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.

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