BEST THINGS TO DO IN CUSCO
With dazzling temples, ancient cities, and access to famed Inca ruins, Cusco’s imperial city enchants its visitors. First and foremost, you’ll want to plan your route to Machu Picchu. For a scenic (and strenuous) hike, make arrangements to trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Less daring travelers should nab a seat on one of PeruRail’s daily trains to the lost city. If you have time before or after your expedition, head straight to the Plaza de Armas, where the glorious Cathedral and nearby Qoricancha await exploration. Then, elevate your experience to a whole new level by visiting the Sacsayhuamán ruins, which boast gorgeous views of Cusco city.
WHEN TO VISIT CUSCO
The best time to visit Cusco is from June to mid-September. Though temperatures rest in the mid- to upper 60s throughout the year, the city sees fewer rain showers during its winter months. Still, this is peak tourist season, so expect plenty of fellow trekkers beside you as marvel at iconic sites. To escape swells of tourists and high room rates, visit during May or between late September and early November. Avoid visiting between late November and April, when heavy downpours delay and dampen exploration. Whenever you decide to plan your trip, bring warm clothing to arm yourself from the chilly nighttime temperatures, which dip into the low 30s and 40s.
It’s hard to believe this iconic “lost city of the Incas” was untouched during the Spanish conquest. The Incas cleverly obscured these 12 acres of temples, aqueducts, and gardens from the Spaniards, keeping their sacred city untouched for hundreds of years.
It’s difficult to know where to start. First things first: Pick up a booklet and a map as signage at the site is minimal. Then, start your journey at the House of the Terrace Caretaker and Funeral Rock, a 20-minute walk from Machu Picchu’s entrance. From there, head to the Temple of the Sun to admire the exquisite Incan masonry and a granite stone that may have served as the Inca’s calendar. Continue on to the Temple of Three Windows, where you’ll marvel at the views from the building’s trapezoidal lookouts. Finally, visit the Temple of the Condor, which, as its name suggests, forms the shape of a condor—the symbol of heaven in the Inca cosmos.
MAIN SQUARE PLAZA DE ARMAS
The history of the Plaza de Armas stretches back all the way to the Inca Empire. The Inca built this massive square (originally it was twice its current size) as a venue for festivals and ceremonies. According to legend, this plaza once marked the exact center of the Inca Empire, earning Cusco the nickname “the navel of the world.” Within the square, the 16th century Spanish conquistadors constructed La Compañia and the Cathedral; both churches reside on the site of the former Incan palace. Now, the Plaza de Armas contains landmarks significant to both Andean and Spanish history. “No trip to Cusco would be complete without at least a brief visit to the Plaza de Armas. The churches are rustic and beautiful,”
The plaza buzzes with activity all day and sometimes at night; however, the Cathedral maintains different visiting hours. The Plaza de Armas is located in Cusco’s historic center. To reach the square, you can easily walk from most central Cusco hotels, or you can take a taxi.
Amid the many splendors found in the Plaza de Armas, the sky-high Cathedral is one of Cusco’s finest architectural displays. The building was constructed in 1550 with stones stolen from Sacsayhuamán. And if its cavernous baroque design doesn’t wow you, the Cathedral’s opulent ceilings, gold and silver altars, and ornate oil paintings certainly will. The Cathedral houses a world-renowned painting believed to depict the earthquake that shook Cusco in 1650. And across the building, you’ll find a famous crucifix called Señor de los Temblores (Lord of the Earthquakes) who is said to have stopped the 17th-century earthquake from destroying the city. “Between the many, many ‘Cusco school’ paintings and the melding of Catholic and Andean indigenous influences, this is an absolutely fascinating church to visit,”
QORIKANCHA (TEMPLE OF THE SUN)
For a glimpse of the Inca’s former grandeur, look no further than Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun), also known as “Court of Gold.” In its heyday, Inca’s elite watched as light bounced from 700 gold-plated walls and danced across the temple’s altars and statues. And its splendor stretched from its glimmering exterior walls into its regal confines, where approximately 4,000 of the most prestigious priests and their attendants resided.
With gold gleaming from nearly every surface of the compound, it’s easy to see why the Spanish were enamored with Qorikancha’s riches. After the conquistadors invaded Cusco in 1533—and looted all its gold—only the Inca’s elaborate masonry remained. Utilizing the Inca’s masterful work as their foundation, the Spaniards began building their own churches and monuments, creating a rich blend of Andean and Spanish architecture. “Few places in Cusco illustrate the cultural clash/exchange between the Incas and the Spanish better than [Qorikancha]. You’ll be impressed by the amazing stonework of the Incan architects,”
Sacsayhuamán is often overshadowed by Machu Picchu, but this towering ancient Incan fortress—filled with exquisite stone masonry and dramatic vistas—is worth a visit. Giant carved stone blocks form zig-zagged rows of walls, prompting visitors to question how these bricks were crafted and how they were placed here. During your visit, check out the speculated Inca throne as well as the foundations of the fortress’ three towers that have since fallen. Also, take a few moments to walk around the Explanada, a parade platform where revelers gather for the Raymi Festival of the Sun. Another interesting feature is Tambomachay, a nearby spring that served as a bathing site for the Incan elite.
Recent travelers remark that the ruins are not only an eye-catching spectacle but also a pleasant place for a leisurely stroll with arresting views of Cusco. “It would be easy to go to Cusco and never even know that this extraordinary Inca site exists, but don’t miss it. The base stone walls are incredibly impressive”
You’ll find Sacsayhuamán located approximately two miles northwest of Cuzco’s city center. You can reach Sacsayhuamán on foot via a strenuous 25-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas. There are two clearly marked entrances, but don’t expect much direction once you start exploring the grounds. To hear the legend behind Sacsayhuamán’s fascinating stonework, join a guided tour.
INKA MUSEUM (MUSEO INKA)
Boasting an eclectic assortment of Incan artifacts and a distinctive location in a beautiful 16th-century colonial mansion, the Inca Museum delights its visitors. “The Inca rooms included textiles, pottery, silver figurines, musical instruments, and even mummies. They also had some nice dioramas of daily life, [and] a model of a circular terrace (moray),” explains one VirtualTourist user. When you’ve finished admiring the traditional items inside, you should stroll through the museum’s courtyard, where Andean women can often be found weaving authentic textiles.
You’ll find the Inca Museum located about one block northeast of Plaza de Armas. The museum welcomes visitors from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays; the museum is closed on Sundays.
In Quechua, Qenqo means labyrinth or zig-zag and the temple is named for the crooked canal cut out of its rock. Although it is clear the canal carried some sort of liquid, researchers have been forced to guess at its purpose, and at what liquid it transported. Hypotheses range from carrying holy water, chicha (corn beer), or blood. All three indicate that Qenqo was used for death rituals, possibly to embalm bodies or detect whether a person lived a good life by the course the liquid followed.
Qenqo is a unique temple in its construction as well, having been entirely carved out of a gigantic monolith. Stretched across a hillside, the temple is carved out of rock and marries the man-made tunnels with natural chambers. One of these chambers features 19 small niches and is set up as an amphitheater. Once again, the purpose of the theater has been lost over time, but most agree the area was used for some type of sacrifice to the sun, moon and star gods who were worshipped at the site.
Puka Pukara (Quechua puka red, pukara fortress, “red fortress”, hispanicized spellings Pucapucara, Puca Pucara, Puca Pucará) is a site of military ruins in Peru situated in the Cusco Region, Cusco Province, Cusco District, near Cusco. This fort is made of large walls, terraces, and staircases and was part of defense of Cusco in particular and the Inca Empire in general.
The name probably comes from the red color of the rocks at dusk. Puka Pukara is an example of military architecture that also functioned as an administrative center.
Puka Pukara is located in mid-southern Peru, roughly 4–5 miles (7 kilometers) from Cusco on the road to Pisac and near the Antisuyo, the jungle portion of the former Incan empire. The fort is located on high ground overlooking the Cusco valley and Tambo Machay, creating a beautiful – and useful – view. When it was built, it was probably placed so that these areas were visible to give the military extra vision over important parts of the empire.
With impressive hydraulic architecture, Tambomachay is a special place where water was worshipped. It has beautiful fountains, canals, and Inca terraces. Its name is complex. Tambo means a place of rest. Machay means a cave. The place is found between two hills and by its side passes a small river that enlivens the landscape.
Today, Tambomachay is commonly called The Baños del Inca, or Inca Baths. To the side of the complex, among the trees, there is a small town of the same name which almost nobody knows. The place is fascinating because of the adobe construction of its houses and their fields for farming. The people of the place tend to come down to the Inca site to sell handicrafts.
They say Tambomachay was on the way to the Qhapaq Ñan, the great Inca Highway. Near it passed this important road that brought all the towns of Tawantinsuyo, the Inca Empire, into communication.
THE SACRED VALLEY, CUSCO PERU
The Sacred Valley of the Incas was undoubtedly a key area of settlement to the Incas. Its agreeable climate and fertile plains make a rare and fruitful combination for the high Andes. It was also the route to the jungle and therefore an area with access to the fruits and plants of the tropical lowlands. The Sacred Valley served as a buffer zone, protecting Cusco from incursions of the Antis, the fierce jungle tribes who from time to time raided the highlands.
Today the Sacred Valley remains a lush agricultural region supplying the city of Cusco with much of its produce such as maize, fruit and vegetables.
Most people visit the Sacred Valley as part of an organized one-day tour. The tour includes a visit to the market at Pisac, a stop for lunch in Urubamba, a visit to the beautiful Inca village and fortress of Ollantaytambo and a quick stop at the Quechua village of Chinchero on the way back to Cusco. Some companies also include a visit to the ruins at Pisac but you’ll have less time at the market if you do this. You’ll find plenty of tour companies in and around the Plaza de Armas in Cusco offering these tours costing between US$15 and US$25 for a pooled service (up to 30 persons in a group). This price doesn’t include your meals or entrance fees to the ruins. Entrance to the ruins is included on the Boleto Turistico (tourist ticke) – see Cusco City information for further details and prices. Departures are usually on the market days of Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. If you only have one day to visit the Sacred Valley you’ll find the convenience of the tour well worth while since the entire circuit is over 170km in length. If you want to do it in a small group you can hire a taxi for the day (approx US$70) and take a guide (approx US$60). Alternatively you can also visit the Sacred Valley on your own, travelling by local bus. It can be quite tiring to try and see Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero all in one day by local transport so we suggest visiting Pisac ruins and the market on one day and then visiting Chinchero and Ollantaytambo on another day, using Cusco as your base from which to explore.
A truly awesome site with relatively few tourists, this hilltop Inca citadel lies high above the village on a triangular plateau with a plunging gorge on either side. Allow several hours to explore. To walk from town, a steep but spectacular 4km trail starts above the west side of the church. It’s a two-hour climb and 1½ hour return. Worthwhile but grueling, it’s good training for the Inca Trail! Taking a taxi up and walking back is a good option.
The most impressive feature is the agricultural terracing , which sweeps around the south and east flanks of the mountain in huge and graceful curves, almost entirely unbroken by steps (which require greater maintenance and promote erosion). Instead, the terracing is joined by diagonal flights of stairs made of flagstones set into the terrace walls. Above the terraces are cliff-hugging footpaths, watched over by caracara falcons and well defended by massive stone doorways, steep stairs and a short tunnel carved out of the rock. Vendors sell drinks at the top.
This dominating site guards not only the Urubamba Valley below, but also a pass leading into the jungle to the northeast. Topping the terraces is the site’s ceremonial center , with an intihuatana (literally ‘hitching post of the sun’; an Inca astronomical tool), several working water channels, and some painstakingly neat masonry in the well-preserved temples . A path leads up the hillside to a series of ceremonial baths and around to the military area. Looking across the Kitamayo Gorge from the back of the site, you’ll also see hundreds of holes honeycombing the cliff wall. These are Inca tombs that were plundered by huaqueros (grave robbers), and are now completely off-limits to tourists.
For those taking the footpath, there are many crisscrossing trails, but if you aim toward the terracing, you won’t get lost. To the west, or the left of the hill as you climb up on the footpath, is the Río Kitamayo Gorge; to the east, or right, is the Río Chongo Valley. It’s busiest when tour groups flood in mid-morning on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.
Urubamba, which means “flat land of spiders” in Quechua, is the largest town in the sacred valley. Because it is only one hour from Cusco and very close to Machu Picchu, Urubamba is a popular stop for travelers. The town is a lovely place for relaxing, especially at the number of cafes and bars around the plaza de armas and the La Esquina having live music on some nights. There is also a market that sells fresh fruit and vegetables daily. Pablo Seminario, a popular ceramic artisan, has a workshop here where artworks can be purchased.
Located in the center of the Sacred Valley, Urubamba has become a popular place to stay, especially since the weather is milder here than in Cusco and it is close to Machu Picchu. The village has a strong Indian culture, with no Spanish symbols to be found in its city hall. Because of its natural beauty and calm the 18th century naturalist Antonio de Leon Pinelo called Urubamba the biblical Garden of Eden.
The valley of the Urubamba River was the entry point to the jungle for the Incas. Called Wilka Mayu or Sun River, the valley was linked to the worship of the sun. Prior to the founding of the Tahuantinsuyo in the 15th century, Urubamba was inhabited by small tribal groups that were ruled by chieftains. Today Urubamba has the look of a functional town, but the locals maintain its charm with their authentic, traditional way of life.
Located at the northwest end of the Sacred Valley on the banks of the Urubamba River is the great fortress of Ollantaytambo. These ruins were once a place of great spiritual and military importance for the Incas. Ollantaytambo is also one of the best preserved sites, with the old walls of houses still standing and the water still running through channels that date back to the 15th century. The village around the great fortress is one of the most pleasant places to visit in the region.
Because of the fertile soil of the valley, the area made the perfect place for the early tribes of Peru to shift from a nomadic society to settlements of farmers. The first settlements in Ollantaytambo area date back to 800 BC with the Chanapata civilization. Legend has it that the village’s brave and most famous general of the Incas, Ollantay, fell deeply in love with Kusi, the daughter of King Pachacutec. The love was forbidden because Ollantay, however accomplished he was as a leader, was a commoner and was not allowed to marry out of his social class. Today the story is celebrated theatrically and although the story is tragic, audiences can be assured of a happy ending.
A steep stairway leads to a group of buildings, the best known called the Temple of the Sun, which is an unfinished construction in front of a wall of huge boulders. It is amazing that these structures were ever even started, much less completed, considering the amount of work in manipulating the huge stones. Ollantaytambo fortress also has plazas with sacred shrines, an area where prisoners were kept and ritual shower areas call the Princess’s Bath. Ollantaytambo is also a place shrouded in mystery. It is unknown, for example, how the seven rose-colored granite monoliths were created, since that type of stone is not mined in the valley.
The village of Ollantaytambo itself has its own highlights aside from the Inca ruins. With the nearby La Veronica mountain range, rainforests, and the Forest of Clouds, there are many opportunities for outdoor adventures such as mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, and a connection to the Inca Trail en route to Machu Picchu. Just recently, Ollantaytambo is now able to offer visitors all the conveniences of a modern city.
Chinchero, which means “town of the rainbows,” is a beautiful little village located in the center of the Sacred Valley halfway between Cusco and Machu Picchu. It got its name because it is believed to be the mythical birthplace of the rainbow. There are amazing views of the Vilcabamba mountains and the snow-capped peak of the Salkantay in the west. Like many of the villages in the valley Chinchero still holds onto it’s pre-Hispanic days of traditional clothing and centuries-old houses.
Chinchero was a popular spot for Inca royalty, possibly because of the beautiful views of the nearby river and snow-capped mountains. In fact, this village was the favorite spot for Tupac Yupanqui, who built a palace and agricultural terraces around the Rio Vilcanota. The ruins also make historians and scientists suspect that Chinchero was largely populated during Incan times.
The striking remnants left behind by the Incas suggest that Chinchero was once an important village in the empire. The massive stonewall in the main plaza and the agricultural terraces which are still in use, were built by Tupac Yupanqui, who used Chichero as a country resort.
There is also an adobe colonial church from the early 17th century, which was built upon the foundation of an Inca temple or palace. Inside the ceiling and walls are covered in amazing floral and sacred designs, which can be viewed on Sundays when it opens for mass. Lake Piuri is also worth a visit, which is only a half hour walk away. A walk around the lake takes about three hours as you pass through quaint villages.
MORAY AND SALT MINES
Just outside of Mara is the fascinating but lesser known Inca site of Moray, which consists of two large circular terraces that form giant amphitheatre-type shapes. It is uncertain exactly what this area was used for, but one theory is that each level of the irrigation canals were used for its different microclimate in order to acclimatize and domesticate different crops and determine which areas were best for agriculture.
Stone stairs were built into the terrace walls, which allow visitors to walk down to the bottom level. From this vantage point you can get an upward, all encompassing view of the stonewalls and open sky.
The salt beds of Salinas are not too far from Moray, so it would be feasible to visit both sites in one day. The salt mines are located in the northwest of the Maras Village and have been used since ancient times.
There are 3000 small pools that line the mountainside, each yielding about 150 kilos of salt per month. The pools are fed by a saltwater hot spring, which has been diverted into the salt beds where the water evaporates and leaves crystallized salt to be harvested.
The geometric blocks of coffee-colored squares are a favorite site for photographers. The Mara village is also a beautiful site that lies atop a 3038m plateau where La Veronica and Chikon mountains can be seen.
The locals still harvest the saltpans just as their ancestors have for thousands of years. A special tour is offered, which allows the visitor to participate in the different stages of salt extraction: cleaning, irrigation, collection, and transfer.
The most convenient way to get to both sites is by taking a taxi or bus from Chinchero to the village of Maras. From there you can walk 9km/5.4 miles to Moray. Another option is to hike several hours from Urubamba to Maras or mountain bike from Cuzco or Urubamba.