Cuzco, Peru – “Center of the Andean world”

The city of Cuzco, former capital of the powerful Inca Empire of Tawantinsuyu (meaning “Four Parts of the World”), stands in a high Andean valley of Peru surrounded by the hills that the Incas once revered. It was then the centre, or navel, of the Andean world, being the religious and political centre of an empire that covered all of present-day Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile, as well as parts of Colombia and Argentina.

Cuzco has resisted the effects of time and history, withstood natural and social cataclysms, and from its modest beginnings as a chiefdom, it evolved into the seat of the most powerful state in South America prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. Today, Cuzco, inscribed as a World Heritage city in 1983, offers a spectacular overview of the cultural, religious and architectural fusion between the Inca people and the European conquistadors.

Survival of a culture

In other parts of America, many pre-Columbian civilizations disappeared as a result of the cultural pressure exerted by the invaders. But, Inca culture still survives in this part of Peru. Cuzco presents a continuity of Inca culture, not only in the language (Quechua or Runa simi), but also through such traditions and cultural institutions from neighbourly responsibility, to cuisine, to forms of agriculture and relationships that indigenous people in this part of Peru have with their land and environment. Furthermore, thanks to Spanish trade, the Incas have contributed substantially to general welfare and culture worldwide. Their scientific achievements in hydraulics and trepanation are still astonishing today, and in the field of nutrition, we should not forget that the potato, peanut, pineapple, papaya, pumpkin, tomato andbanana are eaten all over the world.

The city of Cuzco is a testament to the survival of indigenous culture, resulting in striking contrasts and blends of centuries of architecture, religion, and nature. One need not look any further than the most recognizable building of the city’s center: Coricancha, or Temple of the Sun. As the spiritual center of the Incan empire, Coricancha was revered greatly before the Spanish arrived – and thus a threat to Spanish domination after the conquest. What travelers and Peruvians see today at Coricancha is a fascinating window into colonialism: since the mid-16 th century, the Church and Monestary of Santo Domingo de Guzmán has overlaid the ancient ruins of Coricancha. Walk through the church and see how walls change from large, hard stone carried by indigenous people more than 500 years ago; to the smaller stone put there for the conquistadors under colonial labor – the juxtaposition could not be more striking or more obvious.

Churches and monasteries, ancient ruins of Incan spiritual centers, colonial palaces, and military garrisons are all woven into the fabric of Cuzco, lending a unique and unparalleled quality to the city and its surrounding area. Cuzco is tremendous as a travel destination by itself, or for a jumping-off point to the nearby ruins of Sacsahuamán; the “puma’s head” that looks out over the city of Cuzco; the community and ruins of Ollantaytambo; or spectacular Machu Picchu, perched in the midst of a lush tropical forest mountaintop – itself a World Heritage site since 1983.

Adapted from the article, “Cuzco – ‘Centre of the Andean World,” by Manuel Jesus Aparicio Vega, which ran in the February 2003 issue of World Heritage Review (issue #29).

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