Inca Capital of Cusco

Like a supernova, the Inca Empire was a dazzling but short-lived explosion of human civilization, centered in its capital city of Cusco, Perú. Because the Inca left no written records, their history, from humble origin to exponential expansion and ultimate defeat, remains shrouded in legend.

Inca Monument and Church of the Compañía, Plaza de Armas, Cusco

According to Inca mythology, in the 12th century, Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo, children of the sun god Inti, emerged from Lake Titicaca and traveled to Cusco to form a simple pastoral clan. For the next three centuries, the unremarkable Quechua-speaking Inca farmed the fertile valley of Cusco, co-existing with several other local tribes.

Monument to Pachacuti, Cusco

Beginning in 1438 with the reign of the first great ruler Pachacuti, the Inca consolidated Cusco’s population and launched the explosive expansion of the Inca Empire. For the next century, the Inca enlarged their empire by assimilation and conquest of numerous weaker tribes of western South America.

Cusco city view from Church of San Cristóbal bell tower

Ultimately, the Inca Empire stretched 3,400 miles from southern Columbia to northern Argentina, and comprised a total population of ten million citizens. Remarkably, the Inca established the largest empire in the pre-Columbian Americas without a written language, knowledge of the wheel, iron tools, guns, draft animals, markets, or money.

Typical stone road, Cusco

During the height of their civilization, the Inca considered Cusco to be the navel of the world. Inca engineers and public works laborers built and maintained 25,000 miles of roads and sacred sight lines radiating out from Cusco to the four corners of the empire.

Twelve-sided Inca stone, Cusco

Master stonemasons constructed Cusco using finely-worked polygonal blocks of stone, fitted so precisely that no mortar was needed. Built to withstand earthquakes, the remains of extraordinary Inca masonry are still visible in the walls and foundations of modern-day Cusco.

Sacsayhuamán, defensive fortification, Cusco

By the 16th century, smallpox and other European diseases spread to the Inca Empire from Central America killing a large percentage of the population. By 1532, when Francisco Pizarro and 168 Spanish conquistadors arrived in Perú, the Inca Empire was already in decline and embroiled in a divisive civil war of succession.

Gold plate from the Coricancha (Inca Temple of the Sun), Cusco

Despite being tremendously outnumbered, the Spanish, with their steel armor, long swords, guns and war horses, had a superior battlefield advantage. The Inca had no concept for defeating cavalry forces and no weaponry capable of piercing the Spanish armor. With only their weapons of wood, stone, copper and bronze, and armor made of alpaca wool, the Inca were brutally slaughtered.

Megalithic cyclopean blocks, Sacsayhuamán, Cusco

The Spanish went on to capture Cusco in 1533 and immediately began dismantling the Inca capital. Stone-by-stone they tore down Cusco to build their own administrative, residential and religious structures. All the Spanish left of the incomparable Inca masonry are foundation stones and megalithic cyclopean blocks too massive for them to repurpose.  

Santo Domingo Church built on the foundation of the Inca Coricancha, Cusco

Less than one hundred years since the reign of Pachacuti, the explosion of the Inca supernova was extinguished by the Spanish conquest. Today, all that remains of the great but short-lived civilization are millions of Quechua-speaking descendants and remnants of master stone masonry in and around the Inca capital of Cusco.

Esther climbing 250 steps at altitude of 12,250 feet, Inca Terraces, Chinchero

Feature Photo: The Cusco Cathedral and municipal flag. Often mistaken for the gay pride flag, the multi-colored Cusco city flag represents the Inca belief that the rainbow is a gift from the sun god Inti.

Blogger’s Note: The day we arrived at our rental apartment in Cusco, Esther tested positive with a mild covid infection. Needing to isolate, I moved into a nearby hotel as Esther quarantined in the apartment for the next ten days. Thankfully, because Esther is vaccinated and double-boosted and has no underlying health conditions, she only experienced minor symptoms. As you can see from the final photo, she has made a full recovery and is now working herself back into shape.

15 thoughts on “Inca Capital of Cusco

    • It is truly remarkable how quickly the Inca expanded their civilization, and how they lost it all to the Spanish in one short year. The Spanish destroyed much of Cusco, but outlying areas in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu remain mostly intact. These monuments to human ingenuity are exceptionally beautiful and impressive.

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  1. That finer masonry still blows my mind, even if they reserved it for palaces and temples. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to Sacsayhuamán due to stomach issues. I didn’t realize the stones were that big. I seem to recall our guide saying the name was easy to remember because it sounded like sexy-woman.

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    • Isn’t it nice when Quechua words sound like something we all can relate to? Sexy-woman is not only easy to pronounce, but also simple to visualize and remember. The stone masonry is possibly the most impressive aspect of the remaining Inca structures. They were true craftsmen using only primitive tools. The largest stones we saw were at Sacsayhuamán. The transportation of these huge rocks must have required an army of laborers.

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  2. What a fascinating history, thank you for sharing it with us. That stone work is amazing and it boggles the mind how they were able to build the massive walls with the interlocking stones… and no mortar. As much as I enjoy seeing the old Spanish buildings, it pains me to know that so many – in Mexico also – were built right on top of another civilization’s structures. I’m glad Esther is feeling better!

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    • Thanks for the positive thoughts, Janis. Esther lost ten days closed up in the apartment, but is now back to full strength. As you know from Mexico, the Spaniards made a habit of building on top of former civilization’s structures and repurposing their stones to build their own government and religious buildings. As such, I wasn’t all that surprised to see the same thing in Perú. The difference is that the remaining Inca stone foundations and structures are were finely constructed.

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  3. Fascinating stuff, Joe. Visiting the relics of ancient civilisations is an endless joy of travel- always absorbing without exception. The tribal histories of Central & South America are utterly fascinating. Glad the dreaded lurgy didn’t cause too much of an issue – though ten days is enough of a bummer anyway!

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    • Utterly fascinating indeed, Phil & Michaela. In the 15th century, while the Inca were building their empire with human labor and crude tools, the Europeans were building Gothic cathedrals and medieval castles. They even had parachutes and golf balls! Esther’s lurgy wasn’t so bad, but her need to isolate for ten days did knock out about 20 percent of her trip time. Fortunately, we are now back to full and equal strength.

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  4. I’m sorry to hear about Esther’s bout with Covid, but glad to hear it was mild and that she is recovered. And although I’ve heard about the Inca Empire many times, I never really realized how quickly it grew with such few resources. It really is a shame that they didn’t leave written records and that the Spanish destroyed so much of their heritage. (What is it with people that we feel the need to destroy other cultures?) Still, enough was left to provide some insight into their lives!

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    • Hi Ann. Thank you for thinking of Esther. You know first-hand how it is to have a mild covid case and how to isolate in a separate room from your family. For her, those were probably the longest ten days of her life. The Inca Empire was remarkable, and the story of their demise at the hands of the Spanish is very sad. The conquistadors came for the purely selfish objective of enriching themselves. They lied, cheated, and absolutely slaughtered the Inca warriors and civilians all for power and shiny golden metal. Because the Inca did not leave any written records, the Spanish even fabricated the history of their conquest to make themselves out to be the good guys.

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  5. Creating a civilization with no guns — now there’s something we can learn from! The stone work is just incredible to see. It’s both fascinating and beautiful all at once. So sorry to hear about Esther, and your brief separation. But I’m glad to hear that she’s better and only suffered from mild symptoms. Yet another boost, so to speak, for the shots. – Marty

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    • That is a very good point, Marty. The Inca expanded their empire mostly by assimilating other tribes. The Inca offered an organized government and improved living conditions, in return for their allegiance. Battle was only a last resort. The Inca also allowed the assimilated tribes to worship their own gods and speak their own languages. Spanish guns, germs and steel absolutely decimated the Inca people. Esther is back to full strength after losing ten days to her infection and isolation. Thank you for your concern.

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