Destination Cusco City
Cusco is situated in the valley formed by the Huatanay and Tullumayu rivers, between the central and eastern mountain ranges that form the Vilcanota range. The city was the capital of the Inca Empire; the most extensive and powerful state ever to exist on the continent of South America. A great deal of archaeological evidence remains to provide us with information regarding the state’s glorious and majestic past.
The original name of the city was “Qosqo”, which the Spaniards changed to Cusco as they were unable to pronounce the language of the Incas correctly. The original name created by the Incas translates to “navel of the world”, which illustrates the significance the Incas associated to their city as they extended their territories.
The Incas built their mighty city in the shape of a puma, which was an Inca deity. The head was formed by the hill of Sacsayhuaman, the torso by the rivers Tullumayu and Saphy and the tail by the confluence of those rivers.
The center of Cusco consisted of two great central squares: Huacaypata, or the “square of tears”; and Cusipata, or the “square of joy”. A truncated pyramid stood at the center of the two squares and served as a ceremonial platform. Around the squares stood the palaces of the Incas, house of the chosen women and the round house.
The remaining walls of these Inca palaces and other buildings served as the foundations of the edifices constructed by the Spanish. Almost everything including most of Cusco was destroyed during the conquest and the colonial period. Troops under the command of Atahualpa took Huascar prisoners during the conflict and ransacked and burned the city of Cusco and its palaces, killing all the relatives and descendants of the defeated Inca.
Cusco before the Incas
Cusco was inhabited by local small ethnic groups without any urban, religious or poliitic development until the year 750 AD, when the invasion of the Wari culture occurred.
The Wari introduced great influences into the area, such as the religious cult of the Wiracocha deity, the state organization for tax paying, the massive urbanization of the zone and the development of regional and imperial commerce.
For unknown reasons, the Wari culture disappeared from Cusco around 1000 AD. However, its cultural and material legacy was subsequently used by the Incas.
During the next 200 years migratory groups co-existed in the region with the Ahjamama tribe that had lived in the area previously. This historic information coincides with the myths about the foundation of Cusco, which confirm that the Incas were not originally from Cusco.
The Inca State
The Inca State was established around the year 1250 AD. This was only 3 centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards. According to the historians it started as a small, local tribe, like many others that existed at the same time in the Andes.
Towards the year 1300 the tribe peacefully joined other ethnic groups from the region, forming a Quechua confederation that emerged from the area of Sicuani to Andahuaylas. From the very beginning and probably even before the Incas, Cusco was an important ceremonial center and maintained its status as a significant space during the time of the expansion.
Around 1430 the Chancas from the North invaded the area. The Incas and the Chancas warred so violently that the myth of the great emperor Pachacutec baring the face a monster originated. Pachacutec was the only emperor to stay and face the Chancas in two battles, winning both of them. The victory drove his name to become a legend, and that legend to become a myth according to which the rocks were turned into soldiers by the solar deity (Inti) in order to help Pachacutec win the battles.
The Inca State or Tahuantinsuyo expanded almost 100 times during these 90 years, from Bio Bio river in Chile, including the zones of Tucuman and Mendoza (Argentina) in the south, up to the frontier between Ecuador and Colombia in the north. In the east, the Incas only reached the mountainous cloud forest and in the west the whole coast was conquered.
During this period, the fine imperial Inca art was developed, ranging from beautiful stone-made temples to well finished ceramics including decorative vessels.
The Spanish Conquest
In 1532, when the Spanish arrived in Peru, Cusco was a thriving city and the capital of one of the world´s biggest empires. The Spaniards were astonished, the city´s beauty surpassed anything they had ever seen before, even in the New World. The stonework and use of precious metals was better than anywhere in Spain; the Incas used the metal in a sacred context throughout Q´orikancha and the Spaniards lost no time in plundering its’ fantastic wealth. Atahualpa, the emperor at the time, was captured by Spanish conquistadors in Cajamarca while on route to Cusco. Hearing from the Emperor Atahualpa himself of Cusco´s great wealth as the center of Inca religious and political power, Francisco Pizarro reached the Native capital on November 15, 1533.
The Spanish city was officially founded on March 23,1534. Cusco was divided up among 88 of Pizarro´s men who chose to remain there as settlers. Manco Inca fled to the Sacred Valley, to gather forces for the Great Rebellion.
Within days, the two hundred Spanish defenders, with only eighty horses, were surrounded in Cusco by over 100,000 rebel Inca Warriors, on May 6, Manco´s men laid siege to the city. After a week, a few hundred mounted Spanish soldiers launched a desperate counterattack on the Inca in Sacsayhuaman and incredibly, they defeated the Native stronghold.
The Spanish controlled Cusco and never again came under such serious threat from its indigenous population, but its battles were far from over. By the end of the rains the following year, a rival conquistador, seized Cusco for himself until Francisco Pizarro defeated the rebel Spanish troops a few months later and had the rebels garroted in the main plaza.
Post – Conquest Cusco
From then on, the city was left in relative peace, ravaged only by the great earthquake of 1650. After this dramatic tremor, remarkably illustrated on a huge canvas in La Catedral de Cusco, Bishop Mollinedo was largely responsible for the reconstruction of the city and his influence is now closely associated with Cusco´s most creative years of art. The Cusqueña school, which emerged from his patronage, flourished for the next two hundred years, and much of its finer work was produced by Native Quehua and mestizo artists such as Diego Quispe Tito Inca, Juan Espinoza de los Monteros, Fabian Ruiz and Antonio Sinchi Roca, which are exhibited in museums and churches around the city.
The Modern Age
In spite of this Cusco rich cultural History, Cusco only received international attention after Hiram Bingham´s archeological expedition Of Machu Picchu in 1911. With the advent of air travel and global tourism, Cusco was slowly transformed from a quiet colonial city into the remote Andes and now into a major tourist center.
Cusco is located at an altitude of 11120 feet above sea level. Surrounded by mountain peaks the city is protected from the harsh highland climates. In the Sacred Valley close by, the elevation is somewhat lower at 9420 feet and Machu Picchu is even lower at 7972 feet.
As Cusco is located high within the Andes mountain ranges, the weather is very changeable. Days can be warm and night are usually very cold.
Altitude sickness is a concern for people traveling from sea level. Symptoms include headaches, fatigue, insomnia and loss of appetite. The altitude affects everyone differently, with most people taking a few days to adjust. Before you travel to Peru, it is a good idea to ask your doctor for some medication to help prevent altitude sickness and when you arrive in Cusco or Puno drink plenty of Coca leaf tea.
Fiestas in the cusco region
As the imperial capital during Inca times, Cusco was the most important place of pilgrimage in South America; a status it still retains today. During Easter, June and Christmas, the city center becomes the centrepoint of relentless fiestas and carnivals celebrated with extravagant processions blending pre – Columbian and Catholic colonial cultures.
Easter Week Semana Santa: On Easter Monday there’s a particularly splendid procession through Cusco, with a rich and evocative mix of Indian and Catholic iconography. The following Thursday, a second procession celebrates the city’s patron saint, El Señor de los Temblores (Lord of Earthquakes), and on Easter Friday, street stalls sell many different traditional dishes.
Corpus Christi (always nine weeks after Easter): Imposed by the Spanish to replace the Inca tradition of parading ancestral mummies, saints are carried through the streets of Cusco, even as the local ritual community leaders throw parties and feasts combining elements of religiosity. The effigies are then left inside the cathedral for eight days, after which they are taken back to their respective churches, accompanied by musicians, dancers and exploding firecrackers.
Last week of June Cusco Carnival: Marked by daily processions and folk dancers, as well as lively music on the streets throughout the day and night, peaking with Inti Raymi.
June 24 Inti Raymi: Popular, commercial fiesta re-enacting the Inca Festival of the Sun in the grounds of Sacsayhuaman.
July 15–17 Virgen del Carmen: Dance and music festival celebrated all over the highlands, but at its best in Paucartambo.
July 28 Peruvian Independence Day: Festivities nationwide.
Sept 14–18 Señor de Huanca: Music, dancing, pilgrimages and processions take place all over the region but are especially lively in Calca, with a fair in the Sacred Valley.
Cusco´s modern and ancient center, the Plaza de Armas –a location which corresponds roughly to that of the ceremonial huacapata, the Incas ancient central plaza is the most suitable place to get your bearings. With the unmistakable ruins of Sacsayhuaman towering above, you can always find your way back to the plaza simply by locating the fortress, or at night, the illuminated white figure of Christ that stands beside it on the horizon. The plaza is always busy, its northern and western sides are filled with shops and restaurants. The plaza´s exposed northeastern edge is dominated by the squat Catedral while the smaller Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus, with its impressive pair of belfries at the southeastern end.
Templo de la compañía de Jesus
Looking downhill from the center of the plaza, the Templo de la Compañia de Jesus dominates the Cusco skyline. First built over the foundations of Amaru Cancha – originally Huayna Capac´s Palace of the Serpents – in the late 1570s, it was resurrected over fifteen years after the earthquake of 1650, constructed in a Latin cross shape with two belfries. The interior is cool and dark, with a grand gold-leaf altarpiece and fine wooden pulpit displaying the body of Christ, along with high vaulting and numerous paintings of the Cusqueña School. The gilded altarpieces are made of fine cedar wood and the church contains interesting oil paintings of the Peruvian Princess Isabel Ñusta. Its most impressive features, are the two majestic towers of the main façade, a superb example of Spanish, colonial Baroque design, which has often been described in more glowing terms than the cathedral itself.
Balcon de cusco
North of the Plaza de Armas, is the Balcon de Cusco, a small square outside the Museo Inka. The Balcon de cusco affords great views over the plaza and is where dances and firework celebrations tend to take place during festivals. There is also a panoramic walkway leading away from the main square, following the rooftops up to the cobbled back streets of upper Cusco, directly beneath the ruins of Sacsayhuaman.
North of the cathedral, slightly uphill beside the Balcon de Cusco, you´ll find one of the city´s most beautiful colonial mansions, The Admiral´s Palace. This palace now houses the Museo Inka, which boasts 10,000 catalogued specimens, and features excellent exhibits of mummies, trepanned skulls, Inca textiles, a set of forty green-turquoise figurines from the Huari settlement of Pikillacta and a range of Inca wooden quero vases (slightly tapering drinking vessels) there are also displays of ceramics, early silver metalwork and gold figurines, the best museum in Cusco for understanding the development of civilization in the Andes. Frequent temporary exhibitions are held here, too, including live alpaca spinning and weaving by local women.
Museo de arte y monasterio de santa catalina
Inside the convent, the Museo de Arte y Monasterio de Santa Catalina features a splendid collection of paintings from the cusqueña school, as well as an impressive Renaissance altarpiece and several gigantic seventeenth-century tapestries depicting the union of Indian and Spanish cultures. The blending of cultures is a theme that runs throughout much of the museum´s fascinating artwork and is particularly evident in the Cusqueña paintings.
A block southwest of the Plaza de Armas is the Plaza Regocijo, today a pleasant garden square sheltering a statue of Colonel Francisco Bolognesi, a famous Peruvian war martyr stands here. However, originally the Plaza Regocijo was the Inca Cusipata, an area cleared for dancing and festivities beside the Incas´ ancient central plaza. Regocijo is dominated on its northwestern side by an attractively arched municipal building housing the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, with a traditional Inca rainbow flag flying from its roof.
Stalls selling every imaginable practical item line the streets below the market building; inside the market, you can find a plentiful and exotic variety of foods and clothing, jewellery and other items. The market is also home to herbalist kiosks that stock everything from lucky charms to jungle medicines. The food stalls at the bottom end of the indoor market offer some of the best and cheapest street meals in Peru, while the juice stalls at the top end serve up a delicious range of tropical smoothies.
Iglesia y convento de la merced
Ten minutes walk Southwest of the Plaza de Armas is the Iglesia y Convento de la Merced, which sits peacefully amid the bustle of one of Cusco´s more interesting quarters. First raised with Pizarro´s financial assistance on top of the Inca site Limitada in 1536, it was rebuilt some 25 years after the 1650 earthquake in a rich combination of Baroque and Renaissance styles by such Native Artisans as Alonso Casey and Francisco Monya.
The facade is exceptionally ornate and the roof is endowed with an unusual Baroque spire, while inside, there is a beautifully star-studded ceiling and a huge silver cross, which is adored by crowds. The monastery´s highlight, however, is a breathtaking 1720s monstrance, standing at a metre high, crafted by Spanish jeweller Juan de Olmos, who used over 600 pearls, 1500 diamonds and upwards of 22kg of solid gold to create the masterpiece. The monastery also possesses a fine collection of Cusqueña paintings, particularly in the vestry, there is an exceptionally gorgeous white-stone cloister.
Museo histórico regional y casa garcilazo
Once the residence of Garcilaso de la Vega, a prolific half-Inca (his mother may have been an Inca princess), and half-Spanish poet and author, the mansion is now known as the Museo Histórico Regional y Casa Garcilaso stands. The Museo is home to significant regional archeological finds and much of Cusco´s historic art.
The main exhibition rooms upstairs house a variety of period furniture and a multitude of Cusqueña paintings, which cross the range from the rather dull, religious adorations to the more spectacular of pieces such as the famous eighteenth-century Jacob´s Ladder.
Barrio san blas
Originally known as Tomodachi (“salty hole”), the San Blas barrio was the first parish to be established by the Spanish in Cusco and one of the first administrative sectors in the Inca capital. After the Conquest, it became the residence for many defeated Inca leaders. It rapidly grew into one of the more attractive districts in the city, reflecting strong mestizo and colonial influences in its architecture and high-quality artesanía. Even today, it is known as the Barrio de los artesanos (artesans´ quarter).
A relatively small ruin, PUCA PUCARA, meaning “Red Fort”. Puca Pucara is around 11 km from the city, impressively situated overlooking the Cusco Valley, right beside the main Cusco – Pisac road. A good example of how the Incas combined recreation and spirituality along with social control and military defence, Puca Pucara is well worth the trip.
In many ways, Puca Pucara is reminiscent of a small European castle, with a commanding esplanade topping a semicircle of the protective wall. Puca Pucara is likely to have been a hunting lodge for the emperor than simply a defensive position. Thought to have been built by the Emperor Pachacutec, it commands views towards glaciers to the south of the Cusco Valley. Easily defended on three sides, it could have contained only a relatively small garrison and may have been a guard post between Cusco and the Sacred Valley, which lies on the northeast. It could also have had a sacred function, as it has excellent views towards the APU of Ausangate and is ideally placed to keep tabs on the flow of people and produce from the Sacred Valley to Cusco.
The large limestone outcrop of QENKO was another important Inca huaca. This great stone, carved with a complex pattern of steps, seats, geometric reliefs and puma designs, illustrates the critical role of the Rock Cult in the realm of Inca cosmological beliefs. The name of this huaca derives from the Quehua word “quenqo” meaning “labyrinth” or “zigzag” and refers to the patterns laboriously carved into the upper, western edge of the stone. At an annual festival, priests would pour sacrificial llama blood into a bowl at the serpent – like-top of the main zigzag channel; if it flowed our through the left-hand bifurcation, this was a bad omen for the fertility of the year to come. If, on the other hand, it continued to flow through the full length of the channel and poured onto the rocks below, this was a good omen.
The walled complex of SACSAYHUAMAN forms the head of Cusco´s ethereal puma, whose fierce-looking teeth point away from the city. The name Sacsayhuaman is of disputed origin, with different groups declaring its meaning as the “satiated falcon”, “speckled head” or “city of stone”, to name a few.
Once the site of a bloody battle between Inca leaders and the Spanish conquistadores, today the most dramatic event to take place at Sacsayhuaman is the colourful – if overly commercial – Inti Raymi festival, held in June. However, throughout the years, you may stumble across various sun ceremonies being performed here by local mystics.
This was the main temple of the Incas and its Quechua name means “chamber of gold”. It was built by Manco Capac around the year 1250 AD, where Wiracocha, the principal deity was worshipped. Later, around the year 1440, Inca Pachacutec renovated the temple and transformed it into a temple dedicated to the sun god, who had become the highest god of the Incas. A chamber of this new temple was dedicated to the worship of the sun, while other rooms were reserved for the worship of the moon goddess (Quilla), the stars, thunder and so many more.
The Spanish wrote of how they had the opportunity to see the temple before it was destroyed and sacked, and they describe it as something wonderful; the like of which they had never seen before, even in Spain, with its walls covered with gold and precious stones and decorated with countless objects made from gold and silver, with cloaks made from multicoloured feathers covering the ceiling.
The Cathedral of Cusco
The cathedral was constructed over the old temple of Wiracocha. On the 8th January 1536, the papal bull elevated its status from church to Cathedral. Initially, it was of simple and poor quality construction but this changed in 1560 when the remodelling of the great and gorgeous temple started and lasted for 94 years. Until 1654 the Basque architect Manuel de Veramendi was in charge, but it was his successor Diego Arias de la Cerda, who finished the construction and who presumably made the beautiful carvings of the wooden choir stalls.
In the temple, there are three significant items to be appreciated: The Main Altar, covered in layers of beaten silver, the Tabernacle studded with pearls, emeralds, diamonds, a dragon made entirely of emerald and finally, the Choir´s double row stalls consisting of very fine and delicate carvings.
Go down the Cuesta de San Blas and continue over to the intersection with Choquechaca, then head straight until you come to the narrow alley.
Here you will find one of the main streets in ancient Cusco, Hathun Rumiyoq; providing classic examples of superb Inca stonework which has stood through the test of time, natural disaster and now stands to be a highly photographed ruin and a work of art in its own right.
Templo san blas
From Choquechaca, turn left into Cuesta de San Blas and after one and a half blocks you´ll come to the tiny chapel known as Templo de San Blas. The highlight here is an incredibly intricate pulpit, carved from a block of cedar wood in a complicated Churrigueresque style; its detail includes a cherub, a sun disc, faces and bunches of grapes believed to have been carved by native craftsman Tomas Tuyro Tupa in the seventeenth century.
One of the more impressive Inca Baths, TAMBO MACHAY, or Temple of the Waters, was evidently a place for ritual as well as physical cleansing and purification. Situated at a spring near the Incas´ hunting lodge, its main construction lies in a sheltered gully where some superb Inca masonry emphasizes the Inca’s fascination with water.
The ruins consist of three-tiered platforms. The top one holds four trapezoidal niches that may have been used as seats. On the next level, underground water emerges directly from a hole at the base of the stonework, and from here cascades down to the bottom platform, creating a cold shower just high enough for an Inca to stand under. On this platform the spring water splits into two channels, both pouring the last meter down to ground level. Clearly, a site for ritual bathing, the quality of the stonework suggests that its use was restricted to the higher nobility, who perhaps used the baths only on ceremonial occasions.
Spanish is the official language of Cusco. Quechua and various highland and Amazonian languages are also recognized as co-official languages.
Most tourism industry workers speak some English. Taxi drivers and small shop owners are less likely to speak English. Some agencies in Cusco also cater to speakers of French, German, Dutch and other European languages, as well as Japanese and Chinese.
For travel to Cusco, a small Spanish vocabulary (greetings, numbers and question words) can be helpful for basic interactions.
Greetings are a simple way to show politeness when interacting with people you meet during your trip to Peru.
Some useful terms to memorise are as follows:
Buenos dias – Good morning
Buenas tardes – Good afternoon
Buenas noches – Good evening
Señor/ Señora/ Señorita – Mr/ Mrs/ Miss
In Cusco, you’ll see people wearing a mix of Western clothes and Andean outfits, although the former is more common, most people in the traditional dress come from the villages around Cusco either to participate in the tourist industry or handle personal business.
Typical Andean dress consists of polleras (multi-layered skirts) and hats for women, woven ponchos and chullos (wool hats with earflaps) for men. Occasionally, you’ll also see children in typical dress, sometimes with tethered llamas in tow or with baby lambs in their arms, offering to pose for photos in exchange for a few soles.
Cusco has been a Catholic city since the 16th century Spanish Conquest. There are 18 churches within the historic centre alone. Protestant faiths are also practised, but these churches are commonly located in the newer residential areas.
Cusco’s major religious festivals are perfect examples of the cultural syncretism that resulted from the post-Conquest evangelization of Indigenous populations.
Cusco City Tour
For travellers short on time, a guided Cusco tour is the best way to take in the highlights of South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Group tours typically begin in the afternoon, visiting the Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun) and the Cathedral. These two sites provide an introduction to the drama of Cusco’s history through its architecture, from the rise of the Inca Empire to its defeat by Spanish conquistadors and the building of a colonial city atop the ruins. The second part of the tour continues onto archaeological sites in the hills above Cusco, including the monolithic ruins of Sacsayhuaman as well as Qenko, Puka Pukara, Tambomachay, that will together give you an idea of the scale of Inca building projects. Private tours are a better option for travellers with specific interests such as religious art or archeology.
Explore the South East of Cusco
Travellers can explore the amazing hydraulic architecture in Tipon, pre-Incan structures in Pikillacta and the beautiful artworks of the Escuela Cusqueña in Andahuaylillas. Additionally, you can explore the capital of bread, Oropesa, Lucre, Huacarpay, Raqchi and other places.
Get off the tour bus and inject some real adventure into your exploration of Cusco’s ruins with a mountain bike or horseback riding tour. You can ride between Sacsayhuaman and Tambomachay, stopping by smaller sites in between, while getting views of the city and the surrounding landscape. It’s the perfect option to get away from the crowds while in Cusco. The Sacred Valley also has rafting, rock climbing, and ATV tours available.
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