Lodged high in the Andes, Cusco is the ancient capital of Incas. Today, it is a vibrant metropolis and the gateway to the Sacred Valley
One of the first things we noticed about Cuzco is the thinness of the air here – at over 12000 feet altitude sickness is a real problem. As soon as we reached our hotel, the Los Andes, we sat down to catch our breath and partook of the coca tea – an ancient and seemingly potent aid for preventing the worst effects of altitude sickness.
As we had a planned afternoon tour of ancient Cuzco and the Incan ruins we walked down to the main plaza, Plaza de Armas, in the colonial part of the city to find somewhere for lunch. Fortunately, we found a wonderful little restaurant and settled down for a wonderful 3-course meal. Our bellies full we returned to the hotel to await our tour bus.
The first stop on the tour was the large Cathedral, catchily known as The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin. This is the most prominent structure overlooking the square and is adjoined to a church on either side, the Iglesia Jesus María and Iglesia El Triunfo. Inside is an elaborately carved wooden altar, covered in gold and silver plate. The carved wooden choir stalls are acclaimed to be the finest in the country. Also of interest is the painting “The Last Supper”, which portrays Jesus and his disciples gathered around the table, on which is a central platter with the local Incan delicacy, ‘cuy’ or roasted guinea pig, laid on it.
Leaving the central plaza we made the short journey to the Coricancha Inca Ruins (a Quechua word meaning ‘Golden Courtyard’). The Inca stonework is all that remains of the ancient Temple of the Sun, dedicated primarily to Inti, the Sun God. This was the most important temple in the Inca Empire. The walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold, and the courtyard was filled with golden statues. Spanish reports tell of opulence that was ‘fabulous beyond belief’. The Church of Santo Domingo was built on the site, using the ruined foundations of the temple that was flattened by the gold-hungry Spanish in the 17th century. This is a fine example of Inca stonework being incorporated into the structure of a colonial building. Major earthquakes have severely damaged the church, but the Inca stone walls, built out of huge, tightly-interlocking blocks of stone, still stand as a testimony to their superb architectural skills and sophisticated stone masonry.
We climbed back on our tour bus and travelled high into the hills above the city. Our first stop was Sacsayhuamán, another incredible set of Inca ruins. Leaving the tour bus we got the opportunity to have our photo taken (for a small gratuity) with a lady in traditional dress and her alpacas. The ruins of Sacsayhuamán is the closest and the most remarkable of the Inca ruins to Cuzco. Its proximity to Cuzco and the dimensions of its stones resulted in it being used as a quarry by the Spanish conquistadors, providing building material for their colonial buildings in the city below.
The complex suffered such destruction by the Spanish conquistadors that little is known about the actual purpose these magnificent buildings served. It is usually referred to as a fortress, constructed with high, impenetrable walls, although it is also believed to have been a ceremonial or religious centre. The ruins cover an enormous area, but only about 20 per cent of the original complex remains and are a fine example of extraordinary Inca stone masonry. It is estimated the complex took 100 years to build, using thousands of men in its construction. The massive blocks of stone fit together perfectly without the aid of mortar, one of which weighs over 300 tonnes and stands 16ft (5m) tall. The magnificent centre was the site of an infamous bloody battle between the Spanish and the Inca people in 1536 that left thousands of the native people dead.
Today, Sacsayhuamán holds the annual celebrations of Cuzco’s most important festival, Inti Raymi, the sun festival, a spectacular and colourful affair that re-enacts the Inca winter solstice festival every June.