Cusco was and is still considered the capital city of the Inca indian empire. The Incas were once a powerful people living in the beautiful mountains of Peruvian and Chilean Andes in South America. For over one hundred blossoming years of brilliant architecture and astronomy the Incas ruled cities and villages in the mountain range worshipping Sun and other natural powers. Then came the Spanish conquistadors in 1500’s who eventually defeated and nearly killed all the Incas with newly brought deseases as well as destroyed most of the Inca legacy.
Cusco is a vibrant city of some 600 000 inhabitants, located in heart of the mountains up at 3,4 kilometres above the sea level. Location this high above and being surrounded by high mountains around the city makes Cusco a very difficult place to reach. Airplanes nowadays carry tourists and locals to the city, but other means of transportation are rare. Even with an airplace captains have to have a steady set of hands since they have to take off and land through quite narrow mountain passes. Thus, most plane traffic is scheduled for morning hours.
Colonial meets Inca architecture
Inca heritage can be seen throughout the city – mostly in Incan descendant people living their everyday lives or dressing up in traditional costumes with alpacas and posing for the many tourists visiting the city on their way to Machu Picchu. Cusco is the most common pitstop city for travellers to head to and from the famous lost cit of Machu Picchu about 70 km north of the city in the Sacred Valley. There are also several major Inca sacred place ruins aroung or surrounding the city. However, walking downtown in the centro historico, most buildings you see are colonial style massive churches or buildings brought up by the Spaniards.
History witnesses Spaniards destroying most of Inca architecture and instead, building bigger and more impressive ones on top of the site. Qorikancha, what used to be the most sacred place for the Incas – the Temple of the Sun – is a good example of the bad, of how it was mainly destroyed and a massive cathedral of Santo Domingo was placed on top of the ruins. Plaza de Armas, the main square with a statue of Pachacuteq – main Inca chief behind all the brilliant cities and architectural intelligence, is another good example. Where once Pachacuteq the king lived, is now surrounded by tall and impressive colonial style cathedrals and churces. It was there in the square where the last Inca king standing was executed in front of his people.
Sun, stars and symbols
Sun was to most important and divine feature for the Incas. Incas were very interested in astronomy and other pieces in the sky. In Qorikancha, their holiest place there was a temple of the Sun, the Stars, the Moon and the Rainbow, all four situated facing each other and forming a square in the middle.
Incas observed the sky carefully. Two days within one year were the most important: 21st of June and December – when the sun was the closets and the furthest away. These were fiestas and days of sacrifices. Incas followed their own calendars – which were only put in writing and drawn in symbols by Felipe Guaman de Ayala, a Peruvian author in 1615 – according to native stories. Two calendars were important: one for rituals and sky and the other for agricultural working around the year.
Incas believed that Cusco was the navel of the universe. They divided Cusco capital region into four different ones and believed there were 365 different holy places (eg. mountains) within the region – all connected to each other somehow. In the milkyway in the sky they saw several animals; a llama, a baby llama, a serpentine snake, a fox, two frogs and a shepherd. There are many many ruins around Cusco – these holy places. The largest is Sacsayhuamán, in where you can find brilliant architectural work with massive carved one piece stones exceeding 8 meters in lenght.
Condor, puma and snake were symbols most important to the Incas who believed in reincarnation. Condor conveyed and carried the soul of a deceased to another life. Snake represented intelligence and what there is underneath the ground and puma was for strenght and force. These symbols can be seen in many Inca cultural places and patterns.
Touristic and local Cusco
A basic traveller is visiting Cusco for a couple of days. Cusco functions as a good pitstop for daytrips, longer hikes and other explors. Still Cusco is an interesting historical and lively city all on its own. High altitude location makes it somewhat hard to fully enjoy (as most people get altitude sickness symtoms in altitudes above 2,5 km above sea level). Still, if you listen to your body carefully and take it a bit slower, there are great everyday places to visit in the town.
Along with Plaza de Armas and narrow alleys around it, a lively spot is Mercado Central – the central market with colours, smells, busiest sellers and interesting products for sale. It includes an appealing restaurant section as well. Around you can observe the locals and their easy lives buying and selling – and making a living out of tourism. In almost every corner you can spot traditionally dressed up women with kids and llamas – for you to take a photo with them and give them a little something for it. All over Cusco you can find specialized and more general souverir shops carrying beautiful and practical clothing made of soft alpaca wool.
Furthermore, the area called San Blas is known for its craft shops, stores, fairs and workshops. There are several restaurants in the narrow alleys too to enjoy. Traditional Peruvian restaurants as well as fusion kitchen and more western kitchens to serve the many tourists are available. Digging into typical Peruvian dishes such as cuy al horno (guinea pig), chicharrón and adobo as well as others with alpaca, potato, maize (corn) and quinoa are worth tasting. Once in the heart of the Incas you might as well experience what this intriguing culture has to offer.