Published: May 18th 2008April 26th 2008 Capital of the Inca Empire
Taken from the Inca ruins at Pisac
In the Popular Arts Museum in Cusco there's an old photo, from 1935, taken by the famous Cusco photographer Martin Chambi, which shows a view of the city from the Inca ruins of Sacsaywaman. It's easy to pick out familiar buildings such as the Cathedral & Plaza de Armas, but the most striking thing about the picture is the size of Cusco. It looks more like a provincial town than the large city it has become today. You can see the edge of the city in Chambi's photo, whereas today, from Sacsaywaman, the suburbs seem to stretch far away into the distance. This one time capital of the Inca Empire, which stretched from Quito to Chile, has, in 70 years, mushroomed into the the essential tourist stop in southern Peru, a gateway town to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, as well as being home to some of Peru's finest museums and attractions.
We spent 19 days in and around the Cusco region and by the end we felt we knew the city well. If I was going to settle down and live in Peru, there's a good chance I'd choose to live in Cusco.
Cathedral, Plaza de Armas
One of Cusco's best known buildings, the Cathedral was built upon an Inca Palace.
Travel a few blocks away from the city centre and Cusco is indistinguishable from any other Peruvian city. But at its heart, around the Plaza de Armas, the city is beautiful, despite its tumultuous history and the changes brought about by the Conquistadors. There are enough museums, historical buildings and Inca ruins not to mention a huge selection of bars, restaurants and cafes to keep you busy for months.
Cusco (I think) receives more tourists than any other Peruvian city and hence there are more agencies touting for business than any where else. It's impossible for any tourist to walk around the Plaza de Armas, Calle Procuradores or Calle Plateros without being approached by someone trying to sell you someone. It's usually information about Machi Picchu, trekking in the Cusco region or a cheap deal on a restaurant. Though we were also frequently offered postcards, pictures, massages, and bizarrely, once or twice, hashish or cocaine. I've no doubt the people of Cusco are making good money from tourists, but I think a bestseller idea would be to sell a t-shirt saying "Please Do Not Disturb" or "I do not want a massage, a restaurant deal or trekking information, etc"!
I might sound slightly negative about Cusco there, but the truth is I loved the city. It's a cultural gem, with fantastic museums, Inca sites, restaurants, and bars. More importantly, for us at least, it's the gateway town to some of the world's finest trekking. I've described these treks in my other blogs, but equally enjoyable to the trekking was the return to the civilisation of Cusco after a trek. After three weeks in the city we felt like we knew it well and had become regulars in certain bars, coffee shops and restaurants. Respectively, The Real McCoy, Cicciolina and Two Nations!
The maddening thing about visiting the sights of Cusco is that for most attractions you have to buy a multi-sight entrance ticket covering entry to a large number of sights. There are two main tickets: one covers four of the main religious sights in the city and costs an exorbitant 50 soles. The second covers about 14 sights in the city and the Cusco region and costs even more at 70 soles. So say you only want to see the Cathedral - you can only visit it by purchasing the religious buildings ticket, not by buying
an individual entry. We managed to get student tickets (half price) using old cards but this was still expensive.
Our time in Cusco coincided with the holding of a number of local, colourful parades. On our first morning we arrived at the Plaza de Armas to see hundreds of children marching around the square. We went for a coffee in one of the many cafes with balconies overlooking the square. I've no idea what the parade was about but it was very loud and colourful. The Plaza de Armas is a good place to begin a tour of Cusco. It's a huge square, though in Inca times it was far bigger, incorporating some streets to the west as well. Many of the Palaces on the square have long disappeared, as they were built upon by the Spaniards, but the buildings standing there now are impressive in their own right.
The best known of these is the Cathedral, on the east of the square. There are two churches attached to the cathedral and you can see them all on one visit. Guides wait around here (and at almost all Cusco sights) offereing their services for tours but we had
The 14 sided stone
A well known landmark in Cusco is the famous 14 edged Inca stone.
a copy of the excellent "Exploring Cusco" book by Peter Frost, which is as good as any tour guide. The most popular sight in the cathedral is the Last Supper painting by Marcos Zapata. Like most Last Supper paintings you can see Jesus and the 12 Apostles; what makes this one a little different is the presence of a chinchilla (it looks a lot like a guinea pig) in the centre of the table! Another famous painting said to be the oldest in the city is the anonymous picture of the 1650 earthquake, which devestated the city.
Cusco has more than once suffered at the hands of terrible earthquakes, most recently in 1960 when much of the city was destroyed. However, damage caused by this earthquake did lead to the discovery of ruins belonging to Qorikancha, a famous Inca temple, hidden until then below Santa Domingo church. Nowadays, visitors can see both the church and parts of the old Inca building. Qorikancha contains impressive stonework, though it's splendour is nothing compared to how it looked in the 16th century, described by Spanish chroniclers as containing a font lined with 120 pounds of gold, golden llamas, a field of silver
Hostal Apu Wasi
We stayed in this hostel every night of our stay in Cusco. It was a cheap, friendly place in San Blas. Great views from of the city from the terrace.
maize as well as the famous golden disc of the sun, whose whereabouts are still unknown today.
The nicest neighbourhood in Cusco is San Blas, on a hillside to the east and north of town. Our hotel was in a far corner of San Blas, and every night we faced a long, steep climb uphill to get home. It was worth it, howewer, for the fantastic views of the city spread out below us. San Blas, with it's steep, narrow, winding streets, its cobblestones, the beautiful squares, and the historic churches is like a Cusco version of Montmartre in Paris. There are some great bars and restaurants here too.
Our favourite museum in Cusco was the Inca Museum, which contains lots of Inca relics, as well as a temporary exxhibition on the Inca ruins of Choquequirao, a similar ruin to Machu Picchu, though much less visited. I had read Choquequirao in "The White Rock" and in other books but it wasn't until we saw the exhibition that we decided to trek there. One other museum that we enjoyed was the pre-Columbian (MAP) museum, Cusco's best known museum with good displays from many of the pre-Columbian Peruvian cultures. The
Doorway beside the Temple of Ten Niches
guy who wrote the explanations for each piece must have been paid by the word as his descriptions went on and on, but they were very helpful and available in 3 languages. Out of Cusco and into the valley
The closest Inca ruin to Cusco is the huge site of Saqsaywaman, overlooking the town. Like many Inca ruins, very little of the site is standing and it must have looked much more impressive in its heyday. As it was so close to the city, the Spanish plundered Sacsaywaman, taking the treasures and using the stones to construct their own new buildings. What stands out most about Sacsaywaman are the huge stones in the walls. The biggest is said to be a whopping 8.5 metres high and weighs over 350 tons. The views from Sacsaywaman are fantastic - on a clear day you can see now-capped Cerro Ausangate in the distance.
Equally well worth seeing is the Sacred Valley, which follows the Urubamba river from Pisac to Ollanaytambo. Pisac is the closest town in the valley to Cusco and the best time to visit is Sunday, when its famous market is in full swing. It's a beautiful journey from
Cerro Veronika (5750m)
View from the road between Urubamba and Chinchera.
Cusco, up past the ruins of Sacsaywaman to a pass, followed by a steep descent into Pisac. The market spreads out over the main sqaure and the surrounding streets, and contains the usual Peruvian souvenirs. It has become touristy in recent years though the ratio of locals to gringos is still very high. Best was the food sections; we bought fruit and choclo con queso to fill us up before going to see the ruins.
Pisac's ruins are a steep hike above the town. We cheated and took a taxi up and left the walking for the descent. With us were an English/Dutch couple, David and Femka, whom we'd met in the bus. The ruins are spread out over a large area, with the most impressive buildings at Intiwatana. As well as the seeing the fantastic stonework, we had great views of the town and the valley. The ruins at Ollantaytambo were just as impressive. Ollantaytambo is famous as the site of a battle between the Spanish and Manco Inca in 1537 in which the Spanish were well beaten. After climbing the steep steps I could understand why: Ollantaytambo would have been a perfect fortress, almost impervious to attack.
Travelling through the Sacred Valley is an experience in itself. From Ollantaytambo to Urubamba we travelled in a combi, basically a minivan which charges very little but which fits in as many people as possible. I thought it was getting it cosy when we had 18 people in it and I could barely move my legs. But we picked up more along the road and I think at one stage there were 23, including two Peruvian girls sitting on my knees. Most Peruvians are fairly short, so they can handle this type of transport, but I could barely move after we finished in Urubamba!
I've barely touched on all we saw and all that there is to see in Cusco. We had originally planned about 10 days in Cusco, but ended up needing so much more time. It's the essential stop in Peru and I would advise anyone visiting the city to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy it properly.
There are more photos below