A Photographic Tour of Cusco, Heart of the Inca Empire

A Photographic Tour of Cusco, Heart of the Inca Empire

Sara Shahrairi

In Cusco, Peru the past seems very close, whether you are touching stone walls Inca masons painstakingly fit together hundreds of years ago, exploring archaeological sites like Sacsaywaman, or listening to indigenous local people speak Quechua, the language of the Inca. Despite the extensive structures left by the Inca Empire, scholars definitively agree on very few things about the society. It is the beauty and scale of what the Inca built, and the relative mystery of their motives and methods, which make Cusco so intriguing.

Most people who visit Cusco come as part of a tour to spectacular Machu Picchu, a short train ride away. But the city itself has stories to tell, beginning in the central square where the last Inca Emperor, Tupac Amaru, was executed by the Spanish in 1572. Today called the Plaza de Armas, the square was once a public and sacred space where the Inca made offerings and held meetings and parades. After the Spanish conquest, the city's cathedral and a large church were built on the foundations of Inca buildings around the square - the cathedral stands on what was the Inca palace Quiswarcancha.

The Inca Empire endured about 100 years and covered most of the Andean regions of Ecuador and Peru, as well as parts of Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia. The Inca primarily worshipped the sun, Inti, and their religious centers were often full of something that made the Inca Empire very appealing to the Spanish: gold. The Spanish first encountered the Inca in the 1520s, and by 1572, when Tupac Amaru was executed, they had taken control of the empire and carried away much of the gold and jewels that adorned it-today only bare stones remain.

A few blocks from the plaza are many small streets bordered by walls built by the Inca before the Spanish invasion. On one of them, the narrow foot-street Hatunrumiyoc, is a famous 12-sided stone that was part of the Inca Roca's palace. The large, precisely carved stone is a great example of the mastery and patience of Inca masons.

The Inca Empire's success was partly due to farming techniques that produced surpluses of food. Because there was food to feed large workforces, the Inca could undertake the monumental building projects we know them for today.

Sacsaywaman, just a short hike from Cusco's center, is one of those projects. Here you find walls three-tiers high constructed of huge finely cut stone. At Sacsaywaman, likely part fort and part religious center, the Spanish broke the Inca rebellion of Manco Inca, Tupac Amaru's father, in a bloody battle. The Spanish later used Sacsaywaman as a sort of quarry. Smaller stones were carried away for building is Cusco leaving only the massive walls.

A bit further from Cusco are three more sites: Qenqo, where the Inca carved tunnels and altars into a large natural rock formation, the water shrine of Tambomachay, and Pucapucara. Pucapucara, whose name means red fort, was likely a resting place for travelers and not a true fort. From its terraced wall is a view down the Sacred Valley, which was breadbasket, sacred land and last holdout of the Inca Empire. The Sacred Valley is home to many more pieces of Inca history, but that is another adventure.


The rainy season is Cusco normally lasts from October through April, and is indeed quite rainy.

Though you are close to the equator in Cusco, weather can be cool because of the altitude. Read about it here: http://www.weather.com/weather/today/PEXX0008

To visit many sites in Cusco you must purchase a special tourist ticket. Read about it here: http://www.cusco-peru.info/cusco_tourist_ticket.htm

You can visit Sacsaywaman, Qenqo, Tambomachay and Pucapucara as part of a group tour. If you want to take your time there is frequent public transport from Cusco to these sites, and they can all be seen easily in one day. A bit of Spanish is very useful if you decide to go it alone.

Cusco is about 11,000 feet above sea level. Give yourself time to adjust to the altitude, which can be hard on even the most physically fit person.

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