Cusco seen from Sacsayhuaman fortress. Photo by Martin St Amant.
Why visit Cusco? (aka Cuzco)
Cusco, previously 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 a chilly but charming town, half Inca, half Spanish. Built in the shape of a Puma with the hilltop fortress of Sacsayhuaman as the head, Cusco is one of the world’s prettiest towns and certainly Peru’s.
White walls, three storey colonnaded buildings with terracotta tiled roofs and lots of woodwork make up the private sector, while the top section of many public buildings is Spanish colonial but the lower half is solid Inca stonework.
In one case there is a stone that is estimated to weigh 30 tons, has twelve sides, and fits perfectly into the middle of a wall of similar stones. Or was it 12 tons and 30 sides? Whatever, cement was never used and it is still impossible to get a knife blade into the cracks between the stones.
Plaza de Armas, the heart of Centro Historico de Cusco, ringed by colonnaded walkways, magnificent architecture and several competing churches. Photo by Martin Lang.
Food in Cusco is passable, especially if you are fond of Italian cooking as most of restaurants seem to be pizzerias or bistros. Pisco Sour is the traditional tourist drink and very tasty it is too, though usually made with a raw egg so beware if you have a delicate stomach.
Hotels range from quite expensive to very cheap while celebrations both big and small regularly offer bizarre spectacles.
The bugcrew stumbled into a firework show where men were holding up bamboo frames shaped – among other things – like ships and planes, loaded with rockets, which they fired at each other from a range of two or three metres. The encore was to put on paper mache bulls heads with variously fused rockets in place of horns and lunge repeatedly at the crowd, firing rockets at random. Cue for much shrieking and laughing and smell of burning hair.
Cuzco 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.
Note that Cuzco has few attractions aimed at kids.
Plaza de Armas and a closer look at the colonnades and Jesus’ Company Church. Photo by Jorge Lascar.
Cusco’s main attractions
n. b. No photos are allowed in Cusco churches, even if you have paid to enter. The authorities mistakenly believe you will buy shoddy old, low-rez postcards if you can’t take your own pictures.
• Sacsayhuaman, a huge Inca fortress on the hill above the town with wonderful views and amazing stonework.
• Plaza de Armas (Huacaypata): 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, visit the churches and so on. This is the heart of Cusco. The Inti Raymi festival takes place here in June.
• Cusco Cathedral, otherwise known as the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin. Built in 1654 it’s situated in Plaza de Armas, on the left in the photo above. Unlike most churches in the rest of the world tourists have to pay to enter but the interior is magnificent, loaded with gold (stolen from the Incas), fine woodwork and encompasses 13 varied chapels. A guide is useful. The cathedral is connected to the first Christian church built in Cusco, Iglesia del Triunfo.
Santo Domingo Convent
Santo Domingo Convent built over the Inca Sun Temple, Coricancha. Photo by David Stanley.
• Santo Domingo Convent, Qoriqancha/Coricancha. A classic case of an attractive Spanish church built over the ‘Golden Courtyard’ Inca temple (walls paneled with gold before the conquistadors 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.
• Iglesia de 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’.
• Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus (Church of the Society of Jesus), Plaza de Armas, lots of classy fixtures and fittings and and wonderful views from the front towers.
A 12-sided stone slotted into a Cusco wall with no gaps and no mortar. How?
Spanish conquistadors arrived in Cusco in 1533, destroying many Inca structures but using Inca stone bases for adobe Spanish buildings that still stand today.
• 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.
• 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.
You may consider paying a modest sum for one of the private tour guides standing outside Coricancha or similar locations, they are well worth the money and can explain many interesting facts about Inca construction methods such as how they made their structures earthquake-proof, how they fitted the stones together without cement, about the traditional ceremonies that happened in these temples and so on.
Don’t imagine you’ll be avoiding the ubiquitous llamas just because you’re in an urban area. Actually the disgruntled one on the left (not the one with the hat) is an Alpaca. Of course this kind of photo costs a little, but be sure to negotiate beforehand to avoid absurd demands!
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.
Cusco’s best out-of-town attractions
• Machu Picchu. The biggest Wow factor ever. Take a train to Aguas Calientes + bus and preferably stay at least one night, or even better walk for three days over the mountains on the camino.
• Inca Trail, a totally awesome 3/4 day hike through wonderfully diverse and beautiful scenery on a kind-of garden path. Best walk ever, but hard, mainly due to the altitude of up to 4, 200m.
• The Sacred Valley of the Incas (Urubamba Valley) near Cusco and stretching from Pisac to Ollantaytambo:
• Pisac (Sacred Valley)
• Ollantaytambo. 60 kms NW of Cusco, loaded with Inca history and structures. Also near the start of the Inca Trail.
• Tipon. About 25kms and an hour bus ride from Cusco plus 45 minutes walk uphill, so take a taxi if you’re feeling flush! This ruined Inca retreat for royalty (possibly) offers excellent views, fountains, terraces and irrigation systems.
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 well be in for several days of extreme unpleasantness, migraine/nausea/lighthead/weakness which could disrupt holiday plans.
• Train (recommended) from/to Puno, but only three times a week so book ahead. This popular but expensive 12 hour train journey crosses the altiplano with foreigners locked in their own railcar by guards, past dozens of white Andean peaks and hundreds of brown llamas.
An excellent alternative is the first class bus ride with Cruz del Sur listed below – fast, comfortable, entertaining and one fifth of the train cost!
• Buses to/from La Paz, Bolivia, ca n 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.