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Cusco seen from Sacsayhuaman fortress, Peru.
Cusco, capital of the Inca empire, is now capital of Peruvian tourism, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and primary destination for most tourists in the country, getting close to a million visitors a year. The official Quechua (Andean Indian language) name for Cusco is now Qosquo.
At an altitude of 3,400m (11,200ft) Cuzco (as the name is also spelled) is not an good place to arrive at by plane direct from sea-level Lima, particularly for older, less fit travellers who may not enjoy altitude sickness.
Try to arrange a gradual ascent such as taking a land route via Nazca, Arequipa (2,400m) and possibly Lake Titicaca (3,800m) if time permits. By the time you arrive in Cusco you will then be fitter, more comfortable in your environment and well acclimatised, ready to enjoy the holiday of a lifetime.
Plaza de Armas, the heart of Cusco, ringed by colonnaded walkways.
Cusco's greatest city attractions:
- Sacsayhuaman fortress (photos below), wonderful views and amazing stonework.
- Santo Domingo Convent, Qoriqancha (also Coricancha and Koricancha). A classic case of an attractive Spanish church built over the 'Golden Courtyard' Inca temple (walls paneled with gold before you-know-who arrived), now simply loaded with superb masonry. Step One: enter a lovely 17thC church through a Moorish doorway. Step Two: enter the cloisters and find an Inca temple, mostly revealed after an earthquake! Brilliant. Photo.
- Plaza de Armas (photo above): Hang out in the graceful, calm and colonnaded central square, get your shoes shined, see off the hawkers, book tours, chat to other travelers, have a drink, a meal, people-watch, run into a festive procession (photo lower down), visit the churches (see below) and so on. This is the heart of Cusco. The Inti Raymi festival takes place here in June. Inti Raymi Festival Tour.
- 17thC Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Plaza de Armas, dazzling displays of artifacts such as a solid silver altar, fine wood carvings and a Peruvian version of 'The Last Supper'. Baroque and Soul! No photos allowed tho'.
- Company of Jesus Church, Plaza de Armas (picture above), lots of classy fixtures and fittings and and wonderful views from the front towers.
- Wandering the streets to stumble upon stuff like The Twelve Sided Stone. An amazing bit of showmanship, this large and superbly cut is embedded in a wall in Calle Hatum Rumiyoc. Photo.
- Barrio San Blas is the arty-farty neighbourhood uphill and north of Plaza de Armas, writhing with artists-manqué, neo-hippies, temporary settled backpackers. A great place to pick up unique souvenirs, eat alternative, smoke alternative and rhapsodise with bohemians.
- Inca Museum, Unsaac Museo Inca, displays a fantastic collection of items and information from pre-Inca civilisations through to the Spanish conquest, including the largest trove of Inca objects in the world. All this is located in one of Cusco's best, half-Inca, half-Spanish Colonial buildings. A bit crude in places but essential for anyone interested in the Inca.
One of many Cusco religious institutions, a monastery.
Cusco's greatest short-trip attractions:
- Machu Picchu.
- Inca Trail, a totally awesome 3/4 day hike through wonderfully diverse and beautiful scenery. Best walk ever. But hard.
- The Sacred Valley of the Incas (Urubamba Valley) near Cusco and stretching from Pisac to Ollantaytambo:
- Ollantaytambo. 60 kms NW of Cusco, loaded with Inca history and structures. Also near the start of the Inca Trail.
Spanish conquistadors arrived in Cusco in 1533, destroying many Inca structures but using some Inca stone bases for adobe Spanish buildings that still stand today.
A wonderfully cacophonic marching band, just passing by.
The bugcrew followed this chance-met band through the streets of Cusco until, after ten minutes we noticed a very colourful market street. The short story of a classic Peruvian robbery.
One of Cusco's more spectacular ancient Inca walls.
Sacsayhuaman fortress, a place for worship as well as defence.
Sacsayhuaman was originally a Killke culture fort built around 1100, captured and expanded by Inca Pachacuti around 1450. The fort was the location of the final defeat of the Incas by the Conquistadors in 1536 and the Spanish proceeded to strip off many small stones to build churches in Cusco.
Still, there're plenty of superb sights and atmosphere up in the fort even if it was ravaged by the Spanish and a walk around Sacsayhuaman is an absolute must-do, Cusco's premier attraction.
The fort is just a couple of kilometres from central Cusco, but that's uphill at high altitude, so consider your transport options...
Inca stone work is incredible. This carved stone weighs about 300 tons, has 13 sides fitted to other stones with no cement, and no crack can be penetrated by even a credit card. Next, Inca Trail Pictures.
Inti Raymi Festival Tour (Adventure Life advertisement):
The Inti Raymi, 'Festival of the Sun', is a dazzling religious ceremony held in Sacsayhuaman in honour of the Inca sun god, Inti, marking the summer solstice. With a week of festivities, the actual day of Inti Raymi is June 24. Celebrate Inti Raymi with our expert guides during any itinerary that includes a stay in Cusco.
April-October is the dry season with warm, sunny days, highs around 20C/68F but chilly, near zero nights (it is winter after all!).
November-March is the wet season, with especially heavy rain December-February, daily highs also around 20C but warmer nights around 6C/42F.
Note that the 3,400m elevation here not only offers the average tourist flying in from Lima the chance to experience altitude sickness but also to freeze at night and burn during the daytime. UV measurements in 2006 indicated that Cusco received the highest Ultraviolet light on Earth.
Our advice is...
a) avoid sunstroke by wearing a hat during the middle of the day at least.
b) avoid altitude problems by traveling by road from Lima up to mid-altitude Arequipa via Nazca, then on to high, cold and less interesting Puno (3,800m) on the edge of Lake Titicaca, before catching the train to Cusco (lower and warmer).
c) bringing some compact but seriously warm clothing, whatever the season in Peru.
Getting to Cusco:
- Fly in via Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport, but really beware altitude sickness, from Lima at sea level to Cusco's 3,400 metres (11,200 ft) in one hour! You may be in for several days of extreme unpleasantness which could disrupt holiday plans.
- Bus from/to Puno/Lake Titicaca(8 hours), possibly with beds, or Arequipa (6 hours).
- Buses to/from La Paz, Bolivia, can be difficult, especially since guide book advice and bus company websites seem to be always out of date and various scams are perpetrated such as selling bed-seats that don't exist.
- Buses from Lima take a minimum of 21 hours to reach Cusco on very hairy, windy, partially unmade roads.
- Car Hire/Self drive is not recommended for Andean roads as they are narrow, endlessly serpentine and spectacularly dangerous.
- Train (recommended) from/to Puno, but only three times a week so book ahead. There are tourist-only carriages which allows ratero-conscious travelers to relax.