Things to Do in Cusco
The lost city of Machu Picchu is the most famous archaeological site in Peru and all of South America. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed collection of temples, terraced hills, and plazas was once the mountaintop citadel of the ancient Inca empire. It may now be world famous, but Machu Picchu still hasn't revealed the mysteries behind its construction, function, and eventual demise.
The largest and most impressive of four archaeological ruins on the outskirts of Cusco, Sacsayhuaman(Saqsaywaman) was built by the Incas from massive stones weighing as much as 300 tons. A critical military site in the battle with the Spanish for the Inca empire in 1536, the ruins offer impressive views over the city below.
A symbol of both the cosmology of the Incas and their brutal conquest at the hands of the Spanish, Qorikancha(Coricancha) is one of the most important sites in Cusco. The sacred temple, which the Incas created to worship their sun deity and then swathed in gold, was looted and destroyed by conquistadors, who built a colonial church atop the temple ruins.
Built atop the Inca palace Viracocha, the Cusco Cathedral was a triumphant statement for conquering colonists who laid the foundation stones in 1559. Now Plaza de Armas’ showpiece, the cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco and a significant cultural monument holding the largest collection of Cusco School paintings.
Between Cusco and Machu Picchu lies the Sacred Valley of the Incas (Urubamba Valley), home to some of Peru’s most interesting pre-Columbian ruins and attractive colonial towns and villages. While many travelers pass through here en route to Machu Picchu, the valley has become a destination in its own right.
Tambomachay might not be one of the biggest ruins in Cusco, but it’s definitely one of the highest, topping out at nearly 13,000 feet.
Located five miles from the city center, Tambomachay is also known as “the Baths of the Inca” due to the multiple baths which are scattered about the site. The Inca held water in a spiritual regard as one of the sources of life, and the spring waters at Tambomachay are masterfully diverted into aqueducts, baths, and stone-carved waterways which would divert the water through the stone. Given the site’s natural beauty and the spiritual significance of its waters, it’s believed by historians that Tambomachay was reserved for Inca royalty.
When visiting Tambomachay today, be sure to admire the smooth mosaic of stone which forms the walls of the ruin. The way in which the stones are perfectly stacked on each other is an example of the handicraft for which the Inca were famous. Also, take a moment to notice the way that the multi-tiered terraces are built into the mountainside in such a way that they nearly blend as a natural part of the landscape. This is a relaxing, powerful, and meditative spot that sees far fewer visitors than some of the more famous ruins.
To visit Tambomachay, you can either take part in a guided tour or visit the site independently. For those who choose to visit on their own and are looking for a bit of a workout, consider riding a bus to the site and then strolling the five miles back towards the city. Remember to take it slow, however, as the altitude can easily be felt, and be sure to admire the views of Cusco that stretch out to the surrounding valley.
From the coastal deserts of southern Peru to the frigid peaks of the Andes, every part of the vast Inca Empire traced back to Cusco. Tucked within the Andean mountains, the scenic capital city was the beating heart of one of the greatest civilizations in history. Today, you can feel this powerful history most palpably in its central square, Plaza de Armas.
Perched at the northern end of Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, the Ollantaytambo Ruins were once the administrative center of the Inca Empire. It was also the site of a rare Inca victory over the Spanish conquistador army in 1536. These days, the remarkable ruins are the most common starting point for visitors to the legendary Inca Trail.
Near Cuzco, on the way to Pisac from Sacsayhuaman, is the amphitheater and temple of Q’engo(Qenko). This site which is at 3,600 meters above sea level has some of the best examples of undisturbed Incan carving in the world. The name (which has many alternative spellings, sometimes with a k) means zig-zag, and this is in reference to the carved channels in the rock at the site. The site is actually comprised of four different parts, with the most popularly visited being Q’engo(Qenko) Grande, which was used as an astronomical observatory and holy site.
Q’engo Grande is a large limestone outcrop with two small knobs that show a shadow pattern at the summer solstice in June. Also carved into the limestone are a series of caves, altars and hollows that would have been used to move water. The site was used as a stopping point on a pilgrimage of religious importance during the Inca period, and mummification took place onsite as well. There are 19 trapezoidal niches as well, which used to house idols and mummies, though these are no longer onsite.
Maras, a remote Andean town deep in Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, is a favorite of photography buffs and gourmands alike for its famous salt pans (Salinas de Maras). Fixed in geometric shapes on terraced hills, the surreal, photogenic pools were created by the Incas 2,000 years ago, and the mines are still harvested for their pink salt.
More Things to Do in Cusco
Once the shimmering capital of the entire Inca Empire, Cusco is the gateway to the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the ruins of Machu Picchu. Bearing its original Inca name, meaning “Navel of the Earth,” Cusco pulsates with a unique and magical energy rivaled by few other South American cities, most notably in its historic center.
One would think that a rainbow-colored mountain would be fairly easy to spot, but in the case of Mt. Vinicunca (Rainbow Mountain), set high in the Peruvian Andes, getting a view of the multihued wonder means waking up early to trek through mountains that burst with natural colors, but are thin on air considering they rise over 17,000 feet (5181m). Despite the physical challenges, however, seeing Vinicunca in person is a once-in-a-lifetime visual treat where you’ll likely find yourself gawking in silence and wondering, “how is this real?” With impressively straight and colorful lines, “Rainbow Mountain,” as it’s come to be known, explodes with hues of lavender and red that are caused by minerals in the soil, and looks like something from a coloring book as opposed to an actual Andean peak that few are lucky to see.
The Pisac Indian Market is one of the most popular and picturesque of the indigenous markets in the Cusco region. Travelers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to this mountain town to purchase all manner of textiles, ceramics, jewelry, ponchos, rugs, hats, gloves, Andean instruments, ceramics, alpaca and llama woven clothing, and a host of lovely souvenirs.
If you're visiting Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there’s a good chance you'll pass through the small pueblo of Aguas Calientes en route. This gateway town to Peru’s famous Incan ruins sits nestled in a valley of cloud forest, where a series of natural hot springs gives the town its name.
Mercado Central de San Pedro (San Pedro Market) is one of the best places to experience the vibrancy of everyday Andean life in Cusco. This large and popular city market is where locals shop for food—there are hundreds of potato varieties and hot traditional meals—and any other household item under the sun.
Salkantay Trail, a remote trekking route in the same Andean region as the Inca Trail, offers travelers spectacular scenery. Trekkers pass soaring mountains, picturesque villages, lakes, and lush jungle. While Inca Trail tours are typically booked far in advance, Salkantay offers another (more affordable) way to reach Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail might be the most popular trek in the Peruvian Andes near Cusco, but anarguably equally impressive (and certainly less crowded) trail leads visitors to Mt. Ausangate.Nevado Ausangate, the highest mountain in southern Peru, peaks at 20,945 feet (6,384 meters)above sea level. On a clear day, the snow-topped peak can be seen from Cusco.
The Ausangate Trail, named after the peak, takes five to six days, plus travel time to and from Cusco from the trail head. The trail begins in the brown grasslands of the Andean plateau and crosses four high-altitude passes, covering some of the most stunning terrain in the Cusco region. The trail, much of it at altitudes of more than 13,100 feet (4,000 meters) passes high alpine lakes, glacial valleys and small villages where alpacas graze freely and residents still dress in their traditional attire.
Away from the tourist foot traffic, the lovely San Blas neighborhood of Cusco is a haven for locals artisans, weavers, sculptors, and potters as well as travelers looking for the city’s bohemian side. In recent years, small cafés, art galleries, boutiques, and yoga studios have set up shop along its hilly cobblestone streets and alleyways.
Located on the outskirts of Cusco, the often overlooked archaeological site of Tipón is arguably the best demonstration of Inca engineering skills in existence. The site comprises a network of agricultural terraces, some of which are still used today, and stonemasonry similar to that of Machu Picchu—but without the crowds.
The textile mill at Awana Kancha—or the Palace of Weaving—is a culture-rich stop between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The artisan outpost gives visitors the chance to observe traditionally dressed women weaving textiles made from the wool of alpacas kept in the outdoor yard and to take a photo op hand-feeding the animals.
The simple, whitewashed exterior of San Pedro Apóstol de Andahuaylillas gives no hint as to the mesmerizing murals within, which depict biblical scenes imbued with Inca symbols. Along with lavish embellishments such as a gold-leaf altarpiece, these have earned the church the moniker Sistine Chapel of the Americas.
This vast Inca archaeological site is one the Cusco Region’s top attractions, drawing travelers from across the globe that come in search of ancient ruins. Most of the highlights of this historical destination are located inside an old defense wall. Visitors will find a courtyard, lodging house, and several other structures that are worth exploring on a tour of Raqch’i.
Some 220 small storehouses known as qullqas, which surround the area, are another unique feature of this ancient Inca locale. But perhaps the most impressive landmark is the Temple of Wiracoch — a massive two-story building that showcases the incredible craftsmanship of early Inca stonework. Travelers will find old living quarters attached to the temple that are also the perfect place to explore Incan history, culture and traditions.
Of all the surviving Inca ruins which surround the Sacred Valley, most are known for their size, their age, or their complex level of construction. The Agricultural Terraces ofMoray, however, located 31 miles northwest of Cuzco, stands out from many of the other ruins for its fascinating level of genius.
At the height of the empire, the Inca were regarded as some of the most successful farmers in all of the Western Hemisphere. Crops such as maize, quinoa, and various potatoes trace their roots to Andes, and the yield on crops which were farmed by the Inca regularly trumped those of their neighbors.
Although the Agricultural Terraces of might just look like a big hole in the ground, historians theorize that this multi-terraced depression explains the reason for the agricultural prowess. With concentric circles spiraling down into the Earth, the Moray is comprised of numerous terraces linked by zig-zagging steps. While it could almost even be classified as art, the Moray is instead a wonder of science.
For inexplicable reasons, the temperature difference between all of the terraces can sometimes be as much as 27°F. Consequently, each terrace has a unique microclimate which subsequently experiences its own temperature. Without even having to leave the valley, the Inca had created an agricultural laboratory which mimicked the temperature throughout the empire. Crops would be rotated from terrace to terrace, and when it was found that a microclimate maximized yield, the knowledge would be spread throughout the empire so that farmers could grow crops which were best for their climate. Through trial and error at the Incan Moray, the Inca slowly became masters of agriculture.
Today, the Moray can be visited with tours which depart from the city of Cuzco. It is often combined with a visit to theSalineras salt mine, a massive quarry of terraced mines where laborers harvest bags of salt. When combined with the markets and surrounding ruins, the Moray is just one of the fascinating sights which recall the wonders of the Inca.
There are two main ways to get from the Peruvian city of Cuzco to Machu Picchu—either by a long hike or a four-hour train ride, which is what most visitors choose. Though there are a few different kinds of train service, the crème de la crème is without a doubt, the Belmond Hiram Bingham, named for the archaeologist who discovered Machu Picchu. It is the most luxurious of the different trains and seats only 84 passengers.
The train, which runs on the same rails from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes as all the others, has been outfitted to look like a 1920s Pullman carriage, with polished wood and brass details, and comfortable seats that are set up for dining. Meals are included on the train, and are of typical Peruvian food, with basic drinks included. There is an observation car with full floor to ceiling windows to enjoy the view, and there is a bar car as well. There is a pisco sour-making demonstration, and the recipe given out as well, in case you’d like to make it for friends back home.
On the way back from Aguas Calientes (the point at which visitors board buses for the last 20 minutes up to Machu Picchu) there is live entertainment on the train, including live music and dance.
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