Cusco – the “middle of the world” in the Andes
In the south of the Sierra, in the middle of the fertile Andean mountains, is the city of Cuzco, once the heart of the Inca Empire and today one of the main tourist attractions of Peru. The charming colonial city at 3,416 meters is not only a must, Cusco is also an ideal starting point for the numerous Inca ruins in the vicinity of other surroundings, including, of course, the famous ruined city of Machu Picchu.
Cusco is a fascinating mixture of the influences of the Quechua Indians of today and the times of Spanish colonization. So you can marvel at the ancient walls of the Incas next to magnificent Catholic churches. As a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the old town of Cuszo has remained almost unchanged and was able to preserve its original charm.
The history of Cusco
A long time ago, where today is Cusco, it should have been a settlement of Tampus, a predecessor of Quechua. But only around 1200, the “first Inca” Manco Capac and his sister laid the foundations of what we know today as Cusco. During the next 250 years, Cusco has been able to continue evolving. Its rulers had the typical fields of terraces where corn and cereals were grown, channels were built to supply the city with fresh water and commerce flourished. Cusco was not only the cultural center but also the economic center of the Inca Empire, until the XI Inca Huayna Capac in 1493 took over the Inca empire. He moved the “capital” to Fifth, and in some way that should be the beginning of the end.
Because he divided the kingdom shortly before his death in two parts: the northern one, which he attributed to his son Atahualpa and who had his seat in Cajamarca, as well as his son Huáscar, who kept the south with Cusco. As you can imagine, that could not go well and soon the two brothers fought to the death.
In 1532 the troops invaded the Cusco of Atahualpa, captured Huáscar and executed him, for which Atahualpa became the sole ruler. However, he did not enjoy much of his new position because in the same year the Spaniards invaded Pizarro in Cusco, destroying almost the entire city. A last revolt of the Inka 1535 with 100,000 men almost brought the victory over the Spaniards, but was avoided at the last second.
This ended not only the wedding of the Incas, but also the meaning of Cusco. Pizarro founded Lima on the coast of Peru, which quickly became the new center of the country. Cusco, on the other hand, continued to exist as a small, relatively insignificant colonial city, until the day when Machu Picchu would be rediscovered.
When the remains of the mountainous Inca city of Machu Picchu were rediscovered in 1911, a new interest in the region was awakened and suddenly Cusco was once again “modern”. The region quickly became the tourist attraction of Peru, but managed to preserve its originality despite the new number of visitors.
But even now, luck was not always good for Cusco: after all, the city was destroyed twice, for the first time in 1650 and again in 1950, by earthquakes almost to the ground. Almost? Yes, because the huge Inca walls and some of the colonial buildings have survived this and still testify to the rich and turbulent history of Cusco.
Today, the bustling city is the “heart of the Andes” and attracts more visitors year after year. And you have adapted to that, because meanwhile, there are numerous hotels, hostels, cafes and restaurants in Cusco, and of course you should not miss the colorful markets!
Attractions in Cusco
As in many Peruvian cities, or in general South American, the pulse beats in the center, the “Plaza de Armas”. Here you will not only find remains of the legendary Inca walls, but also picturesque colonial buildings. There is much to see around the Plaza, and when you get tired, you can sit in one of the many cafes and simply follow the action on the street. Only drawback around the Plaza: dozens of street vendors who want to convert their memories. Wait, we’ll tell you where the souvenir shopping is worth!
For many of the historical sites in Cusco and its surroundings you need a so-called “Tourist Ticket”, a kind of ticket to attractions. This is available in three different versions:
- The Full Ticket: for 130 soles you can visit all the historical sites for more than 10 days
- The student ticket for 70 soles (do not forget your student card!)
A one-day ticket, which only applies to a certain number of sites.
With the ticket you can visit, in addition to historical sites, numerous museums, such as the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art, the Regional Historical Museum, the Qusqo Native Art Dances Folkloric Center and more.
At the end of Avenida del Sol is the Pachacuteq Monument, a 22 m high statue of the Inca Pachacuteq warrior king. The statue stands on a cylindrical pedestal that can be climbed, but do not expect an exciting view, since the monument is located in the “Lower Cusco”.
Also on Avenida del Sol, about four blocks from the Plaza de Armas, is Qoricancha, one of the most interesting places in Cusco. The Temple of the Sun was the most sacred religious site of the Incas, and although the temple was severely damaged by the Spaniards, and they simply built their Santo Domingo church on the remains, the remains of the lower level are still worth a visit. The sight of this “layered” temple-church mix surrounded by the breathtaking views of the Andes is an absolute highlight and clearly reveals the different construction methods of the Incas and the Spaniards in contrast. It is best to take a guided tour to get more information about its historical and architectural importance. (Admission: 10 sun).
It gets delicious and sweet in “ChocoMuseo”, the chocolate museum. Here you can get a little information about the cultivation of cocoa plants and their processing and, of course, you can stock up on delicious chocolate. If that’s not enough for you, you can book a chocolate workshop for a small fee or take a tour of one of the nearby cocoa farms. Or simply drink the tastiest hot chocolate in Peru!
In general, it is worth walking to the center of Cusco and absorb the atmosphere and architecture. There are almost all corners to see and discover something!
Shopping in Cusco
In general, souvenirs such as colorful folk textiles or sweaters made of soft alpaca wool can be purchased almost everywhere. The question is fair, at what price and what quality?
For example, when comparing Cusco with Aguas Calientes (the “suburb” of Machu Picchu), one quickly realizes that prices in Cusco are much lower. Unlike Juliaca and Puno, prices are three times higher. So: prices in Cusco are about the midfield and if you see something that you like, you should hit it in silence. Of course, you can always try to act a bit, but prices will not go down much.
The “main market” of Cusco is located next to the Plaza de San Francisco, a few blocks southwest of downtown. Here you will not only find food, snacks and household items, but also a good selection of textiles and souvenirs.
The market of San Pedro is mainly aimed at the locals, but here you can expect beautiful souvenirs and hand-knitted scarves and Co.
The art market at the intersection of Avenida del Sol and Tullumayo is the mecca for the cheapest tourist products. Here you can stock up perfectly with memories for all friends at home, for those who do not want to dig deep into your pocket.
If you want to continue buying and supporting the community, make a detour to Ayniart in Calle San Agustín. This fair trade store sells items such as jerseys, tapestries, stuffed animals and more, handmade by Peasant women. 70% of the income goes directly to the manufacturers and even if the prices here are a little higher compared to the markets, it’s worth it, because the products are of excellent quality. And you know, you supported the community directly with your purchase.
Archaeological sites around Cusco
Although Cusco is always touted as the “starting point for trips to Machu Picchu,” the ancient Inca city is four hours away. Why get lost in the distance when there are many other attractions in the vicinity of Cusco? So, if you spend a few days in Cusco before traveling to Machu Picchu, we’ll tell you what it’s worth!
There are the four ruins of Cusco. The closest to the city is Sacsayhuaman, well above Cusco. You can reach it through the Plaza de Armas by following Calle Plateros up. The road winds towards the imposing ruins, from where you can also enjoy an excellent view of the entire city. It is worth arriving as early as possible in the morning, then it is not so crowded and the guards do not have to constantly shout at tourists to leave the closed areas.
Qenko is still a little higher. If you do not want to walk, you can also take a taxi for about 1 brine. Qenko in Quechua means something like “zig zag” and describes the jagged “channels” carved into the stone. Through a pass and a cave, they arrive at an altar in which the lamas (and some people even) are sacrificed once. The great obelisk in the complex is a solar calendar, proof of the advanced knowledge of astronomy among the Incas. And in the niches just in front of the stone, the remains of the people and the mummified bodies were once found here.
If you have the stamina and power to climb further, you can now follow the path to reach Pukapukara, an old checkpoint on the way to the summit with a small fortress.
Last but not least, Tambomachay, the furthest from Cucso. Here is a decorated fountain, but archaeologists could not find out who was responsible for the plant until today. It is believed that this was once an underground spring, which was to be protected by the “well cover” of dehydration or the poison of hostile peoples.
For three of the four attractions you need the Tourist Ticket. Our advice: take a taxi to Tambomachay and visit the sites in reverse order: downhill is always more pleasant than uphill. You will find ice water at all 4 sites, and you should bring your own sandwiches. In Tambomachay there are very clean toilets that you, as the owner of a Tourist Ticket, can use for free.
Food and drink in Cusco
The restaurants and cafes around the Plaza de Armas are the place to find all the international snacks you could want, from greasy burgers to pizza, sandwiches and even Chinese food, or at least the Peruvian version of China Food, the “Chifa”. .
But what would a stay in Cusco be without the typical Peruvian specialties? A very special delicacy for us Europeans is Cuy, guinea pig on the grill! This is incredibly delicious, you just have to abstain from eating the animal directly on the roasted face.
Alpacas are also on the Peruvian menu and surprisingly they taste tender and juicy meat. At night, when it’s colder and you want something really hot, try Lomo Saltado, a kind of pan with tomatoes, onions and many spices served on a bed of chips and rice.
Many restaurants offer daily menus that include a soup, a main dish and a drink. Speaking of drink: instead of cola, you will find in many restaurants “Inca Kola”, a kind of lemonade flavored with tutti-frutti. And Chicha Morada, a drink made of lilac corn and spices, is also very popular here.
Instead of beer, you will often find the “Andes beer”, Chicha, which is also made from corn instead of hops and malt.
Cusco has a variety of restaurants that offer the richest and most traditional meals for visitors and locals. Some of the most outstanding dishes include: Timpo or Puchero, a traditional dish consisting of a beef breast, leg of lamb, bacon and legs, whole cabbage leaves, potatoes, moray eels, chickpeas and rice, with pears, peaches, sweet potatoes and cassava cooked separately.
Other lekkereien are:
Chuño Cola: this typical dish is eaten in all seasons. A meat broth with sausages, chickpeas, potatoes and rice with chuño flour.
Pepián de Cuy: guinea pig meat cut into pieces and cornmeal fried in oil, with garlic, onion and red pepper dressing. Granulated rice is served for this purpose.
Rocoto relleno: Rocoto filled with peanuts, raisins, peas, minced meat and annealed with beaten egg.
Tips and activities
Cusco is one of the highest cities in Peru and just when you come from the valleys, it is possible that you suffer from altitude sickness in the first days. The air is relatively thin and this can easily cause nausea, dizziness and discomfort. Quechua, however, has a simple “antidote”: coca. The natural form of cocaine has a mild stimulant effect and is not considered a drug. For example, you can find coca lemonade or sweets that mix with it; the locals also like to chew the coca leaves on their own. Alternatively, drink plenty of water, take it easy and get a remedy at the pharmacy for altitude sickness.
The city is considered relatively safe, but sometimes it is small thefts. Always take only the amount of cash you need and try not to shake the “valuables”, then nothing should happen.
Make sure you try the popular “Sapo” bar game, where you try to put small coins in the mouth of a toad, the Peruvian version of the darts, so to speak!
Mountain sickness can affect anyone, young or old. Altitude sickness threatens from 2,500 meters. Very few travelers to Peru are used to high altitudes. We recommend drinking coca tea on arrival in Cusco, Puno, Chivay, Huaraz or Cajamarca. All restaurants and hotels offer this tea and some hotels even offer it for free. Drink coca tea during the whole stay at high altitude.
Some people like coca tea so much that they want to take it to Germany to feel for a moment the festive feeling or the beneficial effects of coca leaves. However, we must tell everyone that imports are strictly prohibited in Europe, since the consumption of coca or coca leaves in the EU is covered by the Narcotic Drugs Act.