Cusco was the religious and administrative capital of the Inca Empire in ancient Peru between 1400 and 1534. The Incas controlled territory from Quito to Santiago, making it the largest empire in the Americas. Their Empire extended throughout South America, including regions of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. The Inca were skilled engineers and craftsmen who built a network of roads linking the distant sectors of the empire together. A vast amount of Inca and Colonial architecture remains throughout the city and surrounding region.
Overlooking the city of Cusco, the ancient walled complex of Sacsayhuaman is one of the region’s most renowned examples of Incan architecture. Constructed as a fortress by Inca emperor Pachacutec in the mid-15th century it was laid out in the shape of a puma, the Inca dynasty’s symbol. The belly of the puma was the Plaza de Armas; Tullumayo River formed its spine, and Sacsayhuaman was its head. There are three zigzagging limestone walls built on different levels that represent the teeth of the puma’s head.
Qurikancha originally named Inti Kancha, was the most important temple in the Inca Empire, dedicated to Inti, the Temple of the Sun. It was the most respected temple of the capital city of Cusco with walls and floors covered in solid gold, and the courtyard surrounded by golden statues. Although destroyed in the 16th century, by the Spanish conquistadors, who built Santo Domingo Church on top of the ruins, the Inca stonewalls; built out of huge, interlocking blocks of stone, still stand due to the sophisticated masonry skills of the Incas.
3. Tipon Archaeological Park
The well-preserved Inca site consists of terracing and fascinating water channels, fountains and finely designed aqueducts. The terraces were constructed for agricultural purposes and the water channels fed the whole site with fresh water, harnessed from a natural spring near the top of the site. Traces of occupation date back thousands of years when Tipon served as an estate for Inca nobility.
4. Pisac Incan Citadel
With its elevated position, overlooking the Sacred Valley, Pisac served as a defensive fortress, protecting the southern end of the valley. It controlled a route, which connected the Inca Empire with the border of the rain forest and was also an important agricultural sector. The Inca terraces constructed on the steep hillside are still in use today. The ruins include a military citadel, religious temples, individual dwellings, baths, altars and water fountains. The settlement is built on row upon row of stone terraces and is thought to represent a partridge’s (pisac) wing.
Located close to Sacsayhuaman in Cusco, Qenqo was a holy temple where death rituals and blood sacrifices were carried out. The unique site is carved out of a giant monolith, and pre-dates the Incas. Man-made canals run through the main structure connected to a natural amphitheater and an underground section used in the mummification process of noblemen.
Originally built for worship, the fortress served as the last Inca stronghold against the Spanish Conquistadors dating back to 1536. Ollantaytambo is recognized as an administrative center for the ancient Incas. It is made up of huge agricultural terraces built on the side of a mountain, with a temple at the top, constructed from giant monolith stones. Modern Ollantaytambo is a UNESCO World Heritage “living” Inca site.
7. Moray and Maras
Moray Inca site is often teamed with Maras as the sites are close to each other. Moray is a deep bowl of spiral of circular terraces and was used as an Incan agricultural laboratory to cultivate resistant and hearty varieties of plants high in the Andes, illustrating the sophistication of the Incas. Maras is another terraced site where the terraces are made up of huge saltpans. Today there are over 3,000 pools of salt that continue to be harvested by local families, much the same, as it was when the Inca discovered it over 1,000 years ago.
Choquequirao, or ‘Cradle of Gold’ in Quechua, is often referred to, as Machu Picchu’s little sister or the second lost city of the Incas. The site is an impressive display of structures and terraces built around a high mountain complex. Choquequirao served as an administrative hub for social, economic, political, and religious purposes. The city also played an important role as a link between the Amazon jungle and the city of Cusco. The archaeological complex is divided into 12 distinct sectors with most of the buildings built for Incan ceremonial purposes, residences of the priests, or storage of grains and food.
9. Pukapukara and Tambomachay
Tambomachay, ‘Bath of the Inca’, is the most peaceful of the ruins in Cusco. It is located very close to Pukapukara, and is the site where the Incas went to cleanse their bodies and minds of evil spirits. The ruins consist of a network of canals and small waterfalls. The spring water has never run dry, leading to the thought that it is also a possible “fountain of youth.” Historians believe that Pukapukara was used as a guard post protecting access to Cusco from the invading tribes of the Amazon. However many of the doorways have intricate and decorative carvings, indicating a more ceremonial use. Its name means red fortress and is taken from the red granite that was used in its construction.
10. Machu Picchu
The Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is a display of the Inca Empire at the peak of its power and achievement. These well-preserved Incan ruins lie in a dramatic location high on a ridge, surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River, 2,000 feet below. The complex was built as a ceremonial site and retreat for ruling elites, prior to becoming a military stronghold in preparation for the last stand against the Spanish Conquistadors. The citadel is divided into two sectors: the agricultural terraces and the urban. The urban sector consists of main squares, temples, palaces, storehouses, workshops, stairways and water fountains. Walkways and thousands of steps, consisting of stone blocks connect the plazas, the residential areas, the terraces, the cemetery, and the major buildings. At the southeastern end is the only formal entrance, leading to the Classic Inca Trail.
Article By: John Dzurka
Executive Director/Owner at Guiding Peru
Guiding Peru offers unique tours including multi-day treks and single day tours on the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, City of Cusco, and the Sacred Valley of Peru.
Updated: November 2, 2016