Cusco Peru for a Day

Our Machu Picchu Adventure Part 2

David Smitherman
10 min readAug 2, 2023

Our next tour began on Monday morning with a flight from Lima Peru, to Cusco. Here we saw the climate and terrain change from a desert coastline along the Pacific, and the arid western slopes of the Andes mountains, to the high jungle at Machu Picchu stretching to the Amazon beyond, and then up and on to a high oasis at Cusco.

Flight from Lima to Cusco.

Cusco was the Capital of the Inca Empire when discovered by the Spaniard Pedro Sancho, who in 1534, described the city as having streets oriented with the rise and setting of the sun, numerous palaces and temples, and a hundred thousand houses surrounding the city center, many of which provided residences for the ruling class across the empire. Cusco was at the center of the Inca Empire, and by the 1500s had expanded to the north along the coast from Columbia, to Ecuador, and all of Peru, and to the south through most of Bolivia, and parts of Argentina and Chili.

In Cusco, we checked in at the Monasterio Hotel located on a small plaza, the Plazoleta de las Nazarenas, in the old town section, which is noted for its cobble stone streets, stone foundation walls from Inca construction, and red tile roofs, providing a harmony of design throughout. The hotel includes a chapel, the Capilla de San Antonio Abad, built in 1592, which was part of a Monastery that now functions as the hotel, and includes beautiful interior stonework in Baroque and Spanish Colonial architectural styles.

The Capilla de San Antonio Abad chapel, and the Monasterio Hotel.

From the Monasterio we walked through the Square of the Nazarenas down the sloped cobble stone streets to the Main Plaza, the Plaza de Armas of Cusco, where a large crowd was gathering. The Plaza was much larger when created by the Inca in the 11th century, but it is still the center of activity and events for all of Cusco. On the Main Plaza is the Cusco Cathedral, and several churches, where on this day a festival was in progress that included many in native dress, and a monument of an Inca pyramid and ruler in the center of the Plaza.

A festival in progress at the Main Plaza, the Plaza de Armas of Cusco.

The Cusco Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral Basilica of the Virgin of the Assumption, was built from 1560 to 1654, in a Renaissance architectural style, by the architects Juan Miguel de Veramendi, Juan Correa, and Miguel Gutiérrez Sencio. The interior includes elements of Plateresque Gothic, and Baroque. Veramendi and Sencio were from Spain, and Correa was Creole. Beside the Cusco Cathedral is the Triumph Church, or Iglesia del Triunfo, which was built from 1539 to 1634, in a Renaissance architectural style, and today used as a chapel of the Cusco Cathedral.

The Cusco Cathedral, and the Triumph Church.

Around the corner on the Plaza is the Church of the Society of Jesus, and the University Auditorium, or the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, and the Paraninfo Universitario of Cusco. Both were originally built by Jesuits from 1576 to 1668, in an Andean Baroque architectural style, by the architects Jean-Baptiste Gilles from Belgium, and Diego Martínez de Oviedo, a Creole.

The Church of the Society of Jesus, and the University Auditorium.

Down the street from the Main Square is the Convent of Santo Domingo, which was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1650. The current construction was built from about 1680 to the early 18th century, in a Baroque architectural style.

The Convent of Santo Domingo, and entrance leading to the Qorikancha, or Golden Temple.

The Convent was built on top of the Inca Temple to the sun god Inti, and is known as Qorikancha, meaning the Golden Temple. Qorikancha was built in the 13th to 14th centuries and then completed by the Sapa Inca Pachacuti in the 15th century before the Spanish arrived. It was said to have been covered in plates of gold, thus the name Golden Temple. In 1950, an earthquake destroyed a section of the Colonial construction over the Temple. The Inca construction from the Golden Temple was not harmed, so it was left exposed and open for display.

Interior courtyard at the Convent of Santo Domingo, and some remains from the Inca’s Golden Temple.

Upon seeing the original Inca construction my wife Ana Mari, had a déjà vu moment saying, “I’ve been here”, which is an interesting coincidence since her DNA shows a large percentage of Peruvian descent, and the Inca along with many Peruvians, believe in reincarnation. Freaky and cool, right!? The first section of the Temple she saw was dedicated to Lightning. Other sections included rooms dedicated to Rainbows, the Sun, Moon, and the Stars, including one corridor that in the 15th century was aligned with the constellation of the Pleiades.

Inca construction of the Qorikancha, or Golden Temple.

The Inca were amazing engineers, and were successful in building their temples to survive the frequent earthquakes. In Cusco this was done by building on a sand and gravel foundation bed with a foundation and walls of very precise interlocking stones. Some of these grooved stones had molten metal in the grooves to form a steel reinforcing. Other grooves became hollowed out pipes in the wall for indoor plumbing. Sadly when the Spanish invaded and conquered the Inca, they took all the gold, including the plates, idols, and anything of value. They destroyed the temples using the stone for new Colonial construction, and built their buildings on top of the original Inca foundation walls.

Our next stop was to the north of Cuzco at Sacsayhuamán, a citadel located on a hill overlooking the city at an altitude of over 12,000 feet. It is thought to have been first occupied in the 10th century, with the main construction being accomplished by Pachacuti in the 15th century, to provide protection for Cuzco. At the Sacsayhuamán citadel there were alpacas and llamas grazing in the fields, and a few Inca decedents in native dress providing local handmade items and a photo op.

Sacsayhuamán, an Inca citadel overlooking Cusco.

When the Spaniards arrived at Sacsayhuamán, they reported vast storage rooms in the citadel filled with weapons, and learned that the construction under Pachacuti had taken 20,000 men during his reign as emperor. Later, after the Spanish colony was established, most of the stone from the citadel was removed for construction projects in Cusco, so that today only the largest stones remain , showing the amazing interlocking stonework of the Inca.

Also north of the city is Q’enco, a large site of natural caves, monoliths and carved stone facilities, believed to have been used as a holy place by the Inca for ceremonial purposes, sacrifices, and the mummification of important individuals.

The Spanish explorers undoubtedly reported back to Spain of their findings across the Inca Empire, including the practice of human sacrifices, which in turn gained them support from both the King of Spain, and the Catholic Church, for their Conquest of Peru from 1532 to 1572. In contrast, the first forceful attack from Spain reportedly killed 7,000 Inca warriors with only 168 Spanish soldiers, and no casualties, made possible by the Spaniards superior weapons and armor. Tens of thousands more Inca warriors died over the next few decades of war, and in the end, war, famine, and small pox wiped out 95% of the Inca population, that at its peak, is believed to have been around 12 to 16 million people. Today, about half of the population in Peru are descendants of the Inca, and many still speak Quechua, the Incas common language.

An interpretive drawing of Cusco below is from several accounts, prepared by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg in 1572, where the palace of the Inca Emperor can be seen on the left, overlooking the Main Square below surrounded by the town. Inside the walled city is a well organized layout with streams flowing though the center of the main streets. The city was built over a swamp that the Inca filled with sand, to lay the base for their earthquake resistant foundation systems. That sand was most likely brought in by llama caravans, on the Inca roads from the Pacific coast, over 500 miles west of Cusco.

Cusco as envisioned in 1572, found at

Our day ended with a breath taking view across the city of Cuzco from a home above the the Inca ruins of the Palace of Colcampata, where it is believed the first ruler of Cuzco, Manco Cápac, built his palace in the early 13th century. From here we could see across the city’s Main Square, with a similar view from the palace, as indicated by the 1572 drawing above. To the south across the valley, inscribed on the side of the mountain, is Viva el Perú, meaning Long Live Peru!

The author and wife Ana Mari, and views over the city of Cusco.

Travel Notes Part 2

You can walk from the Monasterio Hotel to the Cusco Main Square to see the Cathedral and Churches, and from there, walk or drive to the Qorikancha at the Convent of Santo Domingo. The remaining sites north of Cusco, Sacsayhuamán, Q’enco Archeological Complex, and Colcampata, take about a one hour round trip driving time. For our trip we had a driver and a tour guide.

Cusco historic area and surrounding sites.

At about 12,000 feet altitude, Cuzco can be a challenge, but thanks to the good advice from our guides and hotel staff, we made it through our tours just fine. I noticed the thin air effects almost immediately upon arrival at the Cusco airport, where I felt like I needed to walk slower to avoid feeling out of breath. In other words, a casual walk was feeling like a vigorous trek, but once I slowed down I felt fine.

We stayed at the Monasterio Hotel for three nights, two nights before our journey to Machu Picchu, and one upon return before going home. The hotel can provide extra oxygen in the rooms to bring the oxygen content in the air up to something closer to what we were used to. That worked and provided us with a more restful sleep.

Another effect of the high altitude is a slowing of the digestive system. I found that if I had a good breakfast, I was not hungry at lunch, even though I normally would be; and if I ate lunch too as usual, I could not eat a dinner. So, slow down and make a point to eat less or less frequently.

Finally, there is the local custom of using coca tea to deal with the altitude, a substance that is illegal in the United States, but is in common use in Peru. It helps with the issues above, by providing a boost in energy from the lack of oxygen, and improved digestion. They recommended a cup in the morning to get you going, but not in the evening, as it might keep you awake.

On Tuesday we were off to the Sacred Valley for Part 3 of this travel adventure!

Notes and References

Story by David Smitherman, and photographs by the author and his wife, Ana Mari Cadilla, from site visits made in June 2023.

Historical data collected from brochures, onsite inscriptions, Wikipedia, Google Maps, Google Translate, iMaps, iPhoto.

List of historic buildings and structures in Cusco:

Cusco in 1572:


A bibliography of additional information was provided by Andy Quicaño, one of our wonderful Belmond tour guides:

“At the Crossroads of the Earth and the Sky: An Andean Cosmology” by Gary Urton, (LLILAS Latin American Monograph Series), July 1, 1988.

“Songs of the Inca”, by Carlos Vallarino, June 20, 2016.

The Ceque System of Cuzco: The Social Organization of the Capitol of the Inca”, by Tom Zuidema and Eva M. Hooykaas, January 1, 1964.



David Smitherman

Retired architect and space architect from NASA. Married with a growing family. Currently into travel, historical architecture, photography and genealogy.