Surrounded by an ambitious construction program of magnificent religious and administrative sites, with an unparalleled road network splitting off towards all corners of the empire, the city of Cusco was the heart of the great South American civilisation of the Incas. It was the capital of a people who had taken control of an enormous swathe of the continent at such a rapid rate that their expansion seemed unstoppable. With gold as rewards and weapons as punishment, the leaders were gods and nothing could stand in their way.
Cusco was the heart of the Incas. Until one day, it suffered the most deadly of heart attacks – the arrival of Europeans.
Today, the Peruvian city of Cusco has become the base for exploration of the lost Incan culture. It is the first stop for almost every traveller to the region and is literally breathtaking. At a height of 3,400 metres above sea level, the air is thin and it often takes people a day or two to adjust to the shallow breathing as lungs grasp for oxygen.
But for those coming to find Incan relics, it must be just a stepping stone. It represents less the history of the Incan civilisation but more the invasion and colonisation of these lands by the Spanish conquistadors. It is both physically and culturally a symbol of Europeans supplanting an incredible indigenous culture with the ideology of the West.
“Look there, can you see it?” my local guide asks me as we stand on a hilltop around Cusco, looking down on the city.
“The old part of the city is in the shape of a puma!”
I squint a little and tilt my head to the side slightly. I can start to see it. Although urban sprawl makes it harder to distinguish, there is indeed a collection of older-style buildings that fill in the outline of a puma, a large cat worshipped in this part of Peru.
This is one of the remnants of the Incan time – but it’s just a shape of urban planning visible only from above. Back down in the streets themselves, almost everything is European. The indigenous structure was preserved but, on top of it, the Spanish built their new churches, monasteries, manor houses and administrative buildings.
In the various plazas of Cusco, grand Baroque buildings lines the edges atop the old Incan foundations- testament to the complex history and a physical representation of the reality of colonisation. Crowds of indigenous people in traditional garb sell wares that would be recognisable to the ancient Incans but they do so in buildings constructed by the rulers of the New World.
Earlier I described the takeover of Cusco by the Europeans as ‘a heart attack’. On reflection, that may be a bit simplistic. It’s probably more of ‘a heart transplant’. Because the city has thrived – just in a different way than its founders intended.
The Incan road system still leads, like arteries, to the untouched ruins of the great empire but now it’s pumping tourists and more Westernised Peruvians along its paths. In restaurants in the centre of Cusco, menus still offer traditional food like quinoa and guinea pig but, amongst the offerings, are burgers and pizza.
There is an amalgam of Incan and colonial culture here in Cusco. On first sight, it appears the Spanish have paved over the pre-Columbian life but, like most paving, nature finds a way to grow through the cracks.