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  • Writer's pictureBeyond the Range

The Cathedral Basilica

The Cathedral Basilica is one of Cusco’s best-known sites, and easily familiar to anyone who has been to the city. Situated on the eastern edge of the Plaza de Armas, this large and beautiful Renaissance style structure dominates the historic district’s skyline. During my recent visit there, I spent many hours passing beneath its spires, resting upon broad steps, or using it as a backdrop in my photos of the local culture.


I was introduced to the cathedral a couple years ago when I began researching my upcoming novel. By the time I boarded a plane for Cusco last October, I had probably spent hundreds of hours imagining myself (through the eyes of my characters) gazing up at the impressive sight. So, when I actually saw the cathedral in person, it was literally a dream come true. On my way to my hotel, while gazing out the windshield of a taxi, the architectural masterpiece rose impressively into view.


The very next morning I stepped through the wooden doors to investigate the cathedral’s interior. For several hours, I strolled the stone floor, gawking at ornamental alcoves, paintings, carvings, and colossal masonry – desperately trying to stamp the stunning images into my mind. Since photography is prohibited inside the cathedral, I knew my memory of this place might have to last a lifetime.


Now for a quick overview of the cathedral’s history…


The decision to build it was made on March 23, 1534 – the very day that Cusco was formally adopted as a Spanish city. Construction began in 1559 and required a century to complete. Materials were primarily sourced from the Palace of Wiracocha (the 8th sapa inca) – on whose grounds the cathedral is built – and the citadel of Sacsayhuaman.


The cathedral was commissioned by the Spanish to celebrate a Catholic god, and to help extinguish the pagan beliefs of the native. But the indigenous workers took every opportunity to weave Andean culture into the Christian tapestry. For instance, a carving of a jaguar adorns one of the doors. A statue of the crucifixion bears a localized (and ironically pagan-sounding) title, El Señor de Los Temblores, or “The Lord of the Earthquakes,” for its alleged power to ward off tremors. In one painting, the Virgin Mary is depicted as Pachamama (or “Mother Earth”) by her mountain-shaped dress with river-like hem. In another, titled “The Last Supper” by Marcos Zapata, the apostles are eating cuy (guinea pig) and drinking chicha (corn beer), both distinctly Andean fares. (The picture below shows a similar piece of art that I found on the wall of a restaurant in Aguas Calientes.)


A couple of travel “tips” for those planning to visit the cathedral:

  • Admission is NOT included as part of the Boleto Turístico (the well-known multi-site sold in Cusco); but it only cost an extra 25 soles (roughly $8).

  • Consider hiring a guide. The building’s rich and deep history justifies paying a handful of soles to hear the stories and perspectives of a Cusqueño.

Originally published 12/12/2017 here. ©Beyond the Range All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.

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