Spain is Earth’s version of The Biggest Loser.
It’s hard to believe that Spain, a country that today is smaller than the state of Texas, once ruled an empire covering all of Central America, much of the US and South America, parts of the Caribbean, bits of Europe and even some outposts in Asia.
That’s a lot of empire to lose.
Remnants of the former empire are everywhere evident in Latin America, however, where Spanish remains the dominant language, where the culture and food retain heavy Spanish influence and where Roman Catholicism, the religion imposed on native civilizations at the often bloody point of a sword, remains the overwhelmingly dominant religion.
Even Cusco, a small city today but once the capital of the mighty Incan Empire, boasts 17 cathedrals for its 350,000 residents.
A couple of them are particularly fascinating, and a little funny.
Straddling Cusco’s central square, Plaza de Armas, are the Cusco Cathedral and the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, constructed in the 1550s and 1650s respectively. Both are gorgeous, typical examples of old European gothic-renaissance style, but the Cusco Cathedral had a couple of features that made us chuckle.
The first was black Jesus.
Seems the last few hundred years the candles burned inside the cathedral gradually turned the Christ on the massive wooden crucifix black. When, in 1990, they stopped burning candles within the church, everything was given a thorough cleaning. The locals decided they were quite content with black Jesus, however, and he was left dark and sooty.
(It should be noted that you can find a black Jesus in many a cathedral throughout Southern Europe and Latin America, and in almost all cases at some point in history white church leaders concocted some version of the candle story. But the truth is that they were made black because that seemed a more accurate representation of a 2,000-year-old prophet from the Middle East. And I honestly couldn’t tell which version of history was true in Cusco.)
If that doesn’t give this grand old cathedral enough delightful character, there’s the obligatory canvas painting of The Last Supper. Instead of dining on bread the apostles in the Cusco Cathedral representation are dining on guinea pig, the most common food served at special occasions by Andean people.
I decided this was my favorite cathedral in the world.
Our wonderful guide, who sported the impressively literary name Rubén Dario Cornejo Villena, did his best to teach us the history of the Incas in Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley, but I believe he repeated “we just don’t know for sure” a dozen or more times. The Spanish, in their religious fervor to eradicate "paganism" and convert the defeated locals into proper believers, strove to destroy all evidence of Incan culture.
And Incas didn’t help, leaving not one single written record for historians to study.
This is probably because the Inca had no written language. None. At least not in the sense we understand "written."
But they had another system for recording things, unique in all history.
The Incas didn't write. They roped.
Inca records were kept on knotted strings. Depending on the number of strings hanging on a “kipu,” the number, type and position of the knots, and maybe also the color of the string, the Incas could keep track of business, payments of accounts, censuses, inventories and, according to some tales from the conquistadors, even "read" the history of the empire.
Alas, as with almost all of pre-Colombian high culture, the ability to read and understand the kipus was killed off by the ravaging conquistadors. Just as the Spanish burned the vast libraries of the Mayas (only five books survive today) and the ability to read Mayan glyphs disappeared from human knowledge, so too did Inca records disappear.
Although several hundred kipus survive today, the ability to read them has been lost, perhaps forever.
Remarkably, the locals don’t revile the Spanish as you would expect. They don’t even seem to pity the Inca much. We chatted with Rubén about this as we strolled around the Plaza de Armas, the gorgeous central square. We ducked into the Inka Grill and continued chatting over a wonderful meal of stuffed potatoes, tamales, yucca, beef heart, baked guinea pig and of course, Pisco sour, a native cocktail made from fermented grapes.
Well, I thought it was a wonderful meal. My wife, Soo, nearly threw up when we casually noted she’d just eaten cow heart (possibly we should have mentioned this before she was actively chewing on a piece). We both enjoyed the guinea pig, which was scrumptious, though I felt a tad guilty about eating an animal I’d had as a childhood pet.
Rubén took us on a tour of Puka Pukara Fortress, which once defended the Inca city of Cusco (though, apparently, not too terribly successfully) and Saqsayhuaman Fortress, whose massive stone walls may or may not have actually been a fortress. As with most things Inca, we just aren’t sure.
Inca history, though entirely fascinating, ended with remarkable pain and sadness. I love modern Spain, but I couldn’t help but be outraged at the Spanish, offended on behalf of humanity for the evil they did here.
Their final blow against the Inca Empire came in an amazing replay of the defeat of Aztec Emperor Montezuma, when a handful of Spanish conquistadors managed to overthrow the Incas by lying and trickery. In 1531, after dishonorably breaking a truce by capturing Emperor Atahualpa in the town of Cajamarca, they struck a deal for his life.
Ever lusting for gold and plunder, they directed Atahualpa to have his subjects fill an entire room to the ceiling once with gold and twice with silver to ransom their imprisoned ruler. Loyal citizens hauled tons of gold and silver from all four corners of the empire. Within a couple of months, untold numbers of priceless artistic treasures had been dumped into the room, subsequently to be melted down and shipped back to Spain as ingots.
But Atahaulpa kept his part of the bargain, and the king's ransom was paid.
So of course the Spaniards killed him anyway.
Hard to believe this lot couldn’t hold their empire together, eh?
So, feeling haughtily anti-Spanish, which oddly puts you in the minority around here, Soo and I enthusiastically did the touristy bit, exploring Cusco, a gracefully beautiful old town European in style but with a distinctly Latin feel, and shopping for local arts and crafts in the Pisaq Market. We even stood in line to tip a local 10 soles (about $3) to pose with her alpaca.
For some reason I found that delightfully fun, even though I smelled like alpaca for the next several hours (not a good thing).
You can’t help but love this rugged, remote, and once grand corner of the world, nestled in a 10,000-foot-high valley of the Andes. The imposing mountains and rivers are gorgeous, the softly rolling hills of the Sacred Valley serene, the people friendly and open.
And the region’s historical significance, at least what we know of it, is undeniable.
I just wish the damned Spanish had left us a little more to savor.
Adam Jones-Kelley, an Atlanta native who lives occasionally (and happily!) in New Zealand, is Managing Director of Site Selection Magazine and OnSite Travel.