Cuzco (or Cusco), the Sacred City of the Sun, was the nearly impenetrable
capital of the Incas. To Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish conquistador
the l0,909-foot-high city was the coveted gateway to new dominions. To
modern-day travelers, it is the acclaimed "archaeological capital of
South America," a cultural treasure of humanity.
Days of Incan Glory
Founded in the 11th century, pre-Columbian Cuzco
boasted a sophisticated water system, tens of thousands of miles of paved
streets, and a distinct lack of poverty. Such affluence was encouraged by
the Incan credo, "Ama sua, ama quella, ama lulla" ("Don't
steal, don't be lazy, don't lie.") While not all shared equally in
the riches of the Incan empire, each citizen was made to feel that his
contributions were essential to the glory of the whole. Such unity of
purpose allowed the Incas to support a vast conquering army while
simultaneously expanding their cultural influence.
The Incans were unable to hold off the Europeans'
superior military strength, however. Around 1523, Francisco Pizarro, urged
on by Cortez's success in conquering the Aztecs and claiming their vast
riches, set his sights upon the fabulous wealth of the Incas. By 1532, he
and his armies had brought the mighty reign of the Inca to an end.
our hotel we took a walking tour to explore the
Sun Temple, the city's most important ceremonial structure during
the Incan era. Historical records of the time note that its walls were
once covered with 700 sheets of gold studded with emeralds and turquoise;
when the sunlight
streamed through the windows, the reflection off the precious metals was
blinding. Contemporary reports indicated that the
windows were placed to maximize the reflected light of the sun, creating a
near-blinding effect. In the patio garden stood dozens of life-sized
statues, made of solid gold.
By contrast, the solid silver altar of Cuzco's
17th-century Cathedral would have seemed pedestrian. There is a painting
of the Last Supper, featuring Christ and his apostles feasting on roast
guinea pig, hot peppers, and Andean cheese! Next we went to see the rich
colors of San Bias, the city's thriving artisan's quarter. This is
where we had a group picture taken.
Cusco's main square known as the Wajaypata in Inca
times, was the site of many religious, cultural and ethnic celebrations
and is still an ideal meeting place. The Cathedral and La Compañia,
two of Cusco's main colonial churches, beautifully frame the plaza. Other
colonial churches are Santo Domingo, the convent of Santa Catalina and San
Bias with its famous pulpit, in the neighborhood of the artist's quarter.
Our hotel, the San Augustin, was only four blocks from the
On our second day in Cusco we visit the massive
fortress. Set on a hilltop overlooking the city, it is constructed of
enormous stones weighing up to 125 tons apiece. Its double zigzag wall is
said to symbolize a puma's teeth, and at one time there were three immense
towers and a labyrinth of rooms large enough to garrison 5,000 Incan
soldiers. Today, the interior buildings are gone, having been dismantled
by the Spaniards for their stone. But the imposing outer walls remain, as
does the Inca Throne. Recent excavations have revealed this ancient stone
complex to be much larger than previously thought.
We next visited the sacred spring of
Machay which is located in a peaceful sheltered valley. We
also stopped at a smaller area called
This was a funerary place to prepare bodies for burial. In the
center of the site was a huge puna rock formation.
We got a glimpse of contemporary culture as we witness a
ceremony. Belief in folk medicine is prevalent here, even among
sophisticated urban dwellers.
The next morning we had a half-day excursion to
the site of an important Incan ruin. On the way we stopped at a colorful
indian market and bakery. Pisac is situated in a spectacular
location atop a buttress ridge, with gorges on either side.
From this ancient city, you have sweeping vistas both upstream and
downstream in the Urubamba Valley. Pisac's highly defensible site guarded
both the Valley and a high jungle pass to the northeast. The main Incan
religious center includes well-built stone rooms and temples. Among
Pisac's most distinctive features are the agricultural terraces that sweep
around the mountainsides below in long, graceful curves.
After touring the ruins, we had a
home-hosted lunch with
a local family. See the pictures.
One day in Cuzco is all it takes for one to understand
why colonial explorers did not hesitate to christen it "the most
marvelous city of the New World."
Our last evening in Cusco was spent at a local restaurant where we were
entertained with indigenous musicians as they play
traditional Andean instruments – the panpipe, charango and tambo.
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