Explore Cusco, Peru: Navel of the Incan world

This spectacular city high in the Peruvian Andes boasts a fascinating fusion of pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial heritage. Paul Bloomfield explores Cusco, epicentre of the Incan empire

Plaza de Armas in historic center of Cusco, Peru

Stand in Cusco’s central square and the city’s contradictory nature quickly becomes clear. In the Plaza de Armas, graced by huge Spanish churches and colonial arcades, you’ll encounter colourfully clad indigenous women leading baby alpacas around a bronze statue of the empire-building Inca Pachacutec (reigned 1438–c1471). This square was – in a larger form – the heart of the Incan capital founded, according to legend, by Manco Cápac in the 12th century at the qosq’o (navel) of the world.

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You’ll see overlapping layers of the city’s history in the Catedral dominating the plaza’s north-eastern side. Like other colonial structures, it was built (from 1559) on the site of an earlier Incan monument – Kiswarkancha, palace of the Inca Viracocha – using cut stones pilfered from the fortress of Sacsayhuamán to the north of the city. Behind its Baroque exterior hang paintings by indigenous artists of the Cusco School, blending European styles with local elements – spot the roast cuy (guinea pig) in Marcos Zapata’s Last Supper.

The walls of the Temple of the Sun at Qorikancha were reputedly clad with 700 solid gold sheets

To see the most striking colonial larceny, stroll south-east from Plaza de Armas along Loreto and onto Pampa de Castillo, lined with simple restaurants serving typical local fare – this is the place to try cuy, chicharones (crispy fried pork chunks), trucha (trout) or lomo saltado (stir-fried beef loin). Beyond stands the church and convent of Santo Domingo, built on Qorikancha, a major Incan complex. Its Temple of the Sun was reputedly the wealthiest in Tawantinsuyu, the vast Incan empire that once stretched from Colombia to Chile. Beyond a Baroque facade, excavated remains give a sense of the complex’s scale; according to the early 17th-century chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, the temple walls were clad with 700 solid gold sheets. The Spanish reputedly took three months to melt down all the gold they stripped from Inca sites here.

The Museo Histórico Regional offers insights into the natural and cultural history of the surrounding area, but also an introduction to the life of Garcilaso de la Vega, whose house this was. Born in 1539 during the conquest to a Spanish man and an Inca noblewoman, ‘El Inca’ wrote one of the most influential chronicles, the Comentarios Reales de los Incas, which covered both the history of the Incas (based on stories told by his mother’s family) and the conquest.

For more detailed exploration of Incan history, visit the Museo Inka, housed in one of Cusco’s finest colonial mansions. The Palacio del Almirante (Admiral’s Palace) is packed with a slightly dusty but extensive collection of metalwork, pottery, dioramas, costumes, maps and paintings.

Probably the most impressive aspects of Incan technology were employed in construction, notably in the Qhapaq Ñan – the Andean road system stretching some 20,000 miles – and the mortar-free stonework used in building sites such as Machu Picchu. Look for the astonishing 12-sided stone on Calle Hatun Rumiyoq, north-east of the Catedral.

Of course, Peruvian history didn’t start with the Inca. The Museo de Arte Precolombino, housed in another beautiful colonial courtyard building, explores decorative arts spanning over 2,500 years; explanations of the symbolism in jewellery are particularly fascinating – look for the spondylus shells and spiral motifs that remain significant to Andean peoples today.

Finally, climb to the huge fortress of Sacsayhuamán (‘Satisfied Falcon’) overlooking the old city. This bastion, established by the Killke people around AD 1100, was vastly expanded by the Inca and played a key role in the Spanish conquest. It was here in 1536, three years after Inca emperor Atahualpa was killed by Francisco Pizarro’s Conquistadors, that his rebellious half-brother Manco Inca made a stand. After victory by the outnumbered Spanish forces, ending any serious resistance to their occupation, the fortress was razed, its stones serving as an unofficial quarry for the colonial rebuilding of Cusco. Today the Inca’s Quechua-speaking descendants celebrate Inti Raymi, the Sun Festival, at Saysayhuamán on winter solstice each June.

Cusco in Eight Sites

PlazadeArmas: Stand beneath the bronze statue of empire-building Inca Pachacutec and admire the colonial gems surrounding the central square

Catedral: Striking Baroque monument begun in 1559; inside, it boasts fine paintings of the Cusco School

Qorikancha: Remains of the Inca Temple of the Sun within the later colonial church and convent of Santo Domingo

MuseoHistóricoRegional: Learn about Andean history in the house of influential 17th-century chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega

MuseoInka: Explore the Admiral’s Palace and its extensive displays on Incan history and culture

Twelve-sidedstone: Marvel at fine Incan stonework in the wall flanking Calle Hatun Rumiyoq

MuseodeArtePrecolombino: Discover pre-colonial symbolism and decorative arts dating back over 3,000 years in a colonial courtyard mansion

Sacsayhuamán: Climb to the mighty hilltop fortress where Manco Inca attempted to hold off the Spanish Conquistadors

Paul Bloomfield is a travel and heritage writer

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This article was taken from issue 12 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in October 2018