Guest Blogger: Nick Snakenberg from Denver Botanic Gardens

Our second day of discovery begins with a flight to Cusco, the historical capital of the Inca Empire. We had time to rest and adjust to the high altitude (over 11,000 feet) before meeting our guide Carlos Seminario (a Cusco native) and beginning a tour of the city.

Our first stop was the Q’orikancha (Korikancha) temple. In Quechua, Qorikancha means ‘courtyard of gold’ and that is a good description for what this historic site once was. Dedicated to worship of the sun, the temple once had many gold statues and alters as well as walls covered with gold. After the arrival of the Spanish, the gold was removed and much of the stone was repurposed to build the Dominican Convent of Santo Domingo. The convent is an amazing example of the juxtaposition of architectural styles. Remnants of the Inca temple reveal extraordinary stone work and an advanced understanding of engineering to mitigate earthquake damage. The reconstruction also takes advantage of Inca terraces to create beautiful gardens filled with enormous fuchsia plants and a lovely rose garden.

An especially well-done exhibit is a painting by Miguel Araoz Cartagena depicting the Milky Way as seen in the southern hemisphere and interpreted by the Inca. To the Inca, the Milky Way is known as Maya or “Celestial River”. While most people look at groupings of stars and define constellations, the Inca often looked at the gaps or dark spaces between the stars. Just as we assign names to constellations, the Inca recognized and named spaces between the stars. With the aid of some well done exhibit interpretation, it is easy to pick out the shapes of the many animal figures that have come to drink from the Celestial River. Starting at the right, you can see a serpent. Just below and to the left is a toad and directly above that a partridge. Perhaps the easiest to pick out is the large llama in the center and directly behind the llama is a fox (look for the two red eyes). When asked about resentment of the Spanish conquest of Cusco, our guide indicated that there are still those with hard feelings, but the Spanish conquest is so far in the past that these feelings have largely disappeared. He also pointed out that the Inca conquered the people who populated theCusco area when they arrived on the scene. It is a theme common in human history and around the world.

After leaving the convent, we made our way to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, also known as Cusco Cathedral. Construction of the cathedral began in 1559 and again, the stone was taken from existing Inca structures. The cathedral is built in a Gothic-Renaissance style and reflects the architecture that would have been seen in Spain at the time of the conquest of South America. The somewhat plain appearance of the outside of this cathedral does no justice to the beauty to be found inside. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted so you have to take my word for it. The many chapels are filled with enormous paintings, carvings and other artifacts, many gilded with gold or silver. There are two large altars – the original made of alder wood and a second made of cedar that has been completely covered with silver. Our guide told us that over 1250 kg of silver adorn this altar that is used for daily masses to this day. While it may be unfair to place a dollar value on history or art, a little math will tell you that 1250 kg equals approximately 44,000 ounces and with current silver prices ($33.42/oz), the value of the silver on this one altar would be close to $1.5 million. That’s a lot of silver polish!

Having visited the Barbosa-Stern art collection in Lima the day before, we were able to admire much of the artwork from a more educated perspective. The presence of Inca symbolisms are prevalent when you know what to look for and seeing the Zapata painting of the Last Supper with guinea pig as the main course makes much more sense now.

Following our visit to the cathedral, Carlos treated us to a short lecture on some of the more prevalent flora we could expect to see as we continued our visit to the Peruvian highlands. Carlos made the interesting observation that while many tourists come to Peru to admire exotic birds and butterflies of the region, a good guide must also know the plants. The birds and butterflies are more easily found near their favorite plants since they often depend on these plants for their survival. It is a good reminder that we humans depend on plants for our survival as well!

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