Things to Do in Cusco
The lost city of Machu Picchu is the most famous archaeological site in Peru and all of South America. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed collection of temples, terraced hills, and plazas was once the mountaintop citadel of the ancient Inca empire. It may now be world famous, but Machu Picchu still hasn't revealed the mysteries behind its construction, function, and eventual demise.
The largest and most impressive of four archaeological ruins on the outskirts of Cusco, Sacsayhuaman(Saqsaywaman) was built by the Incas from massive stones weighing as much as 300 tons. A critical military site in the battle with the Spanish for the Inca empire in 1536, the ruins offer impressive views over the city below.
Between Cusco and Machu Picchu lies the Sacred Valley of the Incas (Urubamba Valley), home to some of Peru’s most interesting pre-Columbian ruins and attractive colonial towns and villages. While many travelers pass through here en route to Machu Picchu, the valley has become a destination in its own right.
A symbol of both the cosmology of the Incas and their brutal conquest at the hands of the Spanish, Qorikancha(Coricancha) is one of the most important sites in Cusco. The sacred temple, which the Incas created to worship their sun deity and then swathed in gold, was looted and destroyed by conquistadors, who built a colonial church atop the temple ruins.
Built atop the Inca palace Viracocha, the Cusco Cathedral was a triumphant statement for conquering colonists who laid the foundation stones in 1559. Now Plaza de Armas’ showpiece, the cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco and a significant cultural monument holding the largest collection of Cusco School paintings.
Perched at the northern end of Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, the Ollantaytambo Ruins were once the administrative center of the Inca Empire. It was also the site of a rare Inca victory over the Spanish conquistador army in 1536. These days, the remarkable ruins are the most common starting point for visitors to the legendary Inca Trail.
Tambomachay might not be one of the biggest ruins in Cusco, but it’s definitely one of the highest, topping out at nearly 13,000 feet.
Located five miles from the city center, Tambomachay is also known as “the Baths of the Inca” due to the multiple baths which are scattered about the site. The Inca held water in a spiritual regard as one of the sources of life, and the spring waters at Tambomachay are masterfully diverted into aqueducts, baths, and stone-carved waterways which would divert the water through the stone. Given the site’s natural beauty and the spiritual significance of its waters, it’s believed by historians that Tambomachay was reserved for Inca royalty.
When visiting Tambomachay today, be sure to admire the smooth mosaic of stone which forms the walls of the ruin. The way in which the stones are perfectly stacked on each other is an example of the handicraft for which the Inca were famous. Also, take a moment to notice the way that the multi-tiered terraces are built into the mountainside in such a way that they nearly blend as a natural part of the landscape. This is a relaxing, powerful, and meditative spot that sees far fewer visitors than some of the more famous ruins.
To visit Tambomachay, you can either take part in a guided tour or visit the site independently. For those who choose to visit on their own and are looking for a bit of a workout, consider riding a bus to the site and then strolling the five miles back towards the city. Remember to take it slow, however, as the altitude can easily be felt, and be sure to admire the views of Cusco that stretch out to the surrounding valley.
Near Cuzco, on the way to Pisac from Sacsayhuaman, is the amphitheater and temple of Q’engo(Qenko). This site which is at 3,600 meters above sea level has some of the best examples of undisturbed Incan carving in the world. The name (which has many alternative spellings, sometimes with a k) means zig-zag, and this is in reference to the carved channels in the rock at the site. The site is actually comprised of four different parts, with the most popularly visited being Q’engo(Qenko) Grande, which was used as an astronomical observatory and holy site.
Q’engo Grande is a large limestone outcrop with two small knobs that show a shadow pattern at the summer solstice in June. Also carved into the limestone are a series of caves, altars and hollows that would have been used to move water. The site was used as a stopping point on a pilgrimage of religious importance during the Inca period, and mummification took place onsite as well. There are 19 trapezoidal niches as well, which used to house idols and mummies, though these are no longer onsite.
From the coastal deserts of southern Peru to the frigid peaks of the Andes, every part of the vast Inca Empire traced back to Cusco. Tucked within the Andean mountains, the scenic capital city was the beating heart of one of the greatest civilizations in history. Today, you can feel this powerful history most palpably in its central square, Plaza de Armas.
Maras, a remote Andean town deep in Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, is a favorite of photography buffs and gourmands alike for its famous salt pans (Salinas de Maras). Fixed in geometric shapes on terraced hills, the surreal, photogenic pools were created by the Incas 2,000 years ago, and the mines are still harvested for their pink salt.
More Things to Do in Cusco
Once the shimmering capital of the entire Inca Empire, Cusco is the gateway to the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the ruins of Machu Picchu. Bearing its original Inca name, meaning “Navel of the Earth,” Cusco pulsates with a unique and magical energy rivaled by few other South American cities, most notably in its historic center.
The Pisac Indian Market is one of the most popular and picturesque of the indigenous markets in the Cusco region. Travelers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to this mountain town to purchase all manner of textiles, ceramics, jewelry, ponchos, rugs, hats, gloves, Andean instruments, ceramics, alpaca and llama woven clothing, and a host of lovely souvenirs.
One would think that a rainbow-colored mountain would be fairly easy to spot, but in the case of Mt. Vinicunca (Rainbow Mountain), set high in the Peruvian Andes, getting a view of the multihued wonder means waking up early to trek through mountains that burst with natural colors, but are thin on air considering they rise over 17,000 feet (5181m). Despite the physical challenges, however, seeing Vinicunca in person is a once-in-a-lifetime visual treat where you’ll likely find yourself gawking in silence and wondering, “how is this real?” With impressively straight and colorful lines, “Rainbow Mountain,” as it’s come to be known, explodes with hues of lavender and red that are caused by minerals in the soil, and looks like something from a coloring book as opposed to an actual Andean peak that few are lucky to see.
Mercado Central de San Pedro (San Pedro Market) is one of the best places to experience the vibrancy of everyday Andean life in Cusco. This large and popular city market is where locals shop for food—there are hundreds of potato varieties and hot traditional meals—and any other household item under the sun.
Salkantay Trail, a remote trekking route in the same Andean region as the Inca Trail, offers travelers spectacular scenery. Trekkers pass soaring mountains, picturesque villages, lakes, and lush jungle. While Inca Trail tours are typically booked far in advance, Salkantay offers another (more affordable) way to reach Machu Picchu.
Away from the tourist foot traffic, the lovely San Blas neighborhood of Cusco is a haven for locals artisans, weavers, sculptors, and potters as well as travelers looking for the city’s bohemian side. In recent years, small cafés, art galleries, boutiques, and yoga studios have set up shop along its hilly cobblestone streets and alleyways.
The textile mill at Awana Kancha—or the Palace of Weaving—is a culture-rich stop between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The artisan outpost gives visitors the chance to observe traditionally dressed women weaving textiles made from the wool of alpacas kept in the outdoor yard and to take a photo op hand-feeding the animals.
The Inca Trail might be the most popular trek in the Peruvian Andes near Cusco, but anarguably equally impressive (and certainly less crowded) trail leads visitors to Mt. Ausangate.Nevado Ausangate, the highest mountain in southern Peru, peaks at 20,945 feet (6,384 meters)above sea level. On a clear day, the snow-topped peak can be seen from Cusco.
The Ausangate Trail, named after the peak, takes five to six days, plus travel time to and from Cusco from the trail head. The trail begins in the brown grasslands of the Andean plateau and crosses four high-altitude passes, covering some of the most stunning terrain in the Cusco region. The trail, much of it at altitudes of more than 13,100 feet (4,000 meters) passes high alpine lakes, glacial valleys and small villages where alpacas graze freely and residents still dress in their traditional attire.
Located on the outskirts of Cusco, the often overlooked archaeological site of Tipón is arguably the best demonstration of Inca engineering skills in existence. The site comprises a network of agricultural terraces, some of which are still used today, and stonemasonry similar to that of Machu Picchu—but without the crowds.
The simple, whitewashed exterior of San Pedro Apóstol de Andahuaylillas gives no hint as to the mesmerizing murals within, which depict biblical scenes imbued with Inca symbols. Along with lavish embellishments such as a gold-leaf altarpiece, these have earned the church the moniker Sistine Chapel of the Americas.
This vast Inca archaeological site is one the Cusco Region’s top attractions, drawing travelers from across the globe that come in search of ancient ruins. Most of the highlights of this historical destination are located inside an old defense wall. Visitors will find a courtyard, lodging house, and several other structures that are worth exploring on a tour of Raqch’i.
Some 220 small storehouses known as qullqas, which surround the area, are another unique feature of this ancient Inca locale. But perhaps the most impressive landmark is the Temple of Wiracoch — a massive two-story building that showcases the incredible craftsmanship of early Inca stonework. Travelers will find old living quarters attached to the temple that are also the perfect place to explore Incan history, culture and traditions.
Sometimes referred to as the other Machu Picchu, Choquequirao is undoubtedly one of the least-visited Inca sites in Peru due to the difficult 2-day hike required to reach the ruins. The feat, however, is richly rewarded: The ancient site, which translates as the Cradle of Gold, is remote and spectacular and framed by Andean peaks at every angle.
The Planetarium Cusco is one of the most unique planetariums in the world. Housed in a humble Andean adobe home, the family-run planetarium sits on a Cusco hillside amid the archeological site Saqsayhuaman and the Llaullipata ecological reserve. From this wonderful locale, you can explore the mysteries of the universe as told through the eyes of the Inca.
Located in the heart of Cusco, the Inca Museum (Museo Inka) puts Peru’s numerous Inca ruins into context. The humble museum, which is built on an ancient Inca foundation, houses hundreds of artifacts that shed light on ancient Inca civilizations. In the outdoor courtyard, visitors can observe artists showcasing their weaving skills and purchase handcrafted souvenirs.
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