There is something so magical about the Inca capital of Cusco that puts you hopelessly under its spell soon after you arrive. With so much vibrant culture and colour, few places can rival Cusco’s charm, and it’s likely that once you’ve been ... it will always hold a special place in your heart.
Cusco has a rich and fascinating history and it would easily be the most beautiful city in Peru that we visited. The ‘Imperial City of the Incas’ served as capital of their vast empire, which stretched from southern Colombia through to central Chile between the 13th and 15th century. It was considered to be ‘the naval of the world’ and was the central point from which a complex network of roads and paths radiated from throughout the Inca empire.
Although the King did not officially reside in Cusco, it was the administrative, political, military and religious centre of the empire. It is believed to have been originally laid out in the shape of a puma head and is dominated by the imposing military fortress of Sacsaywamán (pronounced 'Sexy Woman'), located on a steep hill overlooking the city.
Most important religious ceremonies were held in the revered temple of Qurikancha, which was primarily dedicated to the Sun God, Inti. Qurikancha’s walls were once lined in solid gold and its gardens and courtyards filled with gold statues of animals, plants and flowers embellished with precious stones. It must have truly been an extraordinarily beautiful sight to behold in Inca times.
When the marauding Spanish invaders heard tales of Cusco's immense wealth and riches, it’s of little wonder that they wanted it all for themselves, so they kidnapped and murdered the Inca King Atahualpa and proceeded to pillage and loot the temples, melting down precious golden artefacts to ship back to the motherland.
The conquistadors set about systematically destroying the Inca culture and religion and attempted to convert the 'uncultured natives' who worshipped Inti (the Sun God), Mama Killa (Mother Moon) and Pachamama (Mother Earth) to Christianity.
As was typical in all Spanish towns, a Plaza de Armas (Plaza of Arms) was established on top of the existing Inca plaza to mark the new centre of all of cultural and religious life in Cusco. Qurikancha along with most other Inca temples of special significance were demolished to make way for impressive cathedrals, churches, monasteries and convents.
It feels as though little has changed since the Spanish invasion and the pretty Plaza de Armas still stands overlooked by the opulent cathedrals, colonial administrative buildings, mansions and arcades.
These days the central fountain is guarded by a gold statue of the legendary Inca ruler, Pachacutec, who is pointing in earnest to his Sacsaywamán fortress on the hill ... it is such a pity that it proved of little help to his people in the face of Spanish gunfire.
One of our favourite pastimes in Cusco was to people watch in the Plaza de Armas, as at any time of day it is a hive of activity with families strolling, couples cuddling and street vendors selling their wares.
The streets surrounding the plaza are often filled with women in traditional dress, weaving textiles on wooden looms in the sunshine.
Despite all attempts to destroy the Inca culture, it still lives on through the Quechua people (direct descendants of the Inca) and the vibrant colour of their clothing fills the streets and overflows from its buses, plazas and markets.
We enjoyed spending an afternoon at the heaving San Pedro Market, its riot of action and colour spilling into the surrounding streets for blocks, as locals from the nearby villages come in to sell their harvest and buy goods. It’s likely their ancestors did exactly the same for centuries before them.
Warning: San Pedro is not for the faint of heart - it can be gruesome in sections, with snakes in jars, pig and cow heads, kidneys, trotters and tongues laying in plain view on blood-spattered tiled counters!
Aside from the local markets, Cusco has incredible shopping with a huge selection of boutique stores and craft shops, selling unique and beautifully made authentic products. On the weekend, be sure to visit the San Blas markets for the best selection of unique, handmade, locally-crafted items.
San Blas is nestled on a steep hillside a short walk from the main plaza and is a maze of narrow cobbled streets filled with humble old homes, many of which have been converted into cosy cafes, art galleries and artisan workshops.
Inca Ruin Excursion
There are a plethora of Inca ruins in the mountains surrounding Cusco and most of the best are included on the 'boleto turístico' admission ticket. The boleto turístico is valid for 10 days and will allow visits to any one (or all) of the 17 sites. Most of the ruins are easily reached by local bus with a short walk in between, so we decided to make a day of it and visit 4 ruins in the one day.
To begin, we took a local collectivo (minibus) travelling from Cusco to the Sacred Valley and asked the driver to let us off at the entrance to Tambomachay baths located 8 km from the main plaza.
Tambomachay was a revered Inca sanctuary dedicated to the worship of water and had a similar function to the modern day spa. The site consisted of a group of rooms connected with stairs and harnessing a spring that cascaded into a series of pools on different levels - just another example of incredible Inca engineering skills.
From Tambomachay it is only a short walk (1 km) back toward Cusco to visit the next ruin, Puca Pucara. Puca Pucara is located on the peak of a hill and is believed to have been both part of the military defense and a hunting lodge. It is a series of platforms connected by stairs and passages, surrounded by a circular wall that defends the whole construction.
To reach the next ruin, Q’enco, we caught one of the many local buses travelling toward Cusco and asked to be dropped off at the entrance.
Q'enco is a naturally formed rocky outcrop which the Inca carved into an elaborate labyrinth of underground galleries, passages, channels and zigzagging stairs. It is believed to have been an important astronomy centre for the Inca, where they studied the stars, made sacrificial offerings and foretold omens.
It is another short walk through gum forest from Q’enco to the impressive megalithic ruins of Sacsaywamán fortress overlooking Cusco. Situated on a steep hill above the city (3700m) Sacsaywamán is another Inca architectural masterpiece - its imposing tiered fortifications are thought to have taken 20 thousand men over 100 years to finish!
Its walls are formed by enormous stone blocks (the largest calculated to weigh over 125 tons) that reach up to 9m in height, 5m in width and 4m thick in places.
The stone blocks have been assembled without the use of mortar and fit so precisely that you can’t even fit a piece of paper between them. Truly another exceptional example of Inca engineering.
From Sacsaywamán we visited the nearby Christo Blanco statue and then followed the main path through the Cusco backstreets to San Blas, where we enjoyed an afternoon getting lost in its maze of cobblestone streets.
With so much vibrant culture, colour and charm it's of little wonder all who visit Cusco fall hopelessly under her spell and vow to return again some day.