It’s not often that we end up on a scheduled group tour. Especially not one that hits all the major sites in a single afternoon. However, that’s how we ended up seeing most of Cusco, in a slap-dash tour that took us to major sites inside and out of the city itself. All in all, we decided that given our short amount of time in Cusco, we made the right decision.

City Tour in Cusco, Peru

Our tour started at the Iglesia del Triunfo and continued to the adjacent Cathedral of Cusco. Both Spanish churches were built upon Incan sites: the Iglesia on a ceremonial building called Suntur Wasi, the Cathedral on the temple Kiswarkancha.

Before the Spanish conquest, Cusco was the center of the Incan Empire. By building on top of important Incan structures, the invaders sent a powerful message to the local Quechua people. Furthermore, they hoped to replace native belief in multiple gods with Christian monotheism. Our guide for the day, Rómelo, liked to point out what he saw as the Church’s failure – evidence that the locals retained their beliefs even while adopting Catholicism. He was not the only guide to point this out during our trip and it became a theme almost every time we walked into a Catholic church.

Stone lintel near the Cusco Cathedral; Peru | ©Angela Drake

Even with a few elements of Incan design, the Cathedral of Cusco is very much Catholic. The space inside is large, with huge columns to hold up the tall ceiling and stained glass windows. Altars are covered in gold that came from Incan sites. Statues of various saints, including multiple of the Virgin Mary, are everywhere.

Yet the most stunning items in the church were the paintings. There were hundreds of them. The Spanish priests who had settled in Cusco taught the local Quechua how to copy the great European masters. Their students became so adept that their artwork is worth remembering on its own. Their work and their style have become known as La Escuela Cuzqueña or the Cusco School.

Although many of the works of art are notable and of museum quality, the vast majority of them are by unknown artists and are unsigned. Rómelo told us that was because the native Quechua people were considered unworthy by the Spaniards but Wikipedia claims pre-Columbian tradition considered art communal implying that the artists chose not to sign. We have since learned that is the case in many indigenous communities throughout South America.

Joseph and Jesus, ca 1700; Cusco School, Cusco Cathedral, Peru | ©Angela Drake

One of the exceptions is a painting of the Last Supper by Marcos Zapata. It is a marvelous piece that inserts Quechua culture into a Catholic context; the food on the table includes a cuy or guinea pig. Our guide also said that the image of Judas is painted in the likeness of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador who captured and killed Atahualpa, the Incan Emperor.

As we toured other sites in the city, we saw more paintings from the Cusco School. Rómelo pointed out a detail that kept occurring in many of the paintings, a branch or two of small, white, lily-like flowers. He told us that the Quechua artists found this method to identify their paintings.

Brand new artists would not paint a white flower at all but artists who had finished one whole painting would paint a single flower. If they had other paintings that they had begun but were as yet unfinished, they would paint a flower bud. Some paintings we saw had as many as 5 or 6 full flowers and many buds; the quality of the work was obviously better, adding proof that the flowers symbolized the prior work of an experienced artist. I’ve looked for references and can find nothing mentioned online about this tradition.

Qoricancha or the Modern Day Church of Santo Domingo

We visited another famous site in the city, Qoricancha. Here is a description from Wikipedia:

The Spanish colonists built the Church of Santo Domingo on the site, demolishing the temple and using its foundations for the cathedral. Construction took most of a century. This is one of numerous sites where the Spanish incorporated Inca stonework into the structure of a colonial building. Major earthquakes severely damaged the church, but the Inca stone walls, built out of huge, tightly-interlocking blocks of stone, still stand due to their sophisticated stone masonry. Nearby is an underground archaeological museum, which contains numerous interesting pieces, including mummies, textiles, and sacred idols from the site. The site now also includes the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo.


The gardens at Qoricancha, aka the Santa Domingo Church; Cusco, Peru | ©Angela Drake

The Church and Convent of Santo Domingo is not to be confused with the Cathedral of Santo Domingo that we visited earlier. Inside the building, we could photograph a replica of a golden plaque with images important to the Incan religion, but little else. Seeing the plaque was a reminder that many of the ancient temples were covered in gold and the walls would have shone with the same splendor as this plaque. Legend has it that the gold was collected as part of the ransom for Atahualpa was collected in this very place. The Spanish willingly accepted the ransom yet failed to return the Emperor to his people. Instead, they executed him.

Replica of Incan plaque found at the Convent of Santo Domingo; Cusco, Peru | ©Angela Drake

Rómelo was full of stories like this. He also told us that when the Spanish first arrived and wanted to purchase land from the Quechua, they proposed to measure their purchase with a single cowhide. The Quechua believed that the area would be measured by cowhide as a solid piece. For example, 10 cowhides of area would cost x-amount. The Spanish, however, took that cowhide and cut it into a long strip which they then used to mark the area of land they wanted to purchase. Obviously, measuring the area in this way would mean that more land would be included.

The longer we stayed in Peru and the more guides we met, the more we realized that history in this country depends very much on the person telling the story. Rómelo is Quechua and from his day guiding us, I would guess that he is not Catholic. He held obvious contempt for the actions of the ancient Spaniards and even more obvious pride in the culture of the Quechua. We were soon to learn that other invaders had earned his disrespect.

The ancient stone walls of Qoricancha at the base of Santa Domingo Convent, Cusco, Peru |  ©Angela Drake


My favorite part of the tour came later in the afternoon when we hit the Incan sites outside of Cusco. My favorite and the most famous, Saqsayhuamán, is stunning. I could have spent hours roaming the site but that is the main disadvantage of taking a tour. We were on our guide’s schedule, not our own. By the way, Saqsayhuamán is pronounced sexy woman, or, with a slight twang, sexy wow-man.

Some of the many walls of Saqsayhuamán, Cusco, Peru | ©Angela Drake

This is also the place where we began to learn even more about Rómelo. He told us that the stones at this site could not have been moved without extraordinary powers. No, he didn’t believe the aliens came to earth, as has been proposed by Erich von Daniken. Rómelo called the man crazy.

However, he did believe that the ancient Incans, and maybe those that came before them, were able to access additional human senses that we no longer use, such as telekinesis.

I don’t know if other Quechua would agree with Rómelo, but there is a great sense that the people of the area feel a connection with the earth and with the spirit world around them. It is easy to understand why they might feel something has been lost, beyond the Incan Empire, since the time of the Spanish conquest.

Obviously, there is great debate among scientists about how the stones were actually moved but none of them propose telekinesis as a possibility. But the scientific community would have little disagreement with the rest of what Rómelo shared. The stones were carved offsite and each stone had a unique and specific place in the wall.

The stones are often multi-sided, not a simple square, often a complex polygon. Sometimes the stones’ outlines make life-like shapes; at one point, Rómelo pointed out a llama shape within a large wall.

Perspective at Sacsayhaumán, Cusco, Peru | ©Angela Drake

It seemed impossible to escape Christianity even in this ancient site of the Incas. Nearby, on a hillside overlooking Cusco but easily viewable from Saqsayhuamán, a monument similar to Christ the Redeemer looks out over the valley.

Furthermore, the ruins themselves are a reminder of the Spanish conquest. Walls that were built to survive massive earthquakes did not survive the Spanish need for building materials. The site became a quarry for the colonial city of Cusco. Too many of the stones were cut and removed to build the growing Spanish empire.

Saqsayhuamán with statue of Jesus in the background; Cusco, Peru | ©Angela Drake

Additional Incan Sites Outside Cusco

After Sacsayhaumán, we headed back to the bus. We were racing to head to a couple of last sites before we lost the sun. We briefly stopped at an old fort, Puca Pucara but only with enough time for a photo from the bus window. If I were to do this trip again, I would schedule much more time for these ruins because part of the adventure is walking among the stones and feeling the passage of time while standing among them.

View of Puca Pucara; Cusco, Peru | ©Angela Drake

We did walk more at the next site, Tambomachay. The trail from the parking lot led past emerald-green terraces with grazing animals as well as vendors selling brightly colored blankets and warm sweaters, mittens, and gloves. The feel was more pastoral than any we had felt so far.

Rómelo told us that those of us hiking the Inca Trail would find locations like this again and again and again. We would be hitting the trail the next day and I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than to hike in this landscape.

Vendors at Tambomachay, Cusco, Peru | ©Angela Drake

Tambomachay is a place that honors water. The ruins consist of a series of aqueducts and small fountains but the exact purpose of the site remains unknown. It seems elaborate to have only served as a place to water animals.

Rómelo told us of its possible religious significance. The uppermost wall has four niches built in the classic style, a building style reserved for royalty and temples. The niches most likely held icons of great importance.

Again, imagine them covered in gold. The ancient Inca also greatly revered water and its special presence in the form of three fountains only add to the sacred feel. The sacred Trilogy of Puma, the Condor, and the Snake is something we will visit again and again on our trip.

References online claim this site may have served as royal baths to the Incan emperor and his family and close staff.

Fountains at Tambomachay, Cusco, Peru | ©Angela Drake

And Unexpected History of Machu Picchu

As Rómelo told us a little about these ruins, he also took the opportunity to tell us more about his personal story. He shared with us a book that he helped co-author with American author Carol Cumes called Journey to Machu Picchu. It shares even more about his family, specifically his great uncle, Agustín Lizárraga:

In 1900, Agustín began to clear land by burning the dense vegetation at Inkarakkay, a valley at the foot of Waynapichu. One day after burning a great stretch of plant growth, he climbed the cleared slopes to explore an area he’d never entered. There, Agustín found an ancient stairway rising from the banks of the Urubamba River, west of the mountain and leading to a place that is known today as the Sacred Plaza of Machu Picchu.

Rómelo told a tale of how Hiram Bingham, the American who claims to have discovered Machu Picchu, was offered tea in gold cups.  It made him realize that the family who invited him to tea had a story to tell. He convinced them to take him to see the ruins where they had discovered the gold. The rest is history.

Rómelo told stories of Bingham’s looting and of his lack of respect to both the Incan site and to the Quechua people working in the area. His co-author, in the latest edition, gave Bingham’s grandson the chance to refute the story.

Rómelo is trying to bring the history of his family into the common history of Machu Picchu. Most tour guides don’t mention the discovery of this ancient sight was made by a local man.

The subject of Hiram Bingham is one of great ambivalence for Peru. He helped make Machu Picchu famous but he also took thousands of artifacts out of the country and Yale University, today, is still coming to terms with his legacy.

The government of Peru claims the items were on loan and the University of Yale swears this is a contractual misunderstanding, even as they are returning some items. The anger of the Peruvian people is understandable.

Our guide, Rómelo Lizárraga Valencia | ©Angela Drake

The Altar at Q’engo

Our last site to tour was Q’engo, a site with an interesting underground space holding a stone shaped like an altar that could have been used in preparing bodies for mummification. Rómelo was quite clear that no sacrifices took place, not only here, but within the Incan religion at all. Either way, the place felt dark and damp and the standing pools of water on the stone platform reminded us of blood. The aura was uncomfortable but that could have been the setting of the sun and the foreboding rain clouds in the distance as much as my feeling for the place.

Site of Q'engo, Cusco, Peru | ©Angela Drake

The Tourist Trap

For our final surprise, we visited a tourist trap, one of those locations that the tourist bus pulls up to and the vendors are all expecting you with open wallets in hand. Rómelo had told us repeatedly that we did not have time to buy from the vendors at each historical site and now we understood better why. And the questions started in my mind again, about sustainable tourism, about fairness to those who live in the area, and what profit motive is at work.

Rómelo took us to one shop in particular so that we could learn the difference between acrylic, llama, and baby llama wools. Not a bad thing to learn, to tell you the truth. But the entire visit felt fabricated for the sole reason of profit, not for our edification. Rómelo stood by the cash register and made sure that each purchase from one of his customers was marked down so that he could get his percentage. This was no fair-trade store where I knew that a portion of the profit was going to a fairly paid artisan.

I found myself uninterested in making a purchase. In the end, my son asked for a pair of knitted mittens (he had forgetten to pack a pair and summertime in Peru still means cold nights, especially on the Inca Trail) and I bought some. We found the same pair the next day at a village miles from Cusco. They were probably made in a factory setting where the salaries are low and the employers have little incentive to make any changes.

Upon returning to the city, we met up with our guide for the next day and that experience is best left for the next article… after all, he was our guide for the 4-day Inca Trail hike!

When I originally wrote this article, I was a military wife living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. My husband was on an exchange assignment for about 15 months. We had yet to know that we would be moving to Ecuador for three years! In short, we were trying to expose our boys to as much of South America as we could afford in so short of an assignment. At the time, I published on DailyKos under the pen name of AngelaJean. The above piece is an edited version of that original piece.