Cusco, Peru is a beautiful place filled with color and life and a rich history that is still very powerfully present. It would be easy to spend several days walking around the city, taking it all in. In order to help focus your attention, I’m including some of my favorite highlights.
First, some history.
Before I left for Cusco, I received a recommendation to read The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming. I’m so grateful that I took that advice. Walking around the city with some context around where the story began, including which architectural elements originated during the Inca era versus which came from Spanish influence, made a world of difference.
I won’t get too deep into it (read the book instead), but at a high level: Cusco began as the thriving capital of the mighty Inca Empire in the thirteenth century and has since continued to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Western hemisphere. In 1533, the Spanish arrived under a guy named Francisco Pizarro. They staged a “friendly” gathering, captured Incan emperor Atahualpa, demanded an obscene amount of gold and artifacts for his release, then killed him anyway. From there, the Spanish claimed the land of Cusco for Spain.
Walking around Cusco, you can’t help but notice a stark difference between the Inca and Spanish masonry. Inca stone masons would work the stones until their shape fit exactly alongside all of the other blocks that would be positioned alongside that block. Below is an example of Inca masonry and Spanish masonry. See what I mean? The most well-known example, the famous “Twelve Angled Stone” located on Hatun Rumiyoc street in Cusco’s historical center, can se seen below. No mortar, so tightly placed that you couldn’t fit a piece of paper through if you tried. Insanity.
Cusco is an incredibly walkable city. Make sure you look down to pay attention to the cobbled streets as you meander down the numerous narrow alleys and up and down the seemingly endless sets of stairs.
Plaza de Armas
At the city center, you’ll find the Plaza de Armas, bordered by Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús and the Cusco Cathedral. At the center is a beautiful fountain topped by a statue of Tupac Amaru. Two distinct flags also fly in the plaza – the red-and-white Peruvian flag and the rainbow-colored flag of Tahuantinsuyo, representing the four quarters of the Inca empire.
Take some to sit and take in the sights and sounds of the plaza.
Also known as the House of the Sun, Coricancha was the most important temple in the Incan empire. It was once covered in solid gold, however as mentioned previously, the gold was stripped from the building and used to pay the Spanish ransom in exchange for the release of Atahualpa. Alas, he was instead killed, after which point, the Spanish demolished most of Coricancha, melting down its gold plating and sculptures to be sent back to Spain. They then built the Santo Domingo Church on top of the existing stone foundations.
The cost to to enter the temple is 15 soles, and it’s money well spent. Make sure you see the Temple of the Sun, the Santo Domingo church, the “Three Windows” and spend some time in the beautiful garden out back.
Barrio de San Blas
Barrio de San Blas, aka the San Blas neighborhood, is a must-see. No question. Take the steep walk up from Plaza de Armas to experience this art district filled with art galleries, musicians, restaurants and an observatory to see the entire city of Cusco from above. You won’t be disappointed.
San Pedro Market
The San Pedro Market (Mercado Central de San Pedro) is a gigantic market, open seven days a week. The building itself is one block long and three blocks wide and houses everything from clothing and souvenirs to bread, meats, cheeses, spices.. the list goes on.
Grab a fresh squeezed juice or a ready-to-eat guinea pig and spend some time strolling up and down the aisles. I have to say that one of the things I appreciated most was the nature of the stall holders who allowed me to browse freely without pressuring to purchase.
Built atop a mountain called Pukamuqu, Cristo Blano can be seen throughout Cusco. Despite efforts to charge for entrance, the site itself is free – beware of vendors attempting to charge you near the entrance to Saqsayhuamán.
These are just a few of the sites to see when you visit Cusco, but make sure they’re on your list. And plan a couple of days to focus specifically on the exploration of Cusco itself versus just using it as a hub for other destinations. It truly is an incredible city.