The Former Capital of the Inca Empire
La Companía Church near the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco
The city of Cuzco is very often called Cusco, but sometimes Qusqu. All 3 terms are correct.
It was the capital of the Inca Empire and today it is the biggest city in the region, one with an airport, 2 railway stations, lots of hotels and travel agencies.
Many buses depart from Cuzco to towns and archaeological sites in the area.
The vast majority of travelers who arrive to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu pass through this city. It is the best idea to set this city as a "base", or "outgoing point", as it is the only major city in the area and it will be the place where you will have to go, should you encounter any problems.
Although, Cuzco is not located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, it is the biggest economical, cultural, infrastructural center in the area.
The city is 35 km (22 mi) from Písac, the closest town from the Sacred Valley. In a straight line, we could say that Cuzco is about half as close to the Sacred Valley.
Cuzco is growing rapidly. When we launched this site in 2006, Cuzco has a population of 320.000 people. In early 2010 it was inhabited by 390.000.
The metropolitan area of Cuzco overpasses half a million inhabitants (as of early 2010 estimates).
The city is not only a good starting point for those wanting to visit the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and other nearby attractions, itself is a major travel destination.
Cuzco has several important attractions: interesting ancient Inca walls, old colonial Catholic churches, it also hosts the annual Inti Raymi Festival (dedicated to the Inca Sun God called Inti).
Attractions in and around Cuzco
First of all you should see the Coricancha - an old Inca temple, the Spanish colonial churches and other religious places, the Plaza de Armas, walk the narrow streets and visit the Cuzco area attractions.
And now let's take a look at what you must see and do when in the city!
Plaza de Armas (The Main Square)
This is where your visit should start.
The previous name of the Plaza de Armas was Huacaypata, which can be translated to "The Square of the Warrior".
Here you'll see churches, shops, restaurants and bars.
Part of the Inti Raymi festival in late June every year is held here. You can have a great time visiting Cuzco if you can catch the colourful event.
Lots of taxis wait around the Plaza de Armas and you will probably meet people offering "cheap hotels", tourist guide services or wanting to take your luggage. Excuse yourself politely, but categorically and reject the offers.
You may never know who drags you into what. It's better to be precautions. This is especially important in case you want to get a taste of Cuzco nightlife.
The Plaza de Armas, the Main Square of Cuzco
Coricancha (Qorikancha) and the Church of Santo Domingo
It is a temple-church... a combination of Inca and Spanish architecture.
The Coricancha used to be an Inca temple, but the Spaniards and turned it into a Catholic church.
This is the top attraction of Cuzco, you mustn't miss it!
The Incas had built the Coricancha (meaning "Golden Courtyard") as a ceremonial complex containing multiple stone buildings.
Following the Spanish conquest, as it happened with other Inca temples, it was mostly demolished, but many of its stonebricks were kept and embedded into the newer Spanish Church of Santo Domingo. Today the two are almost one and the same. In fact, part of the Santo Domingo Church is the partially intact Coricancha.
Much of the original Inca ceremonial complex is gone forever, perished. But the Spaniards had "implanted" part of the original walls and stone blocks into their church.
In Inca times, the Coricancha was used as a ceremonial place at each summer solstice.
The Inca ruler sat down on a throne and the Sun's light was let through a "whole" in the wall, directing it towards him. Let's mention here that the Incas considered their rulers what we might call demigods.
Specialists say that approximately 4.000 religious Incas (priests etc.) live in the Coricancha.
Part of this complex was used as an astronomical observatory.
The interior of the Coricancha was decorated with objects made of silver and gold and among them was, perhaps the biggest treasure of the Incas (ever), the Golden Sun Disk - a sacred object of very high importance.
The silver and gold objects in the Coricancha were mostly statuettes representing llamas, the Sun, babies, but even corn.
At the time of the Spanish conquest, the conquistadores used the Coricancha as an accommodation facility. They slept and ate there like at an inn.
The Coricancha was also used as a tomb where several Inca rulers were buried.
Today it is a museum and you inside it you will see interesting old objects: ceramics, statuettes, even well-preserved textiles from the Inca period. Certainly, most of these objects do not originate from the Coricancha, but they were put here to show tourists "what might have been inside" and most importantly to get them see and imagine what artifacts the Incas had created.
Similarly to the ancient Egyptians, the Incas had a special artistical sense. Original Inca design is unforgettable and distinguishable even among pre-Columbian cultures.
A combination of Inca and Spanish architecture at the Coricancha (Qorikancha)
Museo de Arte Precolombino
As you can understand from its name, it's a pre-Columbian art museum, which means that you can see lots of artifacts from various cultures that inhabited today's Peru (this even includes cultures that have coexisted or have pre-dated the Inca culture).
Museo Historico Regional
The museum is inside the building where historian Garcilaso de la Vega had lived. He is considered to be one of the main sources of information regarding Inca civilization. Himself partly Inca, Garcilaso de la Vega has left behind many writings, details about sayings and facts regarding the Inca civilization and the areas around Cuzco.
The museum contains many paintings that are over 300 years-old.
Museo de Arte Popular
A popular art museum for those interested in learning about this Peruvian traditional art.
Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo
An art museum in the Municipal Palace containing contemporary art pieces. You can access it from Plaza Regocijo.
San Blas District
Part of Cuzco's center, the San Blas District is just a short walk away from the Main Square (Plaza de Armas)
The San Blas Church, built in the 16th century (also upon an Inca temple). The Spanish name of this church is Parroquia de San Blas.
Shops, restaurants and bars and artists selling their work are among the main attractions of the San Blas area.
The main part of this area is the Plaza de San Blas (the San Blas Square).
It is particularly interesting to walk on the streets, many of which contain steps and have cobbled road (stones put together instead of asphalt).
The Inca Walls and the Stone of Twelve Angles
Very well-conserved ancient Inca walls with stones tightly stuck together.
The part close to the Plaza de Armas is especially interesting. We recommend you to walk along the walls on the narrow streets and look for the famous Stone of Twelve Angles. This piece is inserted between many other stones like a huge puzzle.
The Calle Loreto... Impressive prefect Inca-style walls!
Ajlla Wasi or the Santa Catalina Convent
It is also known as the "House of the Virgins of the Sun".
At the time of the Incas, Ajlla Wasi was a religious building where chosen virgins had lived.
Following the Spanish conquest, it was transformed by the Christians into a Catholic convent. Today it is called the Santa Catalina Convent
The Ajlla Wasi was taken by the Spaniards and transformed into a Catholic convent, called Santa Catalina Convent.
Spanish Colonial Cathedral
An ancient Spanish church. Such buildings can be found almost everywhere in Latin America. In Quito, Lima, Cuzco, Bogotá etc.
It's a beautiful church, both inside and outside. You will feel like you went back into the colonial period of Peru.
The Inti Raymi Festival
A colourful ceremony held on June 24th every year. Go to our Inti Raymi Festival information page for further details.
Archaeological Sites in the Proximity of Cuzco
There are hundreds of Inca sites in the Cuzco - Sacred Valley area. Among the primary attractions are:
Sacsayhuamán - very close to the city, you can walk out; impressive Inca stone blocks form a massive fortress
Tambomachay - for those who want to see fountains, functioning aqueducts, then visit Tambomachay!
Puca Pucara (Puka Pukara) - its meaning is "Red Fort", some believe it was an important military complex
Q'enko (Kenko) - used to be a religious site of the Incas, located on a hill near Cuzco
You can get on foot to Sacsayhuamán, which is northwest, just outside of Cuzco. It is the most impressive site in the area. You will see stoneblocks the size of small trucks put together, forming solid walls.
If you want to be sure to visit the most important archaeological site near Cuzco, then go see Sacsayhuamán. It is perhaps among the top 5 places to see in the whole Cuzco - Machu Picchu - Sacred Valley area
Getting Used to Cuzco, Acclimatization
After arriving, take your time to relax and to get used to the local climate, atmospherical conditions. It is 3.400 m above sea level, conditions which are likely to produce some negative effects on those who aren't used to be so high.
Normally adaptation is very easy. And about 30 % of people don't feel typical altitude sickness at all in Cuzco.
To many travelers, Cuzco is the place for acclimatization.
Hikers and bikers stay here for days just to get used to the thin air.
If you feel any discomfort after arriving, then make sure you take the following measures: relax, put less physical effort and drink the locally-prepared Coca tea
In case you feel very bad, then we recommend you to do little gymnastics, but nothing hard in your hotel room, eventually massage your feet in order to improve blood circulation.
Cuzco: a park imitating ancient Inca architecture
Being Precautious, Avoiding Possible Dangers in Cuzco
There are thieves who stalk tourists.
Don't look "expensive". Make sure you wear simple clothes and that you don't look like you are the "western tourist showing off" - you'd be shining like a nickel on the bottom of a lake and that's what make naive tourists magnets for pickpockets.
Swindles, frauds are frequent. Don't accept any drinks from strangers and don't use "taxi-like" services if the car doesn't look like a taxi at all.
Keep your valuables hidden, never at a single place.
Always excuse yourself politely with "no gracias" when encountering suspect-looking people trying to sell you something or invite you somewhere
The best way is by plain from Lima.
Cuzco is an important Peruvian city, especially in tourism, so you will find lots of cars and trains that will take you there. Especially from the Lima and Puno directions.
If you attempt to travel on road only because it's cheaper than flying or because you want to see the landscape, then we advise you to take the train.
Otherwise, there are some foreign tourists who rent cars which with they drive to Cuzco. The road is long and exhausting, 1.165 km (724 mi) can be done in 24 hours.
Keep in mind that driving a car from Lima to Cuzco through the Andes is "serious business", might be dangerous (theft, bad roads).
Airplanes will fly you from Lima to Cuzco for about 200 - 300 USD, if you book in advance.