The Incan and Colonial Highlights of Cusco on Peru Travel

People & Culture

Aren Bergstrom - Statue of Pachacutec in Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru - Cropped

Cusco is Peru’s most popular city for a reason. Unlike metropolitan Lima, it doesn’t overwhelm travellers with overcast skies, diesel fumes, and a sprawling map that comprises 43 separate districts. It also has an easy-to-understand historical significance as the former capital of the Inca Empire. Add that to the fact that it’s the gateway city to the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the wonders of Machu Picchu and you have plenty of reasons to head to Cusco on Peru travel.

Cusco may be a gateway city, but it’s also an attraction in its own right. Not only is it clean with gorgeous architecture and an enviable location, but it’s easy to navigate and has several historical sites worth visiting. Once you acclimate to the altitude (Cusco is 3,400m above sea level), you’ll enjoy discovering everything this city has to offer.

The Churches of the Plaza de Armas

Like in most cities of South America, everything in Cusco revolves around the Plaza de Armas. This massive square sits approximately in the centre of town and used to be the administrative centre of the Inca Empire. Once the Spanish arrived, they destroyed the Inca temples and mansions and built their own churches and haciendas. Today, the square is flanked by Cusco Cathedral to the east and the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus to the south.

Aren Bergstrom - Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru
Plaza de Armas | Photo credit: Aren Bergstrom

In the square itself you’ll find vendors hawking their wares and tourists taking photos against the backdrop of the churches or the statue of Pachacutec Inca. Many popular bars and restaurants skirt the rim of the square as well. Although many are overpriced, you’re often paying for the views of the square that you can enjoy off the balconies. As well, there are even a few good restaurants packed alongside the tourist traps, such as Papacho’s, a casual burger joint run by Gaston Acurio, with burgers that are far better than they have any right to be.

Aren Bergstrom - Statue of Pachacutec in Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru
Statue of Pachacutec in Plaza de Armas | Photo credit: Aren Bergstrom

Of course, the main attractions are the churches. Cusco Cathedral is the larger of the two and is a fully-functioning cathedral that has daily mass. Completed in 1654, the cathedral is the centrepiece of many of Cusco’s festivals, including the Lord of the Miracles Procession during Holy Week. Inside the cathedral, you’ll find the Senor de los Temblores or Lord of the Earthquakes, an old black crucifix that has become the city’s holiest relic and patron saint.

According to the city history, the crucifix was taken out of the cathedral during the earthquake of 1650, which devastated most of the town. Once the crucifix made it through the Plaza de Armas, the earthquake stopped, leading people to believe it had miraculous powers that stopped the disaster in its tracks. The Senor de los Temblores isn’t always on display, but it lies inside the church along the southern wall of its main sanctuary. Inside, you’ll also find many paintings and relics, including Marcos Zapata’s painting of The Last Supper, which fascinatingly depicts Jesus and the Apostles feasting on guinea pig and other Andean delicacies.

The Iglesia de Jesus de Compania is the smaller of the two main churches on the square, but only barely. Apparently the church was meant to be significantly smaller than Cusco Cathedral so as not to challenge the supremacy of the Pope, but the Jesuits ignored the Pope’s dictates and completed the opulent church before he could send further commands to change the size. Construction began in 1576, but the 1650 earthquake severely damaged the church and the reconstructed version wasn’t completed until 1668. Although there are no singular icons inside at the same level of importance as the Senor de los Temblores, it is a lovely building. Unlike within the Cathedral, you can easily climb the towers and look out over the square. As well, there’s a small gift shop attached that sells excellent crafts from fair trade artisans across the Andes. It’s a good place to buy an alpaca scarf or hat, since you know the craftspeople aren’t being exploited when you purchase a good.

Aren Bergstrom - Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, Cusco, Peru
Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus | Photo credit: Aren Bergstrom

Cusco’s Incan Ruins

Even if you were hopelessly ignorant of Cusco’s history, there’d be no way to ignore its Incan ruins while walking throughout the city. For instance, just to the south of the Plaza de Armas, you’ll find a large excavation area of ruins that’s closed off to the public. The entire city is a playground for archaeologists, with ruins constantly being uncovered. But beyond the literal ruins, the city is also filled with remnants of the Incan past that fit seamlessly with the present – and I mean literally, as many buildings incorporate Incan stones into their construction. The foundations of most buildings are the original stones laid by the Incas – you can tell the Incans set them as most of them lack mortar and the Incas carved their stones so as to fit seamlessly on top of one another.

There’s no greater Incan relic than Qorikancha, the Gold Temple that used to be the most important temple in the Inca Empire. Today, Qorikancha is home to the Convent of Santo Domingo, and unfortunately there’s not much left of the temple beyond the foundation and a large wall on the southwest side of the building. In the heights of the Inca Empire, Qorikancha was covered in large plates of gold, but once the Spanish arrived, they sacked the temple and stole the gold to pad their coffers. The Spanish assumed the Inca revered gold as preciously as they did, since they covered their temples in it, but the Inca never used gold as a means of commerce, instead using it only as a decorative item. Nevertheless, the glory that was Qorikancha was destroyed after Spanish conquest. The Convent is worth visiting and you’ll see old Incan walls and approximations of what the old temple looked like along the lower floors of the museum.

Aren Bergstrom - The Convent of Santo Domingo, Cusco, Peru
The Convent of Santo Domingo | Photo credit: Aren Bergstrom

More impressive than the current Qorikancha is Sacsayhuaman, the massive Incan fortress ruins that overlook the town from the hill to the north. You can walk up the hill to reach Sacsayhuaman, but you’ll have to have a Boleto Turistico to enter the site. (The 130 sole-ticket gets you access to Sacsayhuaman as well as other attractions in the Sacred Valley like the Moray agricultural terraces and Ollantaytambo).

The fortress used to protect the town during the days of the Inca Empire, but now it’s mostly a series of scattered stones and foundations. However, these stones are anything but boring. Many of the corner stones are larger than a car, while most of the walls remain massive. It’s fascinating to imagine how imposing Sacsayhuaman must have been at its height. You’ll also enjoy great views over Cusco from the heights of the hill. Just be sure to ignore the stray dogs that hang out among the ruins, and especially don’t feed them, or else you may find yourself with a new travel companion. Also, it’s possible to visit the ruins at sunrise or sunset to enjoy the spectacular view, but it’s not recommended to do so without a tour group, as people have been known to get mugged during the dark hours of the day.

Aren Bergstrom - Stones and hills of Sacsayhuaman, Cusco, Peru
Stones and hills of Sacsayhuaman | Photo credit: Aren Bergstrom

Cusco’s Culture and Restaurants

While the city’s culture revolves around the Plaza de Armas, there are other areas that deserve attention and showcase the city’s atmosphere. Luckily, everything in the historical core is easily walkable, so you can see all sites on a morning stroll.

The most popular market in town is the San Pedro Market. If you’re in the Plaza de Armas, you need only walk four or five blocks west and turn south to find the market. Inside, you’ll find all manner of vendors selling fresh meats, fruit, coffee, and household goods. You’ll also find souvenirs and alpaca wool and plenty of small restaurant stalls where you can try some local foods. The market is popular with locals, so even though you’ll see plenty of fellow travellers there, it remains a distinctly Peruvian spot.

Aren Bergstrom - San Pedro Market, Cusco, Peru
San Pedro Market | Photo credit: Aren Bergstrom

If you head east of the Plaza de Armas and ascend the hill, you’ll reach the district of San Blas, which is known for its artisans and galleries that fill the buildings of the district. If you’re looking for paintings or pottery, this is a good place to explore. Also, if you’re looking for a break, San Blas Plaza, with its Catholic church, is a good spot to unwind in, as it has far smaller crowds than the main square. San Blas is a popular district to stay in while in Cusco on Peru travel. Staying here may mean you need to ascend the steps to get back to your hotel at night (which can be surprisingly exhausting due to the altitude), but it also means you’ll enjoy quieter nights and splendid views over the city.

Aren Bergstrom - View from San Blas, Cusco, Peru
View from San Blas | Photo credit: Aren Bergstrom

As for food and shopping, the city has plenty of options. Aside from San Pedro Market, you’ll find a collection of stores catering to travellers in alleyways east of the Plaza de Armas. In particular, the Centro Artesanal Arts Inka has shops selling traditional rugs, scarfs, and all the sorts of tourist trinkets people may be interested in buying when visiting Peru. For more rustic patterns, head to the Traditional Textiles Center to the southwest of Qorikancha. There, you’ll find a small museum detailing Andean textiles as well as many goods made by Andean villagers. It’s a fair trade workshop, so the prices are a bit higher than what you’ll find in the tourist shops, but you’ll also know you’re properly supporting the Andean women that make the popular rugs and bags.

Aren Bergstrom - View of the hillside from above Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru
View of the hillside from above Plaza de Armas | Photo credit: Aren Bergstrom

In terms of food, you’ll find restaurants all across the city. Pizza is curiously popular in Cusco, with many restaurants boasting wood fire ovens that serve up pretty decent pizza. Spots like La Bodega 138 and the tiny La Pizza Carlo are popular with travellers, accommodate English speakers, and have good food to boot. For a trendier and more romantic spot, search out Cicciolina, just up the street from La Bodega 138, which serves tapas with a Peruvian twist. The place is known for its extensive cocktail menu and wine list, so know you’ll enjoy some nice drinks in addition to delicious trays of crunchy prawns, seared scallops, and barbequed eggplant. Just be sure you don’t overindulge in the wine and cocktails, as alcohol can exacerbate the effects of high altitude.

Aren Bergstrom - View Over Cusco, Peru
View over Cusco | Photo credit: Aren Bergstrom

Cusco is a great city to spend a few days in on Peru travel before exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas. It’s not just a gateway city to the wonders of Ollantaytambo, Chinero, and Machu Picchu. It’s an attractive city with clean streets, hospitable people, lovely views, and Incan ruins you won’t find anywhere else. It’ll end up being one of your favourite spots on a Peruvian vacation.