Lodged high in the Andes, Cusco is the ancient capital of Incas. Today, it is a vibrant metropolis and the Gateway to the Sacred Valley
The city of Cusco is set high up in the Andes in an area where there have been native settlements for over 3000 years. According to legends, the first city that was built on the current location of Cusco was founded by Manco Capac, the first Inca around 1200 AD who laid the foundations of the civilization of his people. The city was called ‘Cusco’ in the time of the Incas, which translates in their language, Quechua, to ‘centre of the earth’. The Spanish conquistadors kept the name when they defeated the Incas and settled in the city.
Today, Cusco is the second-largest city in Peru. In past times the city had a high crime rate and local terror gangs ruled the roost. Luckily, those times have passed and the city now welcomes a large number of tourists who come here to marvel at its history and ancient treasures. It is also a good place to start an exploration of the Sacred Valley and a visit to Machu Picchu.
Cusco was recognised as World Heritage Centre by UNESCO in 1983.
Things to do in Cusco
1. EXPLORE THE PLAZA DE ARMAS & SURROUNDING STREETS
The Plaza de Armas is the main square of Cusco. Its outstanding colonial architecture is a testament to the impact the Spanish conquerors made in the city. However, this place had an important role in the Incan empire long before the arrival of the Conquistadors. In Incan time the Plaza de Armas occupied a larger area and housed a number of important palaces and important events, such as the Inti Raymi.
The modern Plaza de Armas is the cultural centre of Cusco, catering for the throngs of tourists with numerous bars and restaurants.
2. THE CATHEDRAL BASILICA OF THE ASSUMPTION OF THE VIRGIN
This is the most prominent structure overlooking the Plaza de Armas and is adjoined to a church on either side, the Iglesia Jesus María and Iglesia El Triunfo. Inside is an elaborately carved wooden altar, covered in gold and silver plate. The carved wooden choir stalls are acclaimed to be the finest in the country. Also of interest is the painting “The Last Supper”, which portrays Jesus and his disciples gathered around the table, on which is a central platter with the local Incan delicacy, ‘cuy’ or roasted guinea pig, laid on it.
3. CORICANCHA INCA RUINS
The translation of ‘coricancha’ from Quechua is ‘Golden Courtyard’. The Inca stonework of these ruins is all that remains of the ancient Temple of the Sun, dedicated primarily to Inti, the Sun God. This was the most important temple in the Inca Empire.
The walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold, and the courtyard was filled with golden statues. Spanish reports tell of opulence that was ‘fabulous beyond belief’. The Church of Santo Domingo was built on the site, using the ruined foundations of the temple that was flattened by the gold-hungry Spanish in the 17th century. This is a fine example of Inca stonework being incorporated into the structure of a colonial building. Major earthquakes have severely damaged the church, but the Inca stone walls, built out of huge, tightly-interlocking blocks of stone, still stand as a testimony to their superb architectural skills and sophisticated stone masonry.
Leaving the tour bus we got the opportunity to have our photo taken (for a small gratuity) with a lady in traditional dress and her alpacas. The ruins of Sacsayhuamán is the closest and the most remarkable of the Inca ruins to Cuzco. Its proximity to Cuzco and the dimensions of its stones resulted in it being used as a quarry by the Spanish conquistadors, providing building material for their colonial buildings in the city below.
The complex suffered such destruction by the Spanish conquistadors that little is known about the actual purpose these magnificent buildings served. It is usually referred to as a fortress, constructed with high, impenetrable walls, although it is also believed to have been a ceremonial or religious centre. The ruins cover an enormous area, but only about 20 per cent of the original complex remains and are a fine example of extraordinary Inca stone masonry. It is estimated the complex took 100 years to build, using thousands of men in its construction. The massive blocks of stone fit together perfectly without the aid of mortar, one of which weighs over 300 tonnes and stands 16ft (5m) tall. The magnificent centre was the site of an infamous bloody battle between the Spanish and the Inca people in 1536 that left thousands of native people dead.
Today, Sacsayhuamán holds the annual celebrations of Cusco’s most important festival, Inti Raymi, the sun festival, a spectacular and colourful affair that re-enacts the Inca winter solstice festival every June.
In summary …
- Cusco is way up there in altitude so make sure you drink plenty of water (try and avoid alcohol) and take time to adjust to the elevation to avoid altitude sickness. You try coca leaves – either chewing or in tea!
- You can spend a day or two just exploring Cusco there is plenty of cultural things to discover as well as some culinary delights
- Cusco is a great place to explore the area including the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain
Planning your trip to Cusco
Cusco Airport, Peru – or to give it its official title: Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport, is Cusco’s only airport. The airport has consistently ranked as Peru’s second most important air terminal, after Lima Airport (Jorge Chávez International Airport), annually handling close to 2,500,000 national and international passengers.
The airport is located 5.5 km (3.4 miles) from the Plaza de Armas in the historic centre of Cusco. The approximate journey time is 20 minutes by taxi and should cost 10 – 15 soles (US$ 3.50 – 5.00)
One of the first things we noticed about Cusco is the thinness of the air here – at 11400 feet (3400m) altitude sickness is a real problem. As soon as we reached our hotel we sat down to catch our breath and partook of the coca tea – an ancient and seemingly potent aid for preventing the worst effects of altitude sickness. If possible spend a few days acclimatising before heading off to do any energetic activities.
Best time to visit Cusco
The dry season in Cusco runs from May to October with clear, sunny days and cold nights, often with temperatures below freezing.
The Peruvian mountains have a rainy season from November to April with clear, mild days, rainy afternoons, and chilly nights. January and February have the heaviest rain.
Other places to visit from Cusco
1. RAINBOW MOUNTAIN
Vinicunca — also known as the Mountain of Seven Colors, or more simply Rainbow Mountain — was discovered four years ago when the snow covering it melted, revealing the natural beauty of the rock beneath. Formed by weathering, environmental conditions and sedimentary deposits over time, the mountain’s unique mineralogy created a marbling effect, with layered hues of gold, lavender, red and turquoise towering into the sky.
A number of tour operators run full-day visits to the Rainbow Mountain, which lies around 62 miles from Cusco — visitors should be prepared to start their day in the early hours with a winding, bumpy drive from the city. Travel agents in Cusco offer tours for around 100 Peruvian soles ($30), with most operators returning hikers to the city centre by 7:00 p.m.
Check out Getyourguide.com for Rainbow Mountain Tour.
2. SACRED VALLEY
The Valle Sagrado de Los Incas, or the Sacred Valley of the Incas, was appreciated by the Inca for its special geographical and climatic qualities. Its fertile soils and various microclimates allowed the Inca Empire to farm an abundance of potatoes, cereals, vegetables and fruit trees, and ornamental plants.
There are a number of tour operators who run day trips out of Cusco to the important archaeological sites of the Sacred Valley including Pisac, the salt ponds of Maras, Ollantaytambo and chincero.
3. MACHU PICCHU
Machu Picchu is one of the most iconic places in the World, standing 2,430 m above sea-level, in the middle of a tropical mountain forest, in an extraordinarily beautiful setting. It was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height; its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. The natural setting, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, encompasses the upper Amazon basin with its rich diversity of flora and fauna.
There is a train that from Cusco, so you can visit this incredible place as a day trip or stay in the close-by town of Aguas Calientes.
Where to stay in Cusco?
1. CASA BIRU HOTEL BOUTIQUE
Located in Cusco Historic Center, Casa Biru Hotel Boutique is within a 5-minute walk of popular attractions such as Plaza de Armas and Cusco Cathedral. This 8-room, 3.5-star hotel has a restaurant and a bar/lounge, along with free in-room Wi-Fi.
2. CASA ANDINA PREMIUM CUSCO
Casa Andina Premium Cusco offers accommodations In central Cusco overlooking Limacpampa Square, with traditional, courtyard-facing rooms. It is located only a short walk from Plaza de Armas and Koricancha.
Casa Andina Premium Cusco’s rooms are built around colonial-style courtyards with wooden balconies.
Casa Andina’s gourmet restaurant, Alma Restaurante & Bar, features fresh, Sacred Valley produces and Andean specialities. The colonial-style bar serves drinks in the evenings, which you can enjoy on the terrace.
3. SELINA CUSCO LOS ANDES
Selina Cusco Los Andes is a great option for accommodation while visiting Cusco, located just 1 block away from the Plaza de Armas (Main Square) it is at the ‘heart’ of the city, with great, walking distance, cultural options, and just 200m away from the San Pedro Market.
The hostel has a Wellness Center where you’ll be able to do your own yoga practice any time you like.