Cusco Travel Guide
Introduction to Cusco
Situated at a breathtaking 11,100 feet above sea level, Cusco is a city that once served as the headquarters for the Incan Empire. While many people think of this place as a base camp of sorts for those heading to Machu Picchu, there is so much more to explore in this city and in the surrounding area than just this one well-known attraction.
With a variety of ruins relating to the Incan people and other civilizations that came before them, as well as a variety of Spanish colonial buildings erected after Pizarro and his men succeeded in pacifying the incumbent civilization in the area, there is much to see and explore during your time in this lofty city.
Cultural Attractions in Cusco
While Cusco is well known for Machu Picchu, there are many other historical sites that chronicle the extensive cities and fortresses that the Inca used to inhabit. The first of these is Saksaywaman, which is situated on the northern outskirts of the city.
The citadel that was started by the Killke Empire before the Incas took over in the 13th century, but the Incan civilization added to the work that the prior civilization had begun, forming a wall of heavy stones that somehow held together without using mortar to fuse them. Forming a strong front that served to protect Cusco from invaders, it was the site of a pitched battle that became one of the last stands by the Inca against the Spanish juggernaut.
While a good portion of this fortress is in pieces due to the fact that the Spanish quarried the walls to use them to construct their version of city of Cusco, it is easy for visitors to see what a formidable challenge this fortification posed to invading armies, even one that was as technologically advanced as the Spanish back in the fifteenth century.
While the House of the Sun, or Qurikancha as it was once known to the Incan people, no longer exists in its intact form seeing how the Convent of Santo Domingo now stands in its place, the foundations upon which it was built remain.
When it did exist though, its walls were coated with gold from top to bottom, most of which were stripped bare in order to pay a ransom to the Spanish in return for the life of the ruler of Cusco following the conquest of the city.
The church that they built on the site has crumbled badly in several earthquakes that has occurred since then, but the foundation, built by the Incans using their infallible masonry technique has remained steadfast in every one of those tremors.
There are several other Incan ruins outside of the city of Cusco that are well worth your attention: the first is Moray, which features Terraces that many speculate that the Incans used to conduct agricultural research on the effects of various microclimates on crops; another of these sites is Tambomachay, which is a small ruin complex that was thought to have been a military outpost along the road to Cusco, or a spa resort for the elite rulers of the area; finally, Pikillaqta is the ruins of a Wari village, which was part of a civilization that existed before the Inca came to power in the area.
The last place mentioned is thought to have been a feasting site where members from various villages in the area gathered to celebrate special days in their religion.
As far as the Spanish contribution to the Cusco area goes, one of its most spectacular structures is unquestionably the Cusco Cathedral. Built in the Gothic Renaissance style, the Cusco Cathedral has a good number of artifacts that are well worth checking out.
Its silver cast altar, the Maria Angola Bell, paintings by Marcos Zapata, and a crucifix featuring a Christ that has been blackened by centuries of smoke that have wafted up from candles burnt within the church’s interior are just a few of the things you can expect to find within the Cusco Cathedral.
When it comes to doing cultural activities in the Cusco area, the one thing that you will likely be doing during your time in the area is hiking the Inca Trail, or if you are running low on time, taking the train directly to Aguas Caliente, which is located a stone’s throw from the lost city of Machu Picchu.
Hiking in via the trail requires you to plan ahead, as trips in the high season are often booked up weeks or even months in advance. That said, be sure to go with tour providers that respect the environment, treat their porters well, and display a good deal of confidence when it comes to expressing their passion for the history and culture of the region.
For those wondering, Machu Picchu is a lost city that had been long forgotten about after the Spanish conquest of Peru, yet it had the remarkable fortune of never being visited by the conquistadors, as the sacred temples within were not defaced by Spanish forces in the same manner that other temples had suffered.
As a result of local people keeping their mouths shut about the location of this remarkable ruin complex, it remained intact until an American visitor discovered it again in 1911. Shrouded in cloud in the early morning hours in a visually stunning fashion, it will be an iconic sight that you or your travel companion will never be able to forget.
Other Attractions in Cusco
When back in town, make sure to hit up Centro Historico De Cusco. Within the bounds of this part of the city, you can find many colonial buildings, churches, museums, and other attractions. When you are done exploring them, you can relax in many restaurants, bars, and shop in a variety of boutiques that specialize in authentic Peruvian and Incan crafts.
Those that are into artifacts that represent the artistic life of pre-Columbian Peru will enjoy a visit of a few hours within the walls of Museo de Arte Precolombino.
Sharing some exhibits with its sister museum in Lima (the Larco Museum), it contains a great deal of jewelry, pottery, sculptures and paintings that represent the flourishing of human civilization in a large part of South America, all while other major civilizations in Europe and Asia were none the wiser about what was going on in this yet to be discovered part of the globe.
Finally, heading to the Mercado Central de San Pedro is a great way to get a feel on local cuisine and social life of this part of Peru. From freshly squeezed juice to donkey heads, you can find a great variety of foodstuffs within the spacious halls of this market.
Additionally, you can find many souvenir stands where you can buy authentic handicrafts as gifts for your friends and family before heading home.