Located high in the Southeast Peruvian Andes, the city of Cusco is the starting point for many travellers on their journey to Machu Picchu. Often called the cradle of Inca civilization, Cusco offers much to entice the visitor and is well deserving of an extended stay.
The history of Cusco as the center of the Inca empire began in 1200 AD, when Manco Capac, whom many believed to be the founder of the Inca Empire in Cusco, officially founded the city. However, it was not until 1400 AD, under the rule of the great Inca leader Pachachutec that the city expanded to become an administrative and military hub for the Inca people with a complex architectural and societal structure. With the arrival of the Spanish in 1543, the great power of the Inca rulers came to an abrupt and brutal end. The Spanish colonists killed and enslaved the Inca people, ransacking palaces and temples, and plundering their riches. The Spanish settled then in Cusco, building on top of Inca structures, in some cases removing all traces and in others retaining certain features that can still be seen today. Cusco’s popularity as a tourist destination was not to begin until the early 1900s, when the archaeological remains of Machu Picchu were discovered. Today, the city offers a unique ambience which has been shaped by the diverse cultures who have made it their home over the years, with layers of history visible in every corner.
Altitude – Cusco, Peru
When visiting Cusco, it is a good idea to allow for at least two days to see the sites and acclimatize if you plan to journey onward to one of the treks to Machu Picchu. At 11,152 ft, taking the time to get acclimatized in Cusco before beginning the Inca Trail can be critical to help prevent you from developing altitude sickness during your visit.
Must See Sites
Cusco has a number of attractions that are worth exploring. We recommend a Cusco city tour when you arrive so that you can get a sense of the sites that you might want to explore further. The Plaza de Armas, which also happens to be a central meeting point and gathering place is a great place to start. This picturesque square is where you will find the tourist information office, as well as bars and shops, and it is within walking distance of many of the attractions that you’ll want to see during your stay. To the center of the square is a fountain with a statue of an Inca man pointing towards Sacsayhuaman. To the northeast stands one of the most iconic buildings of Cusco – the Cathedral.
Cusco Cathedral was built by the Spanish over the course of a century, starting in 1559, and is imposing in the Gothic Renaissance style. Made from stones removed from Sacsayhuaman, the cathedral is home to a number of significant pieces of colonial art, notably Marcos Zapata’s ast Supper, which features a guinea pig as part of the meal. The Cathedral is framed on the left by the Jesus Maria Church, and on the right by El Triunfo, which was the first church established in Cusco.
A short walk away from the Paza de Armas is the San Blas neighborhood. Reserved for artists and craftspeople since the rule of Pachatec, strolling through the narrow and sometimes very steep streets is like taking a step back in time. As well as artist’s workshops, galleries, cafés and restaurants, this bustling neighborhood also boasts the small San Blas Church with its intricately carved wooden pulpit.
Moving onto historical sites, one must see is Coricancha, the Temple of the Sun, again, just a short walk from the Plaza de Armas. This was an important location for Inca worshippers of sun and moon deities, and would have been majestic, covered as it once was with sheets of gold and filled with silver and gold statues. Shortly after the Spanish colonization, all the valuable metals from Corincancha were removed and melted down, the irreplaceable treasures lost forever. Slightly further, around 1 1/2 miles north of Cusco lies Sacsayhuaman. The Incas established this site as a fortress and temple, using vast stones to construct impressive walls that still stand today.
Keen shoppers will enjoy the San Pedro market. Though becoming slightly more tourist orientated over recent years with a growing number of stalls offering clothing, jewelry and other souvenirs, this market is where the city residents come to buy fresh foods and is ideal for anyone who wants to try local ingredients.
As night falls, the atmosphere in Cusco makes shifts to a more upbeat party mode with tourists of all ages letting their hair down and having fun. Those who want to dance the night away will find discos playing a wide variety of contemporary music and clubs hosting live music. Another option is to take in a folkloric dance and music show performed by locals at the Qosqo Native Art Centre. The nightly show is a vibrant and captivating way to discover Cusco’s heritage.
When it comes to dining out, Cusco has numerous options for the adventurous eater looking for authentic Peruvian flavors. Many local eateries provide a reasonably priced set menu which may feature the famous cuy (guinea pig), choclo con queso (corn with cheese) or lomo saltado (steak with pepper and onions) amongst its offerings. For those who prefer more familiar cuisine, the city also has an array of non-Peruvian options including hamburger restaurants, vegetarian takeaways and kebab shops.
We look forward to seeing you on the trail.
Jeff & The Explorer’s Passage team
We hope you found our Cusco Travel Guide to be informative and helpful. If you would like to learn more about our adventures to Cusco click HERE or if you have ever been to Cusco and have some favorite sites of your own we would love to hear about it just shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.