A Visit to Cusco, Peru

The fight to Cusco from Lima takes you South East towards the Andes. After flying out over the Pacific we reverse directions and first cross the broad alluvial plan of the coast, earth washed from the alto plano. The rest of the flight takes us over the alto plano, an ancient sea bed raised to an elevation of 8,000 to 12,000 feet. It is also known as the great Pacific plate, the Nazca that slides under the South American continent. The mountains are sedimentary, interspersed with basalt from both new and ancient volcanoes.  On the far horizon a chain of snow capped costal volcanoes extends to the South. Further to the east the Andes rise, sharp and rugged, shapes typical of newly formed mountains. The high Andes were formed as the pressure of the rising earth cracks the crust and lifts and deforms the underlying granite. They rise as a wall towering over the alto plano to a height of twenty thousand feet and more.  The Andes are still rising. Frequent earthquakes of magnitude 7-8 on the Richter scale rock the country. The volcanoes remain active.

Few people live on the alto plano. Small rivers cut deep into the plain, creating strips of green. Widely separated settlements of 50 to 100 people lie in or near these river valleys. Occasionally a scattering of houses rests on the edge or slope of a hill. Antonio Barck, Minster of the Environment, told us that the dispersed nature of these small communities makes it difficult to provide health, education and public services.


Cusco is nestled in a broad valley 9,000 feet above sea level. The valley extends west to east. Visible far to the east are the tallest snow capped peaks of the Andes, their high flanks covered with melting glaciers.

Cusco was the center of the late Inca Empire. The name the Incas gave it was Tahuantansuyo "Four Kingdoms" representing the four cardinal points of their Empire. To the north the Inca Empire included Ecuador and Southern Colombia, to the South Bolivia as well as half of Chile and parts of Argentina, to the west what is now Peru to the sea. The Inca Empire stopped at the Amazon forest, the jungle people being their most feared enemies.  About 15 million people were included in the Inca Empire at its peak, just before the Spanish conquest. Of these, 250,000 people lived in and around Cusco and about 50,000, mostly nobles and priests, lived in the valley. The remainder farmed the surrounding hills. Today, the population of Cusco is about 500,000.


Cusco is literally built on Inca foundations. The Cathedrals are built on the site of temples, the major homes of the colonial city on the foundation stones of the homes of Inca Nobles. The superstructures of the cathedrals are quarried from the many Inca Temples that surround the city high.

The central plaza of modern Cusco is that of the Inca. The principal temple was to the sun "Inti." Just as important is the mother goddess of the earth, Patchamama. Our guides repeatedly mentioned the importance of the mother earth goddess to people today. Evidently, Mary's current popularity reflects her association with this ancient deity.

Legend holds that there were 365 small temples on the hills surrounding the city, one for each day of the year. These were built on small rock outcroppings (so as not to detract from arable land). One of these was the temple representing the summer solstice, June 21. Footings for residences also built at these sites are still visible.The temple of the solstice also is the site of what we were told was a sacrificial cave. Young men and women were sacrificed. The guides said the families considered it to be an honor to offer their best to the gods. The sacrifice chamber is in a natural cave. An alter carved of live stone is said to serve both for the sacrifice and subsequent mummification.

The Incas believed in an afterlife. A person could return as a human or as a powerful animal. They carefully preserved the dead and wrapped them in the finest fabrics. Many of the mummies were richly adorned with jewels. The tombs of the nobles and the rulers still yield rich treasurers of gold and silver jewelry, body ornaments, rich fabrics, wonderful pottery and weapons.

The animals most sacred to the Inca are the condor, who bears messages from the dead, the snake, who has wisdom and intelligence, and the puma for strength.

William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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