Cusco, the heart of the Peruvian Andes, captivates with its unique blend of history, culture, and excitement. Once the capital of the Incan Empire, Cusco is now a bustling city with beautiful architecture that serves as a gateway to the vast Andean landscapes. This city is replete with tales of its glorious past and pulsates with activity in the present.
As you traverse the narrow cobblestone streets, you will discover a world in which the old and the new coexist peacefully. With the majestic Andean peaks as a beautiful backdrop, the city’s skyline is a stunning combination of Inca ruins and colonial structures.
The past is not confined to museums in Cusco; it is also present in the city’s streets, plazas, markets, and festivals. The city is more than a tourist destination; it is a living, breathing entity brimming with vitality and energy. Every moment is an opportunity to learn, discover, and experiment.
Planning a trip to Peru? Here are some reasons to visit Cusco, the capital of the Peruvian Andes.
The Rich History of Cusco
The history of Cusco is as captivating as its landscapes. The city served as the capital of the Inca Empire, which flourished between the 13th and 16th centuries. The Incas referred to Cusco as the “Navel of the World” because it was a sacred city where the lines of Ley, or spiritual energy, intersected.
The city’s impressive stone walls, the most famous of which is Sacsayhuaman, demonstrate its Inca heritage. This fortified complex, with its enormous, intricately carved stones, is evidence of the Incas’ architectural brilliance.
In the sixteenth century, Cusco was conquered by the Spanish, who left their mark on the city’s architecture and culture. The baroque-style Cusco Cathedral, which was constructed atop the ruins of an Inca palace, is among the finest examples of colonial architecture in the Americas.
Cusco remained an important cultural and economic center despite the Spanish conquest. This period saw the emergence of the Cusco School of painting, characterized by its fusion of European and indigenous styles.
In 1821, Peru attained independence from Spain, but Cusco did not benefit immediately. However, tourism began to flourish in the 20th century as interest in the ancient Inca civilization grew. Machu Picchu, which was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, became a popular tourist destination.
Cusco has grown and developed significantly in recent years. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the principal hub for tourists visiting the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Cusco’s blend of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture has allowed the city to retain its distinct character despite modernization.
The history of Cusco is a living testament to the city’s resilience and cultural diversity.
The Unique Culture of Cusco
Culture in Cusco is a vibrant tapestry, woven with threads of Inca traditions and Spanish influences. The Quechua language, once the lingua franca of the Inca Empire, is still spoken here, adding to the city’s unique cultural charm.
The local artisans of Cusco uphold the city’s rich artistic traditions. From intricate weavings to colorful pottery, their handiwork is a sight to behold. The San Blas neighborhood, known as the artist’s quarter, is an ideal place to explore the city’s artistic heritage.
Cusco is a remarkable fusion of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture. Ancient Incan walls and temples, such as Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun), seamlessly blend with Spanish colonial architecture as you stroll through the city. The Incas designed the layout of the city, which is still in use today.
Festivals and music are integral to Cusco’s culture. Whether it’s the colorful Inti Raymi festival or the soulful notes of Andean pan flutes, the city’s cultural expressions are as diverse and captivating as its landscapes.
Cusco’s pre-Hispanic and colonial music and dance are unique. Traditional Andean music uses wind and percussion instruments, and many festivals and celebrations include folk dances with colorful costumes.
Due to Spanish colonialism, Cusco is mostly Roman Catholic. However, Catholicism and Andean spirituality often blend.
Amazing Landmarks in Cusco
Cusco, often referred to as the “Archaeological Capital of the Americas”, is rich with historical landmarks, many of which are a testament to its Incan past and Spanish colonial history. Here are some of the amazing landmarks to explore when you visit Cusco;
Machu Picchu, although not in Cusco, is a must-see landmark. Cusco is the gateway city to the Inca citadel. This ancient Incan city is high up in the Andes Mountains. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is the most well-known archaeological site in South America.
This colossal Inca fortress overlooks the city of Cusco. The impressive dry-stone walls of Sacsayhuamán were built by fitting boulders together without mortar. A grand ceremony is held here every year during the Inti Raymi festival.
The cathedral on Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square, is an example of colonial Baroque architecture. It is renowned for its Cusco School of Painting art collection and ornate altar.
Once the most significant temple in the Inca Empire, Qorikancha (or Coricancha) was devoted to the Sun God’s worship. After the Spanish conquest, Inca stonework was incorporated into the construction of the Church of Santo Domingo.
San Blas Neighborhood
The narrow, steep streets of San Blas, known as the artisans’ quarter, are lined with workshops and galleries. On the summit of the hill, the San Blas Church contains a beautifully carved wooden pulpit.
This stone, which is located on Hatun Rumiyoc street, is a masterpiece of Incan stonework. The stone has precisely twelve angles that fit perfectly with the surrounding stones, demonstrating the Inca’s superior stone-cutting skills.
Pisac is worth the trip, despite its distance from Cusco, due to the fact that its Inca ruins have been preserved so well. It has a lively market where local artisans sell textiles, clothing, and jewelry.
Moray and Maras
In the Sacred Valley, these Incan agricultural terraces and salt mines are remarkable. The Incas may have used Moray’s circular terraces as a farm lab.
Each of these landmarks showcases Cusco’s Incan heritage, colonial past, and vibrant contemporary culture.
The Natural Beauty of the Peruvian Andes
The natural beauty of the Peruvian Andes is truly breathtaking, with its snow-capped peaks, verdant valleys, and tranquil lakes. No trip to Cusco would be complete without taking in these breathtaking views.
The Sacred Valley is a must-see for its picturesque Andean villages and Inca ruins. This fertile valley, once the Inca Empire’s breadbasket, is a place of enchanting beauty and serene tranquility.
For those seeking adventure, the Inca Trail offers an exhilarating trek through the Andean highlands, culminating in the spectacular Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, perched high in the Andes, is one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks.
Local Cuisine to Try in Cusco
Cusco is no exception to the culinary excellence of Peruvian cuisine. The city’s culinary scene is a tantalizing blend of traditional Andean flavors and contemporary cooking techniques.
In Cusco, cuy, or guinea pig, is a traditional delicacy. This dish, though it may sound exotic to some, is a must-try for foodies. Ceviche is a popular local dish consisting of raw fish marinated in citrus juices.
Try picarones, which are doughnuts made with sweet potato and drizzled with syrup, or churros con chocolate, a popular dessert consisting of fried dough sticks served with hot chocolate.
When you visit Cusco, you will discover a vibrant culinary scene that will allow you to taste Peru’s gastronomic diversity.
Adventure Activities in and Around Cusco
Cusco is a paradise for intrepid travelers. From hiking to white-water rafting, the city and its environs offer an abundance of exciting activities.
As mentioned previously, the Inca Trail is a popular trek that takes you through breathtaking Andean landscapes to Machu Picchu. However, this is not the only trek in the area. Both the Salkantay and Lares treks offer awe-inspiring landscapes and cultural encounters, making them equally rewarding alternatives.
White-water rafting on the Urubamba River and zip-lining in the Sacred Valley are thrilling activities that adrenaline junkies should not miss.
Traditional Festivals and Events in Cusco
The Cusco calendar is jam-packed with traditional festivals and events, each of which provides a unique glimpse into the city’s vibrant culture. In June, Inti Raymi, or the Festival of the Sun, is one of the most important celebrations. This spectacular event commemorating the winter solstice is a recreation of an Inca sun worship ceremony.
In May, the city celebrates the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i, a pilgrimage to the Sinakara Valley in the Andes attended by thousands of devotees. The festival is a blend of Catholic and Andean traditions, reflecting Cusco’s cosmopolitan culture.
Corpus Christi, observed 60 days after Easter, is a significant event on the Christian calendar. A procession of 15 statues of saints and virgins from various districts to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in the Plaza de Armas is one of the holiday’s distinctive local characteristics in Cusco. Chiriuchu, a traditional dish containing guinea pig and chicken, is also associated with this event.
Pachamama Raymi takes place in August and celebrates Pachamama, the Mother Earth deity in Inca mythology. In celebrations, offerings are made to the earth to ensure abundant harvests and general well-being.
When you visit Cusco, you will find plenty of things to do.
Planning Your Trip to Cusco: Practical Tips
Cusco travel planning necessitates practical considerations. The city is located at a high altitude, so it is essential to acclimate in order to avoid altitude sickness.
The best time to visit Cusco is between May and September, during the dry season, when the weather is suitable for outdoor activities. Nevertheless, the city may be crowded during this time, especially in June when the Inti Raymi festival is held.
Remember to pack clothing for all types of weather, as daytime and nighttime temperatures can vary significantly. Do not forget your hiking boots if you intend to hike the Inca Trail or any other trail.
However, you can also visit Cusco all year round, with each season offering its own unique experiences.
Cusco is much more than a city. It is a journey through time, an immersion in culture, an adventure playground, and a culinary delight.
The city’s rich history, unique culture, amazing landmarks, and landscapes make it an essential travel destination.
So, why wait? Plan to visit Cusco, the charming capital of the Peruvian Andes and get ready to fall in love with its charm.