Cusco is the mythical capital of the Inca Empire, that evoking the greatness of the “Children of the Sun”. It is a city packed full of historical monuments, relics, folk lore 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 the 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. Al, this spot deemed the navel of the earth (qosq'o 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 unexpected s victory against the more dominant Chanka tribe in 1438. His 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 Sacsaywaman, 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 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 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 tribes people 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 al 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 attentions to the newly founded colonial capital, Lima. Cuzco's importance quickly waned to that of another colonial backwater. All the gold and silver was gone, and many Inca buildings were pulled down to accommodate churches and colonial houses.
The Spanish kept chronicles in 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 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 al major sites, c 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 from Catholic feast days to, the caretaker slipping off for a beer with his mates. A good time to visit Cusco's well-preserved colonial churches is in the early morning (from 6am to 8am), when they are open for Mass. Officially, they are closed M to 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 Ix; seen. Flash photography is not allowed inside churches or museums.
Plaza de Armas
(Map p200) 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.
Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús
(Map p200; Plaza de Armas; admission S15; built upon the palace of Huayna Capac, the last Inca to rule an undivided, unconquered empire, the church was builtbytheJesuits 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 yon around the church, as well as the grand view from the choir on the 2nd floor, reached via rickety steps. 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 lo arbitrate. His decision was in favor of the cathedral, but by the time word had reached Cusco, La Campania 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-marking workshops (S70 per person). You can also come for fondue or a fresh cup of fair-trade hol cocoa, It organizes chocolate farm tours close to Santa Maria, It's multilingual and kid-friendly.
Museo de Arte Precolombino
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. It 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 tile building lo 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.
Museo de Historia Natural
The university-run natural his-tory museum houses a somewhat motley collection of stuffed local animals and brids and over 150 snakes from the Amazón. The entrance is hidden off the Plaza de Armas, to the ring of Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús.
Iglesia y Monasterio de Santa Catalina.
This convent houses many colonial paintings of the escuela cusqueña (Cusco school), as well as an impressive collection of vestments and other 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.
Templo y Convento de la Merced
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 it if the display room is locked.
Museo de la Coca
A wonderful little museum that, traces the uses of the coca leaf, from sacred ritual: 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.
Museo Machu Picchu
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 beautiful restored colonial home which belonged to an aristocrat at the time of the conquest.
Museo Histórico Regional
This eclectic museum is housel in the colonial Casa Garcilaso de la Vega, the house 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 boleto touristic tourist card only which is valid for 10 days and covers 16 other sites.
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 escuela cusqueña.
Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo
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 Perús contemporary artists on show, with interpretive information that puts art in context with history. Admission is with the boleto turístico tourist card only, which is valid for 10 days and covers 16 other sites.
Iglesia San Francisco
More austere than many of Cuzco's other churches, Iglesia San Francisco dates from the 16 th 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.
Museo de Arte Religioso
Originally 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's 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 classie architecture, its signature blue doors and narrow passageways without cars, it has become a hip attraction full of restaurant, watering holes and shops.
Iglesia de San Blas
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 in reality, no one is certain of the identity of either the skull or the woodcarver.
Avenida El Sol & Downhill
Museo de Arte Popular
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 boleto touristic tourist card only, which is valid for 10 days and covers 16 other sites.
Small-scale ceramic models depict drunken en debauchery in the picanteria (local restaurant), torture in the dentist's chair, carnage in the butcher shop, and even a caesarean 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.
Qorikancha - RUIN
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. But within months of the arrival of the first conquistadors, this incredible wealth had all been looted and meted 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, were 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. o Three holes have been carved through the walls of this section to the street outside, which scholars think were drains, either 5; for sacrificial chicha (fermented corn beer), p blood or, more mundanely, rainwater. Alter natively; 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.
Iglesia de Santo Domingo – Church
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.
Museo del Sitio de Qoricancha
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 boleto touristic tourist card only, which is valid for 10 days and covers 16 other sites.
Museo Quijote - MUSEUM
In a new location housed inside a bank, this privately owned museum of contemporary art houses a diverse, thoughtful collection of painting and sculpture 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, cheaper outfits also regularly change names and offices, so ask other foreign tourists for the most recent recommendations.
No company can ever be 100% recommended, but those we list are reputable outfits that have received mostly positive feedback from readers.
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 Picehu. Be aware that it's not the only 'Inca trail.' What savvy tourism officials and tour operators have christened the Inca. Trail is just one of dozens of foot-paths 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.
For more detailed hiking information, purchase an Alternative Inca Trails Information Packet from South American Explorers (p232). 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, Choquequirau 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 tiring into muddy slogs, 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 occasion-ally 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 isn'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 cheek other traveler comments. Be wary of new agencies without a known track record.
The rafting companies we list have the best reputations for safety.
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 the river, making for a smelly and polluted trip. Seriously - close your mouth if you fall in. Despite its unsavory aspects, the Ollanlaytambo to Chilca (class II lo III) section is surprisingly popular, offering 1 ½ hours 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 Cuzco, 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 (p264). 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 camp-site 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 get-ting 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 poor quality and it is most common to find rigida (single suspension) models, which can make for bone-chattering downhills. Good new or secondhand bikes are not easy to buy in Cuzco 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 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 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 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 challenging single track, which can be accessed from Cuzco in 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 a morning or afternoo´s riding. Alternatively, you can walk to Sacsaywamán, 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 get a hold of Birds of the High Andes, by .Ion Fjeldsá and Neils Krabbe. 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 4600rn to below 1000m. A good local field guide is The Birds of Machu Picchu, by Barry Walker.
Sacred Valley Ferrata & Zipline
'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's a 300m vertical ascent, a heart-hammering hanging bridge and a 100m rappel. A zipline is accessed by a 40-minute hike. Activities run 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 are clear 'sky-lodge suites' which are essentially capsules bolted to sheer rock that you can sleep (or stay awake) in.
A terror for acrophobes and a blast for kids and juvenile adults. Offerings include paintball (S77), a 10m climbing wall (S34), a 122m bungee jump (N253) and a bungee slingshot (S219).
It's also possible lo go paragliding (S216) from the mirador (lookout) of Racchi. The park is 11km outside Cusco on Poroy road. Its booking office (Map p200; Santa Teresa 325) is in Cusco.
Festivals & Events
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 inb advance.
El Señor de los Temblores
(Lord of the Earthquakes) This procession on the Monday before Easter dates to the earth-quake of 1650.
(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.
(Festival of the Sun) Cuzco'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 Sacsaywamán. Despite its commercialization, it's still worth seeing the street dances and parades, as well as the pageantry at Sacsaywamán.
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. 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. Rates quoted are for 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 the 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 5am to accommodate those heading out on tour. For this reason, early check-ins and check-outs are the rule.
With advance notice, most midrange and top-end places 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 beating and telephone; exceptions are noted in the re-view. All top-end and some midrange hotels have oxygen tanks available, at a price, for altitude sufferers.
Cusco's luxury hotels are usually booked solid during 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 en 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 (Map p200; Santa Catalina Ancha 377, 9am-
11pm) and Market (Map p200; Mantas 119; 8am-11pm). For a more serious stock-up head to supermarket (Map p208; enr Matará & Ayacucho; 10am-8pm Mon-Sat, to 6pm Sun).
Drinking & Nightlife
The European pubs are good places to track down those all-important soccer matches, with satellite TVs more or less permanently tuned into sports.
Museo del Pisco
(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 expat, this museum bar is Pisco 101, combined with a tapas lounge. Grab a spot early for show-stopping live music (9pm to 11pm 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.
(Map p200; cnr Santa Catalina Angosta & Plaza de Armas, 2ndfl; 07am-late) 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 7pm to 9pm.
This popular, funky shot bar walks the wild side. Order from a huge drink list; the cocktail-filled teapots are served with shot glasses.
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 7pm to 8pm and 10pm to 10:30pm.
Clubs open early, but crank up a few notches after about 11pm. Happy hour is ubiquitous and generally entails two-for-one on beer or certain mixed drinks.
In popular discotecas (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 discotecas 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 reggatón (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, dance-a-thon fun. Happy hour is 8pm to 10:30pm.
(Tecsecocha s/n;8pm-late) This organic-feel club with an underground dance floor is ever-popular with locals and laid-back travelers alike.
Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativa
(Av El Sol 604; adult/ student under 26 with ISIC card S130/70) Has live nightly performances of Andean music and dance at 6:4ñpm. Admission is with the boleto turístico tourist card only, which is valid for 10 days and covers 16 other sights and venues.
(Tandapata 100; 11am-late Tue-Sat, 5pm-tate Sun & Mon) This convivial bar just ol'f 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 9pm to midnight.
(Triunfo 338, 2nd fi, W) Known as a good place to start your night out, this restaurant-lounge, a longtime Cuzco hangout, has very cool staff and live music in the evenings. Food c includes good vegetarian options.
(Portal de Carnes 298; 8pm-late) 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 mainstream.
There are chill-out sofas upstairs but this isn't the place for chat. A good mix of locals and tourists hang out here. Happy hour is 9pm to midnight.
(Portal de Carnes 298, 2nd fl; 8pm-late) The party is always con at this crowded nightclub with a bouncy dance floor and tunes ranging from salsa to mainstream pop. Women be warned: the guys are not shy.
(Portal Harinas 191, 2nd fl; -7pm-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 8:30pm to 11pm.
San Blas - the plaza itself, Cuesta San Blas, Carmen Alto, and Tandapata east of the plaza - offers Cuzco's best shopping. It's the artisan quarter, paeked with the workshops and showrooms of local craftspeople. Some offer the chance to wach 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 (Map p200; W 084-23-1835; 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 (Map p200; Cuesta de San Blas, Plaza San Blas) and the city center(Map p200; M 084-23-3247; cnr Hatunrumiyoc & Choquechaca). Taller and Museo Mérida (Map p200; 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-clottiest stores – a refreshing reminder that the local aesthetic is not confined to stridently colored ponchos and sheepskin-rug depictions of Machu Picchu. These and other 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, (Map p208; cnr Avs El Sol & Tullumayo; 9arn-10pm).
If you're the type who likes to get your souvenir shopping done fast, Aymi Wasi (Map p200; Nueva Alta s/n) is for yon. 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-shop-ping, though there are a few cool stores hidden away in the Centro Comercial de Cusco (Map p200; cnr Ayacucho & San Andrés; 11am-10pm).
Tatoo (Map p200; 0084-25-4211; Calle del Medio 130; 9am-9:30pm) 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.
Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco
(Map p208; Av El Sol 603A; 7;30am-8:30pm) 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 muscum (free).
(Map p200; 084-26-0942; inside CBC, Tullumayo 274; 9am-7pm) 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.
Mercado San Pedro
(Map p208; Plazoleta San Pedro) 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.
Mercado Modelo de Huanchac
(Map p208; cnr Avs Garcilaso & Huáscar) 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).
(Urbanización Ttio) Just beyond the terminal terrestre (bus station), this market is Cuzco's answer to the department store. It's a bargain hunter’s paradise for clothes, housewares, bulk food and alcohol, electrodomésticos (electronic goods), camping gear, and pirate! CDs and DVDs.
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.
(Map p200; Mantas 113; 9am-2pm & 4-9pm Mon-Sat) Novels and magazines in English and German. Located just inside the door of the Centro Commercial de Cusco.
(Map p200; Heladeros 143; 10am-2pm & 4-8pm Mon-Sat) 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.
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, Sacsaywamán 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 boleto turístico (p205). They're open daily from 7am lo 6pm. 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 9am and 5pm.
This immense ruin (Map p200; boleto turístico adult/student under 26 with ISIC card S130/70) 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 cavalry led by Juan Pizarro, Francisco's brother, succceded 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 o after the Incas' defeat, attracting swarms of carrion - eating Andean condors. The tragedy was memorialzed by the inclusion of eight condors m 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.
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 the.se 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 at this time of day.
Another option is to take a taxi tour which also includes Q'enkqo, Pukapukara and Tambomachay (S70).
The boleto turístico 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 northcast of Cusco.