Explore Cusco

Explore Cusco
Positioned 3,400 metres above sea level amongst the peaks of the Andes, Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Now it is one of Peru’s most important tourist towns, acting as the gateway to iconic Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley and also a thriving hub in its own right thanks to its sizeable share of Peruvian culture and history.

The Plaza de Armas is the heart of the city, as it was during the colonial era, and before that in Inca times. Here you’ll find colonial arcades filled with restaurants and bars and the church of La Compania de Jesus and its striking cathedral.

Inca history is everywhere, for example, the ruins at Qorikancha and Pisac, a pretty village about an hour out of town (also known for its Sunday market crammed with local crafts). Sacsayhuaman is another important Inca site easily accessed from Cusco, and you can stop along the way at Pukamqo Hill and take in the views of the city and visit “Cristo Blanco,” Cusco’s own smaller version of Brazil’s “Christ the Redeemer” statue.

Then there are other attractions such as the ChocoMuseo which seeks to lure those with a love for the sweet brown stuff, or the town’s buzzing bar scene that caters perfectly to night owls.

This is a modern city with many layers. Stay a few days, acclimatise and peel them back one by one.

Overlooking the city of Cusco
Pisac food market

Places to Visit in Cusco

  • Plaza de Armas
  • Sacsayhuaman
  • Qorikancha
  • Pukamoqo Hill
  • Pisac

Unique Things to See and Do in Cusco

  • Visit the Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman and Qoricancha
  • Hike to “Cristo Blanco” at Pukamoqo Hill for panoramic views
  • Satisfy your sweet tooth at the ChocoMuseo
  • Observe the hustle and bustle of the scenic Plaza de Armas
  • Peruse the market stalls at Pisac

From Inca Capital to Spanish Stronghold

Cusco was first settled by Manco Capac in around 1200AD but it was in the 15th century that the city, set high up in the Andes, was redesigned under the orders of Emperor Pachacuti and became the capital of the Inca Empire which spread across a large area of the South American Andes.

When Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in Cusco in 1534 he was astonished by what he saw. “It is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that would be remarkable even in Spain,” he reportedly said of the city.

Despite this respect for the Inca capital, the Spaniards proceeded to build on top of it. However, the basic structure of the city was preserved.

For example, the Plaza de Armas became the heart of the city, just as it was during the Incan times when it was known as Huacaypata. The square is home to the city’s impressive cathedral which is built using stones taken from the Inca site of Sacsayhuaman, a walled complex built by Emperor Pachacuti in the 1440s and now one of Cusco’s most popular tourist attractions. Meanwhile, the church and convent of Santo Domingo is actually built on top of the sun temple of Qorikancha, once the Incan civilisation’s richest temple.

And although the Incan city was buried beneath a whitewash of colonial construction, its old ways were not forgotten. For example, the Cusco School style of art has fused 17th century European painting styles with those of the local Andean artists. Colourful textiles are still found around town and sold at the Sunday market at Pisac. The city’s festivals blend Indigenous customs with those of the Catholic colonisers.

Getting around Cusco

If you’re staying in central Cusco then the best way to get around is on foot. The historic area around Plaza de Armas provides easy access to most of the main tourist sights and has plenty of pretty cobblestone streets that are for pedestrian use only.  Although, if you are planning to cover big distances on foot, be prepared for the impact of the high altitude.

Did you know…?

The name Cusco derives from a Quechua word meaning “navel” or “centre”, highlighting the city’s significance.

Plaza de Armas is the center for political, cultural, and social activities.

Did you ALSO know…?

Only nobles lived in Cusco during the Inca Empire. The only “commoners” that were also allowed to reside here were their servants as well as artisans and builders who were working on buildings within the city.

Quechua women setting up a traditional warp for back-strap weaving.
If you start to feel weary, another good option for getting around town is by taxi. Look for a  licensed taxi, identified by the sticker in the front window.

Otherwise, there are buses known as colectivos which are cheap but less convenient.

Best Time of Year to Travel to Cusco

The dry season arrives in Cusco in May and lasts through to October, with November to April considered the rainy season. But as long as you travel with this in mind, then you can visit the city at any time of year.

The busiest times of year are the months of June to October and also the Christmas holiday period. Numbers also spike during the many other festivals that take place in Cusco throughout the year.

Ready to plan your visit to Cusco Region? Check out these popular guides and trips.

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