Introduction to Cusco
Who wouldn’t have heard of the Inca? The Andean nation that became one of the era’s greatest? The people who thrived at extremely high elevations and left behind some of the most monumental and undeciphered architecture ever made?
An ocean of red roofs spread out in a vast valley is the first thing seen from the plane; a city protected on three sides by undulating hills, and on the fourth by a rocky mountain topped with a tiered fortress.
Erected by its genius Inca engineers in the heart of the Central Andes at 11,200 feet, Cusco is the perfect example of the ability of the Inca to adapt to complicated mountain terrains. By taking advantage of the valley’s favorable natural features and incorporating them into their man-made structures, the Inca created a unique architectural style typical for their civilization – examples of that can be seen everywhere, in and around Cusco, in the Sacred Valley, at Machu Picchu.
It is for a reason that Cusco is called the ‘tourist capital’ of South America, receiving around 1.5 million tourists each year.
Getting here is very easy – the Cusco international airport handles regular domestic flights as well as some international flights. Apart from that, several bus companies connect the city with the city of Arequipa and Lake Titicaca.
Getting around Cusco is convenient, too – the surrounding mountains don’t allow the city to sprawl too much, so within 20 minutes after arrival, you are standing on the Plaza de Armas.
The main thoroughfare that connects the airport with the city center is the Avenida del Sol. Many of Cusco’s hotels, government buildings, tour operators, restaurants, Bata shoe stores, and the San Pedro market are located along it, including Coricancha, the legendary Inca Temple of the Sun.
Then comes Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square and the historic center of the city; after that, Sacsayhuaman with Qenco, Puka Pukara, Tambomachay and other Inca ruins in the city’s vicinity, followed by the Sacred Valley with its picturesque Quechua towns and sweeping terraced fields. And finally, the legendary Machu Picchu, the stunning mountain citadel of the Inca.
To visit all the sites properly, you’d need at least a week. Most people spend here 3-5 days. To enter most of the Inca archaeological sites, you need to buy Boleto Turístico.
Boleto Turístico (Tourist Ticket) is an integral tourist ticket that allows entry to 16 sites in Cusco, around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. It is valid for 10 calendar days. It costs S/130 ($40), and can be purchased from COSITUC office on Avenida del Sol 103, or from most of the sites included in the ticket. It cannot be booked online.
It is necessary to buy Boleto Turístico before visiting the site, otherwise you won’t be allowed to enter it since it is not possible to buy individual tickets for sites included in Boleto Turístico.
Tickets for sites not included in Boleto Turistíco can be purchased at the respective sites.
Apart from Boleto Turístico, it is possible to buy partial tourist tickets of 3 different circuits for S/70 ($20) each, and a 3-site ticket including the Cusco cathedral, the church of San Blas and the church of San Cristóbal. It costs S/30 ($9) and can be purchased at the sites. (Why do things the easy way when they you can do them the hard way, right?)
A little advice – don’t start the visit of the Cusco area with Machu Picchu. Leave it for the last since everything compared to Machu Picchu feels unimpressive. Build your appetite slowly, start with Cusco, its vicinity and the Sacred Valley. You’re at a feast here, after all!
Things to see and do
Exploring Cusco is like having a live history lesson – at every turn, Inca civilization jumps at you.
Right outside the airport, for example, on the roundabout of Avenida del Sol, stands a striking, 37-foot high statue made of bronze.
The Pachacutec Monument represents Pachacutec, the ninth Sapa Inca, the most powerful and important of Inca rulers. During his reign in the mid 1400’s, Cusco grew from a small settlement of secondary importance into a vast empire, the largest in pre-Columbian America. Pachacutec began an era of conquest that expanded the Inca dominion from the valley of Cusco to the whole of western South America. Machu Picchu is attributed to him, too.
The statue stands on a stone tower that has a museum inside. The entrance fee is covered in Boleto Turístico.
The Plaza de Armas is one of the most beautiful and photogenic squares in Latin America.
It was the heart of the Inca capital, its administrative, cultural and religious center. When the Spanish came in 1532, they destroyed all the colossal Inca palaces and shrines, erecting on their remains their own churches and mansions.
Today Cusco’s robust baroque architecture, highlighted by ornate facades, slinky columns, ornamental arches and white domes provide the plaza with an aureole of grandeur and monumentality.
Grandeur that is best enjoyed from the blue and brown balconies of the cozy restaurants and cafés into which some of the colonial palaces around the square have been converted.
The architectural and esthetic uniqueness of the place is not limited to the square only.
Within a few blocks of the Plaza de Armas expands a labyrinth of winding narrow streets, steep cobbled staircases and sharp inclines built literally in stone, flanked on both sides by traditional Spanish palaces.
The two-story residences with their radiant white walls, brick red roofs, interior patios and carved wooden balconies are hidden behind megalithic Inca walls of black andesite, the only part of the original Inca structures the Spanish left in place because of their outstanding tectonic attributes.
This fusion of styles is what makes local architecture worldwide unique.
Running up and down the streets exploring the old Cusco can be quite challenging at these altitudes.
Hang on in there – coming to your rescue are all the small museums, cafes, restaurants, alpaca boutiques and art galleries into which the palaces have been converted!
Coricancha, the Golden Temple, was the most sacred site of the Inca Empire.
It was dedicated to the highest Inca gods of Viracocha, the god of the creation, Quilla, the goddess of the moon, and especially Inti, the god of the sun.
To construct the temple, the Inca used a very sophisticated stone masonry called the ashlar technique, for which they later became so famous. It’s a type of stone construction that uses huge, similarly-sized cubes that are finely cut and fitted together without mortar. This technique creates an elegant, regular masonry of tightly interlocking walls.
Another typical feature of Inca architecture, along with trapezoid-shaped doors and windows, is the inward inclination of the walls. This made Inca buildings very resistant and sturdy enough to withstand the violent earthquakes that damaged badly most of the Spanish colonial buildings.
According to the chroniclers accompa-nying Pizarro’s conquering expedition, the walls of the Temple were covered with 700 sheets of gold that reflected sun light. There was a huge sun disc cast from pure gold and precious stones inside that bore a human face representing the Sun God Inti.
The gardens outside the temple were decorated with golden statues of trees and flowers that climbed the walls and had leaves of beaten gold and stems of silver. A herd of life-size llamas manufactured from the same materials was grazing nearby, accompanied by golden and silver lizards, butterflies and bees. All of these precious art and religious objects ended up melted down and transported to Spain.
After demolishing most of the temple, the Spanish built a catholic church on its stone foundations.
The gardens surrounding the massive, terraced complex are open to public, and so is the church and the courtyards decorated with rich frescoes, arcades and religious paintings.
The preserved Inca wall structures and rooms are located around the inner patio; situated at the back of the outer wall is a large mysterious niche onto which sun’s rays fall directly on the June solstice.
The complex of Coricancha is not included in Boleto Turístico – the entry fee is S/15 ($4.5); visiting the church is free.
The most impressive buildings on the Plaza de Armas are the Cathedral and the Jesuit Church La Compañía de Jesus.
Both the Cathedral and the Church de la Compañía de Jesus on the Plaza de Armas are splendid examples of baroque architecture, developed in Cusco after a series of earthquakes in 1650. The characteristic features are robust appearances and richly ornate facades. Both structures were built on the grounds of Inca palaces raised on the square.
The Jesuit Church is in particular considered one of the peaks of Spanish-American Baroque architecture due to its elegant façade and two towers that form a very harmonic unit.
When the archbishop of Cusco found out that the Jesuits were building a more magnificent church than was the cathedral, he complained to the Pope who decided in favor of the cathedral. However, by the time word reached Cusco, the Jesuit church had already been finished, overshadowing in its splendor the cathedral.
The carved altar is 66 feet tall and covered with 22 carat gold, which makes it the biggest altar in Peru. Some of its gold is gold melted from former Inca temples.
There are nice views of Cusco from one of the towers, open to visitors. The entry fee to the church is S/10 ($3).
The 16th century Cathedral took nearly 100 years to build.
It has huge altars inside, covered in gold leaf and encrusted with silver. Some of them are inlaid with many mirrors – the indigenous people were told that if they could see their faces reflected in them, they were evil and had to pay more attention to the mass. (Well played, Rome.)
Cusco was the place of origin of the local artistic center called the Escuela Cusqueña, Cusco school of art. It was one of several mestizo schools developed in colonial South America. These schools mixed western traditions with the customs of the Andean people, incorporating in their works indigenous symbolism and elements such as traditional Andean clothing, mythology or flora and fauna (maize, cacti , etc.).
A famous example of this school is the painting of the Last Supper, displayed inside the cathedral. It has a guinea pig on the table before Jesus and his disciples (the part of Judas is being portrayed by Pizarro himself). Incorporated into the cathedral doors is a carved head of a jaguar, one of the sacred animals of the Inca.
Cusco’s oldest surviving painting is the Lord of Miracles, that shows townspeople carrying a crucifix around the plaza during the 1650 earthquake praying for it to end.
The famous crucifix is formed by the statue of crucified Jesus, known as the Lord of the Earthquakes. He’s the patron saint of Cusco because his image is believed to have stopped the 1650 devastating earthquake.
During the processions of the Holy Week, the statue is paraded around the city and decorated by crimson ñukchu flowers, that symbolize the blood of Christ.
The black color of the statue of Jesus is not original – it is from centuries of smoke and soot from candles and oil lamps.
The single entry fee to the Cathedral is S/25, or you can buy a 3-site pass.
Plaza Regocijo is one of several picturesque plazas adjacent to the main square.
Surrounded by colonial palaces, restaurants, ice-cream parlors, and a large fountain that changes colors at night, it is a great place to sit, relax and watch the world go by.
Nearby stands the third most important church in Cuzco and Cusco’s most beautiful monastery – the Baroque Church and Convent of La Merced, built in the 17th century.
(A monastery or a convent? In the historical usage, they’re often interchangeable, although precisely speaking, a monastery refers to a community of men, and a convent to a community of women.)
The convent’s most famous possession is a solid-gold monstrance, covered with rubies, emeralds and 1,500 diamonds. The giant pearl on it is held to be the world’s second largest.
The entry fee is S/10 ($3).
Adjacent to the main square on the other side past the Inca museum is the Plaza de las Nazarenas.
Plaza de las Nazarenas is a serene, quaint place away from the hustle and bustle of the centro histórico. It contains the renowned Museum of pre-Columbian art, one of the best museums in Cusco that displays the art of Peru’s many ancient cultures.
Apart from that, the square has some of the priciest boutique hotels in town, a couple of good restaurants, several alpaca shops and a cute small church, part of a monastery that is now the most expensive hotel in Cusco.
The San Blas square is located on a hillside above the plaza.
It has a 1562 adobe church, built over an old Inca temple, that is dedicated to the god of thunder and lightning.
Inside, there is an ornate, gold baroque altar, and a unique pulpit, carved from a single tree of cedar and considered the finest example of wood carving made in colonial America. It is contributed to an indigenous craftsman.
The San Blas square has a plethora of nice restaurants, cafés, bars and ice-cream parlors selling coca ice-cream (a great treat if cranky after the long walk up).
The area is known for small art galleries and artisan workshops, selling original indigenous art like woven tapestries, religious statues, Andean ceramics, Inca weapons, gold jewelry and paintings by local artists.
They are situated inside long, white ‘canchas,’ Inca palaces, with walls painted with lime milk and adorned with decorative stone edgings.
The long, steep walk up to the square goes past some of the best examples of cyclopean Inca masonry, that the Spanish incorporated into their own structures.
The famous 12-angle stone, for example, is a huge block carved with 12 angles to fit perfectly with the stones around it. Originally, it was part of a stone wall of an Inca palace, converted later into the palace of the Archbishop of Cusco.
Continuing up a couple more bendy streets, you’ll come to the San Cristóbal church that overlooks Cusco. Offering beautiful views of the city from the bell tower, it is a perfect Instagram spot.
Museo de Arte Precolombino (Museum of pre-Columbian Art) is one of the pre-eminent museums in Cusco. Located inside a colonial building in the Plaza de las Nazarenas, it is organized by galleries into a silver gallery, a gold gallery, and galleries representing pre-Inca Andean cultures (Nasca, Viru, Moche …) and the Inca.
The museum is open every day and has a nice café. The entry fee is S/10. A good audiovisual program is available at the entrance.
Museo Histórico Regional (Regional History Museum) is a well laid-out little museum, situated in Calle Garcilaso inside a colonial palace.
The museum gives a nice overview of the regional history, starting with Neolithic remains and varied pre-Inca pottery, and ending with colonial artwork and furnishings. Information is both in Spanish and English, and the entry fee is included in Boleto Turístico.
Casa Concha Museo (Machu Picchu museum) has an excellent collection of artifacts, collected from MP by Bingham and his team. Most of them had to be won back in the decades-long battle of the Peruvian government with the Yale university.
The museum is best to visit prior to visiting Machu Pichu because it gives a good overview of the setting, history and daily life of Machu Pichu inhabitants. It is located at Santa Catalina Ancha, and open Monday thru Friday. The entry fee is S/20.
Museo Inka (Inca museum) is the best museum in Peru dedicated to the Inca. It sits in an old, 17th century palace (built over Inca ruins), only a block from Plaza de Armas on the walk up to Plaza Nazarenas.
It displays gold and metal work, pottery, ceremonial jewelry, textiles, mummies, skulls revealing an ancient medical practice known as trepanning, and the world’s largest collection of queros, ceremonial wooden drinking vessels.
The museum is open Monday through Saturday, the entry fee is S/10.
Cusco has some fun museums as well:
Traditional Textiles of Cusco is a non-profit organization, that supports Cusqueñan textile traditions by promoting local indigenous weavers and their work. The Centro collaborates on a fair-trade basis with ten weaving communities in the Cusco region.
The Center is located 4 blocks from the main Plaza on Avenida Sol 603, with a free entry and a demo.
Museo de la Coca (Coca Museum) is a kitschy little museum that gives a good insight into the history and uses of the coca leaf from Inca times up to the present-day narco wars. It is very informative about the mythology, sacred rituals, history, and the science of the plant.
The museum is located on the Plazoleta San Blas. The entry fee is S/10, and the price includes a gift of a coca candy and a cup of coca tea.
Chocomuseo (Museum of Chocolate) is a fun educational activity for families with children. It offers a 2-hour workshop that teaches how to make chocolate. This hands-on activity takes visitors step by step through the whole cocoa growing and chocolate-making process, starting from the cocoa tree to the finished product.
The museum is situated on Calle Garcilaso, and the workshop costs $25.
Museo Maximo Laura is a textile art museum. It displays the largest private collection of Peruvian tapestries by Maximo Laura, one of South America’s pre-eminent textile artists.
His personal tapestries are a mix of the Peruvian tradition of stunning flashy colors and great designs with contemporary art.
The museum is situated on Santa Catalina Ancha next to Plaza de Armas, and has a free entrance.
Things to see and do around Cusco
There are several Inca ruins in the vicinity of the city that make for excellent half-day trips. The most famous of them are Sacsayhuaman, often pronounced as ‘sexy woman,’ Tambomachay, Puka Pukara and Qenco.
Sacsayhuaman can be accessed in various ways:
- On a guided tour with transportation and an English-speaking guide.
- On foot, by following Pumacurco Street until the end. It’d take about an hour.
- By taking a cab for S/6 and returning on foot.
- By taking a cab and driving 5 miles out to Tambomachay, one of the four famous Inca sights near Cuzco, and then walking back visiting them all – Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Qenco, and finally Sacsayhuaman. The walk back is mostly downhill.
The entrance to all four sites is included in Boleto Turístico.
Sacsayhuaman is a fortified stone complex perched on top of a hill high above the city.
Because of its location and immense terrace walls, the place is often referred to as a fortress whose purpose was to protect Cusco, though nobody really knows what the structure was.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, Cuzco looked completely different. The Inca built their city in the shape of a puma, the sacred animal that symbolized the present world. The line of the belly marked the main access road to the then Cusco, the today’s Avenida del Sol. The Coricancha temple, dedicated to the sun god Inti, was built in the place of its genitals as a symbol of the fertile power of the sun. The heart area contained the Haukaypata square that was surrounded by palaces of Inca kings; it was from here that the four main roads radiated to each corner of the Inca empire. The back and the tail were formed by two rivers that were diverted from mountains to the city through an ingenious system of canals and aqueducts. The head was the Sacsayhuaman Fortress.
The fortress sits on an artificially levelled mountaintop, and consists of three lines of gigantic zig-zag walls that encircle the hillside on several levels.
The walls look like ejected straight from within the earth (so accurately they mimic the contours of the terrain). Built from massive blocks of stone weighing up to 125 tons, they are 1,500 feet long, 54 feet wide and 20 feet tall.
These stones are among the largest used in any building in the world. Cut into irregular shapes of extremely complicated polygons, they’re set on top of each other with such a precision that no joining material is needed; they’re spaced so tightly that not a single piece of paper can fit between them.
Combined with the rounded corners of the blocks, the variety of interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inwards, it was this unmatched precision of fitting that protected the complex from devastating earthquakes. (All of this was allegedly built with only the help of very primitive tools.)
Before Cuzco (and later the whole empire) fell definitely into the hands of Pizarro and his adventurers, the Inca led from the Sacsay-huaman citadel their final unsuccessful siege of the city, occupied by the Spaniards.
To make sure that didn’t happen again, the Conquistadores destroyed the fortress and used it as a source of stones for building the Spanish Cusco. They took apart and demolished much of the complex; only the stones that were too large to be easily moved remained at the site. It is estimated that only 40 % of the old structure have survived.
How the Inca managed to construct the fortress, and how they managed to transport the huge blocks of stone up the hill, remains a mystery. As the Inca had never invented the wheel or the lever, and didn‘t have access to draft animals, moving these vast rocks to the site was an incredible achievement. The use of primitive manual techniques favored by mainstream researchers can hardly explain it.
According to one theory, for example, the stones were rough-cut to their approximate shape using river cobbles, then dragged by rope 12 miles from the quarries to the construction site, shaped into the final form and laid in place. It‘s claimed that more than 20 thousand men were involved in the extraction.
Alternative methods suggest certain stone-softening plants for softening the surface of the stones and compacting them into molds were applied. The use of advanced tools is also a possibility, as is the hypothesis that the walls are hundreds of thousands of years old, and that the Inca just repaired the upper sections and built the lesser structures within them.
Apart from the walls, there were various other buildings in the complex including three towers, but only their foundations remain today.
One of the towers was of a circular shape, over 100 feet tall, and consisted of three concentric walls. It was an imperial residence that was said to had been covered with gold sheets. It had a constant supply of fresh water from a subterranean aqueduct leading to a spring 2 miles away. The towers were allegedly connected to one another by underground tunnels.
Tunnels that run for thousands of miles beneath South America, and hid an immense treasure, as legends have it.
The rumors of a network of subterranean tunnels and passages go back to the days of the Spanish conquest when the Inca realized the Spaniards were only interested in riches, and hid their sacred objects in the tunnels below Cusco and this fortress.
The tunnels are said to run beneath all of Peru and Bolivia, extending as far as Columbia, Chile and the Amazon jungle, and to be part of a world-wide subterranean labyrinth; there are legends from nearly every continent of networks of underground tunnels, both natural and man-made. If that’s true, then there must have been a technology capable of building such tunnels that is beyond our present knowledge.
Some of the tunnels end eighty feet below sea level where they are flooded with water. They may run beyond the coast, under the ocean and onto an island off the coast.
Exactly who built the tunnels and why, remains a mystery.
What is for sure, though, is that in South America, these structures had existed long before the arrival of the Inca.
Years ago, an ancient underground tunnel was discovered, measuring 2 miles in length, and linking the Coricancha temple with the fortress of Sacsay-huaman.
The tunnel may form part of a series of galleries, chambers, fountains and ancient mausoleums which may be 300 feet under the city of Cusco.
Excavation works, aimed at exploring those subterranean galleries, have been in preparation. If successful, they might also confirm the stories of Spanish chroniclers regarding an underground citadel.
Tambomachay, or the ‘Inca bath,’ is an archaeological site situated 5 miles out of town.
The purpose of this complex is uncertain – it is believed to have served as a place for ritual bathing of the Inca elite.
The site consist of three large, tiered terraces of precise Inca stonework, built over a natural spring that feeds a series of aqueducts, canals and waterfalls.
The top level has four niches in the shape of trapezoids for offerings. A series of water fountains cascade from the channels, carved within the structure, and pour into a stone basin at the bottom, supplying a constant flow of clean water.
A great example of the Inca ability to harmonize constructions with landscape is Puka Pukara, a small Inca ruin located on high ground 5 miles out of town.
Overlooking the Cusco Valley, Puka Pukara was probably a military checkpoint or a sentry of the Sacsayhuaman area – the complex includes warehouses, homes, squares, springs and aqueducts. Like most Inca places, it was destroyed by the Spanish.
In Quechua, the name means ‘red fortress,’ and the color most likely refers to the high iron content in the local limestone rocks.
The site offers beautiful views of the surrounding countryside and of an old Inca trail on the mountain next to it.
Qenqo, a ‘labyrinth’ in Quechua, is situated 1 mile from Sacsayhuaman.
The site consists of a unique, amphitheater-style temple that stretches across a hillside and is carved entirely out of a gigantic monolith. Other carved limestone formations contain caves, tunnels and staircases.
The true function of this cyclopean site is still undeciphered. It was possibly used as a worship center, where llamas were sacrificed and passed away kings mummified.
Carved into an andesite rock without any obvious purpose is a 65-feet tunnel, that has a staircase cut upside down on the ceiling. The tunnel is so narrow that it can only be crossed crosswise.
How the Inca cut tunnels through hard granite when they didn’t know iron tools, or why some of the walls are left in the natural state, while others smoothed and cut as if a laser beam had run over them, is a mystery.
Disappearing inside the cave rock is a hole in the shape of a drop. When the light of the moon penetrated through the hole, it fell on a large rock that was according to chroniclers covered in gold and would illuminate the whole place.
In Inca times, the site held an annual festival at which priests poured sacrificial llama blood into the temple’s main zigzag channel. If it flowed the full length of it and poured onto the rocks below, it was a good omen for the fertility of the year to come.
The complex is quite impressive, despite the destruction it underwent during the colonial times.
Flying in high altitudes
Cusco is situated high in the Andes at an altitude of 11,200 feet; landing here can be quite a hair-rising experience.
Since the air at high altitudes is much thinner than in normal altitudes, it affects the engine performance. Unlike at lower-altitude airports where the plane would lift off sooner and go up steeper, in high-altitude airports the rise is gradual, since the engines take much longer to generate sufficient lift to take off. Moreover, the low air pressure in high altitudes reduces the air resistance important for the aircrafts to slow down. For these reasons, high-altitude airports require longer runways.
Most flights then take place in the morning since in the afternoon, warm air becomes even less dense.
In Cusco, airplanes can only use one approach – they overfly the valley and make a U-turn while descending for the landing. This same pattern is used when taking off.
Some of the longest runways in the world are in Tibet (18,000 feet) with runways lengths between 13,000-16,500 feet, Bolivia (13,000 feet) with runways lengths of 13,000 feet, and Peru (12,500 feet) with a runway length of 11,000 feet (Cusco).