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If the Spanish came to the new world looking for El Dorado, the lost city of gold, they must have thought they'd found it when they laid eyes on Qorikancha. Built during the reign of the Inca Pachacutec to honor the Sun, Tawantinsuyos' most important divinity, Qorikancha translates as "Court of Gold." Conquistadors' jaws must have dropped when they saw the gold-plated walls of the temple glinting in the sunlight. Then their fingers must have started working because all that remains today is the masterful stonework.
If Cusco was constructed to represent a puma, then Qorikancha was positioned as the animal's loins, the center from which all creation emanated; 4,000 priests and attendants are thought to have lived within its confines. Walls and altars were plated with gold, and in the center of the complex sat a giant gold disc, positioned to reflect the sun and bathe the temple in light. At the summer solstice, sunlight reflected into a niche in the wall where only the Inca were
permitted to sit. Terraces that face it were once filled with life-size gold-and-silver statues of plants and animals. Much of the wealth was removed to pay ransom for the captive Inca ruler Atahualpa during the Spanish conquest, blood money paid in vain since Atahualpa was later murdered. Eventually, Francisco Pizarro awarded the site to his brother Juan. Upon Juan's death, the structure passed to the Dominicans, who began to construct the church of Santo Domingo, using stones from the temple and creating perhaps Cusco's most jarring imperial–colonial architectural juxtaposition.
An ingenious restoration to recover both buildings after the 1953 earthquake lets you see how the church was built on and around the walls and chambers of the temple. In the Inca parts of the structure left exposed, estimated to be about 40% of the original temple, you can admire the mortarless masonry, earthquake-proof trapezoidal doorways, curved retaining wall, and exquisite carvings that exemplify the artistic and engineering skills of the Inca. Bilingual guides are available for a separate fee. A small museum down the hill with an entrance on Avenida El Sol contains a few artifacts from the site but doesn't warrant a huge amount of your time. Only entrance to the museum is covered in the Boleto Turístico. A separate fee is applied to enter the ruins and the church. For S/15 you can buy a ticket that grants you entrance to the Convento Santa Catalina, and Qorikancha's ruins and church.
Jess Kraft / Shutterstock
Pampa del Castillo at Plazoleta Santo Domingo, Cusco, Cusco, Peru