Viewing Inca Cuzco

Many Places are Still Visible for those Who Have Eyes to See, A Huaca Above Cuzco.

Cuzco impresses visitors, though it is a shadow of its former glory. Unlike another imperial capital, Rome, it does not lie under and along side a modern national capital with all the drama and energy of the state. It is a regional capital, lacking the movement and ceremony of Lima. Also unlike Rome, its ancient glory is not as visible nor seemingly as magnificent.

There are many reasons why this may be, but despite not being a capital of a modern country, there are wonders in Cuzco. Much of the Inca city, the most important in the Empire, is still visible for those who have eyes to see. As a means to being able to appreciate what remains of Cuzco’s magnificence it is useful to pose the question of why it is so hard to see and value it as an Inca city.

Of course, there are obvious answers. Rome was never conquered by an invading empire, such as the Spanish who were soon to develop a global rule and, as such, created modern notions of great political empires. Rome did suffer invading forces over the years, but as a seat of power maintained value in its heritage.

Before the Spanish arrived, a civil war opened between two sons of the Inca emperor who died an untimely death, Huayna Capac. They were Huascar from Cuzco and Atahuallpa representing the north, a competing imperial site with pretensions of claiming the place of Cuzco as the seat of power and center of the realm.

Spanish Cuzco on Inca Foundations (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
Spanish Cuzco on Inca Foundations (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

Atahuallpa’s forces entered Cuzco as the Spanish were invading Peru and destroyed the family and allies of Huascar along with their property. This left the great city in need of repair and re-consolidation as a focus for rule and rite.

Then, once the Spanish captured Atahuallpa, their leader Francisco Pizarro sent forces twice to Cuzco to loot it of gold and silver. Later the Inca they put on the throne rebelled, left the city, and attacked it. The result was a conflagration in which the monumental core of Cuzco burned.

Afterwards the Spanish took the city and as part of “founding a new, Spanish city, reworked it, constructing new buildings in new forms on the ground that was Inca. For this they used stones and materials from standing Inca buildings.

As Bruce Bauer (one of the most important archeologists specialized in the study of the Incas ) holds this was the beginning of a process of destruction of Inca heritage in material forms–buildings, streets, and monuments, that continues to this day. Recent decades have led to increasing decimation of what has been left, at the same time Cuzco has been declared By UNESCO a World Heritage site.

The nature of Cuzco and its essence, its soul in buildings, spaces, and stones, as a result, is a matter of political and social struggle. This includes the name of the city, whether it should be spelled with the z in honor of the ancient pronunciation and style, or in the modern s, as current officialdom and zealots in the city vigorously insist. It also includes the Inca on the fountain, and many other issues in the construction or restoration of new buildings and the provision of new services.

The Visible and Invisible Inca City (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
The Visible and Invisible Inca City (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

But it is more. The Spanish moved the capital to Lima, to the coast, though Cuzco maintained, and still holds a symbolic value as the first capital of Peru and a symbol of indigenous Peruvian greatness and integrity. Local elites seize on one aspect or another of their heritage, whether being Incas or Spanish hybrids, an economic engine for the country and region or a place of historical value. This material as symbols and reality has become the stuff of conflict among them and between them and other national and regional forces.

As Spanish society was built in Cuzco, both maintenance of Inca-ness and the destruction–or rendering invisible–took place. This included the masking of Inca roots, buildings, religion, and power to invoke a populace.

As result, seeing Inca Cuzco becomes a bit of a detective story, not unlike a Dan Brown thriller, where you try to visualize the hidden in plain site. Of course, this would not work if anyone could easily see what is there. Cuzco is, as a result, a kind of visual labyrinth.

Still, there is even more to this problem of seeing Inca Cuzco.

As the student of Andean cities Krzysztof Makowski argues, Andean cities were so unlike European cities that if someone approaches them with Old World urbanism in mind the Andean is rendered confusing.

The So-called Palace of Inca Roca on the Big Stone Street in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
The So-called Palace of Inca Roca on the Big Stone Street in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

Makowski points out that Cuzco, like other Andean cities, was not a place of private residences. Those would have been scattered around the valley of the Huatanay River and on the plains and hills above, established among fields. Instead the city was, above all, a city of monuments and temples, shrines that organized the politics and economics of the realm.

In Europe, we can add, the palace was important. Not only was it the site where the rulers and princes of the realm held their seat, their buildings exemplified power as people came in to see them and consult them amidst the magnificence. The key here is that the palace was a place of residence and in residing there, as an action, they mobilized the home as a powerful and organizing place.

The Inca Haucapata, the Great Square of Inca Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
The Inca Haucapata, the Great Square of Inca Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

You see this in the word domus, describing the Latin home (palace or temple), and in English words like domain to describe realm. You also see it mobilized in the Spanish “big houses”, the literal meaning of “casonas” into which Inca buildings were transformed.

The Inca word was not palace, although in English or Spanish, that is how the buildings of pre-Spanish Cuzco are generally called. Instead it was cancha, which is perhaps best defined as a space in contrast with other spaces. Today the word can refer to a soccer field, as well as to a corral.

Its underlying root meaning was different from the Spanish big house, such as the casonas or the cathedrals. They were not places where power or people resided primarily—though that could happen–rather they were places of recognizing a space that sometimes is different from other spaces, depending on the times and seasons.

The Cancha of the Sun in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
The Cancha of the Sun in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

Cuzco’s ritual and social life was in constant movement, as was that of the Spanish, but the architectural manifestation of that was different. For Cuzco it was canchas as spaces in contrast with other spaces, and canchas along with surroundings. Power and glory were shown in other ways than in the construction and maintenance of monumental residences. Instead the temples were places where powers, such as deities (the sun, moon, thunder, and other huacas) could stand, along with figures of Incas–huaques–brothers–and mummies. These could speak, act, and served as focus of organization, but their residence was less the issue than their standing as a political economic reality, I think.

As a result, the shrines (huacas) and monuments (canchas) of Cuzco that are still there, even if in a fragmentary form, along with the terraces, hills, and valleys, are the Inca city. The Spanish city of casonas in conjunction with ideas of a city as a residential site, rather than a ceremonial focus, mask Cuzco and make it almost invisible to eyes that are not trained to see.


  1. Thank you! I spent a few weeks in Cuzco two years ago and learned a lot–but much of your info here is new to me, and very welcome. I’ll subscribe.

    1. Thank you. We ar glad you find our site interesting and useful and wish you well in your adventures. Cheers, David

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