Nestled in the rolling terrain of the Peruvian Andes, Cusco is a city overflowing with ancient Inca culture. Because of its intriguing past, visitors come from all over the world to explore the ruins of the once-powerful empire.
Although many simply pass through Cusco — which itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site — en route to Machu Picchu, the city isn’t only a springboard to Machu Picchu. It’s full of cobblestone charm in its own right, and is also home to ruins that date back more than 1,000 years.
- Nickname: The Imperial City
- Founded: 1100
- Official Language: Spanish
- Population: 435,000
- Architecture Style: Colonial
- Climate: Subtropical highland
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Cusco is its affiliation with the Inca Empire. But what may surprise you is that the area’s history actually begins centuries before the Incas, when the region was occupied by the Kilke culture (900 to 1200 A.D.). The Kilke people were similar to the Inca in their engineering of weapons and construction materials, highlighted by the Saksaywaman fortress just outside the city.
The Incas followed the Kilke’s reign, building structures that have stood the test of time throughout the Sacred Valley, with Cusco acting as the capital of the empire. But, like many modern South American cities, Cusco was overrun by the Spanish in the 1530s, shortly after the Inca Civil War.
Following the Spanish invasion, Cusco quickly became the epicenter of Christianity in the Andean region, and also reaching new heights in agriculture and trade. For centuries this continued, when, in 1821, Cusco declared its independence, returning to the governance of Peru. The Cusco the world has become familiar with today began in the early 20th century, when exploration of Inca ruins such as Machu Picchu began.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Cusco is home to the Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport, and because driving in Peru made difficult by the country’s rugged terrain, hopping on a plane from say, Lima, can be make the journey much easier.
Cusco is the most popular home base for exploring the Sacred Valley, so there is always an influx of visitors during the dry season between May and September. Yet, with the rise in Peruvian tourism in recent years (millions of annual visitors), you can expect crowds of decent sizes year round.
Cusco is home to plenty of hotels and hostels, and there are many Airbnb options as well. Many of the areas guided tours requiring booking months in advance, however, so the earlier you can book accommodation the better.
Your best option for getting around Cusco may be by taxi, as buses can be both tricky and time-consuming. Taxis are convenient, safe, and affordable, but make sure the car and driver are licensed before hopping in (there should be a sticker on the windshield)!
The city also offers the tranvía, an old streetcar that provides hop-on, hop-off tours. The tranvía leaves from Plaza de Armas throughout the day and charges a flat rate of $25 USD per day.
Cusco is on the smaller side in comparison to other cities, meaning that it’s traversable on foot, even with the ever-changing elevations. Walking the streets also allows you to experience the city at your own pace — just remember a water bottle and proper footwear!
Lastly, for those looking to access the Sacred Valley from Cusco, there is PeruRail, which takes passengers from the city to popular starting places like Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu.
WHAT TO DO
Without traveling to the Sacred Valley, visiting the site of Sacsayhuaman allows travelers to take in the staggering architectural feats of both the Kilke and Inca cultures. Sacsayhuaman is somewhat on the outskirts of the city and was used as a citadel, its sturdy structure resembling a fortress of sorts. While there, you’ll also be treated to views of the city and surrounding valley below.
Though the Inca temple was battered during the Spanish conquest and demolished following the siege, the stone-wall structures that you see today are still something to marvel at. Between the arduous masonry that went into constructing the walls and the cathedral built by the Spanish, Coricancha is a stunning lens through which you can learn about Cusco’s long and trivial history.
San Pedro Market
San Pedro Market is the perfect way to dive into the colorful Peruvian culture without having to leave the city. You’ll find local vendors of all sorts at the market — and lots of fresh produce too. The market is indoors, making it accessible no matter the weather, and it is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day!
Only a block from the Plaza de Armas, the Inca Museum displays an unparalleled collection of Andean history, with everything from stone carvings and textiles to ceramics and jewelry. The building itself is also intriguing, detailed with columns and archways that overlook the Plaza below. Visiting the Museum can be done between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., for just $10 (USD).
Header image by Nate Connella.