Cusco and her ruins


Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire. At its height it must have been out-of-this-world spectacular. In fact, it’s still pretty darn cool. When the Spanish arrived they quickly ran out of grand buildings in Spain to which to compare its architecture. They were especially interested in the massive amounts of gold.

The gold is gone now. Much of it was melted down by an Inca emperor to pay ransom to the Spanish. To the Incas gold didn’t really have value outside a religious context where they thought it was special because it reflected the sun. The rest of the gold was looted and pillaged and sent back to Spain.

Some of the mighty Inca structures were used by the Spanish as quarries to build a new colonial city. Palaces in the city centre were stripped down and had cathedrals built atop them. But there are enough remaining ruins to get a sense of how impressive Incan architecture was. We especially liked Saqsaywaman which overlooks the modern city.


Without any mortar-like substance the Incans cut rocks incredibly precisely, fitting them together in complex polyagonal shapes. One hell of a rubix cube. They managed to cart huge stones about without the wheel or draught animals. And without having figured out the strength and usefulness of the arch they made great use of the trapezoid, even tilting their walls to make them more earthquake proof.

Cusco’s not ruined

Cusco is pretty touristy. On top of all its own ruins it is the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. But it manages to pull off touristy pretty well. It’s like Rotorua in that the tourist attractions are actually integrated into the city. But it smells better. You turn a corner or climb an alley and find an original Incan wall. That’s to say nothing of the colonial churches and other architecture that abound.

We’re staying with a local family who we found on  Our main host likes Richard Dawkins and pop-economics, just like us. We’ve talked about Daniel Kahneman and Pikkety and I made Fiona explain libertarian paternalism and nudges. His daughters do maths for fun and like to ask how to say things in English. It’s nice to spend some time with a Latin American family that priorities education.

Our host’s sister cooks us breakfast – which is rice and something else, the something else ranging from chicken casserole to banana pancakes – and she and her daughter sleep in the kitchen behind a curtain. It’s another example of the contrast between a city that in some ways feels very European and splendorous, but it other ways not so much.

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