The Sacred City
Located in the south-eastern part of the Andes, Cuzco is Peru's main tourist destination and one of the most important in the Americas. Known by the Incas as the "home of gods", Cuzco became the capital of one of the largest pre-Columbian empires: the Tawantinsuyo. Its name in Quechua, Qosqo means "Navel of the world", which derives from when the city served as a hub for a vast network of roads interconnecting virtually the whole of South America, from the southern part of present-day Colombia to the northern part of what is now Argentina.
Furthermore, Cuzco is also both a mestizo and colonial city, with splendid churches and manors built on foundations of elaborately carved stone. The local cuisine is also something for the traveller to look forward to, including superb combinations of typical Andean foods, such as corn, potatoes and chilli pepper, with pork and mutton introduced by the Spanish. With its vast landscapes, rich history and fascinating geography, Cuzco is, without a doubt, something all travellers long to experience.
Legend and History
Although it was settled centuries before the Incas arrived, it was only during the period of Inca control (1438-1532 AD) that the Huatanay River basin, upon which Cuzco is built, reached its peak as an administrative, religious and military centre. 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 popular myths, from the chronicles kept by the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega , that of a mythical couple, Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo, who emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca to found the city of Cuzco and teach its people how to cultivate the land. 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. Moreover, it is also said that the outline of the first city had the shape of a puma with a falcon's head.
When 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. Since then, Cuzco has become one of the most representative expressions of mestizo culture anywhere in the Americas.
The Cuzco region has two very distinct seasons. One of these is the rainy season, which runs from November to March with an average temperature of 12º Celsius. The dry season, which would be the recommended time to visit, is characterised by cold nights, sunny days and an average temperature of 9º Celsius. Due to the location of the city (3,250 masl), soroche, or altitude sickness, is something to be wary of. Rest and light food are recommended for the first day of your visit, and warm clothing is vital at night, as are sunscreen lotion and hats during the day.
Cuzco is easily accessible by air; commercial flights leave daily from Lima (55 minutes), Arequipa (30 min.) and Juliaca (30 min.). Access by road is also possible (1,050 km from Lima, 450 km from Arequipa).
The Main Square
Known in Inca times as Huacaypata, or "the warriors' square", this was the scene for many key events in Cuzco's history: it was here that the conquistador Francisco Pizarro declared Cuzco under Spanish occupation; it was also here that Túpac Amaru I, leader of the indigenous resistance movement, was killed. The Main Square also hosted to the spectacular Inti Raymi, or festival of the Sun. With the arrival of the Spanish the plaza was fringed by beautiful stone arches, which remain in place to this day. Across from the Main Square are the Cathedral and La Compañía church.
Built between 1560 and 1664 out of large slabs of red granite taken from the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman, the Cathedral is one of the most imposing structures in the city. Its façade built in Renaissance style, contrasts with the Baroque and silver of its lavish interior. It also houses important collections of gold and silver work of the colonial period, elaborately engraved wooden altars and a beautiful collection of oil on canvas paintings from the Escuela Cuzqueña. On either side of the slabs of red granite are two small auxiliary chapels. One of these, the Del Triunfo church, in fact Cuzco's first Cathedral, was built in 1539 on top of the palace of Inca Wiracocha.
La Compañía Church
Considered one of the finest examples of colonial Baroque architecture in the Americas, the construction of this church was begun by the Jesuits in 1576 on what was the Amarucancha, or palace of Inca Huayna Cápac. The spectacular façade made of carved stone and its great altar, elaborately covered in cedar and gold leaf and built on top of an underground chapel, are among its most notable features. The church also houses a large collection of sculptures and paintings by the most renowned artists from the Escuela Cuzqueña. The church is flanked by the Lourdes chapel and the ancient oratory of San Ignacio de Loyola.
La Merced Convent and Church
Built in the sixteenth century and rebuilt
Koricancha and the Convent of Santo Domingo
The convent was built on the spectacular Koricancha ("site of gold"), the most important temple dedicated to the worship of the Sun and whose walls were plated with sheets of gold. The convent was built on a foundation of smoothened stone structures -the most finely crafted in Cuzco- taken from the Inca sanctuary. The façade of the convent is an excellent example of Renaissance art and its distinctive spire, built in Baroque style, stands out over the thatched roofs of the Cuzco skyline. Like the two churches mentioned above, it houses an impressive collection of canvas paintings from the Escuela Cuzqueña.
San Blas Quarter
Also known as "the craftsmen's district", San Blas is one of the most picturesque parts of the city, with its long, inclined narrow streets that zigzag across old estates, which were built with Inca stones, and its tranquil squares. The church of San Blas, built in 1563, is the oldest parish church in Cuzco and has an impressive pulpit, considered to be the colonial period's most outstanding example of engraved wood. Furthermore this district, with one of the finest views of the city, is home to the workshops and stores of the most renowned craftsmen in Cuzco.
Hatun Rumiyoc Street
This is perhaps the best-known street in the city. One of its cut-stone walls, (which at present forms part of the Palace of the Archbishop) features the famous 12-cornered stone, which was once part of the ancient palace of Inca Roca, one of the rulers of Tawantinsuyo or Inca´s Empire. This lively street is a gateway to the picturesque San Blas quarter.
An imposing example of Inca military architecture, the fortress of Sacsayhuaman was built using large slabs of granite to safeguard the city from attack by Antis, or invading forces from the East. Sacsayhuaman ("satisfied falcon" in Quechua) is made up of three large terraces, which overlap in a zigzag formation surrounded by enormous stone ramparts of up to 300 meters in length. Its elevation and proximity to Cuzco, as well as the dimensions of the stones -up to 5 meters high and weighing up to 350 tons- made Sacsayhuaman a quarry for certain structures in colonial Cuzco.
Also known as the "Baños del Inca" or the Inca baths, Tampumachay was apparently a site dedicated to the worship of water and a resting-place for the Inca monarch. Among its most notable features are its system of aqueducts, canals and cascades carved in stone, designed to channel water flowing from a nearby spring. According to experts, Tampumachay was also a kind of royal garden, abounding in ornamental vegetation and fed by an intricate network of canals.
Kenko and Puca Pucara
Kenko is a ritual site built on a sole outcrop of limestone, with underground galleries and a semicircular amphitheatre. Puca Pucara (in Quechua, "red fortress"), was a military installation made up of stairways, terraces and large walls which once formed part of the capital's defence system. Both structures are part of the archaeological circuit near the city of Cuzco.
Just an hour's drive from Cuzco, the Urubamba Valley, or Sacred Valley of the Incas, is a setting of picturesque communities, impressive terraces and many important archaeological sites. Dominated by the imposing peaks of the Vilcanota mountain range, the valley has been the storehouse for agricultural products for the city of Cuzco since Inca times, and today is famous for being home to maize cobs with the largest kernels in the world. The valley includes the area between the Inca communities of Písac and Ollantaytambo. Its mild weather and particular geography make it ideal for outdoor sports enthusiasts to practice rafting, mountain bike-riding, hang-gliding and trekking.
Písac lies 33 kilometres from the city of Cuzco by a
paved road, and has an old quarter, an archaeological site considered one
of the most important in Cuzco, and a modern quarter, dating from the
colonial period. It also has a Sunday market, which attracts thousands of
visitors and people from remote communities, dressed in colourful,
traditional attire. Every Sunday there is the procession of the varayocs,
or mayors, who, at around 9:30 am, go to church to attend the traditional
Mass held in Quechua.
This community is located 28 km from Cuzco on the paved road to Urubamba. Here lie the remains of what was the royal hacienda of Túpac Inca Yupanqui, as well as a beautiful colonial temple built on Inca foundations. Its main attraction, however, is its Sunday market, which was originally dedicated to the barter of products by the people of the valley and the upper areas. Nowadays, the market is a real hub of activity, vibrant with colour and movement which fascinates tourists with its range of handicrafts and textiles made in true pre-Columbian style.
A typical Inca community located 21 km from Urubamba at 2,800 masl, named in honour of the chief Ollanta, who was famous for courting an Inca princess, daughter of Pachacútec. One of its best-preserved areas, known as Hanan Huacaypata lies north of the main square and contains 15 estates built with elegantly crafted stone walls. Ollantaytambo also features an extensive archaeological site located on the imposing hillside overlooking the town, containing structures such as the Temple of the Sun, and the Mañacaray or Royal Hall, the Incahuatana and the Baños de la Princesa. It also has hotels, restaurants and horses and mountain bikes for hire. A branch road leading from Ollantaytambo to the Málaga mountain pass (4,200 masl), goes through towns such as picturesque Huílloc, home to the renowned wayruros (porters).
This picturesque set of terraces, long stairways and
stone canals is located 20 km south of the city. Evidence suggests that
Tipon was part of a royal hacienda belonging to Inca Yahuar Huaca, as
well as a place of worship and agricultural research. An outstanding is
the sense of harmony in the channeling of water via stone structures including
aqueducts (some of which are underground), waterfalls and gullies, indicating
the Incas' knowledge of hydraulics.
Moray (3,500 masl) lies just 7 km away from Maras, although the road to it is not always in good condition. This community is famous for its embedded amphitheatre, formed by four circular terraces which seem to disappear into the interior of the puna, like an artificial crater. Evidence seems to suggest that Moray was an important centre of Inca agricultural research on crops, which was carried out on different sized plots located at various altitudes (some of which were at more than 100 m underground). The Andean terraces, built on retaining walls filled with fertile soil and watered via a complex irrigation system, offer up more than 250 different types of vegetables and cereals, such as corn, quinoa and kiwicha.
San Pedro de Andahuaylillas
One of the most beautiful colonial towns in the region has a picturesque main square with leafy pisonay trees hanging overhead, which is surrounded by old estates. Its main attraction is its distinctive church, San Pedro de Andahuaylillas, which was built in the seventeenth century and is considered to be a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Its interior, elaborately decorated with paintings, is simply breathtaking. It also houses oil on canvas paintings from the Escuela Cuzqueña and Baroque altars made of carved
Maras is a small community 40 kilometres from the city of Cuzco, on a turnoff from the road to the town of Urubamba. Its main attraction, apart from its church, that dates from the colonial period, are the salt mines located near the town which captivate sightseers and, in particular, photographers. Salt is extracted from mines, which have been in use since pre-Columbian times. The extraction method employed involves using an ancient drying process, whereby salt-water, flowing from an underground stream, is left in the sun in thousands of wells until it has evaporated, leaving behind only the salt, which is then ready to be sold or exchanged for provisions. During the summer months (April - October) the shimmering spectacle offered by the pools is incomparable