Destination guide: Cuzco, Peru

In the Andean area of Peru is the city of Cuzco, also known as the Archaelogical Capital of America or the “Center of the World” (according to its name in Quechua).

Cuzco is a living museum of Inca history and one of the most fascinating cities in the Peruvian mountains, as seen in its outstanding architecture, which reflects the stunning past of the Inca Empire.

Check out our flights to Cuzco at LAN.com and get to know this wonder of South America.

  • Cuzco - History Overview

    The Inca empire’s main expansion occurred in the hundred years prior to the arrival of the conquistadors in 1532. When the Spanish reached Cuzco, they began keeping chronicles, including Inca history as related by the Incas themselves. The most famous of these accounts was The Royal Commentaries of the Incas, written by Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of an Inca princess and a Spanish military captain.

    The ninth inca (king), Pachacutec, gave the empire its first bloody taste of conquest. Until his time, the Incas had dominated only a modest area close to Cuzco, though they frequently skirmished with other highland tribes. One such tribe was the Chanka, whose growing thirst for expansion led them to Cuzco’s doorstep in 1438.

    Pachacutec’s father, Viracocha Inca, fled in the belief that his small empire was lost. But Pachacutec refused to give up the fight. With the help of some of the older generals, he rallied the Inca army and in a desperate final battle – in which, legend claims, the very boulders transformed themselves into warriors to fight alongside the Incas – he famously managed to vanquish the Chanka. The victorious younger Pachacutec proclaimed himself inca and, buoyed by his victory, embarked upon the first wave of expansion that would create the Inca empire. During the next 25 years, he bagged much of the central Andes, including the region between the two great lakes of Titicaca and Junín.

    Pachacutec also proved himself a sophisticated urban developer, devising Cuzco’s famous puma shape and diverting rivers to cross the city. He also built fine buildings, including the famous Qorikancha temple and a palace on a corner of what is now the Plaza de Armas.
    Pachacutec’s successor, Túpac Yupanqui, was every bit his father’s son. During the 1460s he helped his father subdue a great area to the north, including what is today the northern Peruvian and southern Ecuadorian Andes, as well as the northern Peruvian coast. As the 10th inca, he expanded the empire dramatically in his lifetime, extending it from Quito, in Ecuador, to the area south of Santiago in Chile.
    Huayna Cápac, the 11th inca, was the last to rule over a united kingdom, an empire so big that it seemed to have little left to conquer. Nevertheless, Huayna Cápac doggedly expanded the northernmost limits of his empire to the present-day Ecuador–Colombia border, and fought a long series of campaigns during which he sired a son, Atahualpa, whose mother may have been a quiteña (inhabitant of Quito, Ecuador).

    Then something totally unexpected happened: Europeans discovered the New World, bringing with them various Old World diseases. Epidemics such as smallpox swept down from Central America and the Caribbean. Shortly before dying in 1525 – probably from one of these epidemics – Huayna Cápac divided his empire, giving the northern part to Atahualpa and the southern Cuzco area to another son, Huascar.

    Both sons were suited to ruling an empire – so well suited, in fact, that neither wished to share power, and an Inca civil war ensued. As a pure-blooded native cuzqueño (inhabitant of Cuzco), Huascar had the people’s support, but Atahualpa had the backing of the northern army and early in 1532 his battle-hardened troops won a key battle, capturing Huascar outside Cuzco.
    Meanwhile, Francisco Pizarro landed in northern Peru and marched southward. Atahualpa himself had been too busy fighting the civil war to worry about a small band of foreigners, but by 1532 a fateful meeting had been arranged with the Spaniard in Cajamarca. It was a meeting that would radically change the course of South American history: Atahualpa was ambushed by a few dozen armed conquistadors, who succeeded in capturing him, killing thousands of indigenous tribespeople and routing tens of thousands more.
    In an attempt to regain his freedom, the inca offered a ransom of a roomful of gold and two rooms of silver, including gold stripped from the temple walls of Qorikancha. But after holding Atahualpa prisoner for a number of months, Pizarro murdered him anyway, and soon marched on to Cuzco. Mounted on horseback, protected by armor and swinging steel swords, the Spanish cavalry was virtually unstoppable.

    Pizarro entered Cuzco on November 8, 1533, by which time he had appointed Manco, a half-brother of Huascar and Atahualpa, as the new puppet leader. After a few years of keeping to heel, however, the docile puppet rebelled. In 1536, Manco Inca set out to drive the Spaniards from his empire, laying siege to Cuzco with an army estimated at well over a hundred thousand people. Indeed, it was only a desperate last-ditch breakout and violent battle at Sacsayhuamán that saved the Spanish from complete annihilation.
    Manco Inca was forced to retreat to Ollantaytambo and then into the jungle at Vilcabamba. After Cuzco was safely recaptured, looted and settled, the seafaring Spaniards turned their attentions to the newly founded colonial capital, Lima. Cuzco’s importance quickly waned, and it became just another colonial backwater. All the gold and silver was gone, and many Inca buildings were pulled down to accommodate churches and colonial houses.

    Few events of historical significance have rocked Cuzco like the Spanish conquest – except for earthquakes in 1650 and 1950, and an infamous Inca uprising led by Túpac Amaru II in 1780. His was the only indigenous revolt that ever came close to succeeding, but eventually he too was defeated by the Spaniards. Two centuries later, in 1984, a Peruvian Marxist guerrilla group named itself after him.

    The country’s battles for independence in the 1820s wouldn’t change daily life for the average person in Cuzco. Perhaps the most momentous event in the city’s recent history is the ‘rediscovery’ of Machu Picchu in 1911, which turned the city from a quiet, provincial town into Peru’s foremost tourist hub.