4 Historical Points to Know Before You Go to Cusco

Tim Hofmeister is a student at Grand Valley State University and an ISA Featured Blogger. He is serving with ISA Service-Learning in Cusco, Peru.

Cusco is the destination for tourists, Spanish learners/speakers and study abroaders alike, and for good reason. This place is rich in culture, celebrations and history. To enjoy your trip to Cusco even more, you should keep in mind these four historical points.


Upon creation, the Incan civilization was destined for greatness. They were bound to bring the world out of savagery and into the realm of civilized life. Given a golden scepter by God Viracocha, the hermanos Ayar were told wherever it sinks into the ground is where the civilization will start. That place was Cusco (or Qosqo, in the language of the Incas). However, the civilization was much more than just the city of Qosqo. At the height of the civilization, the Incas stretched from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile as well as highland Argentina, and reigned for over 400 years. Incredible.


With Peru being part of the Ring of Fire, there is a lot of seismic activity. In order to prevent total destruction of the buildings, the Incans constructed their buildings wider at the bottom than at the top. This prevents toppling, and the practice is even used today in modern architecture.

Also useful for earthquakes (but really what makes Incan architecture very identifiable) is the fact that there is no cement, mortar or even Gorilla Glue–the rocks just fit perfectly together. So when you travel to an Incan archeological site or La Plaza de Armas in Cusco, be sure to look for big foundations with perfectly fitting rocks. You’ll know that these used to be important buildings!


In 1980, Peru overhauled its government and left the era of military rule, setting forth towards democracy. But with this change has come struggle.

In the 80’s and 90’s, the subversive and violent Maoist movement El Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) wreaked havoc on Peru in opposition to the government. With slow response from President Belaunde and the government, leftist leader Abimael Guzman (AKA Gonzalo) and el Sendero carried out many violent acts, mostly in rural farming villages. The Sendero was finally ousted in 1993, after the capture of Gonzalo.

New President Alberto Fujimori and his government were a large factor in the defeat of the Sendero. However his government did quite the opposite of bringing peace and happiness. Now imprisoned for human rights violations and embezzlement and fraud, Fujimori resigned from the presidency in 2002. By fax. As he fled to Japan.

Peru is a country with great wealth and resources, but unfortunately it has a history of corrupt leaders who have not had the country’s best interests in mind.

Qorikancha, Cusco, Peru, Hofmeister, 4
Qorikacha, Cusco.


Everything changed with the arrival of Spanish explorers. The Spaniards destroyed Incan palaces and temples and built cathedrals on top of them. The Spanish brought over their Moor-influenced architecture, their language, their religion and their lust for gold, eliminating a lot of the pre-existing Incan culture.

But not everything Incan died, which is why Peru is so interesting. Nowhere else can you find a mix of Incan traditions meshed with Spanish traditions; the syncretism is truly one-of-a-kind, and permeates every facet of life.

So keep these four points in mind, and you will be an expert in Cusqueñan history and life when you travel to Peru.

Looking to discover history and see the world? Learn more about ISA Service-Learning programs in Peru!