Things to Do in Cusco
The holy grail for lovers of Inca monuments, the enigmatic lost city of Machu Picchu is the most famous archaeological site in all of South America.
The spectacular collection of temples, terraced hills and plazas was the mountain-top citadel of the Inca under Pachacutec and Tupac Yupanqui, until the coming of the Europeans with Pizarro. It may have the most familiar name, but Machu Picchu has refused to reveal many of its mysteries, including the secrets of its construction, function and demise. The overgrown ruins were discovered by US historian Hiram Bingham in 1911, and the quality of the stonework hints that it was an extremely important ceremonial site. The remains are thought to date from around 1450, built at the height of the Inca Empire, and as they escaped being plundered by the Spanish they include semi-intact icons and shrines that were defaced or removed at other sites.
Sacsayhuaman is the largest and most impressive of four archaeological ruins on the outskirts of Cusco, Peru. Built by the Incas, it served an important military function and was the site of a major battle with the Spanish in 1536. The name itself can be translated as “speckled head” and some say that the city of Cusco was laid out in the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuaman forming the head.
The complex was constructed out of massive stones, some weighing as much as 300 tons, cut to fit together without the use of mortar. Today, many of the outside walls, built in a tiered, zigzag formation, remain, as do several tunnels and the “Inca’s Throne.” The latter is a series of large rocks with well-worn grooves used by many visitors as slides. A large, open plaza holding several thousand people was once home to ceremonial activities and continues to be used today – most notably for the annual celebration of the Inti Raymi festival in late June.
Cusco’s Cathedral of Santo Domingo is a colonial gem, boasting an altar of silver and a magnificently carved choir. The building stands on the site of an Inca palace, and was built from stone blocks removed from the nearby Inca city of Sacsayhuaman by the triumphant conquistadors.
The elaborately decorated cathedral was built from 1559 to 1654 on the city’s main square, Plaza de Armas, and is filled with colonial artworks, artifacts and richly decorated chapels. The most famous artwork is a Last Supper painting by Marcos Zapata featuring a meal of local guinea pig served with an Inca corn beverage. The highly ornamental facade features two domes flanking the chapels and nave, built in a Gothic-Renaissance hybrid style.
The Sacred Valley was the agricultural food bowl of the Inca, a fertile plain perfect for growing the Inca staples, maize and potatoes. At the heart of the valley is the ancient city of Cusco, surrounded by remote Quechua villages and the crumbling remains of Inca citadels.
With its Quechua village festivals and markets, colonial churches, Inca ruins, river rafting, horseback riding and trekking, there are plenty of reasons to head out into the Sacred Valley of the Incas for the day or longer.
Inca street and town planning at its finest is preserved in the village of Ollantaytambo, surrounded by neatly terraced hills.
Soaring above the town’s cobbled streets, which have been lived in since the 13th century, is the massive Inca fortress and the monolithic stones of the Temple of the Sun. Built by Pachacuti in the 1400s, the huge complex features fine stonework and a ceremonial temple hill area topping the stepped, fortified terrace. Climb more than 200 steps to the top for fabulous views and an up-close look at the impressively hewn masonry. You’ll also see the remains of several temples and ceremonial fountains. To see where the huge blocks of stone were quarried from the mountainside, follow the 6km (3.5 mile) trail to the quarry on the other side of the river - the water was diverted to flush the stones down to the construction site.
There was once a time when Cusco was the center of the powerful Incan Empire. From the coastal deserts of southern Peru to the frigid peaks of the Andes, every decision within the empire traced back to the city of Cusco. It was the beating heart at the very center of one of the greatest civilizations in history, and at the center of Cusco was the massive square which was known as Huacaypata.
When the Spanish besieged the city, however, many of the buildings around Huacaypata were viciously razed to the ground. Western structures were erected in their place to solidify the imperial dominance, and the name of the square was also changed to reflect the Spanish heritage.
The Inca site of Qorikancha forms the foundations of the colonial church of Santo Domingo, creating an unusual combination of monolithic Inca and arched colonial architecture.
Qorikancha means ‘Golden Courtyard’, and in Inca times the temple walls were clad with 700 sheets of solid gold, proving a tempting lure for the conquistadors. The gold sheets and gold and silver statues are gone, melted down and recast by the Spanish, but the impressively hewn curved wall of basalt stonework remains. The temple complex is thought to have been built by the first Inca emperor, Manco Capac, 100 years before the coming of the Spaniards. It was built as an observatory and religious temple to the sun, housing the mummified bodies of the Inca rulers. When you enter the courtyard, imagine the octagonal front clad with solid gold, flanked by temples to the moon and the stars draped in solid silver.
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.
When it comes to history, few cities in South America are more historic than Cusco. This sprawling city was once the capital of the entire Inca Empire, and many will tell you that ancient Cusco was the grandest city in Peru. Even the name “Cusco” translates as “Navel of the Earth” since the Inca believed the city to be the center of the known world. It pulses with an energy unlike elsewhere in Peru, and there is a palpable magic which permeates these streets set high in the foothills of the Andes.
During the 16th Century, when Spanish conquistadors came marching into Cusco, they kept the structure of the city intact but destroyed many of the buildings. Colonial cathedrals and Spanish architecture took the place of Inca temples, and the city became an Andean fusion of Spanish and Inca design. Given the cultural combination and the grandiose scale of the city, UNESCO declared Cusco as a World Heritage Site in 1983.
More Things to Do in Cusco
Nestled in the Sacred Valley of the Incas is the remote town of Maras, known throughout Peru for its thousands of worked salt pans. Salt has been collected here since before the time of the Inca, rising to the surface from a subterranean stream and evaporating in the Andean sunshine.You can gather your own handful of salt or buy some packaged to take home from Maras’ gift store. The terraced saltwork pools dotting the Andean hillsides look quite stunning, glittering like bright white snow in the sunshine, so bring your camera. The town of Maras was quite important in colonial times, and you’ll see some out-of-place ornate Spanish homes and the mud-brick colonial church.
Near Cuzco, on the way to Pisac from Sacsayhuaman, is the amphitheater and temple of Q’engo. 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 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 is a certain irony that one of the best sites in Cusco really isn’t a site at all. Rather, the Mercado Central de San Pedro (San Pedro Market) is simply the place in the center of Cusco where most of the locals go for their groceries.
The difference, however, is that grocery shopping in Cusco is a little bit different than shopping at the local market back back home. At the Mercado Central de San Pedro, all of the items are on vibrant display and are fascinatingly set right out in the open. You can wander the stalls past towers of fruit and be greeted by a pig’s head on the very next corner. You can shop for a dozen varieties of potatoes and then watch someone purchase a bag of fried guinea pigs. It’s an authentic look at everyday culture which lies outside the circuit of regular sights. There is also a food court that serves local dishes at a fraction of the cost of most local restaurants.
If you're visiting Machu Picchu while you're in Peru - and why wouldn’t you? – there's a very good chance you'll pass through the small pueblo of Aguas Calientes en route. The gateway town to Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes is nestled in a valley of cloud forest below the famous Incan site.
Make Aguas Calientes your base if you want to tour Machu Picchu in depth. It has all the facilities of a well set-up service town for visitors, including a varied collection of hostels, cabins, eco-lodges and hotels.
As you'd expect, the pueblo also has a well-rounded selection of restaurants, with a choice of local and European cuisine, as well as a lively choice of bars.
While you're here, unwind for a spell in the town's natural hot spring baths, off the central Avenue Pachacutec. You could also browse the souvenir stalls set up near the train station.
The textile mill at Awana Kancha is an entertaining and culturally-rich stop on the journey between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Set 30 minutes outside of the Cusco city center, this popular artisan outpost is a budget-friendly place to experience alpacas and Andean culture.
With no entry fee, visitors to Awana Kancha can marvel at traditionally-dressed women and the colorful textiles they spin before your eyes. Using the wool of alpacas, llamas, guanacos, and vicunyas, the women create patterns using natural dyes that have existed in the Andes since the time of the Inca. What’s more, in addition to the textiles, visitors have the chance to hand-feed llamas or nurse baby alpacas with milk from a bottle. The name Awana Kancha literally translates as the Palace of Weaving, and the fine works of handicraft which are on sale at the co-op are arguably nicer than you’ll find in larger markets.
For those who don’t want to book their tour dates six months in advance for the Inca Trail (especially during high season from June through August, when permits sell out quickly), the Salkantay Trail is a great alternative. Not only is it easier to plan because you don’t need to book in advance, it’s more affordable, less touristy and is often said to have a more authentic feel than the classic Inca Trail. Salkantay is a remote and scenic trek located in the same region as the Inca Trail, and immerses you in a world of glaciers, villages, lakes, tropical valleys, mountains, jungle and more, with postcard-worthy views every step of the way.
Keep a lookout for the snow-capped Salkantay Mountain, an impressive peak at 20,570 feet (6,270 meters). On the fourth day of the trek you come to the cloud forest-covered town of Aguas Calientes, named for its hot thermal baths which you can rest your tired muscles in.
The Inca Trail might be the most popular trek in the Peruvian Andes near Cusco, but an arguably equally impressive (and certainly less crowded) trail leads visitors to 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.
When you hear “Inca ruins” you probably think Machu Picchu, and while the famous 15th century site deserves its bucket list status, Peru is home to other travel-worthy ruins as well. One of them, arguably the best demonstration of the incredible engineering skills of the Incas, is Tipón.
The 500-acre site, located near a natural spring 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of Cusco, comprises a network of agricultural terraces so elaborate that archeologists think they may have been used for testing difficult crops rather than for everyday farming. Some of the terraces are still in use and still supplied by the same ancient technology. Since the site was part of an Incan noble’s estate, the elaborate stonemasonry exhibits the same stunning Imperial style as the structures seen at Machu Picchu, but with far fewer visitors to contend with.
San Blas is the artisan precinct of Peru’s most famous handicrafts town, Cusco. This area of workshops and studios, galleries and shops is the home of Cusco’s weavers, sculptors and potters. The artists’ enclave is ideal for a stroll, its cobblestone streets lined with whitewashed adobe houses decorated with contrasting blue doors and window frames.
You’ll also see remnants of Inca walls in this hilly enclave, where some narrow streets are so steep they are stepped. San Blas is a perfect late-afternoon destination, with bars and restaurants, galleries and studios for relaxed visits into the evening.
Sometimes referred to as “the other Machu Picchu”, Choquequirao is an Incan ruin in the mountains outside of Cuzco. Unlike Machu Picchu, however, Choquequirao sees only a handful of visitors due to the difficult two-day hike.
That could potentially change, however, as plans are in the works to shorten the access to a 15-minute ride on a tram. Many believe that this will greatly-reduce the sense of tranquility which is found at the outpost, although others argue it will open the ruin for a greater amount of visitors. Like Machu Picchu, Choquequirao is an Incan city with ornately-carved terraces and structures, and historians believe that this city in the clouds was once the retreat of royalty. Only about a third of the site has been completely excavated, however, and much of the city continues to remain hidden within the cloudy, sweaty jungle.
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