Situated in the southeastern Andes, Cusco (Qosqo) is one of the most well-known cities of the ancient world. It is renowned for both its cultural unity and eccentricity and has become an important icon and tourist destination in Latin America. Qosqo is the name of the city in Quechua, which was the dominant language during Inca times and today is one of the official languages of Peru. Cusco is how it was pronounced in Spanish. Besides the city itself, there are also other important tourist attractions nearby, such as amazing Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
The department of Cusco is comprised of 13 provinces and 108 districts. It has ecological zones that reach from the high Andes to the lowlands of the Amazon basin. The city of Cusco is at an altitude of 3400m/11,150ft. Cusco’s climate is variable, but generally, it is cold and dry during the winter months, sunny and rainy during the summer.
Known by the Inca civilization as the “Home of Gods”, Cusco became the capital of one of the largest pre-Columbian empires: the Tawantinsuyo. Qosqo in means “Navel of the World.” This name derives from when the city was the hub of the vast network of roads interconnecting virtually all of South America, from the southern part of present-day Colombia to the northern part of what is now Argentina.
THE LEGEND OF THE FOUNDING OF CUSCO
The valleys of the Watanay and Tullumayu Rivers were settled centuries before the Incas arrived. However, during the period of Inca control (1438-1532), the Huatanay River basin, in which Cusco is built, reached its peak as an administrative, religious and military center.
The origins of the city are shrouded in myth and legends, which tell the tale of how the Inca Empire came into being. One of the most famous myths is from the chronicles kept by the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. It speaks of a mythical couple, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, who emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca to found the city of Cusco and teach its people how to cultivate the land.
THE PUMA-SHAPED CITY
The ninth Inca, whose name was Pachacuteq, took charge of the layout of Cusco, and gave the ancient city the shape of a puma, which at the time of the Incas was an animal respected for its sacred power and strength. It is also said that the outline of the first city had the shape of a puma with a falcon’s head.
The construction of Sacsayhuaman was started, which was the head of the puma. Similarly, Inca astronomers were careful to align structures with the stars, planning the construction of shrines and places of worship that had social, religious and political functions with a cosmic orientation.
The street called “Pumakurqo” is located on the puma’s spine, which is of importance in its route. The main square, or Plaza de Armas, served as the heart of the Puma, and it was the venue for celebrations by the Incas. In addition, the sexual organ (or attraction center) was in the “Inticancha,” or complex of temples known as Qoricancha. This was the main temple and center
of the whole empire of the Incas. Finally, we arrive at the tail of the puma, which is known in the Quechua as “Pumaqchupan,” where there is now a large fountain.
The city was divided into two sectors: an upper area, or Hanan, and a lower-lying area, or Hurin, references to both the geographical position of each area and the hierarchical position of their inhabitants.
CUSCO’S RICH CULTURAL BLENDING
After the Spaniards arrived in 1533, many pre-Hispanic structures were destroyed or used as foundations for new structures, which included churches, convents, and mansions built in Baroque or Renaissance styles. Cusco has become one of the most representative expressions of mestizo culture anywhere in the Americas.
Cusco’s population is a combination of Incas and mestizos (mixed people), and its architecture reflects the same cultural mixture, with splendid churches and manors built on the foundations of elaborately carved stone created by the Incas.
The local cuisine (and Peruvian food in general) is generally regarded as one of the world’s great cuisines, including superb combinations of typical Andean foods, such as corn, potatoes and chili peppers, with pork and mutton introduced by the Spanish. There are many fine culinary experiences in Cusco for a range of budgets, from street food to fine dining.
With its vast landscapes, rich history, fascinating geography and superb cuisine, Cusco is a destination most travelers find very enjoyable and memorable.
CUSCO’S TOP ATTRACTIONS
There are many reasons to travel to Cusco; your travel organizer will help you decide between Cusco’s many famous destinations. Cusco is the capital city of the Inca Empire, therefore, this region mostly offers attractions from Inca times. In addition, you will find historical constructions representing colonial architecture as well. Some of the following destinations are considered some of the best in the country.
This Incan city was declared a World Cultural and Natural Heritage by UNESCO in 1983, describing it as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization.” It is located in the province of Urubamba, in the department of Cusco, on the eastern slopes of the Vilcabamba Mountains at 2440m/8,000ft. This historical site is surrounded by several mountains, including Waynapicchu to the north, Machu Picchu to the south, Putucusi to the east and Pumasillu to the west.
Machu Picchu was built by the Inca king Pachacuteq around 1450. It was inhabited by the priest caste who were responsible for the ceremonies and rituals of sun worship. It was re-discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911 when he was informed by the educator Albert Giesecke of this spectacular archaeological site.
This complex is located 97km/60mi west of Cusco at an altitude of 3050m/10,000ft above the Apurimac River. Known as the little sister of Machu Picchu because of their architectural similarities, Choquequirao is a 15th-century construction made by the Incan Empire.
Its construction started in 1560 and finished in 1664, made from red granite taken from the Inca complex of Sacsayhuaman. The church possesses important collections of gold and silver work from the colonial period, artistically engraved wooden altars and a beautiful collection of oil painting produced in the Cusqueñian school of art.
A convent was built on the foundations of Qoricancha, which means “Gold Enclosure.” This was the most important temple dedicated to the worship of the sun god, and its walls were covered with solid sheets of gold. All that remains now is the fine stonework, as the Spanish conquistadors took the rest. Qoricancha was also an astronomical observatory, where the Andean priests kept track of major celestial events. Today it houses an impressive collection of paintings from the Cusqueñian school.
Sacsayhuaman (which means “Satisfied Falcon”) is one of the most astonishing megalithic monuments built by the Incas. It is generally considered as a fortress; however, it is not certain what its main function was. Current research suggests that it was more likely used as a temple, as Inca tombs have been discovered in the area. The site is a brilliant feat of architecture, even now after it was destroyed. One can only imagine its greatness when it stood in its full glory. The stones in the walls are tremendous, with the largest stone weighing over 300 tons.
The archaeological site of Q’enqo (which means ‘labyrinth’) shows some of the most amazing carved rocks in the region of Cusco. There are carvings everywhere, and in the upper section, Inca divinities were carved in high relief: a llama, a condor and snakes have been identified. There are many mysterious channels on top of the rock with apparent religious purposes, probably used for pouring chicha or corn beer during their rites. Inside the rock there are a number of caves and passageways and an altar which was used for the sacrifice of llamas.
Translated from Quechua into English, it means “Red Fortress.” This is a small site and although the name suggests that it was a fortress, it does not seem to have any defensive purpose. It is more likely to have been a control point.
This site was built to worship water. There are some incredible aqueducts, canals and cascades efficiently carved in stone, designed to take water flow from nearby stream.
The town of Pisaq is located in the heart of the Sacred Valley; the town not only has its archaeological complex but also its craft fair where highly skilled residents design traditional handicrafts to sell.
This Incan site was built during the Inca Pachacuteq’s government, and was later used as a shelter by Manco Inca during his retreat from the Spanish army. Visit the massive stone structures such as the Temple of the Sun, the Royal Hall, the Intihuatana and the Baths of the Princess. Ollantaytambo also has a train station for Aguas Calientes, the gateway town for the citadel of Machu Picchu.
CUSCO’S BEST ADVENTURE TREKS
RAINBOW MOUNTAIN TREK
INCA JUNGLE TRAIL
HUCHUY QOSQO TREK
HUAYNAPICCHU AND MACHU PICCHU MOUNTAINS ASCENTS
Everyone planning to climb Huaynapicchu (either in the first or second group) must purchase the permits at least two months in advance. You will be given only one ticket for Machu Picchu and Huaynapicchu, which you will need to show at each control point to sign in. The climbing schedule usually is displayed at the top part of the ticket, and it is recommended to show up at the Huaynapicchu gate ten minutes before that time.
Many visitors love to climb this tall, granite mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu to the north. The ancient trail is very steep, with steps on your way up to the mountain top. Ascend carefully but don’t be discouraged by the peak’s appearance. It’s not as high as it seems from a distance. As you near the top of Waynapicchu, you pass through ancient terraces that are so inaccessible and narrow that their value for ornamental purposes is obvious. Please be warned that people who have trouble with vertigo may not enjoy this trek. The Waynapicchu ascent might take about an hour for the average person. Once you’re at the mountain top, enjoy the wonderful views of Machu Picchu, and the surrounding valleys and mountains.
The Temple of the Moon is located inside a cavern halfway down the north face of Wayna Picchu. It contains some of the most impressive stonework of the entire Machu Picchu complex. There is a large and magnificent gateway just beyond the temple, with a long, narrow building carved into the rocks. Another, more roughly worked subterranean temple lies about 50m downhill from there. This gateway and cave complex was an important ceremonial center, and provided access to Machu Picchu from the river, which still exists in present times.
MACHU PICCHU MOUNTAIN ASCENT
The ancient Inca trail winds eastward up through the woods on the north flank of the mountain, until it meets the ridgetop. At this point it turns westward, still climbing along the ridge until it reaches the summit, where the Incas built a series of platforms.
The permits for Machu Picchu Mountain are also booked a month in advance, which comes along with your entrance ticket to Machu Picchu at an additional cost. For climbing Machu Picchu Mountain, you are requested to show up at the gate between 7:00am – 11:00am. This check point is located some thirty minutes away from the archaeological complex on the way to the Sun Gate. This walk usually takes about three-hours roundtrip. You will not only walk the authentic Inca Trail but also enjoy the most impressive views from the top.
HOW TO CHOOSE BETWEEN HUAYNAPICCHU AND MACHU PICCHU
Huaynapicchu and Machu Picchu Mountain are two mountains peaks which tower over the Machu Picchu archaeological site. To climb either of these mountains, you need to purchase a pass in combination with your Machu Picchu entry ticket. Passes cannot be purchased separately from the entry ticket, and once the entry ticket has been purchased, a mountain pass cannot be added or cancelled.
Huayna Picchu Mountain. This is the more popular of the two optional mountain treks but it can also be very crowded. 200 people start climbing between 7:00am – 8:00am, and another 200 people start between 10:00am-11:00am, so in total 400 people climb every morning. The trail is quite steep and takes about 2 hours to climb up and down.
Machu Picchu Mountain. This hike is less popular than Huaynapicchu but no less beautiful. This mountain is located on the other side of the ruins. There are 400 passes available daily. You can begin your climb between 7:00am and 11:00am. The trail is less steep than Waynapicchu but it is a longer hike (about 3 hours total).