When you think about Peru, images of Machu Picchu and the Andean Mountains come to mind, but Peru has a lot more to offer. Plan to spend time visiting its colonial cities which blend Peru’s Inca and Spanish heritages for some of the most charming places in South America.
Like most people we thought we’d waste a couple of days in Cusco (also spelled Cuzco) to get acclimatized before trekking the Inca Trail. Instead of feeling as if we were just wasting time, we fell in love with this mountain town. Spanish Colonial architecture is interspersed with extraordinary Inca stone walls making it a unique and charming city.
Once the heart of the Inca’s Cusco, Plaza de Armas is still important today. It’s a lovely spot with park benches, flowers and manicured lawns. Set in the Andes mountains at 3326 m, its high altitude means there are few large trees, but that doesn’t at all take away from its charm. The plaza is a popular area for both tourists and locals. We couldn’t resist taking pictures of the quechua women dressed in traditional clothes.
On one side of the square is La Catedral. It is an imposing building with tall twin bell towers with elaborate spires and an ornate doorway surrounded by massive pillars.The cathedral was built on the site of an Inca palace with stones taken from the nearby Inca site, Sacsayhuaman. The church is large, but looks even larger because of the two smaller churches on either side. To its immediate right it is joined to El Triunfo, the oldest church in Cusco. On its left is the plainer Church of Jesus Maria.
A second large church borders Plaza de Armas and competes with the Cathedral in grandeur. La Campana, a Jesuit church, was built a few years later. It’s another impressive twin towered church with small domed roofs and an elaborate façade. When the church was being built Cusco’s bishop was concerned that it would be more impressive than the Cathedral. He sought out help from the pope. La Campana was almost finished when the pope finally intervened and so this Jesuit church is an equally remarkable building.
Walk away from the plaza and you’ll be climbing. Narrow cobblestone streets and stairs climb the hill behind the plaza and offer a great view of the city below. At over 3000 m, it’s much more difficult to walk these streets than you expect. In much of old Cusco, the Spanish plunked their buildings right on top of the foundations of Inca buildings. We loved to stroll through the neighbourhood of San Blas where many buildings have Inca stone bases topped with typical whitewashed colonial buildings.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Inca construction are their walls. They were amazing masons, sculpting so precisely that mortar wasn’t required. Inca masons also carved the contact surfaces of each stone with precise notches and bulges to correspond exactly to the opposing stone. This skill allowed for many of the Inca walls to withstand earthquakes, when more modern buildings failed.
There are different Inca building design strategies based on their purpose. Seemingly random arrangements of stones resulted in strong joints so this method was used in building walls. One wall in Cusco has a 12-sided stone. Designs with consistent patterns were considered more aesthetically pleasing. These were used for temples and palaces.
The foundation of the Coricancha (Temple of the Sun God) is great example of aesthetic Inca construction. Its symmetrical, smooth finish demonstrates incredible skill. The Spanish Convent of Santo Domingo on top looks a bit awkward in comparison. The convent had to be rebuilt many times after earthquake damage, but the foundation stood strong.
To visit most of the sites in Cusco you need a tourist ticket. There are four different packages available with different sites, length of days and prices. Research which sites you want to visit and how much time you have to be sure you buy the ticket that best matches your needs. Sites that are on the Boleto Turistico do not sell individual entry tickets. The best place to buy these are at the COSITUC office in Cusco.
The picturesque city of Arequipa lies under the shadows of the active Volcano Misti and the extinct Volcanoes Pichu Pichu and Chachani. Its buildings shine brightly in the sun because they were made from white volcanic sillar rock.
The elevation is much lower than Cusco at 2325 m so Arequipa has more vegetation. Plaza de Armas, the main plaza, is filled with tall, green trees. On one side of the plaza is the beautiful La Catedral. The church takes up the entire block with large white columns filling the space between two tall bell towers. Its location close to the volcanoes resulted in many severe earthquakes causing massive damage to the city. La Catedral had been rebuilt many times after being decimated from earthquakes and fires. There was an earthquake as recently as 2002 when our friends were visiting. They recounted a terrifying story of the buildings shaking and collapsing around them.
There’s an interesting story about Arequipa’s large Monasterio Santa Catalina. It was established in 1580 by a rich widow. She selected daughters from the best families in the area to be the nuns. They didn’t live a typical simple convent life however. Each nun had her own servants and there were often large parties with musicians in the convent. This lifestyle carried on until the 1880s when the pope found out. Today there are still a few nuns, but the rest of the convent is open to visitors. It’s a huge complex of winding pathways beautiful courtyards and fruit orchards. From a rooftop terrace you can see El Misti Volcano.
The Spanish claimed Lima as their capital and left behind a lovely historical centre. In the city centre Plaza de Armas, also called Plaza Mayor, is a large busy square surrounded by gorgeous Spanish Colonial buildings. La Cathedral is a large church that takes up the entire side of the square with the Archbishop’s Palace attached. The Cathedral is a beautiful white building with two tall bell towers and an ornate main entry decorated in detailed sculptures. The Archbishop’s Palace is attached to the cathedral. This building is less grand than the cathedral, but has equally impressive details on the front as well as a string of wooden balconies.
On the next side of the plaza are colourful yellow municipal buildings. Due to many earthquakes, the only structure in the square that is original is the old fountain in front of the cathedral. Built in the 1650s it demonstrates how elaborate this plaza must have been.
Jiron de La Union pedestrian mall connects Plaza de Armas to Plaza San Martin. Here we found a statue with an interesting history. On the top is Peru’s liberator General Martin, but below him is the unusual part. A small statue of Madre Patra (Mother of Peru) was a gift to Peru by Spain. The instructions for the artist said that the Mother of Peru should have a crown of flames. The message got confused as the Spanish word for flame is llama, so the Peruvian sculptor put a furry camelid on her head!
When we were in Peru there was a nation-wide teachers strike. While in Lima there was a large demonstration in the downtown area so we didn’t explore as much as we had planned.
Coming Next: Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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