Sights and Attractions
- Where: Approximately three to seven miles away from Cusco City.
- Altitude: 12,000 feet above sea level.
- How to Get Here: Bus and car accessible. Walking tours available in between sites.
- Entrance Fee: Included in Cusco City’s Boleto Turístico.
- What to Bring: Comfortable shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen, hat, water, poncho (during rainy season).
- Handicap Accessible: No.
As you might imagine, the Cusco region is a wonder and wealth of historical and archeological attractions. Though there are many and varied things to see, there are a few ruins that are especially poignant examples of the culture and civilizations that came before. Among these are Qengo, Pucapucara, and Tambomachay. Admission to all of them is included in the Boleto Turistico and they are often combined with tours of Sacsayhuaman.
Qorikancha – The Andean Temple of the Sun
The Temple of the Sun has been known by various names, including Qurikancha, Koricancha, and Coricancha, throughout its history. Temples within Cusco vary from humble to magnificent and Qorikancha was destined to be the most majestic of them all. What remains can be found at the intersection of Calle Santo Domingo and Avenida Sol within the city’s historic center.
Astronomy is just one of the myriad of Inca talents and evidence can be found in the observatories they raised. Huacas, or sacred places such as caves, mountains, and rivers that were located directly on ceques (transcendental lines) were believed to be connections between the heavens and the earth.
Qorikancha was built to honor Inti, the sun god, and its location is not accidental. The Inca pinpointed the spot where ceques converged and raised the temple on a hill between the rivers of Shapy-Huatanay and Tullumayo. For those that may wonder at this specific location, a visit during the Andean New Year of Inti Raymai provides the answer. During the solstice, sunlight streams through its windows due to its specific alignment with astronomic entities.
The wonder of Inca architectural ability is never clearer than when one looks closely at examples such as Qorikancha. Its walls are shaped and fitted from stones that were relocated from quarries as far away as the towns of Waqoto and Rumicolca (20-30 kilometers/12-18 miles) and all of it was done without the use of mortar. Construction techniques include irregular stone shapes with rounded edges and slightly inclined trapezoidal walls. Why use such methods? Inca designs are known for their ability to withstand seismic movements and these mortar-free structures allow the stones to vibrate in place during seismic activities. Once the event is over, they settle back into position and keep the building a solidly in place as it was before.
Church of Santo Domingo
The Church of Santo Domingo marks a convergence of Western and Andean. Following the Spanish invasion, the land upon which it was built was given to Juan Pizarro, Francisco Pizarro’s younger brother, who then willed it to the Dominican Order. They retain ownership to this day.
The stonework of Qorikancha was dismantled and used in the building of the Santo Domingo Church. Given the information about Inca structures, it should be no surprise to learn that earthquakes that had leveled other Spanish construction did nearly no damage to Inca walls. Only man’s interference could undo such architectural marvels.
Baroque carvings and vaulted ceilings exhibits Santo Domingo’s grandeur and the wooden door of the church boasts the only place in Cusco where Moorish style carvings can be found. Within the Spanish walkway edged internal garden a pre-Columbian single stone fountain still stands.
The 1950 major earthquake in Cusco exposed original Inca walls beneath layers of old plaster and efforts are now underway to preserve both historical legacies of this religious structure. It is, and ever will be, a captivating example of the merging of Inca and Spanish architecture.
On a hill high above Cusco city, the Inca built terraces using massive stones weighing hundreds of tons. These were cut and polished to form what was once a truly awe inspiring architectural delight. Only a small portion remains but even that captures the imagination at the skill and scale of the Inca builders. It has survived centuries of history and the passing of one culture into another and still it stands proudly.
Sacsayhuaman covers about 12 square miles, sits at an altitude of over 12,000 feet above sea level and was used to keep watch for external attacks on the city. Its size and grandeur also serve well as a place to hold rituals and other functions. Today, Cusco’s Inti Raymi festival is held there.
Though only a small percentage of the original buildings and structures remain, there is plenty to see that speaks to the history and detail of this massive site. The site’s primary defensive feature, baluartes, are comprised of staggered walls that had been built using the enormous stones mentioned earlier.
Throughout the complex, sets of stones resembling a lion’s paw can be found. Add to these, and located directly above the main walkway of Sacsayhuaman, is the K’usilluc Jink’ian (the “throne”). This area sports a view of the entire fortress, the city of Cusco, and neighboring hills. It is believed that this is where the Inca presided over important ceremonies.
Three tall towers once existed and faint outlines found on the highest parts of the ruins bear witness to their locations. The Muyucmarca tower was the political core though it is sometimes mistaken for a solar calendar because of its circular nature. It served not only for defense but also housed food, water, an arms depot, and a temple. Its siblings, the Paucamarca and Sallamarca towers, were devoted to religious and logistics respectively.
Various gates mark the areas and layers of the compound but few of these still survive. Most are now gone as they were dismantled in the periods following the conquest. Garcilaso de la Vega is our sole accounting for these gates: Tio Puncu, Acahuana Puncu, and Huiracocha Puncu. Puma Punchu (Gate of the Puma) is a smaller example and is one of remaining examples.
June is the most popular time to visit because many celebrations take place during this time. Sacsayhuaman is a wonder to visit at any time, however, as it is one of the most impressive examples of Inca archeology and military architecture.
The original name for Qengo is lost to history and its reason for being still remains a mystery. Qengo is a Quechua word for labyrinth and it was named such due to the twisting channels and steps that are carved on the outer rock surfaces.
The site is located on hill above Cusco city and consists of two main areas. The Qengo Grande and Qengo Chico sit some hundred yards apart and evidence indicates that the area was a temple that was used during rites surrounding fertility and harvest. One of the largest huacas (a sacred natural place) it represents a manifested spiritual being, pre-Columbian deities that were linked to how these places came to be.
“The Mortuary”, an underground room is one of Qengo Grande’s famous features. It is an interior chamber made up of polished walls, ceilings, an altar, niches, and steps all of which were carved from the stone itself. Access to the chamber is via man-made tunnels that work inward.
Located 4.5 miles from Cusco city and sitting over 12,000 feet above sea level, Pucapucara is comprised of walls, internal plazas, a multitude of small rooms, and aqueducts. Defensive walls among rooms of various sizes indicate that the site was both military and administrative in nature. It may well have been a military base and its name suggests it as well. “Puca” means red and “Pucara” means fortress making this the Red Fortress.
A walk up the hill leads to Tambomachay which leads us to believe that this fortress may also have regulated transit to the hydraulic site.
Tambomachay is a primary example of Inca achievements in hydraulic advancements. This site is located about half a mile from Pucapucara and is above a stream of the same name. It covers over 5000 square feet and is known by the locals as “The Bath of the Inca”.
Tambomachay is a series of aqueducts and canals that channel thermal water that then spills out over four walls that form a set of terraces. Unlike many other sites, the terraces were decorative and ritualistic in nature versus agricultural.
It is thought that the site was either a military post or used by Inca elites for cleansing rituals. Whatever the purpose, it is a classic example of Inca artistic and architectural mastery over the elements of earth and water.