Cusco, ancient capital of the Inca empire

The Inca empire lasted little more than a century before the Spanish conquistadors, accompanied by Dominican priests, arrived in what is now northern Peru and began their wholesale destruction and looting of the empire and the slaughter of its people.

The Inca’s achievements in such a short period of time amount to nothing less than extraordinary: their empire ranged from modern-day Colombia all the way south to central Chile; they constructed large, well planned and earthquake-proof cities in impossible locations; centres of population were connected by an excellent road network; art and culture were highly advanced; they were agricultural pioneers, constructing thousands of kilometres of agricultural terracing and domesticating a number animals for food, clothing and labour, enabling them to feed a population of over nine million.

Incan terracing at Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru

Unfortunately for the Incas, when the Spanish arrived their achievements meant little compared to what they didn’t have: there was no steel to make armour or swords; there were no horses in Latin America and the largest animal in the Inca world, the llama, was no match for the military might of Spanish cavalry; and they didn’t have immunity to European diseases, which probably arrived from central America several years before the Spanish arrived in person and claimed the lives of thousands of indigenous Andean peoples, including Huayna Capac, the last Inca emperor to rule a united kingdom.

Until that fateful day in 1532 when Francisco Pizarro and his band of zealots turned up, the Inca empire would have rivalled any civilisation on the planet. The empire was centred on Cusco, an enormous city by the standards of the time and home to some of the largest and most elaborate buildings in the Americas, including Qorikancha, the richest temple in the Inca world with walls covered in gold sheets and featuring solid gold alters and gold replicas of llamas, vegetables and the sun.

Inca gold sealed the fate of the empire, and the Spanish melted down the cultural and religious wealth of the empire and sent it back to Spain as ingots.

Birds eye view of Cusco, Peru
Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru

Arriving in Cusco’s central Plaza de Armas today is to arrive in a city that could have been transplanted from southern Spain. It feels more Spanish than Spain, as if the Spanish conquerers were determined to wipe out any trace of its Inca past by building an indenti-kit Spanish city in place of the Inca capital.

Cusco’s cathedral is as imposing as anything you might see in Spain, a political, cultural and military symbol of the power of the the Spanish conquerers. Although it isn’t permitted to take photos of the interior, I promise there is enough silver and gold inside to wipe-out debt throughout Latin America. For me though, the interior felt as crude, oppressive and brutish as the Spanish conquest was in its dealings with the peoples of the Andes.

Cusco’s cathedral

The cathedral is also home to some imposing colonial art – literally on a grand scale – including a painting of the Last Supper featuring Guinea Pig as the central dish. The cathedral’s sacristy has walls adorned with paintings of all Cusco’s bishops, including Vincente de Valverde the Dominican friar who accompanied Francisco Pizarro. Valverde is reputed to have aided the slaughter of the Inca in Cusco by encouraging the Spanish troops in their ‘work’ with the words, “Kill them, kill them, I absolve you”.

Despite 500 years of remodelling and rebuilding, Inca history still seems to seep from Cusco’s walls. Evidence of the former Inca capital is on display down almost every street – the readily identifiable Inca building style still forms the foundations of almost every structure in the historic centre of Cusco, only topped with Spanish colonial buildings.

Cusco street with Inca foundations and Spanish tops, Peru
Inca doorway with colonial doors, Cusco, Peru

The Spanish either destroyed Inca buildings and used the materials for their own structures, or they simply built on top of the Inca foundations, which means some excellent examples of Inca building still exist cheek-by-jowl with colonial structures.

Foundations of a once grand Inca building, Cusco, Peru
Inca stone work, Cusco, Peru

Contemporary Cusco comes as something of a shock. It thrives off its Inca and colonial past and is one of the most touristed places in Latin America, with large groups of Europeans, North Americans, Chinese and Japanese wandering the streets following a flag waving tour guide explaining the terrible history of the city. After 5 months in Bolivia where tour groups are, mercifully, an endangered species, the sheer number of tourists and the tourist prices of Cusco are deeply disconcerting.

Having said that, the city authorities have managed to preserve the historic city in a way that would put most European cities to shame. There is a McDonalds on the main square that is so hidden away, without any external signage, that unless you walk right past it you wouldn’t suspect it was there. That is definitely something to be proud of.

The former temple of Qorikancha at night, Cusco, Peru

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