Once the epicenter of the Inca Empire, Cusco today is a wonderful city lined with cobblestoned streets, colonial buildings built atop fantastic Inca stonework and an international flair brought by the influx of thousands of tourists each year who come to explore this city, the Sacred Valley of the Rio Urubamba and Peru’s, if not South America’s, number one tourist attraction — Machu Picchu. Sitting high in the Andes at nearly 12,000 feet , Cusco is home to about 350,000 people today. It doesn’t take long to get comfortable in this city as the architectural and natural beauty of the city and the plethora of activities, good food and drink will inspire one to settle after the long journey to get here. Of course, those who arrive by plane really will have no understanding of the splendor or the remoteness of its location. But to each his own.
With the hordes of tourists comes the inevitable predators. Within minutes of stopping and parking my motorcycle on the busy corner at Avenida del Sol near the Plaza del Armas, two woman pointing at their eyes while approaching me waddling across the street in their heavy coats. “You can’t park here,” the shorter woman tells me as she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. They didn’t look like police officers, but maybe they didn’t want me to get a ticket. “There are bad people here in Cusco,” she explains. “you mustn’t leave your things here.” It came clear to me that she was using the international symbol for watch yourself when pointing to her eyes.
Over the next few moments they helped me locate the hotel where Jeremiah was staying, even helping hold up traffic as I hopped the curb and scooted down the narrow alley way to the hotel. Once again, the kindness of strangers makes me wonder where ARE all the “bad” people that I’ve been warned about. I learn later that two other motorcyclists were mugged near the Plaza but made a narrow escape as someone tried to rip the backpack off their backs. Jeremiah’s wife fell victim to a pickpocket thief who spit on her jacket to distract and disorient her as they fished a pocket electronic translator from her pocket. Of course, this is every city in the world. Nothing special about Cusco. You could be in Rome, Paris, Stuttgart or Shanghai and the same warnings are to heed. Fortunately, I’ve only been showered with kindness, friendship and generosity — smiles.
With their amazing stonework and masonry it’s a wonder that the Inca Empire lated about 100 years. Cuzco was founded in the 12th century by the first Inca, Manco Capac who was charged with the mission to find quoq’o, Quechua for “naval of the earth” where the Inca’s settled in a small modest area near the city. But by the 15th century with neighboring tribes battling and threatening to take over, the ninth Inca, Pachacutec, strengthened the Inca army in 1438 and rallied the troops to conquer their enemies. For the next 25 years the Inca’s took over most of the Andes. Not only a strategic warmonger, Pachacutec is credited for designing and building Cusco and devising the city’s Puma shape while diverting rivers across the city.
As the Inca empire grew to Ecuador and Colombia, in 1463 Pachacutec appointed his son, Tupac Inca Yupanqui (the 10th Inca) to head the Inca army. Yupanqui fathered 6 sons who all could have fallen heir to the Inca Empire. But the Europeans began their Conquest of South America bringing with them diseases which the Inca’s had no resistance and others which wiped out hordes of indigenous people including Yupanqui and his eldest son (Ninan) who was heir to the Empire. Hearing of his brother’s untimely death in which no successor had been named, Huáscar took advantage of the situation and waged war on his brother Atahualpa. Unlike the Spaniards who had clear delineation for successor’s to the throne, with the Inca’s it was the strongest who shall survive and inherit the “throne”. Successful in a three year war to beat his brother, while marching to Cusco to claim his throne Atahualpa encountered Conquistador Francisco Pizarro. Refusing to yield to the Spanish presence in his land by saying he would “be no man’s tributary,” which led Pizarro and his force to attack Atahualpa’s army in what became the Battle of Cajamarca on November 16, 1532. The Spanish were successful and Pizarro executed Atahualpa’s 12 man honor guard and took the Inca captive who later was convicted of killing his brother and plotting against Pizarro and his forces, and was executed in 1533 when Pizarro finally took over the spectacular city of Cusco and ultimately leading to the end of the Inca Empire. Writing to King Charles V of Spain, Pizarro said this about Cusco:
“This city is the greatest and the finest ever seen in this country or anywhere in the Indies… We can assure your Majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would be remarkable even in Spain.”
The Spanish eventually destroyed much of the Inca city, the the stonework, streets and design of the city was so strong that much of the Spanish architecture evident today is built atop Inca foundations. Walking through this grand city it’s amazing to see the contrast between the work of the Inca’s and the shoddy craftsmanship of the colonial Spaniards, who eventually tired of Cusco’s mountainous location and eventually moved the capital to Peru’s central coast in Lima.
High above the city is one of Cusco’s most impressive Inca ruins, Sacsayhuaman a huge zig zagging structure high atop Cusco in what the Inca’s called the head of the Puma, referring to the Puma shaped design of the city. Some of the stones on this massive fortress are twenty feet high and reportedly weigh more than 300 tons. Yet they are so precisely shaped and set into place, it sends my mind twirling trying to figure out how they built this place. While the Romans may have built some amazing structures, nothing I’ve seen in the former Roman empire compares to the size, scope and beauty of the work here in Cusco.
As far as Machu Picchu goes, the Spaniards never found this mountain top city. And it’s a good thing, who knows what would be left today. Little is known about the lost city of the Incas, but I hope to learn more when I take a train ride tomorrow morning and follow a precipitous switchbacked road to Machu Piccu.