A gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the ruins in Machu Picchu, Cusco in Peru is a powerhouse of culture and a living monument to Inca history.
Enter the colonial city of Cusco and the first thing that strikes the eye is its archetypal architecture and stone-walled alleys. For individuals used to living in fabricated urban spaces and cities dotted with skyscrapers, a visit to South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city is nothing short of time travel!
Brightly-dressed indigenous Quechua women with their baby alpacas in tow, fiestas and carnivals adding a certain charm and energy to the atmosphere, ornate cathedrals and Inca temples dominating the main plaza, and an endless line of little shops and boutiques selling traditional, handcrafted souvenirs and knitwear for a fortune – every scene and spectacle in Cusco is worth a thousand words. Nestled high in the South American Andes, Cusco – which means “Centre of the World” in the native South American language of Quechua – is popular not only for its history and architecture but also for cool Pisco bars and nightlife spots. Yes, the cosmopolitan Inca capital, Cusco, thrives with a good share of contradictions that never fail to arouse curiosity in a traveller!
Feel the pulse of Cusco
Plaza de Armas, with its delightful stone pathways, immaculate gardens and two iconic buildings – the Cusco Cathedral and the Church La Compañía de Jesús – mark the colonial centre of Cusco. Nearly every significant site you may want to visit is within walking distance from here! Often called Huacaypata or Aucaypata during the Inca period, the plaza bustles with activity at all times, and is a great place to soak up the laid-back vibe of this historic Andean city. Many of the precisely-carved and masterfully constructed Inca walls remain here as architectural treasures that are in great shape even today.
In the ancient times, the plaza was twice as large, encompassing the area now called the Plaza Regocijo. The present-day cathedral flanked by its two churches, Iglesia del Triunfo on its right and Iglesia de Jesús María on the left, was built over those two original Inca palace buildings, using blocks plundered from the nearby Inca site of Sacsaywamán. Don’t miss the cathedral’s splendid altars of both Renaissance and Baroque style, 17th-century European devotional paintings and glitzy silver and gold side chapels with elaborate platforms. Also, here’s where you can observe the oldest surviving painting in Cusco; it showcases the entire city during the great earthquake of 1650.
Today, the Plaza de Armas is where many of the city’s most important gatherings, events and festivals take place, including Inti Raymi – the Inca Festival of the Sun, and Corpus Christi the religious festival. When wandering here, expect to see local vendors selling everything from alpaca clothing to wooden carvings and paintings or even day trips to Machu Picchu. Home to some of the most hip restaurants and eateries that offer everything from traditional Peruvian cuy,lomosaltadoandaji de gallina to trending international fusion delicacies like scallop ceviche and freshly, squeezed exotic fruit juices, the plaza assures you an exceptional gastronomic experience. Want to befriend some locals as well as backpackers from around the world? Places like Norton Rat’s Tavern give you an opportunity to drink the night away whilst enjoying a game of pool and darts in good company. Make sure to visit the plaza at least twice – by day and by night – as it looks strikingly different after being lit up in the dark.
A lesson in Incan architecture
Cusco’s unique layout was designed by the Incas in the form of a puma, with Koricancha positioned in the animal’s tail and Sacsayhuaman standing at its head with the zigzag of its defense walls forming the teeth. Koricancha – the temple of the sun constructed using distinctive and intricate masonry style – is an impressive example of the ambition, genuine religious and political beliefs and skillful designs of the Incas. Built in 1200 AD, it showcases the coexistence of Peru’s past with European architecture and is regarded the most sacred site in Incan mythology. Like with all Inca architecture, Koricancha’s stone structure is brilliantly designed to withstand earthquakes. The temple is built with construction mechanisms such as the vertical inclination of walls, trapezoidal shape of the structures, irregular shapes and rounded edges.
Qori means gold and kancha means an enclosed space, bounded by walls, and as the name suggests, the temple was filled with gold. The complex consisted of four chambers, each dedicated to a different deity of the sun, moon, stars and thunder and rainbows The second-most important Inca site after Koricancha, the walled complex of Sacsayhuaman sits on the northern outskirts of the city of Cusco. The name Sacsaywaman or Sacsayhuamán (often sounding as sexy women) is derived from two Quechua words: sacsay, which means satiate and wamán, which means hawk; together they mean-eat your fill, hawk. This unusual meaning indicates the fact that the birds were divine protectors of the Incas and the military battalions. The Inca emperor Pachacuti began the site’s construction in the mid-15th century, although it took nearly 100 years and thousands of men to complete it. The ruins, a steep 30- minute brisk walk from the center, cover a huge area and reveal some of the Incas’ most extraordinary architecture and monumental stonework.
Sacsayhuamán’s gigantic walls are made of unimaginably massive stones than weigh from 99 to 138 tonnes; these stones are all of different sizes, some having more than 100 angles, each fitted and joined to the other with no mortar of any kind. It is believed that around 20,000 men worked to cut and transport limestone and some other kinds of stones from Huaqoto and Rumiqolqa and build this ceremonial Inca fortress. Usually referred to as a fortress because of its castle-like walls, it was more likely a temple, although most believe it also had military significance. However, the complex suffered such extensive destruction that the primary function of Sacsayhuamán continues to be debated. Today, the Inti Raymi festival is celebrated here annually and it makes for a great spectacle.
Rustic Peruvian cuisine
When it comes to food, there can never be a dull moment in Cusco. For an introduction to typical Peruvian ingredients and everyday staples of the valley, head to the bustling San Pedro market that’s noisy and crowded yet therapeutic for every food lover. The market can keep one interested and entertained for hours. Pig heads for caldo (a soup), flat breads, Andean cheese, Maras salt (salt obtained from the salt ponds of Maras), potatoes in multiple shapes and corn in varied colours, herb mixes as remedies for various ailments, dark chocolates in all kinds of variations, high-quality quinoa, stands selling exotic fruit juices and little food joints selling everything from roast lechón (suckling pig) and tamales to fried pork and piping hot soups. Just wander around the food aisles for a while and you’ll only find yourself struggling with gluttony.
One of the must haves is cuy. At the Cusco Cathedral hangs a replica of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, in which Christ and the 12 disciples are seated around a platter of cuy. This simply indicates how essential the dish is to the rural diet in the ancient city as well as whole of Peru. Yes, guinea pig, often perceived as a pet or farm animal by most, appears on plates in Cusco. As per the traditional recipe, the animal (with its head on) is stuffed with local herbs, roasted over an open wood fire and served with papa (potatoes). While the word alpaca often refers to high-quality wool used to make sweaters and kaftans, locals in the Andean highlands have been looking at the camelid (a smaller cousin of the llama) as a source of meat for centuries. Try alpaca stroganoff with big button mushrooms and creamy sauce or alpaca ribs in herb butter sauce. While alpaca tastes a lot like buffalo, it is extremely lean and makes for good jerky, which is another ancient Peruvian culinary innovation.
How to reach
Daily flights operate from Mumbai and Delhi to Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima. With the introduction of Air India’s daily direct flights to Madrid, the connectivity has improved. From Lima, you can take a short one hour 20 minute flight to Cusco.
Where to stay
Cusco is home to many luxury hotels set in buildings that functioned as monasteries, royal Spanish houses and Incan palaces in the past. One such property is Palacio del Inka located across from the Koricancha, or Temple of the Sun, and just blocks from the main plaza.
Pisco in Cusco
While Argentina and Brazil like to fight over who plays the best soccer, Peru and its longtime rival Chile brawl over the birthplace of their beloved spirit, pisco. This colourless brandy tastes best in the classic, national cocktail PiscoSour which consists of ingredients like egg white, bitters, lime juice and sugar syrup. Clean, crisp and tangy, with subtle grape and apple notes! Do not miss tasting other popular versions with ginger ale and passion fruit. For a very local experience, head to a pisco bar in Cusco.Museo del Pisco is one of the places that is likely to give you a crashcourse in the wonders of Pisco. Reach early to enjoy live Peruvian music!
Tip: Pisco sour is best enjoyed with a bowl full of cancha (corn nuts or toastes corn) – a typical Peruvian snack!
Know before you go
Cusco is 3,399 metres above sea level; so it may take you some time to acclimatise. Make sure to take it easy on your first day in the city and sip on soothing coca leaf tea. Peruvians swear by the drink to prevent altitude sickness as well as headache, sore throat and stomach upset.
Around two to three active days is all you may need to cover the whole of Cusco town, but always leave a little extra time for shopping and hanging out in the bars and shops en route. Apart from hundreds of food stalls, the San Pedro market has stalls selling typical Peruvian handicrafts, alpaca ponchos, earrings, caps, accessories as well as home decor items and incense sticks. Do haggle for a good discount. Ask before you click. Locals in Cusco are particularly sensitive to being photographed. Simply sitting and people watching at the vibrant and busy Plaza de Armas can be a pleasurable experience.