Cusco, the “Archaeological Capital of the Americas”
Cusco sits at 3,300 meters (10,826 feet) in the Watanay Valley, once a gigantic glacial lake, the “Ballivian Lake”. The centre of the city retains many buildings, plazas, and streets from pre-Columbian and colonial times and as such is of great importance in the antiquity sense. Cusco was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983.
Cusco is considered to be the oldest existing inhabited city of the Americas and in 1933 the Congress of Americanists declared Cusco the Archaeological Capital of the Americas. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco today is the centre for Incan studies and the most important tourist destination in Peru; more than two million people per year visit Cusco.
The first Incas arrived in Cusco around the 13th century. According to legend, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo emerged from Lake Titicaca in Puno carrying a golden staff. They were sent to earth by their father “the Sun” to bring culture to the barbarous world. Their mission was to find the best place to create a new city, in a spot where the golden staff would sink into the earth. In their long and slow quest (around 500 km or 300 miles), they took the route over Raya pass. Eventually they arrived at Huanacaure hill, where finally the golden staff sank into the earth. It was there that the actual city of Cusco was founded.
Inca architects shaped Cusco as a crouching puma or mountain lion. For the Incas, the puma was considered a deity. In Incan mythology, the duality of the cosmos was very important. The two realms were separated into the upper and lower, represented by the condor (upper world), puma (outer earth) and the snake (inner earth). The name Pumakurko (puma’s backbone) is still in use today, and is the name of a famous street in Cusco.
In ancient times, Cusco streets were narrow, usually straight, and paved. The walls of buildings in the central zone of the city were made of carved stones, whereas the suburbs had walls made of adobe (sun-dried brick).
During the Spanish conquest, many of the Inca temples were destroyed – in order to construct Catholic churches or mansions for the new rulers. The Spanish used the remaining Inca walls as a foundation for the construction of a new city, which now reflects a mixture of Spanish influence and indigenous Inca architecture. This approach is most readily seen in the neighbourhoods of Santa Clara and San Blas.
Among the many sights in Cusco, churches and temples are the most attractive– for example the cathedral located in Plaza de Armas, the Museum of Arte Precolobino, and the impressive Qoricancha temple (Temple of the Sun). During various earthquakes that have struck Cusco throughout its long history, buildings constructed by the Incas have proven to be more resistant than colonial ones.
Around the city of Cusco are located various Incan archaeological remains: Qenko, Pucapucara, Tambomachay and Saqsayhuaman. Among them, the most impressive is Saqsayhuaman, a fortress with giant walls made of rocks weighing between 90 and 120 tons. Today, it is still unknown how these stones were transported.
Cusco´s nightlife is one of the most famous and thriving scenes found in South America. With an abundance of nightclubs, restaurants, bars and lounges, Cusco comes alive at night; the sights, sounds, and experiences of Cusco make for a fascinating and vibrant atmosphere.