Cusco was the capital city of the magnificent Inca Empire, and the political, economic and cultural center of the Americas. With an empire stretching from the northern half of Chile and Argentina, all the way up to the southwestern corner of Colombia, the Inca Empire was the greatest civilisation in South America, and it built a capital to live up to its formidable reputation.
Today, Cusco is the home to some of the finest Inca architecture ever built. Even after the destruction of the city during the Spanish conquest, people are amazed by the engineering skills that created this city, and the resulting beauty.
Wherever you walk in Cusco, you will come across reminders of its fascinating past. From the remains of Inca palaces, that are now home to museums and restaurants, to the engraved and cut rocks that you will find throughout the area, it is impossible to not be impressed by the legacy the Incas left behind.
Cusco's history doesn’t just stem from the Inca period. For 500 years, the Spanish also left their mark on the city, and today you can see an interesting and eclectic mix of both Inca and Spanish colonial architecture and culture side by side. The most notable example is the Monastery of Saint Dominic (Santo Domingo), this was the Temple of the Sun during the Inca period, and was knocked down by the Spanish who built the Church of Santo Domingo. However, the original foundations still remain, as do some of the original temple buildings inside.
Today Cusco is a fascinating city to walk around. As well as encountering amazing architecture, visitors will also find numerous markets stocked with countless alpaca and artisan products, and delicious Peruvian cuisine, including coffee, chocolate and Pisco sours, Peru’s favourite cocktail!
Population: Approx. 400,000
Average altitude: 3,350 meters (10,000 ft.)
Distances: 1h 25m flight to/from Lima (20 hours by bus)
Cusco's Cathedral is quite a sight to behold. Built in the 1550's on the foundations of the Inca Wiracocha palace, it took over a century before it was completed. The Cathedral also showcases many interesting features, including an impressive main altar bedecked in gold, a variety of paintings and the famous crucifixión statue of Jesus.
Santo Domingo Monastery / Qoricancha
Qoricancha (The Golden Quarter) is one of Cusco's most interesting sites, and demonstrates Cusco’s interesting history with both Inca and Spanish elements still visible. It is said that when the Spanish first arrived to Cusco, Qoricancha was the first thing they saw, completely covered in gold it stood out above all else. Unfortunately the Spanish didn't leave anything intact and all the gold was stripped down and melted to be sent to Europe. However the foundations are still standing in good condition, and you can explore the impressive courtyard and inside of the church.
Sacsayhuaman was originally a fortress on the hillside overlooking Cusco, and thought to be one of the Inca’s most impressive structures. It was constructed from huge blocks of stone, some of which weigh well over 100 tonnes each. Sacsayhuaman was occupied by the Incas during the first Inca rebellion against the Spanish, and was used to dominate the area around Cusco. However once the Spanish defeated the rebellion, they destroyed the site so that it could no longer be used as a fortress. The remains of the ruins are still very extensive and impressive to explore. Sacsayhuaman also provides a beautiful view of Cusco and the surrounding mountains.
Close to Sacsayhuaman, is the smaller Inca ruins of Qenko. Qenko means the labyrinth, and is named for the zig-zagging channel cut through the rock. The exact purpose of the site is unknown, although it is believed it was used for ceremonial purposes. However, the Inca’s impressive architecture is still very much evident, as you wander through this maze of ruins.
Puca Pucara is a large site which means ‘Red Fortress’, named for the red granite used in the construction. However, unlike other ruins, the stones of Puca Pucara do not fit together exactly, suggesting it was built in a hurry. It was a checkpoint on the road to the Inca province of Antisuyo, and was also used as a military and administrative center.
Tambomachay was a water temple built around a natural spring. Water was regarded as sacred by the Incas, and they put great effort in to channelling water to where it was most needed. The Incas created two aqueducts from the natural spring, which continue to carry crystalline water today. There is even a legend that this spring water has never run dry. The huge double doorway that is the entrance to the site suggests it was a place of importance. It is thought to have been used as a relaxation and leisure center, and it also had military purposes because there was a watchtower that controlled the access to Cusco from the north.
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