Nestling majestically in the belly of a highland valley and fed by two rivers, CUSCO’s unique layout was designed by the Incas in the form of a puma. Many of the city’s finest Inca architectural treasures were so masterfully constructed out of local stone that they are still in great shape today, and the city is ripe for exploring: one minute you’re walking down a shadowy, stone-walled alley, the next you burst onto a plaza full of brightly dressed dancers from the countryside, joining in what, at times, seems like the endless carnival and religious festival celebrations for which Cusco is famous.

Nearly every site you’ll want to visit is within walking distance of the main Plaza de Armas, and you can easily cover the main features of each quarter of the city in half a day. You should be able to cover most of Cusco Town in two or three active days, perhaps allowing a little extra time for hanging out in the bars and shops en route.

Brief history

The Cusco Valley and the Incas are synonymous in many people’s minds, but the area was populated well before the Incas arrived on the scene and built their empire on the toil and ingenuity of previous peoples.

Founding Cusco

The Killki, who dominated the region from around 700–800 AD, while primarily agrarian, also built temple structures from the hard local diorite and andesite stones. Some of these structures still survive, while others were incorporated into later Inca constructions – the sun temple of Q’orikancha, for example, was built on the foundations of a Killki sun temple.

According to Inca legend, Cusco was founded by Manco Capac and his sister Mama Occlo around 1200 AD. Over the next two hundred years the valley was home to the Inca tribe, one of many localized groups then dominating the Peruvian sierra.

Building Cusco

It wasn’t until Pachacuti assumed leadership of the Incas in 1438 that Cusco became the centre of an expanding empire and, with the Inca army, took religious and political control of the surrounding valleys and regions. As Pachacuti pushed the frontier of Inca territory outwards, he also masterminded the design of imperial Cusco, canalizing the Saphi and the Tullumayo, two rivers that ran down the valley, and built the centre of the city between them. Cusco’s city plan was conceived in the form of a puma, a sacred animal: Sacsayhuaman, an important ritual centre and citadel, is the jagged, tooth-packed head; Pumachupan, the sacred cat’s tail, lies at the junction of the city’s two rivers; between these two sites lies Q’orikancha, the Temple of the Sun, reproductive centre of the Inca universe, the loins of this sacred beast; the heart of the puma was Huacapata, a ceremonial square approximate in both size and position to the present-day Plaza de Armas. Four main roads radiated from the square, one to each corner of the empire.

The overall achievement was remarkable, a planned city without rival, at the centre of a huge empire; and in building their capital the Incas endowed Cusco with some of its finest structures. Stone palaces and houses lined streets which ran straight and narrow, with water channels to drain off the heavy rains. It was so solidly built that much of ancient Cusco is still visible today, particularly in the stone walls of what were once palaces and temples.

The Spanish Conquest

In 1532, when the Spanish arrived in Peru, Cusco was a thriving city, and capital of one of the world’s biggest empires. The Spaniards were astonished: the city’s beauty surpassed anything they had seen before in the New World; the stonework was better than any in Spain; and precious metals, used in a sacred context across the city, were in abundance throughout Q’orikancha. They lost no time in plundering its fantastic wealth. Atahualpa, the emperor at the time, was captured by Spanish conquistadors in Cajamarca while en route to Cusco, returning from bloody battles in the northern extremity of the empire. Hearing from the Emperor Atahualpa himself of Cusco’s great wealth as the centre of Inca religious and political power, Francisco Pizarro reached the native capital on November 15, 1533.

The Spanish city was officially founded on March 23, 1534. Cusco was divided up among 88 of Pizarro’s men who chose to remain there as settlers. Manco Inca, a blood relative of Atahualpa – who was murdered by Pizarro – was set up as a puppet ruler, governing from a new palace on the hill just below Sacsayhuaman. After Pizarro’s departure, and following twelve months of power struggles, his sons Juan and Gonzalo came out on top and were then free to abuse Manco and his subjects, which eventually provoked the Incas to open resistance. In April 1536 Manco fled to Yucay, in the Sacred Valley, to gather forces for the Great Rebellion.

Within days, the two hundred Spanish defenders, with only eighty horses, were surrounded in Cusco by over 100,000 rebel Inca warriors. On May 6, Manco’s men laid siege to the city. After a week, a few hundred mounted Spanish soldiers launched a desperate counterattack on the Inca base in Sacsayhuaman and, incredibly, defeated the native stronghold, putting some 1500 warriors to the sword as they took it.

Spanish-controlled Cusco never again came under such serious threat from its indigenous population, but its battles were far from over. By the end of the rains the following year, a rival conquistador, Almagro, had seized Cusco for himself until Francisco Pizarro defeated the rebel Spanish troops a few months later, and had Almagro garrotted in the main plaza. Around the same time, a diehard group of rebel Incas held out in Vilcabamba until 1572, when the Spanish colonial viceroy, Toledo, captured the leader Tupac Amaru and had him beheaded in the Plaza de Armas.

Post-Conquest Cusco

From then on the city was left in relative peace, ravaged only by the great earthquake of 1650. After this dramatic tremor, remarkably illustrated on a huge canvas in La Catedral de Cusco, Bishop Mollinedo was largely responsible for the reconstruction of the city, and his influence is also closely associated with Cusco’s most creative years of art. The Cusqueña school, which emerged from his patronage, flourished for the next two hundred years, and much of its finer work, produced by native Quechua and mestizo artists such as Diego Quispe Tito Inca, Juan Espinosa de los Monteros, Fabian Ruiz and Antonio Sinchi Roca, is exhibited in museums and churches around the city.

The modern age

In spite of this cultural heritage, Cusco only received international attention after the discovery of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham’s archeological expedition in 1911. With the advent of air travel and global tourism, Cusco was slowly transformed from a quiet colonial city in the remote Andes into a major tourist centre.

Read More
  • Plaza de Armas
  • Barrio San Blas
  • Mountain sickness
  • The Cusqueña school
  • Fiestas in the Cusco region
  • Activities around Cusco
  • Craft-shopping in Cusco
  • Accommodation
  • Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
  • Eating
  • Shopping