From Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile, the Incas once ruled the largest empire in the Americas and Cusco was its birth place – its religious, political, and agricultural center – its belly button.
Located at the confluence of three rivers in a fertile valley (carved by a glacial lake), Cusco sits loftily at 11,152 feet in the heart of the Peruvian Andes.
Our hotel, Casa Andina, was on a hill in a maze of narrow streets near Plaza San Blas in the historic quarter – looking out our window, the rooftops of Cusco spread captivatingly before us.
Our neighborhood for a few days
Our sea level lungs felt the extra exertion of climbing stairs and hills, but luckily we suffered no major altitude sickness. We spent a total of 5 nights in Cusco – three acclimating before our Inca Trail hike and two afterwards. Serendipitously, we arrived a few days before the June winter solstice, what a happy chance for us – the historic quarter of Cusco was in full festival mode.
Seen from above, old Cusco forms the shape of a puma, one of the three sacred animals in the Inca trinity – condor (upper world), puma (world of men), snake (underworld). The Spanish pretty much kept the original Inca layout when building on top of the old, and thankfully some Inca roads and walls can still be seen.
If you look closely you can find the shapes of animals in the blocks.
We visited the ruins of Koricancha, the most sacred religious site of the Incas. Sadly, little remains.
This one story complex had multiple temples honoring the creator, sun, moon, thunder, and rainbow gods. The stone masonry here is amazingly precise, no mortar was needed.
Look how perfectly the trapezoidal windows between rooms line up.
Terraces of Koricancha – a condor outline in the grass
It is said the temple of the sun at Koricancha was once lined with beaten sheets of gold and the temple of the moon with sheets of silver. The mummies of Inca royals were stored here and brought out seated on golden, jewel covered chairs for special ceremonies, such as solstice celebrations. In the 1530s when the Spanish arrived, the Inca Empire was experiencing internal strife, this made it easier for the conquistadors to divide and conquer. “To the victor go the spoils.” The Spanish plundered Koricancha’s holy relics and riches and built the church and convent of Santo Domingo on top.
The Inca wall foundation is clearly seen.
Although it irks me that the Spanish built on top of the Inca’s holy site, the convent is lovely.
HEART OF THE HISTORIC CENTER
Plaza de Armas
During the time of the Inca, the plaza was known as Huacayapata (warrior’s square) and was used mostly for ceremonial purposes. After the Spanish conquered, they demolished the Inca palaces lining the plaza. This Gothic-Renaissance style Cathedral, Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, known more simply as Cusco Cathedral, was built where a palace once stood.
Demoralizing – The Spanish gathered the plaza’s sacred white sand (brought from the coast) and mixed it into mortar for the granite blocks they swiped from the Inca holy site of Sacsayhuaman (in the hills outside of town). Then, forced Inca laborers worked nearly 100 years to complete the cathedral. Seeing the Christian altars and statues dripping in gold and silver, I wondered if it was the very metal stolen from Koricancha. No photos were allowed inside the cathedral (or other churches) so I can’t show the opulence.
Our guide pointed out some of the Inca touches. Artists from Spain trained a few locals to paint and they created artworks for the cathedral that combine Christian themes with Inca motifs. I especially liked the last supper painting with chicha (corn beer) in Inca cups and a roasted guinea pig on a platter. “Raise guinea pigs and eat well.” Inca Proverb
Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus
Catty-corner to the Cusco Cathedral is another large church also constructed over of a demolished Inca palace. The Baroque style Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus was built by the Jesuits in 1571. They wanted to make it the most spectacular church in Cusco and this caused some religious rivalry and angry feelings. The archbishop of Cusco thought the Cusco Cathedral should hold the title of most magnificent and maintain its prominence in the square. He appealed to the Pope to intercede, but the Pope’s decision (he agreed with the archbishop) reached Cusco too late and the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus was completed.
Just like in Inca times, people from other towns and villages come to Cusco to celebrate Inti Raymi (the sun festival).
My husband with a giant guinea pig
FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD
The whole family was adventurous and tried some local specialties.
Top- Marinated alpaca with Andean cheese and stuffed pepper
Bottom – A starter with guinea pig meat piled on potatoes
🙂 couldn’t bring ourselves to order the whole animal)
- The mini rolls we had at several restaurants were served with hot sauce
- The yellow chili sauce chicken dish is called Aji de Gallina
- The bowl holds polenta with a tomato based meat sauce
- The chocolate covered dessert is a Peruvian cookie called Alfajores
- Inca Kola was too sweet, even for our kids (tastes a bit like Juicy Fruit gum)
YUM! I discovered that chicha morada (purple corn drink spiced with cinnamon and cloves) is excellent with anchovy pizza.
Also, hot chocolate with chili and honey is amazingly good!
On the Sunday before the solstice there were so many people in the historic center and a plethora of street food to be had.
I’ll pause here for now, stay tuned for more Cusco sights and experiences.
BTW – If girls with a lamb come towards you they may just thrust the creature into your arms and then, of course, you must take a picture 🙂