A crowd stands on Avenida El Sol, the main thoroughfare in Cuzco’s historic district.

The Golden Hour

Spanish conquistadors hungered for gold, and were willing to topple the Inca emperors to possess it. But there was something the Incas themselves may have valued even more: light.
A crowd stands on Avenida El Sol, the main thoroughfare in Cuzco’s historic district.

Forget Paris. Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca empire in modern-day Peru, is the original city of light. Today, tourists from around the world visit the 11,152-foot-high metropolis, where Inca reenactors and campesinas with llamas stroll the city streets during the golden hours before dusk, posing with visitors en route to their ultimate destination, Machu Picchu, a three-and-a-half-hour train ride away.

During its imperial heyday, during the two centuries before the Spanish invaded in 1532, Cuzco was the political and spiritual center of Inca society, renowned for its golden light. For the past six years, Peruvian photojournalist Victor Zea has been creating a visual testament to how this unique glow continues to inhabit the city. The resulting portfolio is a reminder that the city and its inhabitants, however transient, remain illuminated by the glow of the sun, whose movement across the still-visible foundations of Inca palaces and sun temples is the city’s most uncommodifiable revelation.

Sunlight reflections in downtown Cuzco.
Sunlight shines off of the clock of a church.

To the first conquistadors, Cuzco appeared to be a shining dream: a well-ordered city of stunningly constructed palaces and temples, the most sacred of which featured gold-plated panels that reflected the sun during the day and the moon at night. The conquistadors were entranced by the gold, which the Incas had collected from their subjects; but it was the light that the Incas revered.

Gold was prized by the Incas not because it was a precious metal, but because of its reflective qualities. The sun was the god Inti, and gold was the “sweat of the sun.”
In the origin story of the Incas, Inti sent two of his children—Manco Cápac and Mama Uqllu—out to establish their empire. When they decided on the location, Manco plunged a magical rod made of gold into the earth.
They named the place Cuzco, which means “center of the world” in the Inca language. The place where the staff sank into the earth is where the Incas built Qoricancha, the Temple of the Sun.

The Incas had several words to describe this light: there was illa, the steady shine of mountain glaciers or polished stone, its suffuse glow revealing the hard material’s animate nature. Illapa was the word given to the lightning and thunder that drove rain into fertile earth, helping the crops to grow; it was also a name for the sacred, hardened Inca mummies that commanded those elements. The soft shimmer of qolqe, silver, embodied the gentle shine of quilla, the feminine moon. And then there was qori, the gold that was used to magnify the light of the sun, Inti, the Incas’ most sacred ancestor. Using qori’s blinding, senses-shattering glare, explains art historian Adam Herring, “the Inca conjured and politically harnessed the sacral phenomenology of the sun’s energy.”

In the Andes, ancient Quechua traditions mix with European Catholicism. Here, a performer is dressed as an ukukus—a bear-like character popular during the Lord of Quyllurit'i harvest festival—while carrying a cross in front of the doors of a Catholic church.
Cuzco’s light transforms into the outlines of open-mouthed mummies: Incas still screaming against their commodified capture, here reanimated by the p’unchaw, the light of the day.
For the Incas, three animals represent the three realms of the world: the puma symbolizes the “outer world” or the present.
The serpent represents the “inner earth,” the underworld, or the past.
And the condor signifies the “upper world,” or the future.
For the Incas, three animals represent the three realms of the world: the puma symbolizes the “outer world” or the present.
The serpent represents the “inner earth,” the underworld, or the past.
And the condor signifies the “upper world,” or the future.
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“When struck by sunlight,” one Spaniard wrote after the conquistadors’ invasion of Peru in 1532, the P’unchaw relic “would light up such that one could not see the idol, only its intense shine.”

Finally, above all, there was p’unchaw, in which harnessed light, mastered metal, and solar ancestry became one. In Quechua, the Inca empire’s lingua franca, p’unchaw means “day.” The P’unchaw was also the name of the Incas’ most venerable relic and deity: the statue of a seated human figure made of gold, backed by a gold panel almost two feet wide, housed in Cuzco’s most sacred sun temple, the Qoricancha. Beneath this statue’s golden skin were the ashes of the hearts of the mummified Inca emperors.

It was that animate, ancestral shine—not the gold it was made of—that made the P’unchaw sacred; but for the Spanish it was just a mute idol, and a valuable one at that. The conquistadors who occupied Cuzco in 1534 stripped the Qoricancha of its gold exterior and built a Dominican monastery atop it. Though resistant Incas were able to save and smuggle the P’unchaw into hiding, in 1572 Francisco de Toledo, the Spanish crown’s viceroy in Peru, crushed the resistance, executed its last leader, and dissected the captured relic. The gold panel backing the P’unchaw was melted and distributed among the soldiers, and the icon itself was sent as a trophy to King Philip II in Spain. The Inca hearts it contained were lost, possibly melted in a palace fire in 1734.

The sunlight catches visitors to Cuzco’s main square, the Plaza de Armas, formerly called Huacaypata, the “place of tears” or “weeping square.”

Though the P’unchaw icon is gone, p’unchaw is not; after all, who can vanish the day? Here, Víctor Zea has created portraits of Cuzco’s light itself—the sharp, spectral shine that animates the city in the golden hours after dawn and before sunset. Zea shoots his photographs exclusively within the confines of the city’s original Inca footprint, creating images that reveal how the light bouncing off the layered architecture in the city center is a form in and of itself, a vault containing Andean civilization, adapted Christianity, and extractive tourism together.

Zea’s photographs capture people and pumas made of rainbows, underworld snakes made of star-like waves. We see—or at least imagine—what the Incas at their most ecstatic might have seen: not minerals and metals and mummies but a world of flashing surfaces, animated by the still-living light within. A fallen block lit like a miniaturized throne, a seat against the dark. Outside the Banco Continental on Cuzco’s main street, Avenida del Sol—the Avenue of the Sun—is a large brass-covered door that shines like qori in the morning. In an image of a puddle reflecting that door, the water seems to evoke the gold melted down by the Spanish. “My subject is the sun, and Cuzco,” Zea says. But it is also the ancestors, still cradled by light.

Large crowds gather during the winter solstice to celebrate Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun.
The Incas’ notion of the value of metal challenged the Spanish. What mattered was not its intrinsic hardness—the capacity to kill—but its ability to be hammered and sculpted into shining forms.
The k’uychi, or “rainbow” in Quechua, is a mystical and extraordinary spirit in the Inca pantheon, due to its ethereal, illusory, and yet visible nature.
A mix of rain and sun appears as liquid gold in the puddles of a winter rainstorm.
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