Cusco or Q’osqo as it was known during Inca times was the most powerful and important city in the entire Inca Empire. It was the birth place of the Incas and over time grew to become the governing city of more than 4,500 km’s (2,800 miles) of South America’s Pacific coastline and adjacent Andean mountains. Ancient chronicles written after the conquest of Peru depict Cusco as an epic city full of grand palaces, temples and elaborate shrines. When the Spanish arrived in Cusco the city was torn to the ground, and many of its great buildings were destroyed and lost for all eternity. Over the following years that ensued the Spanish shaped Cusco the way we know today; a city of grand Baroque churches and elaborate residential casonas. It’s hard to imagine just how Cusco was during Inca times, but like other great cities of dominating empires, Cusco and its epic Inca and Spanish history is simply fascinating. Paul Jones, a Peru travel expert recounts the story of Cusco.
No one knows for sure quite how the Inca Empire started. The Incas never developed writing and family history records, so piecing together just how and when the empire started is an insurmountable task. Legend says that the first Inca family emerged from a cave in a place called Pacaritambo, a distant place in the highlands of the Andes. The family of 4 brothers and 4 sisters made their way up a sheltered mountain valley where one of the brothers – Ayar Manco used his golden staff to test the ground for fertility. It was there that they founded a small settlement, later to be known as Q’osqo.
Though the founding date of Cusco is uncertain, historians believe that it was somewhere around 1200 A.D. Ayar Manco who became better known as Capac meaning ‘powerful’ or ‘illustrious’ is believed to have been the first ruler of the Inca Dynasty – taking the name Inca Capac. It wasn’t until Pachacuti the 9th Inca ruler came to power around 1440 that the Inca Empire started to gain ground. Over the next 50 years the empire expanded rapidly, and Cusco became the governing and spiritual capital of an empire that spanned as far north as modern day Quito as far south as the Maule River, close to Santiago in Chile.
The Incas called their empire Tawantinsuyu or the ‘land of the 4 quarters’ and Cusco was the centre of it all. It wasn’t until the first Spanish conquistadores arrived in Cusco in 1533 that a much clearer picture of the city emerged. Years later, Spanish chroniclers recorded that the city was built around a great square called Haukaypata from which extended precisely constructed palaces, shrines and temples. The most noted building was Korikancha – the Inca Temple of the Sun. The Temple was dedicated to the Inca Sun God – Inti, and it was said that the walls were lined with sheets of solid gold, and the surrounding gardens were adorned with human-sized golden statues and trees made of silver.
The 11th Emperor Huayna Capac died around 1527, roughly the same time the Spanish arrived in Peru. Huayna Capac never named a successor, and his 2 sons Atahuallpa and Huascar set about in a bloody squabble over the leadership of the empire. Huascar was later captured by Atahuallpa’s soldiers after a grim battle on the banks of the Apurimac River. It was during these unstable times that the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his small army of 200 or so soldiers changed history for ever. During a surprise ambush in Cajamarca, Atahuallpa was captured by the Spanish. Atahuallpa was so shocked by his capture that he offered the Spanish a huge ransom of gold in return for his life. Much of the gold was to come from Cusco, marking the start of the demise of this epic city.
As the end of the mighty Inca Dynasty was realised and the Spanish took controlling power, Cusco was brought to its knees. Many of its impressive buildings, palaces and shrines were demolished, and the treasures found within were taken and melted down. The Spanish used the sturdy foundations of the Inca buildings as a footing to construct their European style buildings, forming the face of the city as we know it today. The church and convent of Santo Domingo was built over the ruins of the Inca Temple of the Sun – Korikancha, Cusco’s main cathedral was constructed on the site where the now mythical Inca building of Sunturwasi once stood, the Seminary of San Antonio Abad was founded on the site of Inca Amaru Qhala’s Palace (now the Monasterio Hotel) and so on.
For modern day visitors to Cusco, a guided tour is a great way to see the cities best highlights. But if you want to really get a feel for the cities monumental history then a gentle meander around the city can be more rewarding than you might thing. For impressive Inca architecture take a walk around Palacio Inca Roca (top of Calle Triunfo), home to some of Cusco’s most impressive Inca foundations and the famous 12 angled stone. Behind the Inca Temple of the Sun – Korikancha is another great place to explore, the small pedestrian alleys of Romeritos and Ahuacpinta are where you will see some of the best Inca masonry. For Spanish colonial architecture, a walk around the streets close to the main Plaza offers many surprises, as does a walk around Plazoleta Nazarenas (where the Spanish elite educated their children). As you might expect some of the best examples of Spanish colonial buildings are actually some of Cusco’s finest luxury hotels and museums. Take a sneak peek into the Monasterio Hotel, the new J.W. Marriott Hotel, La Casa Concha Museum and the famed home of Garcilaso de la Vega now the History of Cusco Museum (Calle Heladeros with the corner of Plaza Regocijo).
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