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Cusco: Capital of the Incas

Updated on February 14, 2011

When the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived at Qosqo, the capital of the Inca Empire, in 1532, the city was already about 400 years old. According to legend, it was founded by the Inca Manco Capac and his sister-consort Mama Occlo. They built the city in the shape of a puma, which was an important symbol in the Inca religion. The outline of the old city can still be seen on a map of modern Cusco – if a tour guide traces it for you.

Pizarro arrived at an opportune time, when the empire had been weakened by civil war. Horses, guns, disease, and treachery enabled the Spanish to destroy the empire. When the conquest was complete, the Spanish looted Qosqo of its gold and silver. They gutted its great buildings for stone with which to build their own colonial city of Cusco.


Located in a fertile valley in the Peruvian Andes, 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) above sea level, Cusco today is home to an indigenous mestizo culture. It is an intriguing juxtaposition of native and Spanish, old and new. Amidst the Spanish spoken on the street, you will also hear Quechua.

Some visitors arrive in Cusco with the intention of staying just one night, and then getting on the early morning train to Machu Picchu. If you do that, you will have only enough time to make a quick tour of the Plaza de Armas, the Temple of the Sun, and the Cathedral. As anxious as you may be to get to Machu Picchu, there are two very good reasons to spend a couple of days in Cusco. First, you’ll need to acclimatize yourself so you don’t get altitude sickness. Second, Cusco is a fascinating city with a lot to see. Keep in mind that the churches close during the mid-day siesta, and most of the museums are closed on Sunday.

Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas

The heart of the city is the Plaza de Armas, which was once called Haukaypata. Centuries ago, Inca ceremonies took place here. Today it is full of hawkers peddling their wares and services to tourists. It is dominated by the Cathedral. This monumental, ornate church is one of Cusco’s most imposing structures. It was built in 1550 on the site of the palace of the Inca Wirachocha, using stones pillaged from the nearby Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman. The church was part of the grand plan to impose Spain’s official Catholic faith on the indigenous population. The Cathedral is now one of Cusco’s principal tourist attractions, noted for its soaring ceilings, baroque carvings, and incredible gold and silver altars. It has an amazing collection of colonial art that mixes Christian and non-Christian imagery. The most famous painting depicts the disastrous earthquake of 1650, and includes an image of a statue of Jesus that allegedly stopped the quake. This statue,  called Senor de Los Temblores (Lord of the Earthquakes) is now Cusco’s patron. The very statue shown in the painting stands near the nave of the church. The Cathedral’s greatest pieces are the magnificent solid silver altar and the huge Maria Angola bell. Cast in 1659, it is the largest bell in South America. The church has enough artistic treasures to keep you here for hours, but if you’re pressed for time at least be sure to see the spectacular “Last Supper” by Marcos Zapata, which shows Jesus and his apostles dining on guinea pig and corn beer.

Last Supper by Zapata
Last Supper by Zapata

The Convento de Santa Catalina de Siena is a working Dominican convent that has an extensive collection of religious art. This 17th century structure is an example of the imposition of European religious faith on native beliefs. It was once the site of the Acllawasi, the home of 3,000 Inca women who were dedicated to the worship of the sun god, Inti.

The Iglesia de la Compania, constructed in the 17th century, was intended to be the most beautiful church in Cusco. It almost achieved that, but in a “race to be the best” with the Cathedral, this church lost out due to a ruling by the pope. Nonetheless, it is a gorgeous church with a magnificent façade and some extraordinary paintings. Tourists are admitted on the condition that they attend mass. If you start wandering around taking photos, you’ll be shown the way out.

Iglesia de la Compania
Iglesia de la Compania

The big attraction at the Museo Inka is the collection of eight Inca mummies. However, this museum provides an excellent comprehensive introduction to pre-Columbian Andean culture. It is full of ceramics, textiles and dioramas. One room tells the story of Mamakuka (Mother Coca). The coca leaf was used by the Incas for medicinal and religious purposes. Coca tea is still used as an antidote for altitude sickness. Tourists take note: coca tea is legal, it is available in most restaurants in Cusco, and local people swear by it.

North of the Plaza de Armas is the little square of San Blas. Here you will find a simple adobe church that has one of the treasures of colonial art in the Americas; the pulpit of San Blas. Carved in the 17th century, it is considered the most ornate in Latin America, and may have been assembled from 1200 individually carved pieces. The triumphant Christ figure stands over a real human skull. Nearby is MAP, the Museo de Arte Precolombino. Housed in a 16th century convent, this museum has a spectacular collection of native art from the 13th to the 16th century. Another worthwhile San Blas art gallery is the Museo de Arte Religioso del Arzobispado. The home of Peruvian religious artist Hilario Mendevil is also an interesting museum.

Museo de Arte Religioso del Arzobispado
Museo de Arte Religioso del Arzobispado

South of the Plaza de Armas, a must-see attraction is the Casa de Garcilaso. This was the childhood home of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the illegitimate son of one of Pizarro’s captains and an Inca princess. He became a chronicler of the conquest. The museum here has everything from pottery to Inca mummies.

Casa de Garcilaso
Casa de Garcilaso

Two interesting churches in this area are Iglesia San Pedro and Iglesia Santa Clara. San Pedro was built from the stones of Inca ruins, and has an ornately carved pulpit. Santa Clara was built in 1588, and has a very unusual interior. Thousands of mirrors were placed in the church, allegedly to attract the native people.

The Qorikancha is connected to one of the most dramatic stories associated with the conquest. This Court of Gold was a temple whose walls were literally plated with gold. In the centre was a giant gold disc that reflected the light of the sun into a specific niche during the summer solstice. Throughout the temple were statues made of gold and silver. When Pizarro took the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, captive, he demanded a room full of gold and silver as ransom. The Incas stripped most of the Qorikancha to meet Pizarro’s demands. It was in vain, because The Spanish murdered Atahualpa anyway. Later a church was built on the site. The earthquake of 1953 did considerable damage, but both the temple and the church are being reconstructed.

The Qorikancha
The Qorikancha

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    • HealthCanada profile image


      5 years ago from Canada

      In my Book "The Cusco Theory" I touch down on how the Inca's civilization fell,

      How indeed they were conquered by the Spanish who indeed fell themselves.

      The book is a thesis on food, culture and civilization/society

      But here I would like to express another of my theories.

      The rocks, if you look at them actually have some rusting stains and molten edges & Surfaces.

      It is in my opinion that the rocks had been super heated and either pressed together while hot and then cooled into place.

      Or a liquid detergent (Most likely a leaf oil or harsh acid) was used to form the giant stones.

      Moving boulders, rocks and stones of unthinkable proportion was a skill that our ancestors not only knew thoroughly but employed in every single mega-structure and ancient site that is currently known.

      3-5 Tons stones are seen almost uniformly in all ancient sites.

      Yet we are still baffled by this simple and ancient process,

      It is perhaps the altitude and type of vegetation or Deciduous forest materials (or the lack thereof) that makes most historians cringe when you mention stone-age methods.

      But the facts remain that the Killke people built the original ancient site in cusco, and after they had abandoned it/the Inca then claimed what was left of the area and transformed it into their own capital of their empire.

      Cusco literally means: The Naval of the World

    • lemonkerdz profile image


      6 years ago from LIMA, PERU

      Thanks for the hub, i now live in cusco and one of the best museums missed by tourists is the one at Garsilaso's house, which has very little to do with him. The next to visit is at the ovalo pachacutec which was recently renovated and has a great history of cusco and for S/.2 it's silly if you miss it.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      7 years ago from London, UK

      Thank you for giving such great advice and information.


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