Nestled in a mountain valley at 10,000 feet above sea level, Cuzco, which means "navel of the world" in Quechua, formed the center of the Inca world, the Sacred City laid out in the shape of a puma. Today, ornate cathedrals and churches crouch over Inca temples, creating a rich history with a measure of contradiction.
The ruins of Koricancha, once the richest gold-lined temple of the Inca Empire dedicated to the sun god, forms the base of the colonial Convent of Santo Domingo which today houses an impressive collection of canvas paintings from the Escuela Cusquena, a Roman Catholic tradition originating after the 1534 Spanish conquest. The Cathedral of Cuzco, built between 1560 and 1664 out of large slabs of red granite taken from the Inca construction of Sacsayhuaman, possesses important collections of colonial gold and silverwork, elaborately engraved wooden altars and a lovely collection of oil on canvas paintings.
La Iglesia de San Blas, a comparatively simpler adobe church built in the old neighborhood of Toqokachi, displays extraordinary examples of fine colonial wood carvings, particularly the baroque gold-leaf principal altar and the pulpit, made from a single tree trunk. Legend claims the woodcarver was an indigenous man who miraculously recovered from a deadly disease and subsequently dedicated his life to carving for the church. Founded in 1536, the Church and Convent of La Merced features an outstanding bell tower in Baroque style. The interior displays Baroque Renaissance cloisters, an elaborate choir, numerous colonial figurines and paintings and the famous "Custodia de la Merced," a 24 carat gold jewel encrusted with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and a large bell-shaped pearl, considered to be the largest in the world.