A Stroll Through the Inca Capital

SEPTEMBER 01, 2009

Wahyuni Kamah

History says that Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire, was first looted, then occupied, burned, and finally destroyed, by an earthquake and rebuilt at the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century.

The result of this past is that this city of 300,000, perched 3,900 meters in the Andes Mountains, has many layers of history dating back to Inca times, making it a fascinating place to visit. In 1983, Cuzco was named a Unesco World Heritage site.

The colonial buildings, baroque cathedrals, friendly people, good restaurants, relaxing atmosphere and weekly parades are but a few of Cuzco’s primary tourist attractions.

Any tour operator worth his salt will ask first-time visitors to Cuzco to rest for a few hours upon their arrival in order to acclimatize. Many new arrivals suffer from altitude sickness, which can be fought off with altitude-sickness pills. Big hotels also have clinics where tourists can be treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and most hotels — both big and small — offer their guests mate de coca (cocoa-leaf tea), the traditional Inca drink recommended for altitude sickness.

Natives of the Andes highlands not only drink coca-leaf tea, but also chew on coca leaves.

It is also recommended that visitors to Cuzco drink coca-leaf tea or chew coca-leaf candies, which are said to improve the blood’s absorption of the scanty oxygen supply.

In addition to this, it is best to move relatively slowly around Cuzco. The shortage of oxygen makes those who are not used to live at high altitudes tire easily. “ Despacio [slowly],” the locals usually say.

When I visited Cuzco at the end of May, the weather was perfect. During the day the sky was blue and cloudless, but during the evening, the temperature dropped dramatically.

The best time to visit the city is during the dry season, from May to October. Cuzco is best explored by foot. Cobblestone roads are lined with colonial buildings and small shops.

On the way to my hotel, the taxi driver had to take another road because Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square, was occupied by a parade of school students.

Later, I found out that a parade or ceremony is held almost weekly at the square.

Plaza de Armas is a favorite hangout for Cuzco residents. It is also a popular spot for tourists since they can take photos of the nearby Cuzco Cathedral from here.

The tourists at Plaza de Armas attract souvenir hawkers. And, in general, the prices in Cuzco are higher than in any other cities in Peru.

“When they know you are a tourist, they will double the prices. So try to bargain when you buy things from street vendors,” Esteban, my Peruvian friend, suggested before I left for Peru.

But unlike the hawkers in Indonesian tourist spots like Lombok, the ones in Cuzco didn’t hassle or abuse us when we didn’t buy anything.

The Cuzco hawkers are “professionals” — children dressed to the nines in traditional garb and cradling kid goats ready to be photographed. But be warned, they demand money for photos taken. “Money, senorita , I know you have money,” one little girl said , after I took her photo.

Plaza de Armas — known as Huacaypata in Inca times — was an important ceremonial center where the Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) was held every year by the Inca empire. The empire spanned most of the Andes and the western coast of South America at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Cuzco was founded by Manco Capac in the 11th century. The name Cuzco originates from qosqo in the Quechua language, which means “navel of the world.” Cuzco was a divine city for the Incas and the home of the gods.

Incredible examples of Incan architecture can still be seen today in and around Cuzco, such as the Koricancha temple, Sacsayhuaman archeological complex, Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. These legacies are testimonies of the magnificence of the culture.

Cuzco underwent a total change when Spanish soldiers led by Francisco Pizarro arrived in the city in 1533. Pizarro reestablished the city and renamed it Cuzco. He replaced the Inca temples with churches and Spanish palaces, building them on the foundations of the old Inca city.

For example, Cuzco Cathedral was built on the foundations of an Inca palace and Koricancha, the temple of the sun god in Cuzco, was replaced by a Dominican church and convent.

All these buildings were badly damaged during earthquakes, including a major one in 1950 that destroyed more than a third of the city’s buildings. It is no wonder then that in some places in Cuzco, you will see signs stating “Safe area in an earthquake.”

When night falls, people still continue to flock to Plaza de Armas, where the view of the city surrounded by hills sparkling with lights from the various houses can be enjoyed.