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Cusco Peru - Navel of the World

by Miles Hecker


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In Quechuan, the language of the native people of the Andes, Cusco means, "navel of the world". For most visitors, Cusco is the gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Located at the rather lofty altitude of 11,200 ft. (3400 m), Cusco was the capital and geographic center of the Inca Empire. According to Inca legend, the city was built by the Inca emperor Pachacuti. Many scholars believe that the city was built as an effigy in the shape of a puma or mountain lion.

The Spanish conquistadors first arrived in Cusco on November 15, 1533. Francisco Pizarro arrived in March 1534, and renamed it the "Very noble and great city of Cusco" and claimed it for the king of Spain. The Incas under the leadership of Manco Inca Yupanqui briefly retook the city from the Spanish during the Siege of Cusco in 1536. The Spaniards retook the city several days later and never relinquished it or control of the Sacred Valley. The Spanish demolished many Inca buildings, palaces and temples. The remaining walls were used in the construction of a new city and are visible to this day.

From the hills just north of the city, Cusco can be seen sprawling across the Huatanay River valley. It's current population is between 350,000 and 400,000. This is about the same as it was when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. Although it was an Inca city when the Spanish arrived, Cusco stood on layers of older cultures, with the old Incan city built on Killke or pre-Incan structures, and the Spanish having replaced Incan temples with Catholic churches, and Incan palaces with stately homes for the invaders.

The best example of these layers are The Dominican Priory and Cathedral of Santo Domingo, both of which were built on top of the impressive Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun). After an earthquake in 1950, restoration of the Santo Domingo complex was done in a way that exposed the Inca masonry obscured by the Spanish super structure without compromising the integrity of the Castilian heritage. Both these structures are located on or near the Plaza de Armas which is the cultural center of Cusco.

Plaza de Armas

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Santa Domingo Cathedral

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Both the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and the Dominican Priory are open to the public. The cathedral has some of the most exquisite art work and religious altarpieces in the world. Unfortunately, absolutely no photography is allowed. I scanned a postcard to get the image you see on the left.

The Plaza de Armas is both the cultural and spiritual center of Cusco. A remarkable 360° interactive panorama from its center can be viewed at this link. It is is a superbly landscaped plaza that includes a mixture of benches, fountains and trees. It was originally called ‘Huacaypata’ after its construction during the Inca Empire. Scholars believe the plaza was intentionally built at the location of the heart of the Puma, in the center of the city. It is used for most of the city’s events, gatherings, and festivals.

A great time to photograph the plaza is at night. You can set up your tripod and experiment with different exposures and locations to your hearts content. If you do this later in the evening after 10PM, it is fairly easy to get long exposure photos without too many people walking through your frame.

If you are interested in Incan art and history, a great place to visit and photograph is the Pre-Columbain art museum. Originally this structure was the mansion of the conquistador Alonso Díaz. It later became the home of VIceroy Hernandez de Cabrera. After a major restoration effort, it was reopened as the Museo de Arte Precolombino in June 2003. The museums collection of 450 master pieces date from 1250 BC to 1532 AD. There are a total of ten galleries: Formative, Nasca, Mochica, Huari, Chancay – Chimu, Inca, Wood, Jewelry and Stone, Silver, Gold and Metals.

Sundays are parade days at the Plaza de Armas. Every Sunday morning, the plaza is closed off to traffic, and a multitude of tourists and locals gather to watch the parade. Cusquenians young and old all line up after the Army makes its salute to the flag. Scholars, women, work places, unions all join in and parade in their costumes around the square. It is a great opportunity to take pictures of the locals without anybody disapproving or asking for money. Just remember to use your telephoto lens so you won't be run over by the participants. If you like to shoot video as well as stills, this gathering is as good as it gets in Cusco.

If you would like to find out more about photography in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu area, check out our new Sacred Valley Photoguide.

Street Scene

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About Miles Hecker

Miles has been involved with photography for over forty years. He teaches digital photography at Casper College in Casper,Wyoming. His photos have won awards from Natures Best magazine,, The Luminous Landscape and Wyoming WIldlife . Miles' photos have been published in American Vignette, Backpacker Magazine, Natures Best Images, Popular Photography, Wyoming Audubon, and Wyoming Wildlife. He is co-founder of WyoFOTO LLC.




Geotagged Photolocation Index

December 2012
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Concepts: Inca Empire, Cusco, Machu Picchu, Inca, Sapa Inca, Peru, Manco Inca Yupanqui, Tu00fapac Amaru, Photguide, Sacred Valley

Entities: Cusco, WyoFOTO LLC, Spain, Santo Domingo, Casper College, Sacred Valley, Huatanay River valley, earthquake, Army, Miles Hecker, Machu Picchu, Francisco Pizarro, Hernandez de Cabrera, Arte Precolombino, Backpacker Magazine, Wyoming

Tags: Cusco, Inca, city, Sacred Valley, plaza, Santo Domingo, Inca Empire, Machu Picchu, Inca emperor Pachacuti, Manco Inca Yupanqui, old Incan city, Dominican Priory, center, Natures Best, wyoming wildlife, superbly landscaped plaza, Inca city, Inca legend, Santo Domingo complex, Inca buildings, photography, Huatanay River valley, Spanish super structure, Inca masonry, Sacred Valley Photoguide, Machu Picchu area, exquisite art work, conquistador Alonso Du00edaz, Natures Best magazine, Natures Best Images, Pre-Columbain art museum, long exposure photos, major restoration effort, Armas, Incan palaces, Incan temples, great city, Incan art, new city, Spanish conquistadors