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Cusco, navel of the Inca world

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Although most of the Inca structures were torn down or built over by the Spanish some were simply too big to destroy. Sacsayhuaman, a huge ruin that sprawls across benchlands above the city, includes rocks weighing more than 300 tons. Following a set of steep steps, we climbed up to the old zig-zag battlements and spent hours marvelling at the Inca stonework and pondering how it could have been done without machinery or even steel tools. On one of the huge stones I counted 12 facets, each fitted to a neighbouring rock with a jeweler's precision. The geometry alone is mind boggling.

Despite its impressive legacy the far-flung Inca Empire survived for little more than a century. It began in Cusco with a victory over the Chankas – and Cusco is where it ended. In 1532 the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, taking advantage of an Inca civil war, marched into Cusco virtually unopposed. The city was captured, looted, and gradually rebuilt as a Spanish colonial town. The Inca structures became a source of stone for building the cathedrals and villas of Spanish Cusco. In 1650 a violent earthquake destroyed almost every colonial building in the city, and again in 1950 Cusco was severely damaged by a magnitude 7 quake. But the Inca structures survived, unharmed, to become the foundation on which much of modern Cusco is built.

Today the Plaza de Armas, a spacious courtyard in the centre of town, is the heart of Cusco. Its broad green lawns and gardens are surrounded by ornate cathedrals, museums, and lesser colonial buildings that house all manner of tourist shops and services. We climbed a narrow stairway to a third-storey barato with small tables set on arched balconies overlooking the Plaza. The beer was cold, the nachos spicy, and the view of the twin-towered cathedral and people in the plaza totally absorbing.

Refreshed, we strolled across to the cathedral, gave a few pesos to a beggar on the steps, and entered the cool interior of the massive stone building. In the dim light filtering through high stained glass windows it took our eyes some time to register on the glittering opulence of our surroundings. Although the juxtaposition of gold-plated religious symbols and the beggar on the steps is disturbing, the Catholic church still has enormous support in Latin America, even among the indigenous people, many of whom combine Catholicism with their traditional culture.