Cusco is the mythical capital of the Inca Empire, which evokes the greatness of the “son of Sun”. It is a city packed full of historical monuments, relics, folklore, and legends, which come to life every time you walk through its ancient streets.
Cusco is located at 3400 meters above sea level (11200 feet) in the Huatanay Valley.
Today, Cusco, the Archeological hub of Peru and the Americas, is a city open to the world, warmly welcoming its many visitors with the sublime combination of ancient Incan architecture with traces of Spanish influence. Its irresistible charm and many surprises make everyone who visits fall in love with Cusco; abundant with comfortable hotels, brilliant restaurants, and a vast offering of handy crafts.
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According to legend, in the 12th century, the first Inca (king), Manco Capac, was ordered by the ancestral sun god "Inti" to find the spot where he could plunge a golden rod into the ground until it disappeared. At this spot deemed the navel of the earth (Qosqo in the Quechua language) - he founded Cusco, the city that would become the thriving capital of the Americas' greatest empire.
The Inca Empire’s main expansion occurred in the hundred years prior to the arrival of the conquistadors in 1532. The ninth Inca, Pachacutec, gave the empire its first bloody taste of conquest, with an unexpected victory against the more dominant Chanka tribe in 1438. This was the first wave of expansion that would create the Inca Empire.
Pachacutec also proved himself a sophisticated urban developer, devising Cusco's famous puma shape and diverting rivers to cross the city. He built fine buildings, including the famous Qorikancha temple and a palace on the present Plaza de Armas. Among the monuments, he built in honor of Inca victories are Sacsayhuaman, the temple-fortress at Ollantaytambo, and likely oven Machu Picchu.
Expansion continued for generations until Europeans discovered the New World. At that point, the empire fanged from Quito, Ecuador, to the south of Santiago in Chile. Shortly before the arrival of the Europeans, Huayna Cápac had divided his empire, giving the northern part to Atahualpa and the Southern Cusco area to another son, Huascar. The brothers fought bitterly for the kingdom. As a pure-blooded native cusqueño (inhabitant of Cusco), Huascar had the people's support, but Atahualpa had the backing of the battle-hardened northern army. In early 1532 they won a key battle, capturing Atahualpa to Huascar outside Cusco.
Meanwhile, Francisco Pizarro landed in northern Peru and marched southward. Atahualpa himself had been too busy fighting the civil war to worry about a small band of foreigners, but by 1532 a fateful meeting had been arranged with the Spaniard in Cajamarca. It would radically change the course of South American history: Atahualpa was ambushed by a few dozen armed conquistadors, who succeeded in capturing him, killing thousands of indigenous tribespeople and routing tens of thousands more.
In an attempt to regain his freedom, the Inca offered a ransom of a roomful of gold and two rooms of silver, including gold stripped from the temple walls of Qorikancha. But after holding Atahualpa prisoner for a number of months, Pizarro murdered him anyway, and soon marched on to Cusco. Mounted on horseback, protected by armor and swinging steel swords, the Spanish cavalry was virtually unstoppable.
Pizarro entered Cuzco on November 8, 1533, by which time he had appointed Manco, a half-brother of Huascar and Atahualpa, as the new puppet leader. After a few years of toeing the line, however, the docile puppet rebelled. In 1536, Manco Inca set out to drive the Spaniards from his empire, laying siege to Cusco with an army estimated at well over a hundred thousand people. A desperate last-ditch breakout and violent battle at Sacsaywaman saved the Spanish from complete annihilation.
Manco Inca was forced to retreat to Ollantaytambo and then into the jungle at Vilcabamba. After Cusco was safely recaptured, looted, and settled, the seafaring Spaniards turned their attention to the newly founded colonial capital, Lima. Cuzco's importance quickly wanted to that of another colonial backwater. All the gold and silver were gone, and many Inca buildings were pulled down to accommodate churches and colonial houses.
The Spanish redacted chronicles about Cusco, including Inca history as related by the Incas themselves. The most famous of these accounts is "The Royal Commentaries of the Incas", written by Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of an Inca princess and a Spanish military captain.
While the city is sprawling, areas of interest to visitors are generally within walking distance, with some steep hills in between. The center of the city is the Plaza de Armas, while traffic-choked Av El Sol nearby is the main business thoroughfare. Walking just a few blocks north or east of the plaza will load you onto steep, twisting cobblestone streets, little changed for centuries. The flatter areas to the south and west are the commercial center.
The alley heading away from the North West side of Plaza de Armas is called "Procuradores" (Tax Collectors), nicknamed 'Gringo Alley' for its tourist restaurants, tour agents, and other services. Watch out for predatory touts. Beside the hulking cathedral on the Plaza de Armas, narrow Calle Triunfo leads steeply uphill toward Plaza San Blas, the heart of Cusco's eclectic, artistic barrio (neighborhood).
A resurgence of indigenous pride means many streets have been signposted with new Quechua names, although they are still commonly referred to by their Spanish names. The most prominent example is Calle Triunfo, which is signposted as Sunturwasi.
At tourist sites, freelance guides speak some English or other foreign languages. For more extensive tours of all major sites, such as Qorikancha or the cathedral, always agree to a fair price in advance. Otherwise, a respectable minimum tip for a short tour is S5 per person in a small group and a little more for individuals.
Opening hours are erratic and can change for any reason on Catholic feast days to, the caretaker can slip off for a beer with his mates. A good time to visit Cusco's well-preserved colonial churches is in the early morning (from 6 am to 8 am) when they are open for Mass. Officially, they are closed for tourists at these times, but if you go in o quietly and respectfully as a member of the congregation you can see the church as it should. Flash photography is not allowed inside churches or museums.
ln Inca times, the plaza, called Huacaypata or Aucaypata, was the heart of the capital. Today it's the nerve center of the modern city. Two flags usually fly here the red and white Peruvian flag and the rainbow-colored flag of Tahuantinsuyo.
Built upon the east side of the current Plaza de Armas, over the remains palace of Huayna Capac, the last Inca to rule an undivided, unconquered empire, the church was built by the Jesuits in 1571 and reconstructed after the 1650 earthquake. Two large canvases near the main door show early marriages in Cusco in wonderful period detail. Local student guides are available to show you around the church, as well as the grand view from the choir on the 2nd floor, reached via rickety steps. The entrance cost is 15 Soles and the tips are gratefully accepted.
The Jesuits planned to make it the most magnificent of Cusco's churches. The archbishop of Cusco, however, complained that its splendor should not rival that of the cathedral, and the squabble grew to a point where Pope Paul III was called upon to arbitrate. His decision was in favor of the cathedral, but by the time word had reached Cusco, La Compañia de Jesus was just about finished, complete with an incredible baroque facade and Peru's biggest altar, all crowned by a soaring dome.
The wafting aromas of bubbling chocolate will mesmerize you from the start. While the museum is frankly lite, the best part of this French-owned enterprise is the organic chocolate-making workshops (S70 per person for the cocoa workshops). You can also come for fondue or a fresh cup of fair-trade hot cocoa, Chocomuseo organizes chocolate farm tours close to Santa Maria town, located in Cusco Jungle eyebrow, and It's multilingual and kid-friendly.
Inside a Spanish colonial mansion with an Inca ceremonial courtyard, this dramatically curated pre-Columbian art museum showcases a stunningly varied, if selectively small, collection of archaeological artifacts previously buried in the vast storerooms of Lima's Museo Larco. Dating from between 1250 BC and AD 1532, tile artifacts show off the artistic and cultural achievements of many of Peru's ancient cultures, with exhibits labeled in Spanish, English, and French.
Highlights include the Nazca and Moche galleries of multicolored ceramics, queros (ceremonial Inca wooden drinking vessels), and dazzling displays of jewelry made with intricate gold- and silver work.
The charmingly modest Museo Inka, a steep block northeast of the Plaza de Armas, is the best museum in town for those interested in the Incas. The restored interior is jam-packed with a fine collection of metal and gold work, jewelry pottery, textiles, mummies, models, and the world's largest collection of queros (ceremonial Inca wooden drinking vessels). There's excellent interpretive information in Spanish, and English-speaking guides are usually available for a small fee.
The museum building, which rests on Inca foundations, is also known as the Admiral´s House, after the first owner, Admiral Francisco Aldrete Maldonado. This building was badly damaged in the 1650 earthquake and rebuilt by Pedro Peralta de Los Ríos, the count of Laguna, whose crest is above the porch. Further damage from the 1950 earthquake has now been fully repaired, restoring the building to its position among Cusco's finest colonial houses. Look for the massive stairway guarded by sculptures of mythical creatures, and the corner window column that from the inside looks like a statue of a bearded man but from the outside appears to be a naked woman. The ceilings are ornate, and the Windows give good views straight out; across the Plaza de Armas.
Downstairs in the sunny courtyard, highland Andean weavers demonstrate their craft and sell traditional textiles directly to the public.
The university-run natural history museum houses a somewhat motley collection of stuffed local animals and birds and over 150 snakes from the Amazon. The entrance is hidden off the Plaza de Armas, to the ring of Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús.
This convent houses many colonial paintings of the Escuela Cusqueña (Cusco school), as well as an impressive collection of vestments and another intricate embroidery. The baroque side chapel features dramatic friezes, and many Life-sized (and sometimes startling) models of nuns praying, sewing, and going about their lives, the convent also houses 13 real, live contemplative nuns.
Cusco's third most important colonial church, La Merced was destroyed in the 1650 earthquake but was quickly rebuilt. To the left of the church, at the back of a small courtyard, is the entrance to the monastery and museum. Paintings based on the life of San Pedro Nolasco, who founded the order of La Merced in Barcelona in 1218, hang on the walls of the beautiful colonial cloister.
The church on the far side of the cloister contains the tombs of two of the most famous conquistadors: Diego de Almagro and Gonzalo Pizarro (brother of Francisco). Also on the far side of the cloister is a small religious museum that houses vestments rumored to have belonged to conquistador and Friar Vicente de Valverde. The museum's most famous possession is a priceless solid-gold monstrance, 1.2m high and covered with rubies, emeralds, and no fewer than 1500 diamonds and 600 pearls. Ask to see if the display room is locked.
A wonderful little museum that, traces the uses of the coca leaf, from sacred rituals: to its more insidious incarnations. Exhibits are labeled in both English and Spanish. Tips are suggested for guided visits. A good primer on Andean culture.
This new museum exhibits 360 pieces from Machu Picchu returned by Yale University, including lithic and metals, ceramics, and bones. Signs are in English and Spanish. Casa Concha is a beautifully restored colonial home that belonged to an aristocrat at the time of the conquest.
This eclectic museum is located in the colonial house of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the mansion of the Inca-Spanish chronicler who now lies buried in the cathedral. The chronologically arranged collection begins with arrowheads from the Preceramic Period and continues with ceramics and jewelry of the Wari, Pukara, and Inca cultures. Admission is with the General Tourist Ticket card only which is valid for 10 days and covers 16 other sites to visit.
There is also a Nazca mummy, a few Inca weavings, some small gold ornaments, and a strangely sinister scale model of the Plaza de Armas. A big, helpful chart in the courtyard outlines the timeline and characters of the famous Escuela Cusqueña.
The small collection of contemporary Andean art on display at this museum in the municipality building is really one for the fans. Museo Quijote has a much better collection, putting a representative range of Peru's contemporary artists on show, with interpretive information that puts art in context with history. Admission is with the General Tourist Ticket card only, which is valid for 10 days and covers 16 other sites.
More austere than many of Cuzco's other churches, Iglesia San Francisco dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and is one of the few that didn't need to be completely reconstructed after the 1650 earthquake. It has a large collection of colonial religious paintings and a beautifully carved cedar choir.
The attached museum houses supposedly the largest painting in South America, which measures 9m by 12m and shows the family tree of St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the order. Also of macabre interest are the two crypts, which are not totally underground. Inside are human bones, some of which have been tearfully arranged in designs meant to remind visitors of the transitory nature of life.
Originally it was the palace of Inca Roca, the foundations of this museum were converted into a grand colonial residence and later became the archbishop's palace. The beautiful mansion is now home to a religious-art collection notable for the accuracy of its period detail, and especially its insight into the intersection of indigenous peoples with the Spanish conquistadors.
There are also some impressive ceilings and colonial-style tile work that are not original, having been replaced during the 1940s.
Known as the artists' neighborhood, San Blas is nestled on a steep hillside next to the center. With classic architecture, its signature blue doors, and narrow passageways without cars, it has become a hip attraction full of restaurants, watering holes, and shops.
This simple adobe church is comparatively small, but you can't help but be awed by the baroque, gold-leaf principal altar. The exquisitely carved pulpit, made from a single tree trunk, has been called the finest example of colonial wood carving in the Americas.
Legend claims that its creator was an indigenous man who miraculously recovered from a deadly disease and subsequently dedicated his life to carving the pulpit for this church. Supposedly, his skull is nestled in the topmost part of the carving. But, in reality, no one is certain of the identity of either the skull or the woodcarver.
Winning entries in Cusco's annual Popular Art Competition are displayed in this engaging museum. This is where the artisans and artists of San Blas showcase their talents in styles ranging from high art to cheeky, offering a fascinating, humorous take on ordinary life amid the pomp and circumstance of a once grandiose culture. Admission is with the General Tourist Ticket card only, which is valid for 10 days and covers 16 other sites.
Small-scale ceramic models depict drunken en debauchery in the Picanteria (traditional local restaurant), torture in the dentist's chair, the carnage in the butcher shop, and even a cesarean section. There's also a display of photographs, many by renowned local photographer Martín Chambi, of Cusco from the 1900s to the 1950s, including striking images of the aftermath of the 1950 earthquake in familiar streets.
If you visit only one site in Cusco, make it these Inca ruins, which form the base of the colonial church and convent of Santo Domingo. Qorikancha was once the richest temple in the Inca empire; all that remains today is the masterful stonework.
In Inca times, Qorikancha (Quechua for 'Golden Courtyard') was literally covered with gold. The temple walls were lined with some 700 solid gold sheets, each weighing about 2kg. There were life-sized gold and silver replicas of corn, which were ceremonially 'planted' in agricultural rituals. Also reported were solid-gold treasures such as altars, llamas, and babies, as well as a replica of the sun, which was lost. However, within months of the arrival of the first conquistadors, this incredible wealth had all been looted and melted down.
Various other religious rites took place in the temple. It is said that the mummified bodies of several previous Incas (kings) were kept here, brought out into the sunlight each day, and offered food and drink, which was then ritually burnt. Qorikancha was also an observatory where high priests monitored celestial activities. Most of this is left to the imagination of the modern visitor, but the remaining stonework ranks with the finest Inca architecture in Peru. A curved, perfectly fitted 6m-high wall can be seen from both inside and outside the site. This wall has withstood all of the violent earthquakes that leveled most of Cusco's colonial buildings.
Once inside the site, the visitor enters a courtyard. The octagonal font in the middle was originally covered with 55kg of solid gold. Inca chambers lie to either side of the courtyard. The largest, to the right, was said to be temples to the moon and the stars and were covered with sheets of solid silver. The walls are perfectly tapered upward and, with their niches and doorways, are excellent examples of Inca trapezoidal architecture. The fitting of the individual blocks is so precise that in some places you can’t tell where one block ends and the next begins.
Opposite these chambers, on the other side of the courtyard, are smaller temples dedicated to thunder and the rainbow. Three holes have been carved through the walls of this section to the street outside, which scholars think were drains, either; where sacrificial chicha (fermented corn beer), blood, or, more mundanely, rainwater passed. Alternatively; they may have been speaking tubes connecting the inner temple with the outside. Another feature of this side of the complex is the floor in front of the chambers: it dates from Inca times and is carefully cobbled with pebbles.
The temple was built in the mid-15th century during the reign of the 10th Inca, Tupac Yupanqui. After the conquest, Francisco Pizarro gave it to his brother Juan, but he was not able to enjoy it for long - Juan died in the battle at Sacsaywaman in 1536. In his will, he bequeathed Qorikancha to the Dominicans, in whose possession it has remained ever since. Today's site is a bizarre combination of Inca and colonial architecture, topped with a roof of glass and metal.
The church of Santo Domingo is next door to Qoricancha. Less baroque and ornate than many of Cusco´s churches, it is notable for its charming paintings of archangels depicted as Andean children in jeans and – shirts. Opening hours are erratic.
There are sundry moth-bitten archaeological displays interpreting Inca and pre-Inca cultures at this small, mangy, underground archaeological museum, which is accessed off Av El Sol.
Admission is with the General Tourist Ticket card only, which is valid for 10 days and covers 16 other sites.
In a new location housed inside a bank, this privately owned museum of contemporary art houses a diverse, thoughtful collection of paintings and sculptures ranging from the folksy to the macabre. There's good interpretive information about 20th-century Peruvian art history, some of it translated into English.
Scores of outdoor outliers in Cusco offer trekking, rafting, and mountain-biking adventures, as well as mountaineering, horseback riding, and paragliding. Price wars can lead to bad feelings among locals, with underpaid guides and overcrowded vehicles. The cheaper tours are liable to be the most crowded, multilingual affairs. Due to tax exemptions for new agencies, the tour operators' outfits also regularly change names and offices, so ask other foreign tourists for the most recent recommendations.
The department of Cusco is a hiker’s paradise. Ecosystems range from rainforest to high alpine environments in these enormous mountain ranges. Trekkers may come upon isolated villages and ruins lost in the undergrowth. Since altitudes vary widely, it is essential to properly acclimatize before undertaking any trek.
Of course, most come to hike the famed Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Be aware that it's not the only 'Inca trail.' What savvy tourism officials and tour operators have christened the Inca Trail, it is just one of the dozens of footpaths that the Incas built to reach Machu Picchu, out of thousands that crisscrossed the Inca empire. Some of these overland routes are still being dug out of the jungle by archaeologists. Many more have been developed for tourism, and an ever-increasing number of trekkers are choosing them.
Closer to Cusco, imaginative operators have developed multiday Sacred Valley trekking itineraries that go well off the beaten track to little-visited villages and ruins.
Other recommended treks include Lares and Ausangate and, for archaeological sites, Choquequirao and Vilcabamba.
The best time to go trekking in the Andes or the Amazon is during the colder dry season between May and September. Make reservations for treks during high seasons several months in advance, and up to a year in advance for the Inca Trail. In the wettest months of January to March, trails have a tendency to tire into muddy paths, and views disappear under a blanket of clouds. Note that the Inca Trail is completely closed during the mantle of February for its animal cleanup. The high jungle Vilcabamba trek is not recommended outside June to August due to heavy rainfall. Temperatures can drop below freezing year-round on all the other, higher-altitude treks, and it occasionally rains even during the dry season.
Modern internal-framed backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, and stoves can all be rented in various places in Calle Plateros from around S21 to S45 per item per day. Cheek all equipment carefully before renting, as sonic is pretty shoddy, and most aren't modern or lightweight.
Also, take water-purification tablets or a purification system from home. Once you're trekking, there is usually nowhere to buy food, and the small villages where treks begin have very limited supplies, so shop in advance in Cusco. If you're on a guided trek, take a stash of each for tipping the guide and the arrieros (mule drivers). About US$12 per day per trekker is the minimum decent tip to a guide; a similar amount to divide between arrieros is appropriate.
Rafting isn't regulated in Peru - literally, anyone can start a rafting company. On top of this, aggressive bargaining has led to lax safety by many cheaper rafting operators. The degree of risk cannot be stressed enough: there are deaths every year. Rafting companies that take advance bookings online are generally more safety conscious (and more expensive) than those just operating out of storefronts in Cusco.
When choosing an outfitter, it's wise to ask about safety gear and guide training; ask about the quality of the equipment used (i.e how old are the flotation devices), and check other travelers' comments. Be wary of new agencies without a known track record.
In terms of locations, there are a number of rivers to choose from.
Rafting the Rio Urubamba through the Sacred Valley could offer the best rafting day trip in South America, but Cusco and all the villages along its course dispose of raw sewage in this river, making for a smelly and polluted trip. Seriously - close your mouth if you fall in. Despite its unsavory aspects, the Ollantaytambo to Chilca (class II lo III) section is surprisingly popular, offering 1 ½ hour of gentle rafting with only two rapids of note. Huarán and Huambutio to Pisac are other pollution-affected sections.
There are a variety of cleaner sections south of Cusco on the upper Urubamba. (Also known as the Vilcanota), including the popular Chuquicahuana run (class III to IV+; class V+ in the rainy season). Another less-frenetic section is the fun and scenic Cusipata to Quiquihana (mainly class II to III). In the rainy season, these two sections are often combined. Closer to Cusco, Pampa to Huambutio (class I to II) is a beautiful section, ideal for small children (three years and over) as an introduction to rafting.
Rio Santa Teresa offers spectacular rafting in the gorge between the towns of Santa Teresa and Santa Maria, and downstream as far as Quillabamba. One word of warning: the section from Cocalmayo Hot Springs to Santa Maria consists of almost nonstop class IV to V rapids in a deep, inaccessible canyon. It should only be run with highly reputable operators, such as local experts Cola de Mono. Be very aware, if considering a trip here that guiding this section safely is beyond the powers of inexperienced (cheaper) rafting guides. This is not the place to economize. It's not a bad idea to raft another section in the area with your chosen operator before even considering it.
Run from May to November, the Rio Apurimac offers three to 10-day trips through deep gorges and protected rainforest. Apurímac features exhilarating rapids (classes IV and V) and wild, remote scenery with deep gorges. Sightings of condors and even pumas have been recorded. Four-day trips are the most relaxed and avoid the busier campsites, although three-day trips are more commonly offered. Camping is on sandy beaches, which have become increasingly overused. Sand flics can be a nuisance. Make sure your outfitter cleans up the campsite and practices a leave-no-trace ethic.
An even wilder expedition, the 10- to 12-day trip along the demanding Rio Tambopata can only be run from May to October. The trip starts in the Andes, north of Lake Titicaca, and descends through the heart of the Parque Nacional Bahuaje-Sonene deep in the Amazon jungle. Just getting to the put-in from Cusco is a two-day drive. The lust days on the river are full of technically demanding rapids (classes III and IV) in wild Andean scenery, and the trip (missiles with a couple of gentle floating days in the rainforest. Tapirs, capybara, caiman, giant otters, and jaguars have all been seen by keen-eyed boaters.
Rivers further from Cuzco are days away from help in the event of illness or accident. It's essential to book a top-notch outfitter employing highly experienced rafting guides with first-aid certification and knowledge of swift-water rescue techniques.
Mountain-biking tours are a growing industry in Cusco, and the local terrain is superb. Rental bikes are of poor quality and it is most common to find rigid (single suspension) models, which can make for bone-chattering downhills. Good new or secondhand bikes are not easy to buy in Cusco either. If you're a serious mountain biker, consider bringing your own bike from home. Selling it in Cusco is eminently viable.
If you're an experienced rider, some awesome rides are quickly and easily accessible by public transportation. Take the Pisac bus (stash your bike on top) and ask to be let off at Abra de Ccorao. From here, you can turn right and make your way back to Cusco via a series of cart tracks and a single track; halfway down is a jump park constructed by local aficionados. This section has many variations and is known as "Eventually", whichever way you go, you'll end up in Cusco's southern suburbs, from where you can easily flag down a taxi to get you home.
If you head off the other side of the pass, to the left of the road, you'll find the fast-flowing single track through a narrow valley, which makes it difficult to get lost. It brings you out on the highway in Ccorao. From here, follow the road through a flat section then a series of bends. Just as the valley widens out, turn left past a farmhouse steeply downhill to your left and into a challenging single track through a narrow valley, including a hairy river crossing and some tricky, steep, rocky, loose descents at the end, reaching the village of Taray. From here it's a 10-minute ride along the river to Pisac, where you can catch a bus back to Cusco.
Many longer trips are possible, but a professionally qualified guide and a support vehicle are necessary. The partly paved road down from Abra Málaga to Santa María, though not at all technical, is a must for any cyclist. It is part of the Inca Jungle Trail, offered by many Cusco operators. Maras to Salinas is a great lifted mission. The Lares Valley offers a challenging single track, which can be accessed from Cusco on a long day. If heading to Manu in the Amazon Basin, you can break up the long bus journey by biking from Tres Cruces to La Unión – a beautiful, breathtaking downhill ride - or you could go all the way down by bike. The outfitters of Manu trips can arrange bicycle rental and guides. The descent to the Rio Apurímac makes a great burn, as does the Rio Apurimac journey to the Río Tambopata, which boasts a descent of 3500m in five hours. A few bikers attempt the 500km-plus trip all the way to Puerto Maldonado, a great hot and sweaty challenge.
Most agencies can arrange morning or afternoon riding. Alternatively, you can walk to Sacsaywaman, where many ranches are located, and negotiate your own terms. Choose carefully, however, as horses may be in a sorry state. Select agencies will offer multiday trips to the area around Limatambo, and there are some first-rate ranches with highly trained, high-stepping thoroughbred Peruvian Paso horses in Urubamba.
Serious birders should definitely do a Birdwatching activity in Cusco. One of the best birding trips is from Ollantaytambo to Santa Teresa or Quillabamba, over Abra Málaga. This provides a fine cross-section of habitats from 4600 meters to below 1000 meters. A good local field guide is The Birds of Machu Picchu, by Barry Walker.
'Iron Way' in Italian, this climb features a series of ladders, holds, and bridges built into a sheer rock face in a stunning Sacred Valley setting. There are a 300m vertical ascent, a heart-hammering hanging bridge, and a 100m rappel. A zipline is accessed by a 40-minute hike. Activities run for three to four hours. Includes transfers to Cusco or Urubamba, climbing, and lunch. First developed in the Italian Alps in WWII, it's a way for reasonably fit non-rock climbers to have some adrenaline-pumping fun. It was constructed and is operated by rock climbing and high-mountain professionals. Its newest addition is clear 'sky-lodge suites' which are essentially capsules bolted to sheer rock that you can sleep (or stay awake) in.
A terror for acrophores and a blast for kids and juvenile adults. Offerings include a paintball, a 10m climbing wall, a 122m bungee jump, and a bungee slingshot.
It's also possible to go paragliding from the mirador (lookout) of Racchi. The park is 11km outside Cusco on Poroy road. Its booking office is located in Santa Teresa 325, the historic center of Cusco.
Cusco and the surrounding highlands celebrate many lively fiestas and holidays. In addition to national holidays, the most crowded times are around local festivals, when you should book all accommodations well in advance.
(Lord of the Earthquakes) This procession on Monday before Easter dates to the earthquake of 1650.
Developed on May 2 or 3. At this time, a Crucifix Vigil is held on all hillsides with crosses atop them.
Less well-known than June's spectacular Inti Raymi are the more traditional Andean rites of this festival, which is held at the foot of Ausangate the Tuesday before Corpus Christi, in late May or early June.
Held on the ninth Thursday after Easter, Corpus Christi usually occurs in early June and features fantastic religious processions and celebrations in the cathedral.
Or commonly called the Festival of the Sun. Cusco's most important festival is held on June 24. It attracts tourists from all over Peru and the world, and the whole city celebrates in the streets. The festival culminates in a reenactment of the Inca winter solstice festival at Sacsaywaman. Despite its commercialization, it's still worth seeing the street dances and parades, as well as the pageantry at Sacsaywaman.
A crafts fair is held in the Plaza de Armas on December 24 (Christmas Eve).
Cusco has hundreds of hotels of all types, and some of the highest room rates in Peru. The peak season is between June and August, especially during the 10 days before Inti Raymi on June 24 and during Fiestas Patrias (Independence Days) on July 28 and 29. Book in advance for these dates.
Prices are market-driven and vary dramatically according to the season and demand. The rates quoted are for the high season.
Though the Plaza de Armas is the most central area, there are few bargains there. Accommodations along Av El Sol tend to be bland, expensive, and set up for hour groups. Hilly San Blas has the test views and is deservedly popular. There are also many options west of the Plaza de Armas around Plaza Regocijo, in the commercial area towards Mercado Central, and downhill from the center in the streets northeast of Av El Sol.
Many of Cuzco's guesthouses and hotels are located in charming colonial buildings with interior courtyards, which can echo resoundingly with noise from other guests or the street outside. Old stone buildings are notorious for having poor Wi-Fi connections often it can only be accessed in a lobby. Marry places that offer breakfast start serving as early as 5 am to accommodate those heading out on tour. For this reason, early check-ins and check-outs are the rules.
With advance notice, most midrange and top-end hotels will pick you up for free at the airport, the train station or the bus terminal.
Inquire about hot water for showers, which may be sporadic. It helps to avoid showering at peak times, and it's always worth telling reception if you're having trouble - they may simply need to flick a switch or hook up a new gas canister.
Hotels claim to offer 24-hour hot-water showers and midrange and above places generally include satellite TV. The top hotels all feature rooms with coats and telephones; exceptions are noted in the review. All top-end and some mid-range hotels have oxygen tanks available, at a price, for altitude sufferers.
Cusco's luxury hotels are usually booked solid during the high season. Reserving through a travel agency or via the hotel's website may result in better rates.
Cuzco's location, nearly dropping off the eastern edge of tile Andes, gives it access to an unbelievable range of crops from highland potatoes and quinoa to avocados, jungle fruit, and ají Picante (hot chili).
Most popular local restaurants are out-siding the historic center and focus on lunch; few open for dinner. Don't expect to encounter any language other than Spanish in these places, but the food is worth the effort Pampa de Castillo is the street near Qorikancha where local workers lunch on Cusco classics. Expect lots of Caldo de gallina (chicken in soup) and chicharrón (deep-fried pork) with corn, mint, and, of course, potato, in a range of restaurants.
For self-caterers, small, overpriced grocery shops are located near the Plaza de Armas, including Gato´s Market, located in Santa Catalina Ancha street 377, open from 9 am - 11 pm and Market, located in Mantas 119, open from 8 am - 11 pm.
The European pubs are good places to track down those all-important soccer matches, with satellite TVs more or less permanently tuned into international and national sports.
When you've had your fill of colonial religious art, investigate this pisco museum, where the wonders of the national drink are extolled, exalted and of course - sampled. Opened by an enthusiastic ex-pat, this museum bar offers Pisco 101, combined with a tapas lounge. Grab a spot early for show-stopping live music. It is open from 9 pm to 11 pm nightly.
Ambitions go far beyond the standard pisco sour to original cocktails like Valicha (pisco with jungle fruit kion, spearmint, and sour apple). Tapas, such as alpaca mini-burgers on sesame buns and tiradito - (a Japanese-influenced version of ceviche) marinated in cumin-chili, sate your hunger. Look for special tastings and master distiller classes announced on the Facebook page.
A wonderful, elegant bar with attentive bartenders and drinks that merit seconds. Check its Facebook page for events like live jazz, acoustic, and techno music.
This ultra-funky lounge re-defines kitsch with glitter balls, fake fur, and even bathtub-cum-aquarium tables complete with live goldfish. It isn't cheap.
The decor really is worth seeing and the occasional theme parties held here are legendary.
Run by a motorcycle enthusiast, this unassuming expat-style bar overlooks the Plaza de Armas. It's a boon for people-watching if you can get a balcony seat. Though known for delicious 200g burgers, it's also got TVs, darts, and billiards to help you work up a thirst. Avoid the burritos. Happy hour is 7 pm to 9 pm. It is located on the corner of Santa Catalina Angosta street and Plaza de Armas, on the second floor. From 07 pm to late.
This popular, funky shot bar walks the wild side. Order since a huge drink list; the cocktail-filled teapots are served with shot glasses. Amazing!
This cramped little Irish pub is packed with random memorabilia, TVs, a working train set, and homesick European travelers eating excellent-value hot sandwiches. Happy hours are from 7 pm to 8 pm and 10 pm to 10:30 pm.
Clubs open early but crank up a few notches after about 11 pm. Happy hour is ubiquitous and generally entails two-for-one on beer or certain mixed drinks.
In popular discos (beware the word 'nightclub' - it is often used in Peru to indicate a brothel), especially right on the Plaza de Armas, both sexes should beware of drinks being spiked. The tried-and-true stops on the big night out in Cuzco are discos Inka Team, Roots, and Ukuku's.
The most consistently popular nightspot in town, Ukuku's plays a winning combination of crowd pleasers - Latin and Western rock, reggae, and reggaetón (a blend of Puerto Rican bomba, dancehall, and hip-hop), salsa, hip-hop, etc - and often hosts live bands. Usually full to bursting after midnight with as many Peruvians as foreign tourists, it's good, sweaty, danceathon fun. Happy hour is 8 pm to 10:30 pm.
This organic-feel club with an underground dance floor is ever-popular with locals and laid-back travelers alike. It is located in Tecsecocha street and is open from 8 pm to late.
Has live nightly performances of Andean music and dance at 6:40 pm. Admission is with the General Tourist Ticket card only, which is valid for 10 days and covers 16 other sights and venues. It is located on El Sol Avenue. General Tourist Ticket cost 130 Soles per adult and 70 Soles per underage person and student (previously, show the ISIC International student card)
This convivial bar just off Plaza San Blas has a bit of everything. It serves good Thai food in the evening, and there's live music late every night - local musicians come here to jam after their regular gigs. Happy hour is 9 pm to midnight. It is located in Tandapata street 100, open Tuesday to Saturday from 11 am to late. Sundays and Mondays from 5:00 pm to late.
Known as a good place to start your night out, this restaurant lounge, a longtime Cusco hangout, has very cool staff and live music in the evenings. Food includes good vegetarian options. Triunfo street 338.
Though it may change names, this place usually has the most up-to-the-minute electronic music collection, with trance, house, and hip-hop mixed in with the mainstream.
There are chill-out sofas upstairs but this isn't the place for a chat. A good mix of locals and tourists hang out here. Happy hour is 9 pm to midnight. It is located in Portal de Carnes 298 and is open from 8 pm to late.
The party is always con at this crowded nightclub with a bouncy dance floor and tunes ranging from salsa to mainstream pop. Women are warned: the guys are not shy. It is located in Portal de Carnes 298. 2nd floor and is open from 8 pm to late.
A favorite with Israelis, Mama África is the classic backpackers' hangout, usually packed with people sprawled across cushions or swaying to rock and reggae rhythms. Happy hour is 8:30 pm to 11 pm. It is located in Portal de Harinas 191. 2nd floor and is open from 7 pm to late.
San Blas - the plaza itself, Cuesta San Blas, Carmen Alto, and Tandapata east of the plaza - offers Cusco's best shopping. It's the artisan quarter, packed with the workshops and showrooms of local craftspeople. Some offer the chance to watch artisans at work and sec the interiors of colonial buildings while hunting down that perfect souvenir. Prices and quality vary greatly, so shop around and expect to bargain, except in the most expensive stores, where prices are often fixed. Some of the best-known include Taller Olave (Plaza San Blas 651), which sells reproductions of colonial sculptures and pre-colonial ceramics. Taller Mendivil is nationally famous for its giraffe-necked religious figures and sun-shaped mirrors; it has outlets in San Blas (Cuesta de San Blas toward Plaza San Blas) and the city center (corner Hatunrumiyoc with Choquechaca street). Taller and Museo Mérida (Carmen Alto 133) offers striking earthenware statues that straddle the border between craft and art.
The same area is also home to an ever-evolving sprinkling of jewelry stores and quirky, one-off designer-closest stores – a refreshing reminder that the local aesthetic is not confined to stridently colored ponchos and sheepskin-rug depictions of Machu Picchu. These and another mass-produced tourist tat, from textiles to teapots, are sold from pretty much every hole-in-the-wall in the historic center, and at the vast Centro Artesanal Cusco, (corner El Sol Av with Tullumayo. From 9 am - 10 pm)
If you're the type who likes to get your souvenir shopping done fast, Aymi Wasi (Nueva Alta s/n) is for you. It's got everything - clothes, ornaments, toys, candles, jewelry, art, ceramics, handbags... Your friends and family will never suspect you bought all their gifts in one place! And it's all handmade and fair trade.
Cusco is not known for its clothes shopping, though there are a few cool stores hidden away in the Centro Comercial de Cusco (corner Ayacucho with San Andrés; 11 am-10 pm).
Tatoo (Calle del Medio 130; 9 am-9:30 pm) has brand-name outdoor clothing and technical gear at high prices. Many shops in Calle Plateros and Mercado El Molino have a good range of lower-quality, much cheaper gear.
This nonprofit organization, founded in 1996, promotes the survival of traditional weaving. You may be able to catch a shop-floor demonstration illustrating different weaving techniques in all their finger-twisting complexity. Products for sale are high-end.
For those who love textiles, there's a wonderful on-site museum (free). It is located on El Sol Avenue 603A, open from 7:30 am to 8:30 pm.
This weaving cooperative with quality goods is run by 12 mountain communities from Cusco and Apurimac; it's at the far end of the inner courtyard. There's also an online catalog. It is located inside of CBC, on Tullumayo Avenue 274, open from 9 am - 7 pm.
Cuzco's central market is a must-see. Pig heads for Caldo (soup), frogs (to enhance sexual performance), vats of fruit juice, roast lechón (suckling pig), and tamales (com cakes) are just a few of the foods on offer. Around the edges are typical clothes, spells, incense, and other random products to keep you entertained for hours. It is located on the square of the same name, Plazoleta de San Pedro.
Huanchac is the local destination of choice for breakfast the morning after, specializing in the two hangover Staples - jolting acid ceviche and greasy chicharrón (deep-fried pork). It is located on the corner of Garcilaso avenue and Huascar street.
Just beyond the terminal Terrestre (bus station), this market is Cusco's answer to the great department stores. It's a bargain hunter’s paradise for clothes, housewares, bulk food and alcohol, electrodomésticos (electronic goods), camping gear, and pirate! CDs and DVDs. It is located in "Ttio" Urbanization.
Many guesthouses, cafes, and pubs have book exchanges. The best source of historical and archaeological information about the city and the surrounding area is the pocket-sized Exploring Cusco by Peter Frost.
Novels and magazines in English and German. Located just inside the door of the Centro Commercial de Cusco. It is located on Mantas Street 113 and is open from Monday to Saturday, from 9 am - 2 pm.
Cusco's most extensive public book exchange (two used books, or one plus S8, will get you one book) plus used guidebooks, new titles, and music CDs for sale. It is located in Heladeros street and is open from Monday to Saturday, from 10 am to 2 pm.
The four ruins closest to Cuzco are Sacsaywamán, Q'enqo, Pukapukara, and Tambomachay. They can all be visited in a day far less if you're whisked through on a guided tour. If you only have time to visit one site, Sacsaywaman is the most important, and less than a 2kra trek uphill from the Plaza de Armas in central Cusco.
The cheapest way to visit the sites is to take a bus bound for Pisac and ask the driver to stop at Tambomachay, the furthest site from Cusco (at 3700m, it's also the highest). It's an 8km walk back to Cusco, visiting all four ruins along the way. Alternatively, a taxi will charge roughly S70 to visit all four sites.
Each site can only lie entered with the General Tourist Ticket. They're open daily from 7 am to 6 pm. Local guides hang around offering their services, sometimes quite persistently. Agree on a price before beginning any tour.
Robberies at these sites are uncommon but not unheard of. Cusco's tourist police recommend visiting between 9 am and 5 pm.
This immense ruin (Entrance ticket: Tourist Ticket. Adult/Student under 26 with ISIC card S130/70 respectively) of both religious and military significance is 2km from Cusco. The long Quechua name means 'Satisfied Falcon, though tourists will inevitably remember it by the mnemonic 'sexy woman.' Sacsaywamán feels huge but only about 20% of the original structure remains. Soon after the conquest, the Spaniards tore down many walls and used the blocks to build their own houses, leaving the largest and most impressive rocks, especially the main battlements.
In 1536 the fort was the site of one of the most bitter battles of the Spanish conquest. More than two years after Pizarro's entry into Cusco, the rebellious Manco Inca recaptured the lightly guarded Sacsaywamán and used it as a base to lay siege to the conquistadors in Cusco. Manco was on the brink of defeating the Spaniards when a desperate last-ditch attack by 50 Spanish cavalries led by Juan Pizarro, Francisco's brother, succeeded in retaking Sacsaywamán and putting an end to the rebellion. Manco Inca survived and retreated to the fortress of Ollantaytambo, but most of his forces were killed. Thousands of dead littered the site after the Incas' defeat, attracting swarms of carrion-eating Andean condors. The tragedy was memorialized by the inclusion of eight condors in Cusco´s coat of arms.
The site is composed of three different areas, the most striking being the magnificent three-tiered zigzag fortifications. One stone, incredibly, weighs more than 300 tons. It was the ninth Inca, Pachacutec, who envisioned Cusco in the shape of a puma, with Sacsaywamán as the head, and these 22 zigzagged walls as the teeth of the puma. The walls also formed an extremely effective defensive mechanism that forced attackers to expose their flanks.
The opposite is the hill called Rodadero, with retaining walls, polished rocks, and a finely carved series of stone benches known as the Inca's Throne. Three towers once stood above these walls. Only the foundations remain, but the 22m diameter of the largest, Muyuc Marca, gives an indication of how big they must have been. With its perfectly fitted stone conduits, this tower was probably used as a huge water tank for the garrison. Other buildings within the ramparts provided food and shelter for an estimated 5000 warriors. Most of these structures were torn down by the Spaniards and later inhabitants of Cusco.
Between the zigzag ramparts and the hill lies a large, flat parade ground that is used for the colorful tourist spectacle of Inti Raymi, held every June 24.
To walk up to the site from Cuzco's Plaza de Armas takes 30 to 50 minutes, so make sure you're acclimatized before attempting it Arriving at dawn will let you have the site almost to yourself, though solo travelers shouldn't come alone to this time of day.
Another option is to take a taxi tour which also includes Q'enkqo, Pukapukara, and Tambomachay (S70).
The General Tourist Ticket is valid for 10 days and covers 16 other sites.
The name of this small but fascinating ruin means 'zigzag.' A large limestone rock, it's riddled with niches, stops, and extraordinary symbolic carvings, including the zigzagging channels that probably gave the site its name. Scramble up to the top to find a flat surface used for ceremonies: look carefully to see laboriously etched representations of a puma, a condor, and a llama. Back below, you can explore a mysterious subterranean cave with altars hewn into the rock. Q'enqo is about 4km northeast of Cuzco, on the left of the road as you descend from Tambomachay.
Just across the main road from Tambomachay, this commanding structure looks down on the Cuzco valley. In some lights, the rock looks pink, and the name literally means 'Red Fort,' though it is more likely to have been a hunting lodge, a guard post, and a stopping point for travelers. It is composed of several lower residential chambers, storerooms, and an upper esplanade with panoramic views.
ln a sheltered spot about 300m from the main road, this site consists of a beautifully wrought ceremonial stone bath (dawndusk) channeling crystalline spring water through fountains that still function today. It is thus popularly known as El Baño del Inca (Bath of the Inca), and theories connect the site to an Inca water cult. It's 8km northeast of Cusco.