air.
A great place to start any exploration of Cusco is in the central plaza. It is an open airy space and it can be fun just to sit and watch the people go by. You’ll notice that many buildings around the plaza have foundations of Inca stonework. When the Spanish invaded the Inca empire and conquered it, they razed most buildings and used the stone for building churches, convents, and other buildings. The new buildings did not prove as earthquake resistant as the old however. It is amazing to see how finely the stones are worked. They fit together perfectly without mortar and are so close it is impossible to slip a knife blade between them.
The Inca resisted the Spanish fiercely both openly and subtly. For example you will notice in the cathedral that most statues of the Virgin and Saints have robes spread out behind giving them a conical shape. The Inca worshiped the mountains around them and created Christian statues to fit their beliefs. Another very interesting synchronization of beliefs can be seen in the painting of the last supper also in the cathedral. It looks like a traditional painting until you look closer and see some interesting foods such as ears of corn, potatoes, and cuy (guinea pig) on the table. In addition to this amazing and unique art, the cathedral itself is a great example of Spanish colonial architecture.
The area around the plaza is very touristy, but you can find just about anything you need here from souvenirs to hotels to restaurants and pubs. Travel agencies also abound, so if you want to go rafting on the Urubamba, see the Sacred Valley, or visit an Amazonian eco lodge this is the place to arrange it.
Another great area to visit is the former Temple of the Sun. This was the center temple of the Inca empire. Here the priests had an enclosure called the ‘coricancha’ which was a miniature world made out of gold. There were gold fields and houses, corn stalks and potatoes, and llamas. At planting time the priests would ritually sow golden seeds in golden furrows. All of this is sadly gone, melted into bars to be shipped off to Spain. In fact today, Inca goldwork is very rare as so little survived the Spanish looting. The church of Santo Domingo now sits on top of what was the temple of the sun. The Inca stonework is amazing as different colors of stone are used as decoration. The Coricancha museum is worth seeing although it does seem to highlight by sparsity just how little of the Inca survived the Spanish.
Other things to see in Cusco are the church of Santa Catalina and the museum of religious art. The admission includes a guided tour and it is a great place to learn about how the Inca artisans hid their own beliefs under a veil of Christianity. The Inka museum, Pre-Colombian Art Museum and the Merced area are also great places to wander and see.
Just outside Cusco is the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman. Pronounced sock-say-wah-MAHN, guides will tell you the easiest way to remember the pronunciation is by saying ‘sexy woman’. The stonework in this fortress is superb and really makes you wonder just how they moved such huge stones without machines. The stonework also contains decorations such as the ‘snake in the wall’. The fortress is only about half what it used to be as much stone was carted off and used in building during colonial times. There is a legend that when the Inca were fighting a traditional enemy tribe that they were losing until the very stones of Sacsayhuaman came to life as warriors. One of the fiercest battles between the Spanish and Inca happened here. Manco Inca was able to capture Sacsayhuaman and used it as a base to attack Pizarro. Only the Spanish horsemen were able to save the day for the Spanish. Manco Inca retreated to Ollantaytambo (mentioned in the previous article), and the Spanish prevailed. Legend has it that so many Inca were killed that thousands of condors fed on the flesh of the fallen. The battle is commemorated to this day by the 8 condors on the Cusco coat of arms.
Cusco is a great place to try traditional Peruvian food. Inka Grill, Restaurante Paititi, and La Retama are great places near the plaza. Some good choices are ceviche which is fish or shellfish marinated in citrus and served cold with veggies, aji de gallina, a dish of chicken in a spicy nut sauce, and the famous Andean specialty cuy or guinea pig. And yes it does taste like chicken. Tough, salty chicken. Also be aware that it will come whole and due to the heat of the oven its little paws are clenched and it’s lips are pulled back in what seems to be agony. It is really something to eat for the experience rather than the flavor.
A great souvenir of Cusco is a poncho. If you go from the plaza down the Loreto alleyway there is an area with many vendors from the country who have better quality and cheaper ponchos than many souvenir shops. Bargain hard! The alleyway is the traditional entrance into the plaza which was also the central plaza in Inca times. It has Inca stonework on both sides including a famous 12 sided stone.
Cusco is a great place to visit and a must for any visitor to Peru.