When we got to the colonial city of Cusco, we were both a bit…beat. We had seen and done so much in our first couple of days in Peru, including visiting a certain wonder of the world, that once that part of the trip was over, it was almost like “now what.”. While I knew there were a couple of attractions I definitely wanted to visit in Cusco, I was more interested in just walking around, exploring, and simply enjoying the ambiance. We did visit three sites in Cusco, two churches and a convent. Cusco is very much a city that was “built” on religion.
Note: None of the three attractions we visited in Cusco allowed any photography (even without flash). This really disappointed me on multiple levels since there is nothing I like better than taking pictures and marveling at them long after. If cathedrals in Europe that are older than the ones in Cusco allow photography, I’m not sure why Cusco (and also places in Lima) do not.
Compania de Jesus (Church of the Society of Jesus )
In the Plaza de Armas, you will see multiple houses of worship that look straight out of the Iberian Peninsula. One of them is the Compania de Jesus which is a Jesuit church (the same religious order in the 1980s film The Mission.) Its construction began in 1576 on the top of the Amarucacancha, palace of the Inca Huayna Capac. The entire church was rebuilt a couple of decades later after a devastating earthquake in 1650.The church is an example of the colonial baroque art style in America and its facade is made entirely of stone.
As was the case at multiple churches/cathedrals we visited, you have the option of “hiring” a guide to take you around. This was the first site we visited so we agreed (we paid 10 soles for a 30 minute guided tour). While guides speak Spanish/English, our guide’s English wasn’t the best so he often said a lot in Spanish which I then translated for D. The church was quite beautiful and having a guide did enable us to see a lot that we would have otherwise missed. I especially liked learning how the indigenous people who had converted to Catholicism kept their culture and indigenous faith alive by incorporating elements of it into the art and details of the church. Our guide explained it was their way of rebelling since obviously the Spanish conquistadors wished to destroy any vestiges of the indigenous faiths and cultures. My favorite parts were the main altar, seeing the entrance of what used to be catacombs, and the bell tower which you were allowed to climb and go up. Also, when you enter, be sure to admire the beautiful painting which depicts the marriage between an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador.
Admission: 15 soles (adults)
Known as the “mother church” of the Archdiocese of Cusco, construction on the structure began in the mid-16th century and wasn’t completed until 1654. Adjacent and connected to the cathedral is the smaller church, Iglesia del Triunfo (Church of the Triumph) which was the first Christian church to be built in Cusco. I was unfortunately out of soles by this point and needed to get to an ATM, so we didn’t hire a guide this time. While admiring stunning architecture and beautiful works of art is always a special experience, I know that there was probably a ton that we missed.
As was the case with many buildings in Cusco, the cathedral was built on the site of former Inca buildings of prominence. The cathedral’s construction began in 1559 on the foundations of Kiswarkancha. It is shaped like a Latin cross. The location of Viracocha’s palace was chosen for the purpose of removing the Inca religion from Cusco, and replacing it with Spanish Catholic Christianity.
The cathedral was built in Gothic-Renaissance style and is a reflection of Spain at the time of the Spanish conquest of Latin America. And just like the Compania de Jesus, the Incas also incorporated some of their religious symbolism into the catedral (for example, the carved head of a jaguar, an important god or religious motif found in much of ancient Peru, is seen on the the cathedral doors).
My favorite part about the cathedral was probably the famous painting, La Ultima Cena which is modeled after the famous Last Supper painting except that it incorporated Peruvian elements-guinea pig as the main course, and then chicha (a Peruvian drink), and also Inca drinking cups. The cathedral is also a treasure trove for priceless artworks-much of the artwork in the cathedral originated from the Escuela Cuzquena (Cuzco school of art). This was a school that was built by the Spanish to educate the Incas and their descendants with the methods and disciplines of European renaissance style artwork.
Admission: 25 soles (adults)
Monasterio de Santa Catalina (Monastery of Saint Catherine)
We had to pass by the monastery whenever we wanted to go to the Plaza de Armas area, so I thought it was worth a visit. The Monastery of Saint Catherine of Siena was founded in 1601 in the colonial city of Arequipa but was relocated to Cusco after a series of destructive natural disasters that occurred in Arequipa at the beginning of the 17th century. The monastery was founded by a wealthy widow (in the Spanish colonial culture, when a woman was widowed, she often didn’t remarry but entered the religious life) and in 1605, 25 nuns entered the monastery. The nuns were cloistered, which means they had no contact with the outside world, and today 13 nuns still live at the monastery, although they do not live as restricted a life as their former nun sisters once did.
The monastery’s museum contains a series of historic artifacts as well as background information on the life of the sisters. The upstairs takes you into the former dining space as well as the room where the novices slept and bathed (seeing their sparse accommodations and lack of privacy, I couldn’t imagine). Also on display were scourges, or lashes that religious individuals often used to beat themselves as a form of penance. (I wasn’t aware it was something religious women did.)
The museum was dry and not overly extensive. It’s definitely not a place I would recommend to the same degree as the two churches mentioned above, but it was interesting enough and for only a few dollars, I didn’t regret stopping in.
Admission: 8 soles (adults)
Cusco definitely has more sights and places to visit, but these were the ones of most interest for me to check out. I repeat though, Cusco is very much a city to just wander in, especially on its hilly and narrow colonial streets.