Ancient Capital of the Incas

Cusco is the ancient capital of the Incas in Peru. From the city, the Incas ruled their great empire between the 12th and 15th centuries. Partly for this reason, Cusco is also called the Imperial city. Today it is a popular city for travellers on their way to Machu Picchu. They often also visit various other Inca ruins in the area. These are the best sights of Cusco. In this article, you will also find a lot of information about the various excursions that you can do from the city.

The city is located at an altitude of 3,360 meters in the Andes Mountains. You can see the mountains all around you during your visit. This was once the vibrant capital of the Incas, the atmosphere is palpable. Although the Spaniards destroyed a lot here during their search for the Golden city. Nevertheless, the historic centre of Cusco was included in 1981 on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List.

Take your time for Cusco, it is a lively city with nice restaurants and bars. Nightlife is also abundant. And you can do many trips to the Sacred Valley from Cusco. I stayed a whole week to explore the city and its surroundings.

Plaza de Armas

The Plaza de Armas (also called Cuzco Main Square) is impressive. So much is happening all day long. Countless vendors offer anything and everything, there is a smell of fresh food everywhere and wonderful South American music can be heard.

In the middle of the square you see the statue of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. He was the Inca emperor from 1438 to 1471. He is the most famous emperor, as he was able to greatly increase the empire of the Incas. The statue is gilded and appears to be made of gold. This is a reference to the Spaniards' search for the Golden City that they never found.

The present meets the past in the former capital of the Incas: Cusco. ©Corno van den Berg

Around the square, you will see many shops, coffee shops and restaurants. It's fun to wander around. There are also many tour operators that offer day trips. In addition, massages are also frequently offered.

Cusco Cathedral

The Cathedral of Cusco is the most stately building on the main square. You can clearly see the Gothic-Renaissance style. What is special is that it was built on the same site as an Inca palace, according to archaeologists. You can visit the cathedral with all its works of art for a small entrance ticket.

Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús

Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus ©Corno van den Berg

I think the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús is by far the most beautiful church in Cusco. This baroque church can be found on the Plaza de Armas and it is beautifully lit at night. You can visit the church, except when there are services.

Festivals in Cusco

Celebrating Inti Raymi in the streets of Cusco.

Due to Cusco's rich past, there is a chance that you can experience one of the many festivals. These are some of the most special held each year:

  • Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun): At this festival on June 24, the streets are full of dancers, and bands. In Sacsayhuaman, the old Inca traditions are revived.
  • Semana Santa: Around Easter with El Senor de los Temblores (The Lord of the Earthquakes) as the most important day, where a large procession is held. With, among other things, fireworks, music and a lot of revelries among the residents.
  • Dia de la Pachamama (Day of Mother Earth): On August 1, one of the more indigenous festivals is celebrated. Locals pay tribute to the earth with personal gifts. This is accompanied by music and festivities.
  • Señor de Huanca: In the week around September 14, thousands of pilgrims flock to the Sanctuary of the Senor do Huanca outside the city. Where countless traditional rituals can be seen, you can also attend a mass.
  • Q'oyoriti: This traditional festival is held on the full moon weekend before Corpus Christi. This is usually the end of May. The special festival takes place at the foot of Mount Ausangate, at an altitude of 4,600 meters. The mountain is covered with snow. There is music, dancing and processions. According to experts, this is one of the most beautiful to experience.

San Pedro Central Market

Those who like to visit a market can indulge themselves at the San Pedro Central Market in Cusco. You will find countless fruits and vegetables, but also fresh fish, flowers and small restaurants where you can eat. Especially around breakfast time it can get very busy.

Taste the freshly roasted coffee, fruit juices and teas made from countless herbs. Special is Maca, a herbaceous plant from the Andes. It is also called Peruvian ginseng and you can drink it. The market is open from Monday to Saturday, from 06:30 in the morning to 17:00 in the afternoon.

Address: Plazoleta San Pedro S / N, Cascaparo

One of the many local markets in Cusco.

Craft Center Cusco

Those who like to shop for souvenirs should go here. You will find a lot of clothes, bags, and jewellery. Most of it is handmade. Bargaining is part of it, you can get about 30 to 40% off the price.

Address: crossing Tullumayo Avenue / El Sol Avenue.

San Blas Neighbourhood

A saleswoman in the San Blas neighborhood. ©Corno van den Berg

San Blas is a nice neighborhood in Cusco, with narrow and especially steep streets. I think this is the nicest part of the city. You will find here many small shops, galleries, bars and restaurants. All world cuisines are represented, but especially Peruvian and local cuisine. Including Chifa, a mix of Peruvian and Chinese food.

San Blas Square is a must to visit. Residents come together for a chat, you can see them sitting on the benches. The characteristic church completes the picture. In the area, there are many small boutique hotels and hostels to spend the night, usually at a reasonable price.

Sapantiana Aqueduct

Sapantiana Aqueduct. ©Corno van den Berg

The Sapantiana Aqueduct has become known through social media. And yes, you can take nice photos and videos here. The structure was built in the small P'ujru River between the 17th and 18th centuries under the Jesuit Order of Cusco. That is why the aqueduct was built in colonial style. It is a three-tiered arch of Sapantiana shrine material that comes from the region. In the past, this arch was used to guide the water to the city. The water still flows into the city today. You will find the Sapantiana Aqueduct in the San Blas district on the road to Sacsayhuamán.

Coricancha (Temple of the Sun)

The interior of the convent of Santo Domingo.

Korikancha is the famous Temple of the Sun of the Incas. This was once the most sacred of the Incas. It was dedicated to Inti, the god of the sun. Nowadays it is a museum. The Spaniards saw this temple full of golden leaves. They plundered it to build the Church of Santo Domingo on the ruins. You can clearly see the transition between the special architectural style of the Incas and the Spanish architectural style. You can visit the museum. Book a guide, so that you get a lot of background information.


The beauty of Sacsayhuamán near Cusco.

Sacsayhuamán is a famous Inca ruin that lies on the outskirts of the city. Scholars are not exactly sure what the many high walls were for. This was probably also a temple for the sun god Inti, but there are also scientists who give it a military role. Take your time for these ruins, it's a nice excursion. Sacsayhuamán can be reached on foot via a steep climb. It is a wonderful walk through the San Blas district, with several stops.

Accommodations in Cusco

Cusco is very worthwhile for several days. I have stayed in several hotels and was pleasantly surprised. Most hotels, hostels and bed & breakfasts are located in or near the centre. So you have everything within walking distance. The architecture of the accommodations is mostly South American with cheerful colours. The facilities are usually very good.

Find the best accommodations in Cusco

Peruvian Cuisine in Cusco

A roasted cuy (or guinea pig) with vegetables. ©Corno van den Berg

Cusco is the perfect place to taste the diverse Peruvian cuisine. With some special dishes and drinks. These are my recommendations:

  • Cuy al horno (guinea pig): In Europe, the guinea pig is a pet, but don't be mistaken, it also is in Peru. The difference is that they like to eat the animal as well. The guinea pig is roasted over an open fire until crispy. You can order this dish in various restaurants. There are two versions: the complete animal with a head, teeth and legs and the tourist version. This contains only edible parts.
  • Pisco Sour: This cocktail is special because it contains a raw egg. Or at least the egg white. In countless places, you can see how it is made from Pisco (40% alcohol), fresh lime juice, chungo bitter, sugar syrup, fresh egg white and a pinch of cinnamon. And mix everything well.
  • Quinoa Soup: This typical dish from the Andes is incredibly tasty and healthy. You can find numerous versions around the city with mostly pure quinoa with lots of vegetables. Sometimes there is meat in it, ask in advance if you don't want this.
  • Alpaca Steak: Not everyone wants to taste it, but alpaca meat is incredibly soft and contains no fat. According to researchers, it is one of the reasons why Peruvians are getting so old. In various restaurants, you can taste this as a steak, although there are also hamburgers and other variations.

Tours to the Sacred Valley

Moray in Peru.

Numerous tours to the many sights in the Sacred Valley are organized from Cusco. You can book half-day tours, full-day tours and multi-day trips. You will find agencies in the city that offer these trips. These excursions depart from the city, you will be picked up at your hotel. There is a guide that will give you more background information. The most popular tour is an excursion through Cusco and the surrounding attractions.

During my trip I visited other locations in the Cusco region. Also read my articles about Ollantaytambo, Maras Salt Terraces, Rainbow Mountain, Pisac and Moray. 

Boleto Turistico

You can buy a Boleto Turistico at your hotel and at many tour operators. This is useful if you want to visit several attractions in the city and the Sacred Valley. It costs about 40 euros and gives you access to 16 popular attractions. You can use the ticket in 10 consecutive days, which is more than enough. I bought the Boleto Turistico and it saved a lot of money.

From Cusco to Machu Picchu

Cusco is a stop for many people on their way to Machu Picchu. They use Cusco because of the altitude as a place to acclimatize. I have been to Machu Picchu twice. The last time was by train. Earlier I travelled to Ollantaytambo, for the Inca Trail. I then caught the train back.

By Train

The famous train journey to Aguas Calientes is an experience. Especially if you prepare well for the trip. You have a lot of choices in types of trains, but there is a difference in which one you choose.

Read my article about the Train to Machu Picchu   

Via the Inca Trail

The three-day Inca Trail hike has been very popular for years. And therefore busy. Nevertheless, it is a magical experience that you will not soon forget. You can only walk the Inca Trail with a guide and there are more rules to follow.

Read my article about the Inca Trail

Via the Salkantay Trail

One of my most beautiful treks in Peru is the Salkantay Trail. This is also an Inca Trail, like many, but much less known. You can also do this from Cusco, although it is five days long. But you will then walk up to 4,600 meters.

Read my article about the Salkantay Trail   

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