Indigenous belief is that Cusco sits at the navel of the world. It certainly felt like we had traveled into the centre of Peru as we journeyed through the Andes to reach the city. Situated in the Huatanay river valley, Cusco is surrounded on all sides by mountains and many of its districts are accessed by steep steps. As the gateway city to many Andean treks (including Machu Picchu – more on that in a later post) Cusco is an ideal place to acclimatise to the altitude of the mountains. At 3400 m (11 200 ft) above sea level, I could definitely feel the increase in elevation from the coast.
Cusco is the official Historical Capital of Peru and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage City in 1983 for exhibiting and representing 3000 years of pre-Inca occupation, the establishment of the Inca Empire in the 13th – 16th centuries AD and the colonisation of Peru by the Spanish in the 16th century AD. This history can be physically seen and touched as you walk through the streets in the Centro Histórico. Cusco was redesigned in a monumental style while under the rule of Inca Pachacuteq (Tito Cusi Inca Yupanqui) in the 15th century and the Spanish literally built on top of what was there: European baroque and renaissance architecture sitting on colossal Inca foundations. This is very evident in the Convent of Santo Domingo which was built on top of the most important Inca structure in the city, the Qurikancha (Sun Temple). The interior has recently undergone restoration and the Inca foundations and some of the original temple walls can now be explored. When you view the Qurikancha from the park outside the juxtaposition of the Inca and Spanish architectures is striking.
The historic centre of Cusco is heaving with tourists and those trying to sell things to tourists. To orient ourselves amongst all this activity we joined a walking tour that gave us an overview of the architecture, history and culture of the city. We started at the Plaza de Armas de Cusco, known as the “Square of the Warrior” by the Incas and today as the touristic heart of the Centro Historico. The square is bordered by grand colonial entrance gates and arcades that house shops, restaurants and cafes, some with upper level balconies that are great spots for people watching. On one side of the Plaza de Armas stands La Catedral, begun in 1560 AD and finished 100 years later. The Renaissance style La Catedral was built on top of the palace of the eighth Inca ruler, Viracocha, from stones taken from the nearby pre-Inca archaeological complex, Sacsayhuaman. Around the corner, on the foundations of the Amarucancha (the palace of Inca ruler Wayna Qhapag) stands the equally impressive 15th century baroque style Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús.
The Calle Loretto is an interesting lane just off of the Plaza de Armas where you can see Inca foundations for structures secondary to the sacred temples and palaces. The stones are smaller than those used to build the elite structures and of slightly rougher, but clearly highly skilled, masonry. Walking down this lane gives you an idea of what the city must have been like under Inca rule. Around the corner is the Kusicancha, the birthplace of one of the most important Inca rulers, Pachacútec, and now an archaeological site that is also home of the offices of the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INC). The archaeological excavations revealed the foundations of an Inca cancha – city block – without the later Spanish architecture obscuring it. You can enter the site and walk freely among the foundations and view some of the artefacts that were uncovered during the excavations. This is a lovely spot to step away from the crowds as it is very peaceful and not often visited.
Also off of the Plaza de Armas is Calle Hatunrumiyoc the street where you can find the famous Twelve Angled Stone. Originally part of the wall of an Inca palace, the giant diorite stone is a wonderful example of Inca masonry. The street is quite narrow and the huge stones that make up the walls on either side seem to tower over you. Continuing down (or perhaps up) this street you pass into the Barrio de San Blas, a vibrant artisan neighbourhood. This is the place to find hand-woven textiles, alpaca products, religious artwork and a variety of other treasures. The steep narrow streets are just wide enough for a small car with steps on either side for pedestrians. It is an ideal spot to learn about traditional Peruvian arts and handicrafts from the artisans themselves. Entering a doorway to examine a keepsake that caught your eye, you often find yourself emerging into an open courtyard in the colonial style with arches surrounding the lower level and balconies above. From every wall and on every table there is colour and choice! It is hard to decide on just one thing to take home with you.
For a completely different experience the San Pedro Market is not to be missed. This huge covered market, similar to ones I’ve visited in Europe and Mexico, contains stands selling everything from freshly made juice to raw meat to alpaca sweaters. We were in Cusco in the days leading up to the Easter holiday so there was an amazing array of traditional pastries and goodies for sale. The aisles are tight, there are items spilling off shelves and every shopkeeper is trying to get your attention. While there are many stalls filled with items clearly geared towards tourists, this is definitely where Peruvians come to get a bowl of soup and fill their bags with groceries. Getting a bit outside of the historic centre of the city is worth it to see a side of Cusco that is not tourist oriented.
Cusco is a big city with many high profile monuments and hidden gems to explore. I felt that my time there exposed me to a facet of Peruvian culture and Peru’s past that I hadn’t seen in Lima or in the holiday focused areas along the coast. The stamp of the Inca Empire remains bold in Cusco, making each stroll through the streets feel like an expedition. I could have stayed longer, but like many other visitors, I had a trek to embark on: through the Salkantay Pass and on to Machu Picchu.