Cuzco, also called Cusco, or Qosq’o in Quechua was the capital of the Inca empire and considered the navel of the world. With an amalgamation of Incan remains, Spanish era elements and a modern makeover, this historical and cultural city is located in the Peruvian Andes and is one of the main tourist hotspots in the country.
From the time of the Inca empire when it was called Huacaypata or Aucaypata till date, the Plaza de Armas has remained as the heart of the city. Back in those days, it served as the venue for religious festivals, rituals and ceremonies. Today, the plaza is lined with restaurants, bars, cafes and shops and has beautiful gardens in the centre. On two sides of the plaza, you will find the two churches, Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús and La Catedral, which were constructed by the Spanish in an attempt to suppress Incan religious beliefs. The plaza is a great place to relax and observe the daily life of the locals and especially beautiful at night when people come together to socialise.
The stunning and massive baroque cathedral was constructed by the Spanish in the 16th century using stones that were removed from the Inca site Sacsayhuaman. It is one of the main highlights of the Plaza de Armas and was built on the site of a former Incan palace. To the right of the cathedral is the church of El Triunfo and to its left is the church of Jesus Maria. The interior of the cathedral features impressive gold and silver work and has more than 300 paintings on its walls. These paintings display a unique fusion of European and native Andean styles that depict yet another interesting fusion of Catholic beliefs and Incan legends.
The San Blas district, located atop a small hill northeast of the plaza, is an unmissable destination in the city. You can walk here from the plaza and dozens of steps will lead you to its cobbled streets lined with artisan workshops, boutiques, souvenir shops and galleries. The neighbourhood is also notable for its Andean and Spanish architecture and the lovely Iglesia San Blas. From here, you can also enjoy panoramic views of Cusco. Plan a visit here on a Saturday as this is when the area is even more lively than usual with its colourful market stalls.
The bustling and colourful San Pedro market packed with rows of fruits, vegetables and fresh juice stalls will give you the best taste of local life. At noon, you will find a lot of vendors selling empanadas, tamales and two-course lunches. It’s also a great place to shop for souvenirs like handmade hats, blankets, rugs and sweaters which are made from alpaca yarns.
Often overlooked by visitors who prefer the more famous Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuaman is an ancient Incan fortress that is a 10-minute drive from the city centre. It was the setting for a battle between the Incas and the Spanish invaders, after which most of the structures were destroyed. Today, you can walk along the dry stone walls and observe the ancient ceremonial sites and the remains of temples. You will be amazed at the size of the site – which is just around 20 percent of what it originally was, and the massive stones that were used for its construction. It is truly amazing when you wonder how the Incas managed to fit these huge stones together without the availability of modern machinery.
Korikancha, the Temple of the Sun, once stood as the embodiment of Incan grandeur. Back in its day, the temple was lined with hundreds of gold sheets and light from them would reflect on its altars and statues. However, the gold was stripped down by the Spanish upon their arrival and only the Inca’s exquisite masonry and stonework were left. The Spanish then constructed the church of Santo Domingo atop this foundation and the structure today stands as the best example of a mix of Incan and Spanish architecture.
Often referred to as the gateway to the Machu Picchu, Cuzco also serves as an excellent base to explore this ancient Incan city and wonder of the world. Arguably the continent’s most visited site, Machu Picchu with its ruins and excellent surroundings is nothing short of an extraordinary experience. You can either take a train or trek all the way there by taking the famous Inca trail.
For those interested in learning more about Inca history and culture, Museo Inka housed in a 16th century Spanish Admiral’s House is the best place to visit. You will find more than 20 rooms filled with an impressive collection of artefacts dating from the Inca times to the Spanish era. Mummified bodies, textiles, ceramics, goldwork and jewellery, and 450 carved wooden cups called queros, are on display.
Museo Casa Concha is where you will find artefacts that were unearthed from Machu Picchu. These artefacts were originally on display at Yale University’s museums and were returned to Peru in 2011. You will find over 360 items from the site and interactive displays on Incan history, heritage and culture.
Astronomy played an important role in the culture of the Incas and the Cusco Planetarium, located near Sacsayhuaman is where you can learn more about this.
Apart from being a UNESCO listed heritage site and the former capital of the mighty Inca empire, Cusco is also the starting point to the phenomenal Machu Picchu. Packed with Inca and Spanish architecture, interesting historical landmarks and archaeological sites, Cusco is, in short, Peru in a package.
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