The church of Santo Domingo is built on the ruins of the famous Inca site of Coricancha, the Templo del Sol or Temple of the Sun. Coricancha (Q’orikancha in Quechua) means “golden courtyard,” and its walls were once lined in sheets of solid gold. Statues and ornaments of gold decorated the interior and a large golden disc reflected the sun, casting a brilliant light on the temple.

All this was stripped by the conquistadors soon after they arrived in Cusco, and most of the gold was melted down. All that remains today of the once glorious Coricancha is the fine Inca stonework, which forms the foundation of the church of Santo Domingo. From both inside and outside, you can see the impressive six-meter-high curved wall at one end of the church. Unlike much of the Spanish architecture, the Inca wall has withstood the major earthquakes that rocked Cusco in 1650, 1950, and 1986.

In the center of the courtyard is a structure, which was once covered with 55 kilograms of gold, and along the sides of the courtyard are small Inca rooms whose smooth gray stones and sharp angles are a stark contrast to the rounded arches and Spanish architecture that surround them. A small museum in the courtyard has a model showing what it probably looked like and explains the history of local civilization, with pre-Inca, Inca, and colonial artifacts, many from excavations in the Coricancha.