A Visit from Mom: The Qoricancha and the Cusco Ruins Trifecta

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May 24, 2013 by jiejie768

Situated in downtown Cusco, the Qoricancha was once the central temple in the Incan Empire before it was captured by the Spanish and converted into a Catholic church.

Situated in downtown Cusco, the Qoricancha was once the central temple in the Incan Empire before it was captured by the Spanish and converted into a Catholic church.

Peeking through and arched doorway on a Cusco side street yielded a view of this picturesque fountain.

Peeking through an arched doorway on a Cusco side street yielded a view of this picturesque fountain.

In the late afternoon on Tuesday, April 9, after a rather contentious parting with the duplicitous driver who ferried us from Ollantaytambo to Cusco, Mom, Meg and I found ourselves once again ensconced in the Pieter Room at Los Ninos Hotel, about a 10-minute walk from the city’s Plaza de Armas.

We had about 36 hours or so left in Cusco before flying to Lima early in the morning on April 11, and our to-do list included a visit to the Qoricancha Inca Temple in downtown Cusco, a trip to the series of ruins on the hillside outside the city and a tour of the Los Ninos children’s program operation. Essentially, we needed to either knock out the Los Ninos tour (daily at 5 p.m.) or the Qoricancha visit (closes at 5:30 p.m. each day) that night and save the other for Wednesday evening. Wednesday morning and possibly afternoon would be used to explore the ruins outside of town. Ultimately we opted for the Qoricancha first and the Los Ninos tour the following day.

The Cristo Blanco statue peeks out above the roof line of a hillside church in Cusco.

The Cristo Blanco statue peeks out above the roof line of a hillside church in Cusco.

Atop the distant hills, one can see the massive Cristo Blanco that overlooks Cusco. The day after snapping this photo, Meg and I finally made it to the statue to take in the reverse view.

Atop the distant hills, one can see the massive Cristo Blanco that overlooks Cusco. The day after snapping this photo, Meg and I finally made it to the statue to take in the reverse view.

Cusco's Cathedral is one of several picturesque structures that line the city's impressive Plaza de Armas.

Cusco’s Cathedral is one of several picturesque structures that line the city’s impressive Plaza de Armas.

We made our way to the Qoricancha in the late afternoon sun, which bathed Cusco in a pretty spectacular light for photography. This was now my fifth or sixth visit to the city, so I had no shortage of photos of the areas we were traversing, but still I couldn’t help but snap away as we passed through the town’s always impressive Plaza de Armas.

Behind the main complex of the Qoricancha are the white buildings of a modern-day monastery.

Behind the main complex of the Qoricancha are the white buildings of a modern-day monastery.

A bell tower rises above the Qoricancha. This was likely an addition commissioned once the temple was taken over by the Spaniards.

A bell tower rises above the Qoricancha. This was likely an addition commissioned once the temple was taken over by the Spaniards.

The Qoricancha was literally at the center of the Incan Empire. The network of religious sites built throughout Peru by the Incas was, unsurprisingly, constructed in the shape of a radiant sun, with the Qoricancha at the center and various other locales situated along the radiating spires of that sun. When the Spaniards arrived and began dismantling the Incan rule they, also unsurprisingly, converted the Qoricancha into their own headquarters and, shocker, a Catholic church.

The result in modern times is a fascinating building that features several hallmarks of Incan architecture (such as the smooth stone walls) alongside a massive Catholic cathedral and abutting a very large monastery. It’s a fitting representation of modern Peru, which is largely Catholic while still clinging to many of the more pagan traditions of the area’s ancestral forefathers.

The Qoricancha in Cusco was at the center of the Incan Empire.

The Qoricancha in Cusco was at the center of the Incan Empire.

The Qoricancha provided a fascination look at the clash of native religions and the Catholicism of the Spanish conquistadors.

The Qoricancha provided a fascinating look at the clash of native religions and the Catholicism of the Spanish conquistadors.

The interior courtyard at the Qoricancha is bathed in afternoon sunlight.

The interior courtyard at the Qoricancha is bathed in afternoon sunlight.

As the building is still very much in use, it provides a bit of a counterpoint to all the ruins we visited. The ruins, while fascinating, are in various states of disrepair and are being preserved (conserved?) rather than used on a daily basis. The Qoricancha on the other hand is completely in tact (if not identical to how it was in the 1500s) and made for an interesting visit. In addition to the interior architecture and huge collection of conquest-era artwork, the complex is home to a large park-like green space and flower garden.

The Qoricancha features plenty of greenspace, including this manicured lawn that features the images of the condor, puma and serpent — the three sacred animals of the Incan religion.

The Qoricancha features plenty of green space, including this manicured lawn that features the images of the condor, puma and serpent — the three sacred animals of the Incan religion.

Also, it featured far and away the most spectacularly appointed and fastidiously maintained set of public restrooms in all of Peru (travel around Peru for nine months and you’ll understand just how amazing this particular feature is. … Meg awarded it an unprecedented 6 stars out 5 on her Peruvian Restroom Rating System).

With the Qoricancha checked off our list, we grabbed burgers (Mom and I) and nachos (Meg) at Paddy’s, the highest Irish-owned bar in the world, then made our way back to the hotel and called it a (very) early night. I’m pretty sure Mom was asleep by 7:45 p.m. The next day provided another opportunity to sleep in a bit, and we took advantage.

On Wednesday, April 10, we rose at about 9 a.m., grabbed breakfast at the hotel and set about finding a taxi to take us to the top of the hillside ruins outside of Cusco.

A few days earlier, while visiting the Pisac ruins en route to Ollantaytambo, the three of us purchased an inclusive boleto turistico (tourist ticket) which provided entrance into about 16 ruins sites and museums in Cusco and throughout the Sacred Valley (this included Ollantaytambo, which we’d seen on Tuesday). The price of the ticket was 140 soles, and the entry fee to each individual site ranged from about 10 soles (various museums, Pukapukara and Tambomachay) to 40 soles a pop (Ollanta, Sacsayhuaman, Pisac). As we’d purchased the ticket already, I was hell-bent on getting my money’s worth. Meg and Mom were less concerned, but having rested up the night before, were willing to humor me in my quest to see even more Incan ruins.

The fountain and altar structure at Tambomachay was tucked into a beautiful slice of nature just off Cusco's main highway.

The fountain and altar structure at Tambomachay was tucked into a beautiful slice of nature just off Cusco’s main highway.

This creek gurgles toward the gorgeous fountain and altar at the Tambomachay Ruins above Cusco.

This creek gurgles toward the gorgeous fountain and altar at the Tambomachay Ruins above Cusco.

Turns out it was a good decision. The three sites we’d earmarked for Wednesday were Tambomachay, Pukapukara and Sacsayhuaman. The first two sites are located about 20 minutes outside of Cusco near where the highway cuts through the mountains and begins to descend again into the Sacred Valley which is home to Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Machu Picchu. These sites were each considerably smaller in scale than either Ollantaytambo or Sacsayhuaman, but were interesting nonetheless.

Our first stop was Tambomachay, which was located about 500 meters down a dirt hiking path off the main highway. The entirety of the site consisted of a picturesque fountain complex that appeared to have been used for some sort of religious purpose (yet again, we refused the guide out front). It was a pretty cool little complex located along a beautiful hiking trail and charming little creek. Also, there was a llama, which always is a bonus.

The Pukapukara ruins complex sits just off the main highway that leads from Cusco into the Sacred Valley.

The Pukapukara ruins complex sits just off the main highway that leads from Cusco into the Sacred Valley.

Here's a view of the Sacred Valley from the Pukapukara ruins outside of Cusco.

Here’s a view of the Sacred Valley from the Pukapukara ruins outside of Cusco.

Mom soaks up some positive energy from a rock at Pukapukara.

Mom soaks up some positive energy from a rock at Pukapukara.

Pukapukara, our next stop, is located about 500 meters down the highway back toward Cusco, and was clearly visible from the main road. Meg and Mom opted to walk along the highway, while I followed a staircase outside Tambomachay that ultimately led me along a backroad of sorts to Pukapukara. We ended up in the same place, but I got to see some donkeys, so I figure I won out in the end.

Pukapukara did not have any guides out front for us to refuse (I’m pretty sure the Tambomachay guide would have accompanied us to this part of the tour if we’d hired her), so we were once again on our own.

Extensive chalk marking on this wall at Pukapukara indicates archaeologists still are investigating the site.

Extensive chalk markings on this wall at Pukapukara indicate archaeologists still are investigating the site.

At this point I could hardly guess what, specifically, Pukapukara was used for. We did, however, learn from a fellow tourist that one of the rocks at Pukapukara was believed to channel positive energy and that we should all touch it for an energy burst and blast of good luck. We also were intrigued by the fact that Pukapukara was obviously the site of continuing archaeological research.

It's a rule that when in Peru, you must snap a photo of every llama you see ... seriously, it's in all the literature.

It’s a rule that when in Peru, you must snap a photo of every llama you see … seriously, it’s in all the literature.

Several of the stones in the ubiquitous Incan walls were marked with chalk, and though no workers were present during our visit, there was clearly some excavation and/or research under way. With two more sites ticked off our to-do list, we set our sights on Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman” according to several tourism pamphlets and guidebooks) and sought out transportation down the hill.

Here's what the Plaza de Armas looks like from Cristo Blanco. I'd often looked up at the statue from the plaza and wondered what the reverse view looked like. Now I know.

Here’s what the Plaza de Armas looks like from Cristo Blanco. I’d often looked up at the statue from the plaza and wondered what the reverse view looked like. Now I know.

The walk from Pukapukara to Sacsayhuaman appeared to be anywhere from 3 to 10 kilometers, and given the abundance of stairs and hiking in our recent past, we weren’t eager to hoof it. Fortunately we stumbled across a combi (local minivan/bus) just outside Pukapukara and secured passage down the hill for just a sol apiece.

Here's a view of Cusco as seen from the Cristo Blanco statue above the city.

Here’s a view of Cusco as seen from the Cristo Blanco statue above the city.

Here's another look at the landscape from the Cristo Blanco statue.

Here’s another look at the landscape from the Cristo Blanco statue.

While at the Cristo Blanco statue, Meg implored me to surreptitiously snap a photo of this man's tattoo. It is South America in black with Peru shaded red.

While at the Cristo Blanco statue, Meg implored me to surreptitiously snap a photo of this man’s tattoo. It is South America in black with Peru shaded red.

The combi, after picking up a gaggle of schoolbound local children along the way, eventually deposited us at the Cristo Blanco statue that watches over the city of Cusco. During my previous visits to Cusco, I had seen the statue towering on the hillside above the plaza and dreamed of one day standing at its base and taking in the bird’s-eye view of the Incan capital (going to the top of things and finding viewpoints is my absolute favorite traveling pastime). So, after five previous stops in Cusco without paying a visit to the Jesus statue, it was with great satisfaction that I finally summited the hill and looked out upon the city stretching out for miles below us. It offered a pretty spectacular look at Cusco, but you can only look at a view such as that for so long before you’ve seen it all and it’s time to move on. So it was that we headed down the opposite hillside toward the entrance to Sacsayhuaman.

This was the view of the Sacsayhuaman complex as we descended from the massive Cristo Blanco statue.

This was the view of the Sacsayhuaman complex as we descended from the massive Cristo Blanco statue.

Yup, that's a baby llama. Pretty darn cute, right?

Yup, that’s a baby llama. Pretty darn cute, right?

Along the way we passed some American tourists and managed to sneak a few pictures of (yet another) adorable baby llama … yeah, I know, we do that a lot, but I challenge you to come to Peru, camera in hand, and not try to photograph every llama you see. Of the three sites we were visiting that morning, Sacsayhuaman was billed, rightfully so, as the main event.

The three of us pose in front of a massive stone in the Sacsayhuaman wall to demonstrate just how large these stones are.

The three of us pose in front of a massive stone in the Sacsayhuaman wall to demonstrate just how large these stones are.

Our excellent guide, Victor, makes a fist to demonstrate the puma paw built into the wall at the Sacayhuaman ruins outside of Cusco.

Our excellent guide, Victor, makes a fist to demonstrate the puma paw built into the wall at the Sacayhuaman ruins outside of Cusco.

The complex features some of the most impressive examples of the Inca walls in all of Peru. In most instances the walls for which Cusco is famous feature (relatively) large, smooth stones about the size three of four cinder blocks put together. This is impressive in its own right, but at Sacsayhuaman many of the stones in the wall are the size of a Mack-truck and still fit together seamlessly without any mortar or bonding agent to hold them in place.

At this final locale, we broke from tradition and decided we’d best get a guide as we did want to learn something during our visit to these many ruins. This was a fantastic decision, as our guide, Victor, was among the best Meg and I have had in all of our travels. The man was extraordinarily knowledgeable about the site (it IS his job, I guess), obviously passionate about keeping the site in tact (he frequently stopped during our tour to pick up litter and other detritus — including a moldy orange peel at one point — and put it in his pocket until he could find a trash can) and was an all-around interesting guy to boot (he and Meg enjoyed a long, spirited conversation about the Catholic church’s role in Cusco and the newly elected Argentinian Pope).

The stone walls at Sacsayhuaman were impressive. Even more impressive was the fact that once upon a time the complex was nearly twice as large before the stones making up the walls were harvested for use in Cusco.

The stone walls at Sacsayhuaman were impressive. Even more impressive was the fact that once upon a time the complex was more than twice as large before the stones making up the walls were harvested for use in Cusco.

The fortress walls of Sacsayhuaman were impressive. Many of the stones, seen here at distance, are bigger than most cars.

The fortress walls of Sacsayhuaman were impressive. Many of the stones, seen here at distance, are bigger than most cars.

Massive stones form a doorway in the Sacsayhuaman fortress above the city of Cusco.

Massive stones form a doorway in the Sacsayhuaman fortress above the city of Cusco.

Though the walls and structures at the complex are plenty impressive on their own, having Victor along to explain the history of the site was a fantastic bonus. Sacsayhuaman was a fortress that protected the outskirts of the Cusco, the Incan capital city. As impressive as the walls and massive stones we saw were, we were shocked to learn that more than 50 percent of the original fortress is no longer in tact.

The circular rock wall here once enclosed a man-made lake that provided water for Cusco and the Sacsayhuaman fortress.

The circular rock wall here once enclosed a man-made lake that provided water for Cusco and the Sacsayhuaman fortress.

For years and years, it turns out, the fortress was used as something of a quarry as first the Spanish conquistadors and then the local people harvested the massive rocks from the ruins to use on construction projects in town.

Turns out the complex’s proximity to Cusco made it easy and obvious pickings. It wasn’t until the middle part of the 20th-Century that the government protected the site as a historical landmark and forbade the further removal of the stones. Victor’s clear knowledge and obvious distress at this fact was one of the many things that endeared him to us.

Do you see the llama in this wall? (Answer below).

Do you see the llama in this wall? (Answer below).

Can you see the serpent in the rocks? (see below for the answer)

Can you see the serpent in the rocks? (see below for the answer)

There he is!

There he is!

Without Victor, we likely would also have missed out on a few treasures hidden in the complex’s walls. It turns out the skill of the Incan builders went beyond simply being able to build the walls. They were so skilled in their stonework that they managed to incorporate various designs into the walls using the stones.

There it is.

There it is!

Still visible to this day were a serpent and a llama (which we never would have seen on our own) and a puma paw (which we likely would have noticed). I can’t fathom how this was possible, but once Victor pointed it out, it was too obvious to have been coincidence (well, the serpent maybe, but the llama and puma paw are clearly intentional).

The view of Cusco from the Sacsayhuaman ruins rivaled that of the Cristo Blanco mirador.

The view of Cusco from the Sacsayhuaman ruins rivaled that of the Cristo Blanco mirador.

When taking in the panoramic view of Cusco from Sacsayhuaman, my eye caught this wooden structure that looked like a haunted house. According to Victor, our guide, it was a pet project of a rich local man who wanted to build a hotel. Unfortunately he was imprisoned for drug trafficking before he could finish the task and the building sits unfinished.

When taking in the panoramic view of Cusco from Sacsayhuaman, my eye caught this wooden structure that looked like a haunted house. According to Victor, our guide, it was a pet project of a rich local man who wanted to build a hotel. Unfortunately he was imprisoned for drug trafficking before he could finish the task and the building sits unfinished.

After visiting the main walls, and another spectacular viewpoint of the city, we moved to the western edge of the ruins. There, Victor told us how the Incas had made a man-made lake at the complex (no longer present) that had served as a water source for the fortress and city alike. He then took us through a long, very dark tunnel which emerged in front of a tiny Quechua grandma with a llama waiting to pose for a picture with us (OK, Victor didn’t plan that part, I’m sure, but it was a nice touch, and this lady was TINY). The three of us also picked up an unwanted souvenir during the trek thorough the tunnel: the unpleasant aroma of llama dung greeted us about halfway through the journey and accompanied us for the rest of the day by way of our shoes.

After traversing a rather dark tunnel at Sacsayhuaman, Mom, Meg and I were greeted by this tiny and ancient Quechua woman and her llama. We couldn't resist the chance to get a photo.

After traversing a rather dark tunnel at Sacsayhuaman, Mom, Meg and I were greeted by this tiny and ancient Quechua woman and her llama. We couldn’t resist the chance to get a photo.

Sunny weather encouraged us to walk from Sacsayhuaman to Cusco after our visit to the ruins. Views like this were our reward.

Sunny weather encouraged us to walk from Sacsayhuaman to Cusco after our visit to the ruins. Views like this were our reward.

After posing for our photo with the llama lady, our tour was at an end. We paid Victor (and threw in an extra 15 soles or so since he’d done such a fantastic job) and headed back into the city via a stone pathway. The walk to town was pleasant and put us in a plaza we’d yet to visit. We grabbed a sandwich at a little deli and considered our plan for the rest of the day.

Honestly, at this point, I’m not sure what we decided. I think we visited the souvenir market and just wandered a bit before making it back to our hotel for the 5 p.m. tour of the children’s program. I know that at some point, Mom picked up gifts for Chris (my stepdad) and Andrew (my brother) and a water-color painting for herself. I’m sure we got ice cream (Bembo’s soft serve) and/or coffee (Starbucks!!!) at some point along the way.

Catch up on all our adventures with Mom:

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