Peru: Introduction to Cuzco

(Last Updated On: May 10, 2020)

A short morning flight to Cuzco, the fabled capital of the Inca Empire, perched at 11,000 feet above sea level. On a guided afternoon tour visit the main Inca and Colonial monuments. See the Plaza de Armas, center of the Inca Empire and the impressive 16th century cathedral, built on the ruins of the Inca Palace. In the old town view magnificently restored colonial buildings.

What the itinerary doesn’t indicate is that the morning flight from Lima requires a 3:30 A.M. wake up call. Ugh.

But the flight is pleasant and Cuzco is a lovely, interesting spot. After breakfast, a nap, and some coca tea I am ready to begin exploring it.

We meet Lucho and head out under darkening skies. It is just after noon, but as dark as dusk.

Our first stop is in a paved plaza. I am not sure what our guide Lucho tells us here – I am much more interested in the vendors and local residents that pass by. Many are dressed in elaborate traditional costumes and I long to photograph them. In Peru the practice is to pay a sol or two to photograph someone and people are adept at spotting those who attempt to surreptitiously photograph them. I have no small change yet. As much as I would like to snap a few shots, this system of paying the local “models” seems imminently fair and I tell myself there will be other opportunities. Still, it is hard to concentrate on Lucho’s commentary with all these fascinating people around

The first church we enter is the Iglesia Santa Domingo, which was built on top of an Inca sun temple. The church itself – or what remains of it anyway – seems a rather typical Spanish affair and not particularly interesting. However, we are not here to see the church.

Along with the glorious sun temple (Coricancha) and its amazing garden, the Inca complex here included rooms devoted to the moon, stars, thunder, and rainbows. As a temple, the stone walls were covered in gold and stood over a life-size garden of gold and silver plants, animals, and people. Even the Spanish were impressed with the magnificence of this garden . . . Not that they wasted any time in removing it and melting down its precious components. To the extent possible, even the temple’s stonework was dismantled. What couldn’t be removed, was then effectively buried beneath a Dominican church and convent. There the temple remained hidden until 1950 when a severe earthquake caused large portions of the church to crumble while the Inca walls – constructed to withstand even the strongest earthquake – remained standing.

We begin our tour in the cloister’s open center, surrounded on all sides by two long floors of graceful arches. Behind the lithe arches, the heavy Inca stonework is visible. Stripped of their precious metal coverings, the dark walls seem cold and forbidding.

Lucho gathers us together around a large sacrificial font in the middle of the open courtyard where he tells tales of life here under the Inca. While the history lesson is fascinating and Lucho’s enthusiasm for his subject engaging, on this dark day it is as hard to envision daily life in this place as it is to imagine the dark stone walls covered in gold, radiating light onto the precious garden.

Lucho takes us through the Inca structures, explaining the purpose of each and trying to bring the plain dark rooms to life. We move from one to the next, from an area devoted to the moon to one devoted to rainbows. Meanwhile, the sky continues to darken, increasing the murky darkness of the unlit rooms.

Even outside the confines of the convent’s walls, it is dark under the glowering, grumbling sky. But from the top of a perfectly formed curved wall we are treated to both a close-up view of a perfectly worked niche in the stonework and lovely vistas of the convent’s gardens and the city beyond.

On the far side of the complex, we reach an area devoted to thunder. As we stand there, lightening arches across the sky, thunder rumbles, and rain pours into the open courtyard. I finally feel a connection to their lives of the people who worshipped in this place.

The Cathedral

The rain lets up and we head toward the Cathedral and the adjoining churches of Jesús María and El Triunfo.

The Cathedral is constructed in part of stones removed from Sacsayhuamán, which sets the stage for the church’s odd mix of Spanish renaissance architecture and Amerindian workmanship. Inside the walls are covered with paintings, the most notable of which is a portrayal of the Last Supper featuring European-looking disciples dining on roast guinea pig – the traditional focus of every Amerindian feast.

However, my favorite is an image of Christ with a classic Inca face. Were the conquered Inca allowed, at least for a time, to envision Christ and the saints of this new religion as Inca rather than European?

I am also moved by a dark area behind the old alter where women of all ages leave their prayers for love and marriage. It provides access to the people of this place in a way the church’s more grandiose features do not.

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