Cuzco was known to the Incas as the Navel of the World. It was the capital of their empire, Tawantinsuyu, which stretched from northern Chile to southern Colombia. It was the largest empire ever seen in the Americas, and yet it rose and fell within little more than two centuries.
When the conquistadors arrived, they were stunned by the city they encountered. To the Incas, Cuzco (or Qosqo in Quechua) was more than just the empire's capital. It was the symbolic heart and navel of their world. From it radiated the four quarters of Tawantinsuyo, imaginary lines coursing from the main square for thousands of kilometres. It was also a Mecca for the newly-conquered peoples. The Incas co-opted tribes with great skill and alacrity. These new tribes had to be indoctrinated rapidly into the Incas' religious, economic and social system. Cuzco's brilliance, its shining temples to the sun and to the elements, nobles' palaces, plumed priests and stunning setting all worked to this end.
The city one sees today is a unique hybrid of the Incan and Spanish, the American and European. Although the Spanish razed many of the constructions they found, they also put them to good use. Cuzco, in that sense, is a parasyte's paradise. In places, the Spanish left the earthquake-resistant Incan foundations, and simply plonked their houses, palaces and churches on top. The result looks something like an architectural ice-cream cone.
Despite being the Gringo Capital of the Americas, I found Cuzco fascinating, and beautiful. Like Florence in Italy, few high-rises have blighted its colonial skyline. The spires and towers of its numerous churches still dominate the city, still call the faithful to prayer, as they have done for centuries.
The colonial quarter takes days to explore in any depth. Alleyways and narrow streets feed off every square, beckoning. Dark storefronts only give up their secrets once one steps into their gloom. Unassuming doorfronts lead into unexpectedly-large patios, draped in flowers and shadow. And above eye-level march handsome balconies clamped to the two-storied whitewashed walls like gumshields. One could walk the streets for days, months, and still make new discoveries. Such is the allure of Cuzco...
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