The City of Cusco, set high up in the rugged Andean mountains is a remote and rapidly growing city with more than 400,000 residents. Cusco has a fascinating and rich history that is like no other city on the world, and is the main stopping point for most visitors travelling to Machu Picchu.
Once the heartland of the Inca Empire, Cusco is full of ancient temples, palaces and fortresses left behind from the imperial reign of the Incas. Once the most powerful city in South America, Cusco was the governing region of the empire stretching the length of the coast-line from Quito in the north down to Santiago de Chile in the south.
The Inca Empire (or Tawantinsuyu - in the Inca language of Quechua) fell to the Spanish in 1533, and much of Cusco and its surroundings were destroyed as Spanish and locals alike ravaged for the riches of the fallen sovereignty. Much of the splendour of the incredible Inca city was reduced to rubble, leaving only a few buildings remaining.
Today the colonial area of Cusco is built on top of the Inca foundations that were left behind, with traditional Spanish casonas, cathedrals and churches constructed over the sturdy Inca stone work. Around Cusco's main square - Plaza de Armas and in the many narrow and charming cobbled streets leading away from the plaza, there are many reminders of the ancient Inca City of Cusco.
The Inca Temple of the Sun or Korikancha is probably one of the finest remaining example of an Inca structure in Cusco, and is a must visit for any tour of Cusco. Korikancha was once a very important place for the Incas, thought by many historians to be the home of around 4000 priests and their keepers. The highly polished shaped Inca stone work at one end of the complex was also considered to be a place of astronomical observatory or worship for the Incas. Some ancient chronicles stated that Koricancha was highly decorated with life-sized gold figures, gold altars and a huge sun disc. Today visitors can take a guided tour of the partially re-constructed site, which is located within the grounds of the Santa Catalina convent.
Other popular attractions in Cusco include Cusco Cathedral located on Plaza de Armas. As well as its official status as a place of worship, Cusco Cathedral has become a major repository of Cusco's colonial art, and also many artefacts and relics. The cathedral has UNESCO World Heritage status under the City of Cusco listing in 1983, and also holds the ashes of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, who later in his life married a Spanish princess.
Typical tours of Cusco do not just include attractions in the colonial centre, but also several other interesting Inca ruins in the close proximity to the city itself. Tambomachay dedicated to the worship of water is where most tours start, before heading back towards Cusco, visiting Puca Pucara en-route, the underground alter of Q'enko before travelling on to the large ruins of Saqsayhuman, a place of great spiritual importance, and where you will see some biggest carved Inca stones.
As the initial starting point for most tours of Machu Picchu, Cusco has highly developed tourist facilities including an eclectic range of budget lodgings through to high-end luxury Cusco hotels, a wide selection of restaurants offering everything from local Andean food to fine dining experiences and gourmet cuisine. Although there no international flights into Cusco, a hand-full of high quality airline carriers offer more than a dozen daily services from Lima to Cusco, making the city easy to access from Lima and around the world.
For more information on specific attractions in Cusco follow the links below:
- Cusco Cathedral
- Inca Temple of the Sun - Korikancha
- Puca Pucara
- Cusco Museums
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