The Incas left their legacy here in a big way as did the Spanish Conquistadors. This legacy materialized into a treasure house of antiquity, history and unique lifestyles. To do justice to this city perched high up in the Peruvian Andes, you need to either spend time or be very choosy as to what to see and do. Goway’s Robert Glazier outlines the places he feels are essential to include on any Cusco tour.
A Little Background History
Cusco has a long and interesting history dating back to around 1200 AD, the time of the first Inca emperor. The city really expanded in the 15th Century under the rule of the greatest Inca emperor, Pachacutec who built the Inca Empire as far south as Chile and Argentina and to the north to Ecuador and Columbia. At its peak, the Inca Empire consisted of 10 million people. Then, as fate would have it, this all came to an end with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. For us today, this invasion opened the gates to a cultural mix that has left its imprint on every aspect of Peruvian culture, this especially in Cusco.
The site was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th to the 16th Century. In 1983, Cusco was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Sights and Sounds of your Cusco tour
The first thing to know is that the city is situated at an elevation of around 3400 metres/11,200 feet. It is, in actual fact, situated at a higher altitude than Machu Picchu.
When arriving in Cusco, you will immediately notice the thin clear mountain air.
The first thing you will be aware of are the Inca walls, enormous granite blocks carved to fit together perfectly without the aid of cement. It is interesting that the Inca designs have survived the test of time while the Spanish Colonial architecture has been rebuilt several times following a wave of earthquakes that have hit the city.
To Truly Experience Cusco, Start Walking
To really appreciate Cusco, you have to walk around the city. This will reveal the various eras that have made up Cusco be it Inca, Spanish or today’s modern lifestyles.
Do head to the Plaza de San Francisco, a few blocks from the centre. It is a great place to visit one of Cusco’s many excellent coffee shops and also San Pedro Market, the main market, which is fairly traditional and worthwhile visiting. It is by Peruvians for Peruvians but a large percentage of the shops sell souvenirs. Otherwise, its mix of stalls sells food and other household items as well as clothing.
Then walk around the Plaza de Armas, a square with churches, shops, restaurants and bars backing on to it and a great place to spend some time. The Plaza de Armas, the main square, was the centre of Inca Cusco and, still today, remains the heart of modern Cusco. The Plaza was once flanked with Inca palaces. The remains of the ancient walls of the famous Inca emperor Pachacutec’s palace can still be seen on the north-west side of the square. As stated, there are many restaurants, bars and coffee shops some with beautifully carved wooden balconies overlooking the Plaza.
The Plaza’s north-eastern edge is dominated by the Cathedral which was begun in 1550 and completed nearly 100 years later and constructed in the shape of a Latin cross. It is said that when the Cathedral was built, an Inca prince was walled up in one of the towers and that when the tower falls, he will emerge to claim his birthright and free his people. After the earthquake of 1950, thousands of believers waited hopefully for the tower to collapse but despite severe damage, he did not appear. The huge main doors of the Cathedral are open to genuine worshippers between 6 am and 10 am. Religious festivals are an excellent time to see the Cathedral.
The Cathedral contains nearly 400 colonial paintings including the Last Supper by Marcos Zapat and is one of the city’s greatest repositories of colonial art especially for works from the escuela cuzquena (Cusco school), noted for its decorative combination of 17th-century European devotional painting styles.
Another important religious edifice is the El Triunfo Church, Cuzco’s oldest church which houses a vault containing the remains of a famous Inca chronicler, Garcilaso de la Vega who was born in Cuzco in 1539.
There is an excellent museum on the north-east corner of the square. The Museo Inka is the best museum in Cusco for anyone truly interested in the Inca civilization. The restored interior is packed with a fine collection of metal and gold work, jewellery, pottery, textiles, mummies, models and the world’s largest collection of queros (ceremonial Inca wooden drinking vessels). The museum building, which rests on Inca foundations, is also known as the Admiral’s House. Downstairs in the courtyard, highland Andean weavers demonstrate their craft and sell traditional textiles directly to the public.
On the subject of textiles, the Museo del Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco features a gallery containing displays of traditional Quechuan and Andean textiles. The museum explains the historical significance of textiles and the techniques by which they are made. A large amount of the money from sales of the articles goes to the women who produce them. The textiles are of a much higher quality than the synthetic and machine-woven textiles found throughout the city.
The Santo Domingo Church and Qoricancha (Inca Temple of the Sun) was built in the 17th Century on the walls of the Qoricancha Temple of the Sun and was once the richest temple in the Inca Empire. The finest Inca stonework in existence today is the curved wall beneath the west end of the Church. In Inca times, the walls of the Qoricancha were lined with 700 solid-gold sheets. There were life-size gold and silver replicas of corn, golden llamas, figurines and jars. All that remains today is the stonework – the Conquistadors took the rest.
The San Blas district is located on a hill to the northeast of the Plaza de Armas. The area is known as Cusco’s artisans’ quarter since many of the best craftsmen have their workshops and small art galleries in the cobbled, narrow streets surrounding the 16th-century church of San Blas. It is believed that this area was also the artists’ district even during Inca times, with the streets filled with the best gold and silversmiths, potters, painters and carvers from throughout the Inca Empire. San Blas really comes to life in the evenings when the bars and restaurants open. This is a good place to take advantage of the view out over Cusco and its red tiled rooftops. On Saturdays, there is a handicraft market in the square.
One place that you must visit is Sacsayhuamen. This is just outside the city and is a magnificent Inca fortress overlooking Cusco. It is a very important Inca construction.
The main ramparts consist of three massive parallel walls zigzagging together for some 400 metres/440 yards, designed to make any attacker expose themselves. The outer walls are made from massive stone blocks. It is believed that some 20,000 men had been involved in its construction. According to legend, some 3000 lives were lost when one huge stone that was being dragged uphill broke free.
Sacsayhuaman played an important part in the final defeat of the Inca Empire by the Spanish who entered Cusco unopposed in 1533 and lived there securely for more than two years before finally being caught unprepared by a rebellion. The fortress was under siege for several weeks before the Spanish broke through the Inca defences. This is very reminiscent of the battle of Masada in Israel when this fortress was attacked and under siege from the Romans.
Something very special takes place once a year. The Inti Raymi (Quechua for “Sun Festival) is a religious ceremony dating back to the Inca Empire days. The Sun God was one of the most respected deities in the Inca religion. It was the celebration of the winter solstice. During the Inca Empire, the Inti Raymi was the most important of four ceremonies celebrated in Cusco. It lasted for nine days and was filled with colourful dances and processions as well as animal sacrifices to ensure a good harvest. Inti Raymi is still celebrated in indigenous cultures throughout the Andes. Celebrations involve music, colourful costumes and the sharing of food. Sacsayhuaman is one place where this festival is celebrated.
You will probably be visiting Cusco on your way to that other Inca icon, Machu Picchu. Do make sure you invest enough time to get to know this truly colourful city.
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