At the Center of the Inca Universe
Cuzco is the archaeological capital of the Americas, a unique destination steeped in an age-old culture and surrounded by the beauty and mysticism of the Andes. In the native Quechua language, qosqo – the origin of the name Cuzco – meant “the earth’s navel,” the birthplace and center of the Incan empire. And everything in this colonial city 11,000 feet above sea level leads back to the Plaza de Armas, the navel’s navel. Called Huacaypata by the Inca, the plaza was the heart of the capital, which was founded in the 12th century by Manco Capac. The Old City that spreads in a ten-block radius around it is a colonial repository of the years following Pizarro’s arrival in 1532, and the Spaniards’ invasion and eventual destruction of the Incan civilization – once the western hemisphere’s greatest empire.
The Plaza de Armas is ringed by the ornate Baroque cathedral – one of the most splendid examples of religious colonial architecture in the Americas – and churches, mansions, and colonnades built upon the ruins of razed Incan palaces and temples that were stripped of their ornamentation of gold, silver, and precious stones. Vestiges of their sloping foundations of mammoth, impeccable masonry (fitted without mortar) are often still visible, with some as high as two stories.
Try to be in Cuzco on June 24 to celebrate Inti Raymi (the Incan Sun Festival), the greatest of all Incan celebrations and one of the most spectacular Andean festivals in South America today. It coincides with the Christian feast day of St. John, which is also the Day of Cuzco and the Peruvian Day of the Indian. The original pageantry of this ancient holiday is reenacted in the main plazas and throughout the streets of Cuzco, with parades, processions, dances, and folk music, plus special ceremonies at Coricancha, the former Incan Sun Temple that is now largely enclosed by the Church of Santo Domingo.
In Cuzco, stay at the historically layered Hotel Monasterio, housed in the self-enclosed 17th-century San Antonio de Abad seminary and built on the remains of the palace of the ancient Inca Emperor Amaru Qhala. One of the most important seminaries in Latin America from the 1700s to the late 1960s, its colonial origins remain visible in its patios, vaulted arches, stone water fountains, and artwork. Today it offers guests a rare combination of luxury and history. The comfortable rooms, former monks’ cells, have been enlarged, and their antique furniture, carved wooden beds, and marbled baths create a setting that is a far cry from the monastic.