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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Barrio San Blas
Originally known as T’oqokachi (“salty hole”), the San Blas barrio was the first parish to be established by the Spanish in Cusco and one of twelve administrative sectors in the Inca capital. After the Conquest it became the residence for many defeated Inca leaders. It rapidly grew into one of the more attractive districts in the city, reflecting strong mestizo and colonial influences in its architecture and high-quality artesanía – even today it’s known as the barrio de los artesanos (artesans’ quarter). Hit hard by the 1950 earthquake, it has been substantially restored, and in 1993 was given a major face-lift that returned it to its former glory. The process of rebuilding continues, with many old houses being converted to hostels, shops and restaurants.
At the barrio’s centre, on the southeast side of the Iglesia San Blas, lies the Plazoleta San Blas, with 49 gargoyles set on a fountain that’s laid out in the form of a chakana, or Inca cross, with four corners and a hole at its centre.
Soroche, or mountain sickness, is a reality for most people arriving in Cusco by plane from sea level and needs to be treated with respect. It’s vital to take it easy, not eating or drinking much on arrival, even sleeping a whole day just to assist acclimatization (coca tea is a good local remedy). After three days at this height most people have adjusted sufficiently to tackle moderate hikes at similar or lesser altitudes. Anyone considering hiking the major mountains around Cusco will need time to adjust again to their higher base camps.
If you do encounter altitude-related health problems, many hotels and restaurants have oxygen cylinders to help; alternatively, for serious cases, try the Clinica Peruano Suiza (English spoken) at Calle Meson de la Estrella 168 (open 24hr; t237009, wclinicaperuanosuiza.com), which also has a dedicated medical network whose details can be accessed at wo2medicalnetwork.com, and the Clinica Cima at Av Pardo 978 (t255550).
The Cusqueña school
The Cusqueña school
Colonial Cusco evolved into an exceptional centre for architecture and art. The era’s paintings in particular are curious for the way they adorn human and angelic figures in elaborate lacy garments and blend traditional and ancient with colonial and Spanish elements. They are frequently brooding and quite bloody, and by the mid-seventeenth-century had evolved into a recognizable school of painting.
The Cusqueña art movement dedicated itself to beautifying church and convent walls with fantastic and highly moralistic painting, mainly using oils. The Cusqueña school is best known for portraits or religious scenes with dark backgrounds, serious (even tortured-looking) subjects and a profusion of gold-leaf decoration. Influences came from European émigrés – mainly Spainish and Italian – notably Juan de Illescas, Bernardo Bitti and Mateo Perez de Alessio. At the close of the seventeenth century, the school came under the direction of Bishop Manuel Mollinedo. Bringing a number of original paintings (including some by El Greco) with him from his parish in Spain, the Bishop was responsible for commissioning Basilio Santa Cruz’s fine 1698 reproduction of the Virgen de la Almudena, which still hangs behind the choir in Cusco’s Catedral. He also commissioned the extraordinarily carved cedarwood pulpit in the church at San Blas.
The top Cusqueña artists were Bernardo Bitti (1548–1610), an Italian who is often considered the “father of Cusqueña art” and who introduced the Mannerist style to Peru, and Diego Quispe Tito Inca (1611–81), a mestizo painter who was influenced by the Spanish Flamenco school and whose paintings were vital tools of communication for priests attempting to convert Indians to Catholicism. Bitti’s work is on display in the Museo Historico Regional, while some of Quispe’s works can be seen in rooms off the second courtyard in the Religious Art Museum at the Archbishop’s Palace in Cusco. The equally renowned Mauricio García (painting until the mid-eighteenth century) helped spur the form into a fuller mestizo synthesis, mixing Spanish and Indian artistic forms. Many of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Cusqueña-mestizo works display bold compositions and colours.
By the eighteenth century the style had been disseminated as far afield as Quito in Ecuador, Santiago in Chile and even into Argentina, making it a truly South American art form and one of the most distinctive indigenous arts in the Americas.
Fiestas in the Cusco region
Fiestas in the Cusco region
As the imperial capital during Inca times, Cusco was the most important place of pilgrimage in South America, a status it retains today. During Easter, June and Christmas, the city centre becomes the focus for relentless fiestas and carnivals celebrated with extravagant processions blending pagan pre-Columbian and Catholic colonial cultures.
Around Jan 20 Adoración de los Reyes (Adoration of the Kings). Ornate and elaborate processions leave from San Blas church and parade through Cusco.
Last week of Jan Pera Chapch’y (Festival of the Pear). A harvest festival in San Sebastián, 4km southeast of Cusco, with lively street stalls and processions.
First week of March Festival de Durasno (Festival of the Peach). Food stalls and folk dancing in Yanahuara and Urubamba.
Easter Week Semana Santa. On Easter Monday there’s a particularly splendid procession through Cusco, with a rich and evocative mix of Indian and Catholic iconography. The following Thursday a second procession celebrates the city’s patron saint, El Señor de los Temblores (Lord of Earthquakes), and on Easter Friday, street stalls sell many different traditional dishes.
May 2–3 Cruz Velacuy, or Fiesta de las Cruces (Festival of the Cross). All church and sanctuary crosses in Cusco and the provinces are veiled for a day, followed by traditional festivities with dancing and feasting in most communities. Particularly splendid in Ollantaytambo.
Weekend before Corpus Christi Qoyllur Rit’i (Snow Star, or Ice Festival). Held on the full-moon weekend prior to Corpus Christi in an isolated valley above the road from Cusco via Urcos and Ocongate to the Amazon town of Puerto Maldonado. The festival site lies at the foot of a glacier, considered an apu, or mountain god. Close by, and visible during the climb to the festival, is the sacred snowcapped peak – Ausangate. This is one of the most exciting festivals in the Americas, with live music that continues for days, several processions, and bands and dancers from various communities who make an annual pilgrimage to recharge spiritually at a time when the mountain is said to be blossoming in a metaphysical rather than botanical sense. As it involves camping at around 4600m at the foot of a glacier, it’s only for the adventurous; some tour operators organize trips, but it’s primarily a Quechua festival, with villagers arriving in their thousands in the weeks running up to it.
Corpus Christi (always nine weeks after Easter). Imposed by the Spanish to replace the Inca tradition of parading ancestral mummies, saints’ effigies are carried through the streets of Cusco, even as the local mayordomos (ritual community leaders) throw parties and feasts combining elements of religiosity with outright hedonism. The effigies are then left inside the cathedral for eight days, after which they are taken back to their respective churches, accompanied by musicians, dancers and exploding firecrackers.
Second week of June Cusqueña International Beer and Music Festival. Lively, with big Latin pop and jazz names, at its best from Thursday to Sunday.
June 16–22 Traditional folk festivals in Raqchi and Sicuani.
June 20–30 Fiesta de Huancaro. An agricultural show packed with locals and good fun, based in the Huancaro sector of Cusco (S/5 taxi ride from Plaza de Armas, or go down Avenida Sol and turn right at the roundabout before the airport).
Last week of June Cusco Carnival. Daily processions and folk dancers, plus lively music on the streets throughout the day and night, peaking with Inti Raymi.
June 24 Inti Raymi. Popular, commercial fiesta re-enacting the Inca Festival of the Sun in the grounds of Sacsayhuaman.
July 15–17 Virgen del Carmen. Dance and music festival celebrated all over the highlands, but at its best in Paucartambo.
July 28 Peruvian Independence Day. Festivities nationwide, not least in Cusco.
Sept 14–18 Señor de Huanca. Music, dancing, pilgrimages and processions take place all over the region but are especially lively in Calca, with a fair in the Sacred Valley.
First week of Dec Yawar Fiesta. A vibrant, uncommercial corrida de toros (bull fight) at the end of the week in Paruro, Cotabambas and Chumbivilcas. A condor, captured by hand, is tied to the back of a bull that battles to the death.
Activities around Cusco
Activities around Cusco
The Cusco region and nearby cloudforest and lowland Amazon provide a fantastic range of activities, from river-based ecotourism and whitewater kayaking to mountain biking, hiking and horseriding, not to mention white-knuckle experiences of the spiritual variety.
Hiking and horseriding
The mountains to the south and the north of Cusco are full of amazing trekking trails, some of them little touched, most of them still rarely walked (see Alternative treks to the Inca Trail). Less adventurous walks or horse rides are possible to Qenko, Tambo Machay, Puca Pucara and Chacan, in the hills above Cusco and in the nearby Sacred Valley. Many jungle trip operators are based in Cusco.
Cusco is also a great whitewater rafting centre, with easy access to classes 2 to 5 (rivers are generally rated from class 1 – very easy – to class 5 – very difficult/borderline dangerous) around Ollantaytambo on the Río Urubamba and classes 1 to 3 between Huambutio and Pisac, on the Río Vilcanota. From Calca to Urubamba the river runs classes 2 to 3, but this rises to 5 in the rainy season. Calca to Pisac (Huaran) and Ollantaytambo to Chilca are among the most popular routes, while the most dangerous are further afield on the Río Apurimac. The easiest stretch is from Echarate to San Baray, which passes by Quillabamba. Costs range from around $40 to about $200 a day, with price usually reflecting quality, but it’s always recommended to use a reputable and well-established rafting company such as Mayuc. Remember that most travel insurance policies exclude this kind of adventure activity, and always ensure that you are fully equipped with a safety kayak, helmets and lifejackets.
Bungee jumping and hot-air balloon trips
Bungee jumping is big in Cusco. The tallest bungee jump facility in the Americas (122m) is offered by Action Valley Cusco, Santa Teresa 325 (240835, actionvalley.com), just a fifteen-minute walk from the plaza in Poroy (buses run here from block 8 of Avenida Sol). Equally breathtaking but slightly less scary is the option of a hot-air balloon adventure (from $400, shared between groups of 5 to 10 people) in the Cusco or Sacred Valley areas.
Psychedelic tourism is popular in Cusco these days, though not as developed as in Iquitos. This doesn’t involve taking drugs and wandering around the Andes: essentially, psychedelic tourism is based on traditional healing techniques that tend to focus on inner consciousness and well-being through often highly ritualized ceremonies. San Pedro and ayahuasca, the two principal indigenous psychedelic plants that have been used ceremonially in Peru for over 3500 years, can be experienced with the assistance of Etnikas Travel and Shamanic Healing (C Herrajes 148; 244516) or Another Planet (Triunfo 120; 2445168, anotherplanetperu.net), who also lead organized spiritual tours.
Craft-shopping in Cusco
Craft-shopping in Cusco
Crafts and artesanía are Cusco’s stock in trade, with the best value and range of alpaca clothing in Peru, apart perhaps from Puno. It’s an ideal place to pick up weavings or antique cloths, traditional musical instruments like panpipes, and colourful bags and leather crafts. There are artesanía (craft shops) all over the centre, but the best prices and fullest range are found at the Centro Artesanal Cusco (Mon–Sat 8am–10pm, with most stalls open 9am–6pm, Sun 9am–5pm) at the corner of Huanchac and Tullumayo, close to the huge sun-disc fountain on Avenida Sol. This large building brings together arguably the largest and best-value collection of artesanía under one roof in Peru; it’s a nice, clean and relatively hassle-free shopping environment very close to the train ticket office at Huanchac station.
Another good part of town for quality artesanía is the barrio of San Blas. This is the traditional artisan area of Cusco, home to a number of jewellers and art and antique shops. The Cuesta San Blas itself contains some of the finest artesanía, selling new and old oil paintings, while Hathun Rumiyoq has more good shops at its bottom end. There are some funky shops around the San Blas plazoleta too. The main street-market day for artesanía is Saturday (10am–6pm).
While there are relatively inexpensive and reasonable mid-range hostels and hotels in most corners of the city, Cusco’s accommodation is centred in three main zones: east, west and south of the Plaza de Armas. To the west of the Plaza along calles Plateros, Procuradores and Saphi (Procuradores and Plateros are particularly noisy at night) there are plenty of busy budget hostels. You can find slightly pricier and more luxurious places in the area east of the Plaza around San Blas and Choquechaca in the artists’ quarter. To the south of the Plaza, the San Pedro region around the central market and near to the train station for Machu Picchu has improved its facilities in recent years, now offering comfortable and safe accommodation. Closer to the Plaza, along Calle Quera and around Avenida Sol, more varied accommodation can be found.Book a hostel in Cusco
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
Apart from Lima, no Peruvian town has as varied a nightlife as Cusco. The Plaza de Armas is a hive of activity until the early hours, even during the week. Most venues in the city are simply bars with a dancefloor and sometimes a stage, but their styles vary enormously, from Andean folk spots with panpipe music to reggae or jazz joints, as well as more conventional clubs. Most places are within staggering distance of each other, and sampling them is an important part of any stay in Cusco. Most really get going between 10 and 11pm, then keep on going until 2 or 3am.
Cusco prides itself on its traditional dishes, which have evolved this century into a novo andino cuisine, fusing the best ingredients of the Andes with exquisite Mediterranean and even Argentinian influences. Generally speaking, trout is plentiful, reasonably priced and often excellent, and roast guinea pig (cuy) can usually be ordered – but pizza seems to lead in the popularity stakes.
The central market by San Pedro train station sells a wonderful variety of meats, tropical and imported fruits, local vegetables, Andean cheeses and other basics. The market also has a wide range of daytime hot-food stalls where you can get superb, freshly squeezed juices.
Eating out in Cusco is enjoyable, and restaurants range from cheap-and-cheerful pizza joints to exceptionally fine gourmet establishments. Many of the best restaurants and bars are within a block or two of the Plaza de Armas and uphill towards San Blas; the more central places serve anything from a toasted cheese sandwich to authentic Andean or criolla dishes. Quintas – basic local eating houses – serve mostly traditional Peruvian food, full of spice and character. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to categorize some of the establishments in Cusco as distinctly cafés, restaurants or bars since many fulfil all three functions, occasionally simultaneously, sometimes varying between different hours of the day.
Most of the touristy artesanía and jewellery shops are concentrated in streets like Plateros around the Plaza de Armas and up Triunfo, though calles Herraje (first right as you head towards San Blas) and San Agustín have slightly cheaper but decent shops with leather and alpaca work. It’s worth heading off the beaten track, particularly around San Blas or the upper end of Tullumayo, to find outlets hidden in the backstreets.
The main street-market day for artesanía is Sat (10am–6pm). The central market, selling fresh produce, is at San Pedro. Out of town there are good markets for artesanía at Pisac and Chinchero, market days being Sun and Thurs, respectively.