When you first set foot in Cusco, Peru, you will feel your legs tremble, your heartbeat quicken, and you will probably draw a sharp intake of breath. And if you think that these symptoms are due to the high altitude here (an astonishing 13,000 feet above sea level) or the well-known Mountain Sickness (affecting tourists not accustomed to the rarefied air) we need to clarify that it is not only this!
The ancient capital of the Inca empire, conquered by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, will make your heart beat faster with excitement. With its unique blend of Inca and Spanish architecture, surrounded by nature and unbelievable scenery, the colours, tastes, smells and sounds of Cusco fill your eyes, your ears and your soul.
Cusco caters for all tastes: there are well preserved archaeological sites, streets and alleys that look like something straight out of a film; there are cafes and restaurants in small squares that seem to have emerged from nowhere … all of this is mixed in with a lot of Andean crafts, delicious food and the friendliest inhabitants you could imagine. Incidentally, the city is an almost obligatory stopover for those en route to the famous Machu Picchu.
Interested in visiting this jewel of the Americas? Check out 5 Cusco attractions that you cannot leave out of your itinerary. You’re going to love them!
- The Plaza de Armas This has been the beating heart of Cusco since the time of the Inca empire. Virtually all of Cusco’s main events, parades, celebrations and parties take place here. Besides being the meeting point for locals and visitors alike since time immemorial, the Praça de Armas has also been the backdrop for many historical events.
It is said that Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador who seized control of Cusco from the hands of the Incas, announced his victory over the Andean people here on November 15, 1533. This was also where the trial and execution of the great rebel leader Túpac Amaru II, took place on May 18, 1781.
- Tour of the archaeological sites
For those who enjoy history, a visit to the archaeological sites located around Cusco should not, by any means, be left out of your itinerary. There are many such sites, the principal ones being Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo, Pukapukara and Tambomachay.
It is possible to visit all of them in just one day; the best way of doing it is to go on a guided tour; public transportation to the ruins is almost non-existent. In addition, the talks and explanations given by the local guides add a little humour and form part of this unique experience.
According to historians, each of the archaeological sites in Cusco played a distinct role during the period of the Inca Empire. Pukapukara functioned as a customs, weapons and food depot, in addition to its military function, based on its strategic location on the edge of a cliff (N.B. Incredible views!).
Q’enqo, with its altar in the middle of a semi-circular square, was used for religious purposes, with animal and even human sacrifices! Tambomachay, in turn, is at the centre of a network of canals, which incredibly still function, and this is where water worshipping ceremonies were held.
However, by far the most surprising archaeological site is Saqsaywaman. A gigantic construction made of colossal stones, it is one of the most thought provoking symbols of Cusco; it’s almost impossible not to be impressed. The most interesting thing about it is that even today, there is no consensus among historians about the role played by Saqsaywaman during the Inca empire. Some experts claim that it had military purposes; others suggest that the site was intended for religious rituals. We do not know which theory is correct, but we can say that a visit to Saqsaywaman will make you feel very small in the face of such immensity.
- The Historic Centre and Convent of Santo Domingo
A brisk walk through the historic centre of Cusco will make you think that you are in sixteenth century Spain. After conquering the city, the European people constructed their colonial buildings on the sites of existing ones that had been built by the Incas.
The famous Cusco Cathedral, for example, was erected on the site of the temples and palaces of the old empire. The most symbolic example of this architectural mixture is the Convent of Santo Domingo (or Qoricancha in Quechua, the Inca language).
Legend has it that the Qoricancha (golden courtyard) was the biggest and richest temple built by the Andean people during the reign of Emperor Pachacuteq. According to the Spanish chronicles of the time, its walls were covered with solid gold.
The Spanish, who were nobody’s fools, tried to send all the precious metals overseas, but what remains of the temple, like its walls made of embedded stones, can still be seen. Later, in the sixteenth century, the Convent of Santo Domingo was erected on the site of the old Inca temple.
- Mercado de San Pedro
Imagine a place where you can find typical Peruvian products, the widest variety of Andean crafts, clothes, fruits, grains, cheeses, coffees and even household utensils and tools. All this and another food court that offers a huge variety of dishes. Add a multitude of people, languages, colours and smells.
Can you imagine this entire jumble? Then you have an idea of what the Mercado de San Pedro, one of the oldest and most traditional in Cusco, is like. The tour is exquisite, but it is well worth getting lost in the aisles, exchanging ideas with the locals and sampling a typical regional dish.
- MAP Café
Believe it or not, one of the best restaurants in all of Cusco is housed in a shipping container! Exactly! The MAP Café is nothing more than an “extension” inside the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, which is only two blocks from the Plaza de Armas.
The museum itself is well worth the visit, but the restaurant is the highlight of the tour. If you decide to include it in your itinerary, be sure to sample the delicious corn and mushroom soup and the stunning tangerine pie. Your senses (and your stomach!) will certainly thank you.
Besides these, there are many other sights in Cusco you can visit, get lost in and even die of love! Ah, Cusco, the most breath-taking city of the Americas, opens its horizons and wins the heart of all its visitors!
What did you think of this post? Do you have any questions? Do you think that there is another tourist point of Cusco we have not mentioned here, but really should have? Share your experiences and questions in the comments and further enrich the experience of other travellers as well as your own!