Where have men ever seen the things they have seen here?
Where was it known that so much wealth could come from one land?

—Pedro de Cieza de León, Chronicle of Peru, 1545

  • More

    The Convent of Santo Domingo, built over the site of the Qorikancha, Cusco, Peru, 2014. Photo by Doug McMains, NMAI.


The Colonial Road

  • More

    Select highlighted words to hear them spoken in Quechua.

    The Inka spoke the Quechua language, which is still spoken today in the Andes.


When Spanish conquistadors reached Tawantinsuyu in 1532, the Qhapaq Ñan gave them easy access to the empire. Already weakened by civil war and smallpox, the Inka Empire fell.

Under Spanish rule, the Qhapaq Ñan rapidly deteriorated. The Spanish brought new diseases, animals, and plants, and introduced new beliefs and laws, all of which transformed the lives of Andean peoples, their land, and their road.

It is a sad thing to reflect that these idol-worshipping Inkas should have had such wisdom in knowing how to govern and preserve these far-flung lands, and that we Christians have destroyed so many kingdoms.

—Pedro de Cieza de León, 1553

The Road to Conquest—The Spanish Used the Qhapaq Ñan to Conquer Tawantinsuyu

Built to give the Inka access to every corner of the empire, the Qhapaq Ñan gave the Spanish the same access.

The Spanish established new cities and founded Lima as their colonial capital. Cusco was stripped of its power and remodeled with cathedrals, public halls, and houses built in the Spanish style. Many of its great buildings were destroyed.

The Road to Conquest map

Why Did the Empire Fall?

Tawantinsuyu was becoming fragile. Various conquered peoples were rising in revolt. Smallpox swept into the region, killing many, including Huayna Capac, the eleventh Shapa Inka. This set off a war between his sons, Atahualpa and Huascar. Atahualpa won the power struggle in 1532, just as the Spanish arrived.

The Murder of Atahualpa

Atahualpa and the Spanish adventurer Francisco Pizarro met face to face in 1532. Backed by Native rebels from the north, Pizarro and his men took Atahualpa hostage and demanded a huge ransom in gold and silver. To pay it, the Inka stripped their temples and palaces of precious metal, enough to fill one room with gold and two rooms with silver. After receiving the ransom, Pizarro had Atahualpa strangled. Tawantinsuyu was in Spanish hands in July 1533.