Andean Explorations – 17: Cusco the Inca capital

This post is part of my Peru travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery

Cusco (also spelled Cuzco, कुस्को) is the historic capital of the Inca Empire. At an altitude is around 3,300 m, many tourist companies start tours in Peru from Cusco because it provides a good preparation for Titicaca and Arequipa among other regions. Cusco is a beautiful city. However, being close to Machu Picchu, the primary reason for visiting Peru, Cusco is extremely touristic and expensive.

History: The Killke tribe occupied the region from 900 to 1200 A.D., prior to the arrival of the Incas in the 1200s. Archaeologists discovered, on March 13, 2008, the ruins of an ancient temple, roadway and irrigation systems at Sacsayhuaman, a famed fortress overlooking the Inca capital of Cuzco. This discovery was just before my visit and therefore was widely discussed.

Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire (1200s-1532). According to Inca legend, the city was built by Sapa Inca Pachacuti, the man who transformed the Kingdom of Cusco from a sleepy city-state into the vast empire of Tahuantinsuyu. The first Spaniards arrived in the city on November 15, 1533. Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro officially discovered Cusco on March 23, 1534, naming it the “Very noble and great city of Cusco”.

The original Inca city, said to have been founded in the 11th century, was sacked by Pizarro in 1535. The Spanish undertook the construction of a new city on the foundations of the old Inca city, replacing temples with churches and palaces with mansions for the conquerors. A major earthquake in 1950 badly destroyed the Dominican Priory and Church of Santo Domingo, which were built on top of the impressive Coricancha (Temple of the Sun). The city’s Inca architecture, however, withstood the earthquake. Many of the old Inca walls were thought to have been lost after the earthquake, but the granite walls of the Coricancha were exposed, as well as many walls throughout the city. While some wanted to restore the buildings to their colonial splendor, a contingent of Cusco citizens urged city officials to retain the exposed walls. Eventually they won out. More on Wikipedia

Tips: Everything is expensive in Cusco, even bottled water. If you want to buy Incan souvenirs, regardless of what travel agents say – do not buy from Cusco city. There are better and cheaper (if bargained heavily) products in the non touristic villages of Sacred Valley.

Nightlife is active in Cusco since it is invaded by tourists. Consequently, crime exists. However if common sense is applied, there shouldn’t be problems. For example – choosing a cab from known companies, not walking alone at night, not displaying fancy cameras or phones, keeping passports and money locked in your hotel, etc.

Cusco is also close to active adventures such as mountain biking, river rafting, abseiling (rappelling), rock climbing and many more. The rainforest is pretty close and many tour operators have 3-4 day packages.

All kinds of foods are available in Cusco, and if you are like me you will gratefully accept a break from potatoes! – Indian, Mediterranean, Japanese, African, Thai, to name a few. There are some excellent bakeries, fruit bars and coffee shops – all expensive ofcourse.

Information: All taxis in Cusco have a flat rate – S/. 3 ($ 1). The Terminal Terrestre (Bus Terminal) is about 10 minutes away from City center. By road, the city is well connected to Lima, Arequipa, etc but all routes pass thru Puno / Juliaca (which is where I came from!). The airport is at the edge of the city and is also well connected to Lima (which is what I did) and Arequipa.

Being a tourist city, all kinds of accommodations are available – From as low as S/. 15 ($ 5) to anything. There are lots of tour agencies around Plaza de Armas and some of them offer good packages if bargained well.

I would suggest using Cusco as your base for travels into the Sacred Valley. While tourist agencies offer day tours to various towns starting from S/. 60 ($ 20), the whole journey, infact a much better one can be done by using local transport for less tha S/. 10. The tradeoff is between comfortable buses with preplanned touristic destinations OR rickety local buses with the whole valley open to you 🙂

Some articles compared Cusco to Jerusalem, and indeed they identify each other as sister cities. Like Jerusalem, Cuzco was believed by the Incans to be the navel of the world. Today both cities have a strange mix of ancient and modern constructions, which is very interesting to watch.

People speak English fluently in the tourist areas, so communication is not a problem. But once you step out to the real (Peruvian) part, everything suddenly changes – language, prices, food, everything.

I was in Cusco for 3 nights and 2 days. The first day I relaxed in Cusco and the second day I explored the villages of Sacred Valley. This, btw, is inadequate time in Cusco (but you can always leave something for next visit! 😛 )

This post is part of my Peru travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery