Whatever you chose to do in Cusco, do it slowly! Cusco is at 11000 feet altitude and altitude sickness is a common problem. In fact I never felt well the whole time I was in Cusco. The ironic thing is that you don’t actually have to spend time in Cusco if your only aim is to go to Machu Picchu which is at 8000 feet and altitude sickness is rarely a problem. Cusco is a necessary stopping off point for those who need to acclimatise to the altitude for a few days, before trekking at even higher altitude. It is worth exploring Cusco while acclimatising, as you are in the capital of the Inca empire.
The heart of the city of Cusco is the main square Plaza De Armas shown in the photo below. Cusco cathedral is seen to the left of the photo and the Jesuit Church to the right.
Within the main square stands the statue of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the Inca ruler who saw the expansion of the Inca empire to include the present day countries of Ecuador to the north and Argentina to the south.
Most of the buildings around are Spanish colonial buildings. Yet this city was once the capital of a vast Inca empire. Where have all the original buildings gone? If you look a little closer you can see there are unusual interlocking stone walls incorporated in many of the buildings, often as foundations. These are the walls of theoriginal Inca city and the Spanish city is built on top. In fact many of the larger buildings were built upon places significant to the Inca with
the intention of destroying them.
The most sacred part of the city to the Inca was the temple Coricancha. The walls of the temple were said to be covered in gold with precious idols in the niches. The Spanish destroyed most of the temple and built a Cathedral on top. The original foundations are still visible. During an earthquake the Cathedral collapsed and has since been replaced by the Convent of Santo Domingo. The Inca foundations survived showing how the Inca were masters of building earthquake proof walls. Within the convent there is a colonnaded square with a secret.
Hidden behind the walls are the remains of the temple. Perhaps the local labourers ensured that the temple which was once the most important structure in the empire was not destroyed. I can imagine them arguing with the Spanish that the structure was just too strong to demolish and it was better to incorporate it into the new building.
There is more evidence that the locals were not entirely compliant with the wishes of the Spanish when it came to religion. The religious zealots followed closely behind the Conquistadors with the aim of saving the souls of the heathens. If the new religion was not embraced the Inquisition made sure that it was imposed. Yet if you look closely at the artwork in the cathedral in the Plaza de Armas it is clear that the locals would incorporate elements of their religion within the Christian art. Within the cathedral you can see the last supper with a meal of guinea pig, the Virgin Mary has a dark skin and the features of an indigenous Indian, Judas looks very much like Pizzaro the Conquistador who executed the Inca ruler Atahualpa.