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The Staggering Coricancha Temple of the Sun in Cusco Peru

Written by: Kevin Groh

Coricancha Sun Temple on sunny day with white clouds

The Coricancha also spelled Koricancha was the most important temple for the Inca people. It is currently the most popular tourist destination in Cusco, Peru. The temple is dedicated to Inti, which is the sun god of the Inca and the temple was the political and religious center of Tahuantinsuyo.

The word “Coricancha” is formed through a combination of two Quechua words: “quri” which means worked gold, and “kancha”, which means temple, or place enclosed by walls. Combined this means that the name of the temple roughly translates to “Walls of Gold” or the “Golden Temple.”

For understanding, we will be using the spellings Coricancha, Koricancha, and Qoricancah interchangeably as they all are related to the temple. When touring Peru, this will be one of the best places to visit.

History of the Coricancha

Manco Capac started construction of a small temple called Inticancha which is the Temple of the Sun around the year 1200. With the arrival of Pachacútec, the construction reached its colossal size and was renamed Coricancha. Inca Pachacutec ordered the construction of the temple after his victory over the Chanchas in 1438.

Post-conquest, Francisco Pizarro gave it to his brother Juan who bequeathed it to the Dominicans, in whose possession it remains.

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the temple had a large number of rooms with different functions. The interior was only for the most important people of the Inca empire. In addition, in the gardens of the lower part of the temple is where the conquered people that became a part of the Inca empire would come to lay their offerings.

During the Spanish invasion in 1533, the Spanish captured the last ruling Inca, Atahualpa during the conquest. In exchange for his freedom, his people gave Coricancha’s gold as part of the ransom. Regardless, the Spanish invaders executed Atahualpa in 1533, after they received the gold.

Juan Pizarro, brother of Francisco Pizarro, then took control of the temple and donated it to the Dominicans. After the donation, Christians built the Convent of Santo Domingo over the top of the temple.

There were several small uprisings after the Spanish captured Cusco however, Atahualpa’s death marked the beginning of the end for the Inca Empire. Tupac Amaru II led several uprisings, but the Spanish captured and brutally executed him as well. The empire never regained power.

Coricancha Temple from the side on a sunny day

What is the Religious and Political Significance of the Coricancha?

While it was primarily a place of worship for the various Inca religion, the Qoricancha served a number of political and scientific purposes as well. The Koricanca housed two astronomical observation towers and served as the burial site for deceased Inca rulers and their wives.

The rulers were mummified and their remains were periodically removed from the temple to be honored during important days in the Inca calendar.

What to Visit in the Coricancha?

What to Visit in the Koricancha?

When visiting the Coricancha Sun Temple, there are twelve main sights that we recommend seeing inside.

The Temple of the Sun
This is the most important temple in the Koricancha. It encompasses more than half of the Church of Santo Domingo. During the Inca period, this temple was covered with gold and other precious metals.

The interior and exterior walls of the temple were covered in gold, which was considered the sweat of the sun, which was beaten into sheet plates. There were approximately 700 of these half-meter square sheets, each weighing 2 kg.

The Children of the Sun, which are embalmed mummies, continue to rest on chairs of gold at a golden table. It is a statue that represents the god Inti called Punchao, which means Day or Midday Sun. From his head and shoulders, the sun’s rays shine. He wore a royal headband and had snakes and lions coming out of his body.

The stomach of the statue was hollow and used to store the ashes of the vital organs of previous Inca rulers. Every day this statue was brought out into the open air and returned to the shrine each night.

The Temple of the Sun was the main altar where the god Inti represented the god Huiracocha, which was the main god of the Inca people. Unfortunately, most of the temple was destroyed by the Spanish to build the Santo Domingo Church.

The Temple of the Moon
Near the Temple of the Sun is the Temple of the Moon. This was considered to be the wife of the sun, Killa. The temple was beautifully lined with silver and decorated with images of the moon. The Temple of the Moon was also destroyed by the Spanish to make room for the Santo Domingo Church.

The Temple of Venus and the Stars
This was the center of worship of the stars for the Inca people. For the Inca the Sun was God, the Moon was his wife, and the stars were their children. The alley connecting the Temple of the Moon and the Stars was dedicated to Venus. Bone remains of auquénidos were found here. Therefore it is believed that animal sacrifice took place here.

The Rainbow Temple
This is a room that was also covered by gold during the Inca time and dedicated to the god, Cuichu. The upper part of the room is in the shape of a rainbow. This was important to the Inca because a rainbow required the Sun to be produced.

The Hall of Sacrifices
This room was named for the rock that was carved as a sacrificial table.

The Ray, Thunder, and Lightning Enclosure
This rectangular enclosure has 3 doors whose purpose is the worship of lightning and thunder. This temple is dedicated to the god, Illapa.

The Sacred Gardens or Sun Garden
This is a space of greenery that during the Inca times had gold and precious metal decorations. It contained a large field of corn and life-size models of shepherds, llamas, jaguars, guinea pigs, monkeys, birds, and even butterflies and insects were all made out of precious metal. Today, the only thing remaining is the gold corn stalks. It is currently able to be viewed from outside the temple.


Koricancha gardens on a sunny day

The Gate or the Sacred Alley
This is a corridor that is surrounded by two finely carved stone walls.

The Fountains
In the original Coricancha, there were 5 different fountains and the origin of the water was a secret. Each fountain held a different religious significance, and as many of the other structures in the Coricancha, it was decorated with beautiful metals, such as gold and silver.

Santo Domingo Church
After the Spanish invaded, much of the Koricancha was destroyed and the Santo Domingo Monastery built over it.

What are the Most Important Design Elements of the Qorikancha?

While the complex was dedicated to the various gods important in the Inca Empire, the Coricancha was decorated with an elaborate array of gold and precious metal artifacts because the Inca believed gold to be Inti’s sweat.

The Coricancha complex was said by the Spanish to have been laid out according to the sky. The term “cancha” or “kancha” refers to a type of building group, like the Coricancha, that consists of four rectangular structures placed symmetrically around a central plaza. The temples were each dedicated to one of their important gods: Inti (the sun), Killa (the moon), Chasca (the stars), and Illapa (the thunder or rainbow).

Another plaza extended westward from the complex where a small shrine was dedicated to Viracocha, who was the supreme god of the Inca. All the temples were surrounded by a high, powerfully constructed wall. Outside of the wall was the exterior garden or Sacred Garden of the Sun.

The interior walls of the temple are trapezoidal and were built to withstand the most severe earthquakes. Increased size on the bottom combined with 3 to 5-degree inclination gives the walls remarkable stability that has withstood centuries of earthquakes. The stones can easily wiggle in place, which releases the seismic stresses. After an earthquake, they settle and lock back into their original position.

The largest portion of the exterior wall at the Coricancha sits at the southwestern part of the complex. The wall was constructed of finely cut parallel-piped stones, taken from the Rumiqolqa quarry where enough flow-banded blue-grey stones could be mined.

The stones used to build Coricancha included diorite rocks, Andesites, and calcareous rocks. The stones were mine approximately 20 miles outside Cusco in the towns Waqoto and Rumicolca. The Coricancha temple was created using the Incas’ precise stone masonry technique known as ashlar. The Inca people cut and shaped stones to fit perfectly against each other without mortar, causing them to lie on top of each other with no space between.

To build the Church of Santo Domingo, the Spanish used stones and other construction material from the sacred Coricancha temple. While the Spanish structure has collapsed several times, the Inca structure remains unchanged and unaffected by the seismic activity.

However, visitors should not disregard the church’s architecture. It is an impressive example of Spanish architecture complete with Baroque-style decorative carvings and vaulted ceilings. Spanish arcades surround the internal courtyard. Additionally, the wooden door has Mudéjar (Moorish) style carvings. Santo Domingo is the only place in Cusco representing this style.

What Makes the Location of the Coricancha Significant?

The Coricancha was the physical and spiritual heart of Cusco. It represents the heart of the sacred panther outline of Cusco, as previously noted at Sacsayhuaman. Because of this, it was the focal point of major religious activity within the city. The sacred pathways of shrines called ceques radiated out from Cusco, into the four quadrants of the Inca empire. Most of the ceque pilgrimage lines started at or near the Coricancha, extending out from its corners or nearby structures to more than 300 huacas or places of ritual importance.

Additionally, the position of the temple in relation to the Andes mountains meant that Koricancha functioned as an enormous calendar. Shadows cast by stones placed in the foothills could be seen from the temple. They helped to mark out summer and winter solstice and equinoxes which were important to the Incan empire.

Best Season to Visit the Coricancha

As the Coricancha is located in the heart of Cusco, the climate is mild year-round. From November to March is the rainy season where rainfall is frequent with up to 16 days of rain in a month. The temperature during the wet season can range from a low of 45 degrees F (7 celsius) to a high of 70 degrees F (21 celsius) From April to October however, the dry season occurs where it rains much less frequently. The temperatures during the dry season are approximately a low of 33 degrees F (1 celsius) to a high of 67 degrees F (19 celsius).

Additionally, Inti Raymi is celebrated every year on June 24. Because of this, we think that the best time to visit Coricancha is the dry season, specifically for Inti Raymi as the Koricancha has a great show with hundreds of actors, who recreate what was the greatest celebration of the Inca Empire.

Tour guide standing in front of Coricancha

What is the Best way to get to the Coricancha?

The Qoricancha Cusco Perú is located at the intersection of ‘Sol’ Avenue and ‘Santo Domingo’ street. To get to the Coricancha Site Museum, it is best to just walk from the Cusco Main Square since it is 2 blocks from the square. By foot from the town square, it takes about 10 minutes to walk there, while via car it is approximately a 7 minutes drive.

The Coricancha Site Museum is open from Monday to Saturday from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm.

Tours of the Coricancha

There are multiple ways to tour the Qoricancha. You can participate in one of the Cusco Tours, utilize the Boleto Turistico of Cusco, or directly gain access to the Koricancha.

City Tour Cusco: This is the typical way most visit the Coricancha. The tour also includes visits to the other archaeological sites of the city such as the Cathedral, the Plaza de Armas, Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Tambomachay, and Puca Pucara.

Tourist Ticket of Cusco (Boleto Turistico of Cusco): The Tourist Ticket of Cusco is a ticket designed for tourists who wish to visit the main tourist attractions of Cusco and the Sacred Valley such as Sacsayhuaman, Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Moray, Tipón, and many more. The Coricancha is included in this ticket. This will be the cheapest way to see all the sites in Cusco in planning to do it on your own.

Directly visit the Coricancha: If you only want to visit the Coricancha, you can buy the entrance ticket at the door for the Temple of the Sun.

What Does it Typically Cost to Tour the Coricancha?

The cost of a direct entry to Coricancha is 15 soles (USD $5). University students can receive a discount. It will cost students 8 soles (USD $3) with a valid university card. Children younger than 10 years old do not pay.

Cusco City Tour
This is by far the best way to see the temple. You will each site explained to you by a knowledgeable guide and should include transportation to each of the important sites in the city. A Cusco City Tour lasts approximately 4 hours half a day and includes the entrance to the Coricancha as well as transportation and tourist guide service. A Cusco City Tour is $125 per person.

Finals Thoughts on the Coricancha

The Coricancha is one of the most important locations in Inca history. Therefore we highly recommend you put this on your travel list when you visit Cuzco. The Coricancha is underrated and is a good way to spend your time when you are acclimating to the city before some of you other travel destinations near Cusco.

The Staggering Coricancha Temple of the Sun in Cusco Peru

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