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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrThe former capital of the Inca Empire is Peru’s most famous tourist hub, from where millions of tourists each year make the pilgrimage to world-famous archaeological site, Machu Picchu. This bustling and enticing city, which boasts one of the most beautiful plazas in all of South America, is a lot more than a simple springboard to the largest Inca ruins in the region. It offers fantastic activities, incredible food, amazing cultural sites, as well as a multitude of partying and shopping opportunities. Considering this is the best spot to acclimatize to life at high altitude, planning a few days here both before and after your visit to Machu Picchu is highly recommended.
Cusco sits at 3,400m above sea level and a visit will leave most breathless. Even a gentle stroll uphill, or the climb of a single set of stairs, will leave many gasping for air. Consume copious amounts of cocoa tea (offered for free in every guesthouse and hotel) and take it easy. Everything here runs on Peruvian time anyway (which is rather slow) so as long as you have plenty of days here you will manage to see it and do it all. Well, almost.
Brief HistoryCusco's history dates back over 3000 years and is considered the oldest, continuously inhabited city in all of the Americas. Archaeological findings here have dated human presence to at least 5000 BC. At the height of its pre-Columbian days, Cusco was the capital and main seat of the mighty Inca Empire, during a time when its plazas were a hive of trading activity and its temples lined with gold.
As powerful as the Incas were, however, they were no match for for the brutal conquistadors who arrived from Spain in the mid-16th century. The fall of the ancient Empire was as swift as it was catastrophic. The Spaniards looted the treasures and moved their new capital to Lima in order to have easier access to the sea. They destroyed temples and built their quite magnificent palaces atop the ruined foundations. A spate of rebellions by the ailing Incas were unsuccessful, and Cusco soon became one of the most important city in the newly colonized America.
The incredible collection and sheer volume of priceless architecture and artifacts have ensured the city's survival. Cusco is, nowadays, one of the most visited cities in the whole continent. In 1983, the entire historic quarter was included in the UNESCO Heritage List.
HighlightsIn a city like Cusco, it’s hard to know where to start listing all the highlights, especially when you consider that many have to do with experiences and the general atmosphere in this beautifully preserved gem. Nevertheless, landmarks abound.
Plaza de ArmasThis ancient ‘Square of the Warriors’ is still the beating heart of Cusco, even after all this time. Home of the stupendous 16th century Cusco Cathedral and Church of the Society of Jesus , it is the focal gathering spot in the city and a wonderful place in which to relax, wonder and people-watch. Framed on all sides by beautiful arcades, this is where you’ll find an array of eateries, hotels, shops, bars and tour agencies. A gentle stroll around the plaza at night, when the major landmarks are beautifully lit, is the favored past time for both locals and visitors alike. The adjoining city walls date back from Inca times and are a wonderful testament to the astonishing stone work for which these ancient architects are so renowned.
Sacred ValleyCusco’s Sacred Valley, also known as Urubamba Valley, encompasses a vast area comprising indigenous villages, fortified ruins and stunning natural landscapes. A day tour of the Sacred Valley will include a stop at the famous Pisac traditional markets, the village of Ollantaytambo and all the wonderful colonial churches and Inca ruins which rest in between. Much like a visit to Saksaywaman, a day spent touring this valley is a wonderful introduction to this ancient culture and yet another fantastic prelude to Machu Picchu.
SaksaywamanThe most important Incan site on the outskirts of the city, Saksaywaman is a wonderful precursor to a visit to Machu Picchu and makes for a fantastic full-day sightseeing trip. This was the sight of the biggest battle between the Incas and Spaniards in 1536. The ruins are found high up above Cusco and, although the hike up is not too long, it can be very strenuous at this altitude, so we recommend you organize a day trip or, at the very least, transport by taxi or bus.
Saksaywaman is one of four major archaeological sites around Cusco and, on an organised day trip, you’ll be able to visit all four.
QurikanchaCusco’s Sun Temple was the most important temple during Inca rule and, although nowadays it simply shows the brilliance of the stonework, knowing it was once completely covered in gold (the walls were literally lined with sheets of gold) and home to a myriad of priceless artifacts, makes it a very enticing attraction nonetheless. Allegedly, it took merely months for the conquistadors to loot the temple, steal the treasures and melt the gold. Where Inca gods and kings were once worshiped with opulent rituals, we now find a colonial church built by the Spaniards. They utilized the existing and faultless stonework, with which they constructed the church, but the little that remains of this ancient art-form is certainly reason enough to visit. As far as this kind of ancient architecture and building work is concerned, Qurikancha is undoubtedly the very best example of Incan architecture in Cusco.
San BlasSan Blas is Cusco’s most historic quarter and found a steep walk up the hill from the northern end of Plaza de Armas. Narrow cobblestone alleyways brim with artisan shops, trendy bars and restaurants and a multitude of souvenir shops selling the most unique, handmade crafts you’ll find in town. The San Blas Church is the oldest colonial church in Cusco and a visit comes complete with English-language audio guide. San Blas oozes quite the bohemian vibe at any time but it’s in the evening that it really comes alive, with live music gigs, food markets and stalls. Don’t let the uphill walk deter you from visiting! Aside Plaza de Armas this is the nicest area in all of Cusco.
Machu PicchuThe ancient capital of the Inca Empire may not exactly be a Cusco landmark, but considering it is the main reason visitors flock here in droves, it could not be left off our list. Whether tackling a multi day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, or deciding to visit on a day trip via the train from Cusco’s centre, a visit to this most incredible archaeological site is bound to be a highlight of any trip to Cusco, Peru and even the whole of South America.
Museum of Pre-Columbian ArtThe Museo de Arte Precolombino , or MAP in short, is Cusco’s foremost authority on all art from the pre-Columbian period and is a smaller version of the one found in the capital, Lima. The building itself was the former abode of Alonso Diaz a conquistador who built his home on top of an ancient Inca courthouse. Within its interior, you’ll find almost 500 artifacts displayed in eleven galleries, each belonging to a different era and empire. From the Incas to the Nazca s, Chancays and Chimu s, the wonderful treasures are beautifully displayed and boast informational cards in both Spanish and English. You’ll find the museum in the gorgeous Plaza de la Nazarens of San Blas.
Centro de Textiles TradicionalesThe Traditional Textile Center is a wonderful addition to a fair-trade store selling incredible Quechuan and Andean textiles. The textiles are manufactured using ancient methods, and in the museum section you can learn all about the making and dying of the different fabrics. Insanely interesting (and free!) to visit, the museum and its flagship store are arguably also the best shopping destination in all of Cusco.
Planetarium CuscoA particularly rewarding place to visit for all those who live in the northern hemisphere, the Cusco Planetarium is headed by an interesting and very knowledgeable professor who organized amazing evening showings at this small, but very good, planetarium. You’ll get picked up from your hotel and brought to location above the city and, on a clear night, will be flabbergasted to see the splendors of the southern night sky. A very unique attraction and quite unforgettable for all lovers of astronomy.
ShoppingCusco is a phenomenal holiday destination for many reasons, one of which is its incredible array of shopping opportunities. Between the crazy markets, artisan stalls, upmarket boutiques and very trendy, handmade clothing stores, maxing out the credit card here is easy work indeed.
Plaza de Armas is always a good place to start, especially for newcomers, with all the four sides brimming with stalls and shops selling a good range of nice, but slightly overpriced, souvenirs. If you take the side alley which goes up towards San Blas, you’ll start discovering the crafty shops for which this town is so renowned. Hand-made leather-goods, clothing and souvenirs are much cheaper here, and get progressively cheaper and better the more you ascend.
For a more local vibe, head to the Mercado Central de San Pedro which is a fantastic and extensive local’s market, where you’ll still find plenty of souvenirs to buy, yet can ogle at the incredible fresh produce as well, including delicious corn bread, cheeses and the best smoothies in town.
FoodPeruvian food is, by and large, not the most exciting in South America although this is mostly true of small villages and towns where you’ll primarily be served quite blan fried meat and eggs served atop a bowl of boiled rice. In Cusco, however, local dishes take on a whole different dimension, and it is here that you’ll find a vast array of some of the country’s most famous dishes. Feast on platters of stir fired beef with spices and vegetables (lomo saltado), stuffed potatoes with mince and eggs (papa rellena), the infamous roasted whole guinea pig (cuy) and alpaca steaks so tender you could cut them with a fork.
Aside the excellent local specialties, Cusco is also home to a wide range of excellent western food eateries, mostly centered around Plaza de Armas and up its narrow side streets.
AccomodationDue to the popularity of Machu Picchu with travelers of all ages, backgrounds and budgets, Cusco boasts an extensive array of accommodation options.
How to get thereCusco’s regional airports is well serviced by local airlines which connect the old Inca hub to cities like Lima, Arequipa and even La Paz, in Bolivia. Unless you are flying in from La Paz, one of the world’s highest cities, you are bound to suffer from at least some altitude sickness effects, just as soon as you land in Cusco. If you have the time, make your way overland from Lima, thus acclimatizing to the altitude as you travel along.
Reaching Cusco by bus, either public or private Hop off/Hop-on bus , is the preferred transport method of many, which connections to all other major tourist hubs; those mentioned above, as well as Puno on Lake Titicaca and Nazca, where the famous Nazca Lines are found.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: May 07, 2015