A walk through Trujillo’s medieval streets

There is a saying in these parts, that twenty Latin American countries were born in Trujillo. The reference is to the hundreds of Conquistadors who came from the town and surrounding villages, and travelled to the Americas seeking their fortune. Or at least better fortune than backward and poverty stricken 16th Century Extremadura could offer them. Men like Francisco Pizarro who conquered the Inca Empire in Peru, Francisco de las Casas who rode alongside Hernán Cortés when he conquered Mexico, and Nuño de Chaves who founded Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, all stamped their mark on the Americas.

Castle, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Castle, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

The vast wealth they accumulated as they rampaged through ancient civilisations from Argentina to Mexico has stamped its mark on Trujillo. The old town, safely inside the city walls, is filled with beautiful 16th and 17th Century mansions, all constructed with looted silver and gold; their ill-gotten gains built and endowed numerous sumptuous churches; and the narrow medieval streets hold a powerful fascination, every turn bringing you into contact with reminders of the extraordinary historical events in which Trujillo had a central role.

We arrived in the late afternoon under a blue sky and hot sun. After checking into our hotel, housed in the former 16th Century Santa Clara monastery, we headed to the Plaza Mayor to take the pulse of the town. The plaza is a beautiful place, the wonderful atmosphere only undone by the number of cars passing through it. After a quick visit to the cathedral, we plonked ourselves down at one of the cafes and did some people watching while relaxing with local tapas and Extremadura wine.

Fully refreshed we hit the streets. It was mid-week and the town was pretty quiet, walking the steep and winding lanes is incredibly atmospheric, history seems to seep out of the walls. This is good because you’ll get a closer view of the walls than expected as you fling yourself against them, or into a stranger’s doorway, to avoid being run over by speeding locals who drive up and down the narrow streets with abandon. Cars are a blight on Trujillo, nowhere seems to be pedestrian friendly.

We found ourselves at the top of the town outside the imposing walls of the castle. Originally Moorish, it was captured in 1232 by the Reconquista, and expanded under Christian rule. Presumably benefitting from Inca and Maya gold. From up here, and under a low Spring sun, the town looks spectacular.

Winding our way back through the town we passed more extraordinary medieval mansions, taking in a couple of churches as we went, and explored wonderful streets that feel like walking through history – at least when you’re not dodging cars. Given the history of some of the buildings, it’s bizarre to discover many seemed abandoned and in a state of neglect verging on disrepair. This included the Palacio de Conquista, the grand house on a corner of the main square built by Hernando Pizarro, the only one of the four brothers to die in Spain.

The town isn’t big and we soon found ourselves back in the Plaza Mayor. It was definitely time to sample a few local dishes – this region is famed for good food – and to expand our knowledge of Exremadura wines. I’d read somewhere that the wine of this region was gaining a reputation internationally, in a good way, so it seemed like a wise investment to get ahead of the curve. The night air was still a bit chilly, and on a Tuesday night the town quiet, but this is Spain and we found our way to a busy restaurant for a fun evening sampling the local produce.

Trujillo, a journey into Spain’s history in the Americas

Trujillo is an incredible place with an extraordinary history. This town in the centre of Extremadura played a far more significant role in world history than its size indicates. It’s grand historic buildings seem inappropriate for a town of this size; and even the glorious medieval mansions, vast castle and elaborate churches don’t really do justice to the influence Trujillo had on the history of the medieval western world. A visitor from another planet would have difficulty working out why such grandeur exists in such an unlikely place.

Walk around the beautiful (although plagued by cars) Plaza de Santa Maria, and you’ll come to a building that begins to explain what happened in Trujillo. On a corner of the square stands the Palacio de la Conquista; if the name isn’t enough the building is decorated with sculptures of former leaders of the Inca Empire, in chains. This is the house Hernando Pizarro built.

Statue of Francisco Pizarro, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Statue of Francisco Pizarro, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Hernando was one of the famed Pizarro brothers, Conquistadors who travelled to the New World in search of vast wealth. The Conquistadors were little more than mercenaries, and the Pizarro brothers exemplified the violent world into which they were born. Led by the illiterate Francisco, all four brothers played a major role in the conquest of Peru and the brutally efficient destruction of the Inca Empire. The vast wealth they stole or extorted from Inca nobility went to build Trujillo’s beautiful and well fortified medieval mansions.

It is hard to imagine that a powerful and sophisticated civilisation, numbering millions of people, could be destroyed by a handful of soldiers in just a few months. Yet this is what Francisco Pizarro, 168 Spanish Conquistadors and 27 horses achieved in Peru. I read William H. Prescott’s classic history of the conquest of Peru when we travelled there in 2012/13, it reads almost like fiction. The Inca civilisation simply collapsed, doomed because they lacked steel, horses and immune systems capable of surviving European diseases.

Prescott makes clear the peril Pizarro’s men found themselves in, and the bravery they displayed, but he also recounts their ruthlessness, painting a picture of vicious killers who would have stopped at nothing. They ruled the former Inca Empire with an iron fist, simultaneously marrying Inca royalty to give themselves legitimacy. Their ambition led to conflict with their fellow Spaniards, and it’s little surprise that three of the four met violent deaths in Peru. Hernando was the only one to die in Spain, in Trujillo, in the Palacio de la Conquista in 1578, but only after he’d spent 20 years in a Spanish prison.

I’d wanted to see Trujillo ever since being in Peru and it was a bitter-sweet experience. While I marvelled at the glories of Trujillo, I couldn’t help but reflect on the wonders of the Inca civilisation that were lost, destroyed or melted down. It didn’t seem a fair swap.

Statue of Francisco de Orellana, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Statue of Francisco de Orellana, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

I didn’t expect it, but there seems little remorse for the town’s role in the destruction of another civilisation. An impression reinforced by the giant statue of Pizarro dominating the main plaza. My guidebook revealed the bizarre story that the statue was made by an American and donated to Trujillo in 1927; but not before he tried to give it to the Mexican Government as a statue of Hernán Cortés. Unsurprisingly, the Mexicans weren’t in the mood to honour the destructor of Mexico’s Aztec and Mayan civilisations. It was ‘renamed’ and given to Trujillo.

The Pizarro brothers weren’t the only conquerors of the New World to come from Trujillo. Ñuflo de Chaves was born in a village just outside Trujillo. He founded the Bolivian town of Santa Cruz, a fact I didn’t know when living in Bolivia. Other Trujillo luminaries include Francisco de Orellana, who accompanied Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, and was the first European to navigate the full length of the Amazon; and Diego García Paredes, known as the ‘Samson of Extremadura’, who founded Trujillo in Venezuela. Their ill-gotten gains are also on display in Trujillo.

Extremadura, recruiting ground of the Conquistadors

Spain is a country that wears its history on its sleeve. A visit to just about anywhere in this extraordinary country will bring you into contact with its long and frequently brutal history. Nowhere is that more true than the parched and often desolate landscapes of Extremadura. Historically it was one of the poorest regions of Spain, its inhabitants forced to scrape a living from poor soils. Only now is it starting to shake off a dusty exterior that has kept it off the tourist trail: the historic glories of Extremadura have begun to attract a steady flow of visitors.

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

Life was so hard here that it proved a fertile recruiting ground for the Conquistadors, men like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, who would conquer the Americas with a mixture of savage brutality and European diseases. It is Pizarro that most fascinates me. We’d visited Peru twice when living in Bolivia and I’d seen the results of Pizarro’s work at first hand. I was eager to see the town where the conqueror of the Incan Empire grew up.

Heading north past Cordoba, we called at tiny Belmez, our final stop in Andalusia before crossing into Extremadura. We hadn’t planned to visit Belmez, but it seemed as good a place as any to grab a coffee and a snack; plus we could see the town’s castle perched on top of a ridiculously steep hill from miles away, and I can’t resist a good castle. We finally found our way through the narrow streets to the base of the hill and started the ascent upwards. Needless to say the castle started life as a Moorish fort, but what remains today dates from after the Reconquista.

The climb was worth it. Clambering up to the very top of the tower provided a 360̊ panorama over the surrounding countryside, with only a few birds and a strong breeze for company. Back at ground level we went for a stroll around town, ten minutes later we were seated in the local bar with a coffee. This tiny place looks like it has seen better times, at least judging by the number of ‘For Sale’ signs dotted around the town.

There was time when Romans lived here and mined iron ore, but it was the discovery of coal deposits that turned this into a mining region, and saw an influx into the area at the start of the 20th Century. On the outskirts of town the remains of long abandoned coal mines litter the landscape; this area has suffered more than most from economic decline, with industry gone there is little to offset the hardship and younger people are voting with their feet.

Extremadura, Spain

Extremadura, Spain

Back on the road we decided to take smaller roads through the countryside. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves passing through breathtaking rural landscapes and entering Extremadura. In the distance we saw what looked like a massive hilltop fortress. Naturally we headed in that direction and after navigating our way through a tiny village and up a steep hill found ourselves, alone and on top of another hill, standing amongst the ruins of the Alcazaba Arabe de Reina, close to the small town of Reina.

Situated at a vital junction on the route between Cordoba and Merida, the Alcazaba Arabe de Reina dates back to Roman times, and the ruins of the Roman town, Regina Turdulorum, are nearby on the plain below. It grew into a massive fortress during Moorish times – being situated not that far from the boundary between the Christian north and Moorish south. It may be dramatically situated but there is little that remains of the original citadel other than some of the massive walls.

There is a hermitage and shrine in the middle of the fort dedicated to Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, our Lady of the Snows. After wandering around for 20 minutes and drinking in the views, it was time to start the last part of our journey to Trujillo. We skipped visiting the nearby Roman ruins, because some in our party (of two) felt that visiting two castles in one day was already an overindulgence, but this region of Extremadura is definitely one to return to.

The zigzag citadel of Sacsayhuaman

Little more than a 30 minute walk from Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, sitting atop a viciously steep hill, lies one of the most impressive Inca archaeological sites within modern-day Peru. Known as either Sacsayhuaman, Saqsaywaman or ‘sexy woman’ depending upon who you talk to, the dizzying walk to the site is instantly rewarded once you reach the main walls.

The three-tiered stone ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Comprising three enormous stone ramparts that zigzag across the mountain top, Sacsayhuaman incorporates such massive stones into its defences that walking beneath these monumental walls is an experience in feeling insignificant. So monolithic are some of the stones that it is impossible not to feel ant-like by comparison.

The three-tiered stone ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

If Inca mastery of stone work were in doubt a visit to Sacsayhuaman would quickly settle any dispute. The ramparts are over 20 metres high and the largest stone weighs-in at over 300 tonnes, and all of this was constructed with only stone and bronze tools and without the aid of mortar. It was estimated by an early Spanish chronicler that up to 20,000 people worked on the site over a one-hundred year period and some of the stone was transported from over 30km away. It makes Stonehenge look like a children’s toy.

While today only the walls and foundations of Inca buildings remain the site was home to several impressively large structures including the Muyu Marca, a 30 metre high tower of three concentric circles that served as an imperial residence. There were other towers and a Temple of the Sun but the Spanish looted most of the stones to help build colonial Cusco, forcing today’s bewildered tourists to rely on their imaginations.

The ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Close up of the stone work of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

For many years Sacsayhuaman has been considered a fortress, and despite being the scene of a number of bloody battles, recent excavations have revealed a number of sacred objects that have made archaeologists rethink its purpose. If it was an imposing and impressively designed fortress, it was almost certainly a major ceremonial and religious site as well.

The zigzag shape of the walls may have been physical representations of either the teeth of the sacred Jaguar or possibly of lightening. Alternatively they may just have been a clever defensive design that exposed the flanks of an attacking army.

The archaeological site of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Sacsayhuaman was the site of one of the most vicious battles between the invading Spanish and the defending Inca. In 1536, two years after the Spanish had captured Cusco, Sacsayhuaman fell to an Inca force during a rebellion led by Manco Inca (a thorn in the Spanish side for several years). Retaking Sacsayhuaman was a bloody affair, it cost Juan Pizarro, son of head Conquistador Francisco Pizarro, and thousands of Inca their lives.

When the Spanish finally recaptured Sacsayhuaman the whole site was littered with Inca dead, whose corpses soon attracted carrion eating Condors – so many in fact that the coat of arms of the City of Cusco features eight Condors in commemoration of the battle.

The ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Across the wide expanse of grass in front of the main defensive walls is a ceremonial site known as the Rodadero. This features intricate carvings in the stone and would have been used as a viewing platform for the Inca Emperor during ceremonies. Behind this lies more sacred sites, including the spring of Calispucyo where initiation rituals were performed.

The Rodadero sacred site, Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Carved stone seat known as an Inca Throne, Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Sacsayhuaman is that of all the tens-of-thousands of tourists passing through Cusco not that many seem to make it to the site. I spent an entire morning there and saw only a handful of tourists, not that I’m complaining, it was my birthday and I had the place to myself.

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