The focal point of the historic center of the UNESCO World Heritage listed city of Cusco is Plaza de Armas. It is one of the most beautiful plazas I’ve ever visited and is full of action at all times. The main plaza in the former capital of the Inca Empire of Tawantinsuyu is surrounded by buildings rich both in history and in beauty.
History of Plaza de Armas
Before colonial times, the Incas used to celebrate Inti Raymi (Sun Festival) there each year. They called the plaza Huacayapata (Warriors’ Square). Many significant events took place there. Francisco Pizarro claimed Cusco for Spain in the plaza, and Túpac Amaru II, leader of a native uprising, was beheaded there in 1781.
The center of the plaza features a 19th century fountain with a gold painted statue of an Inca on top. The statue was placed there in 2011 and has caused much controversy.
Arched portals supporting beautiful wooden balconies surround the plaza on parts of all four sides. Many of these balconies are restaurants and bars with great views overlooking the plaza.
The most important building on Plaza de Armas is the Catedral Basílica de la Virgen de la Asunción, or simply, Catedral del Cusco. Started in 1560, it was built on top of the Inca palace of Viracocha. It has two chapels attached. Admission is included with the Boleto Integral.
The interior of the cathedral and chapels is stunning. I wish photos were allowed because the artwork and craftsmanship in my opinion are unmatched in any South American cathedral I have visited. The unique painting of The Last Supper by Marcos Zapata shows Christ and his disciples eating a guinea pig and drinking chicha from Inca cups. The main altar, built in 1803, is made of Bolivian silver. The choir was carved from cedar in the 17th century and features figures of saints and popes.
Iglesia El Triunfo
One of the attached chapels, Iglesia El Triunfo, was the first church in Cusco, built on top of the old Inca armory in 1538. The other chapel, Templo de la Sagrada Familia, was built in 1573. Next to that is the tiny Capilla de Santísimo Sacramento.
Iglesia de la Compañía
The most beautiful building on Plaza de Armas is another church, Iglesia de la Compañia. It was built in 1571 on top of the palace of Inca ruler Huayna Capac. It was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1650.
Pay attention to the detail on the exterior of the church. It involves Inca elements in order to convince natives to convert to Christianity.
A visit costs S/15 (as of July 2014) and is well worth it. The interior is not as ornate as the cathedral but still spectacular. You are also able to climb to the first level of the bell tower through a tiny passageway and up a steep staircase. The views of the plaza are priceless from there.
Around the Plaza
The area around the plaza is also full of many surprises. If you are looking for a cheap meal, need a drink, or want to shop for bargains, the alley to the north, Procuradores, will lead you to what you are looking for.