Perched high in the Peruvian Andes and a 90 minute journey from Sol y Luna sits the fascinating city of Cusco. Whilst many visitors are tempted to make a beeline for Machu Picchu, we highly recommend taking time to explore this cultural colossus, South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city and Peru’s second most populous after Lima.
Guests can enjoy bespoke excursions to Cusco with our private guides, all of whom have an exhaustive knowledge of the rich heritage of the city.
The name Cusco is derived from the Quechua word Qosqo, meaning ‘navel’ or ‘centre’, given it was the capital of the Inca Empire that spanned thousands of miles to reach as far as modern day Colombia to the North and Chile to the South.
Cusco is a city of paradoxes where ancient history, culture and customs coexist alongside nature, art, gastronomy, entertainment and adventure. Cusco has been ranked 21st out of 25 best tourist destinations in the world by nearly 4.8 million readers of preeminent U.S. magazine Travel + Leisure. The city is one of only six from the entire American hemisphere to make it into the ‘World’s Best Awards’.
Founded by the Incas in the 13th century, then re-founded by Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro on March 23rd, 1534, the city is almost five centuries old and the undisputed archaeological capital of the Americas. The conquistadors preserved the basic structure and foundations of the city, but made their mark by building Baroque churches and palaces over the Inca ruins. Today’s Cusco is a combination of ancient Inca temples and monuments, colonial architecture and contemporary buildings.
An earthquake in 1650 shook Cusco to its core and led to dramatic rebuilding efforts that signalled the start of the Cusco Baroque period, during which the city saw an explosion in stonework, art and sculpture, jewellery, and ornamental woodwork. The work was influenced by Roman Catholic priests and monks, and numerous buildings were erected in place of existing Inca ones. In May 1950, another devastating earthquake destroyed many of city’s structures. Since then the city has been sensitively restored and is now Peru’s most important tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With a large number of sites, museums, ruins and other archaeological, cultural and culinary treasures, we have highlighted just a few to whet the appetite – do contact the team for more information on how to incorporate a Cusco visit in to your stay with us.
Qorikancha and Santa Domingo
A must-see in Cusco, the Qorikancha ruins form the base of the colonial church and convent of Santo Domingo. Formerly the most sacred temple in the Inca Empire, used to worship Inti, the Inca Sun God, all that remains now is some startling stonework and a curious blend of Inca and colonial architecture. In Inca times, the temple was lavishly adorned with gold sheets and filled with solid gold treasures, forming a site for various religious rites and celestial observation. Temples dedicated to the moon and the stars were covered with sheets of solid silver and there were smaller temples devoted to thunder and the rainbow. Colonial paintings depict the life of St Dominic and contain several representations of God’s guard dogs holding torches in their jaws.
The church of Santo Domingo is adjacent to Qorikancha. Less ornamental than many of Cusco’s churches, it features paintings of archangels shown as Andean children dressed in jeans and T-shirts.
Arguably the best archaeological site in Cusco, the huge former Inca fortress of Sacsayhuamán overlooks the valley from a hill above the city. Cusco is said to have been designed in the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuamán forming its head and jaws. The fortress features three-tiered battlements and vast stone walls, with component stones weighing up to 200 tons and measuring up to 27 feet in height carefully cut to slot together without mortar. How these gargantuan boulders were moved from local quarries or fitted together with such precision is difficult to compute, but the effect is breathtaking.
The narrow streets of Cusco are lined with ancient, intricate Inca walls. These walls form the foundations of today’s Cusco, and some of the best places to see them are along the streets of Loreto and Hatunrumiyoc. Inca walls line both sides of Loreto, which runs southeast from the Plaza de Armas. Hatunrumiyoc runs northeast from the Plaza de Armas, and is known for the 12-sided stone positioned along the east wall. Souvenir sellers regularly vie to set up shop opposite the stone.
Plaza de Armas
In the Inca period, the plaza, called Huacaypata or Aucaypata, represented the heart of the capital. Today it’s the beating heart of the modern city. The plaza showcases Peruvian Inca and Spanish influences; on the north-eastern side stands the imposing cathedral, which is bordered by the churches of Jesús María and El Triunfo. On the south-eastern edge is the outstandingly ornate church of La Compañía de Jesús. The quiet historical alleyway of Loreto, flanked by Inca walls, leads to the plaza. It’s worth visiting the plaza by day and by night – illuminated in the darkness it’s a stunning sight and is a great place to drink, dine and people watch.
Constructed on the site of an Inca palace using stone swiped from Sacsayhuamán, the cathedral took almost a century to build and was completed in 1654. The Iglesia del Triunfo sits to its right, while the Iglesia de Jesús María sits to the left. The cathedral is home to an impressive collection of archaeological relics, artifacts, statues and colonial paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries which reflect both European and Andean styles. Here you will see Marcos Zapata’s painting The Last Supper which depicts the apostles dining on guinea pig and Cusco’s oldest surviving painting showing the city during the 1650 earthquake. The stark stonework contrasts with showy gold and silver side chapels, an ornate altar embossed in silver and choir stalls carved from cedar wood.
Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús
Another example of a church built on the site of an Inca palace, the Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús was constructed by Jesuits in 1571 and reconstructed after the 1650 earthquake. The Jesuits had designs on making this the most spectacular of Cusco’s churches, but the city’s archbishop disagreed, complaining that it should not steal the cathedral’s glory. Pope Paul III was summoned to arbitrate – he favored the cathedral, but by this time La Compañía de Jesús was complete, adorned with a magnificent baroque façade, Peru’s largest altar and a soaring dome.
Templo y Convento de La Merced
Regarded as Cusco’s third most important colonial church, La Merced was rebuilt after being destroyed in the 1650 earthquake. A monastery and museum are located to the left of the church. The 1.2m high gold and precious stone sacristy houses the church’s prized treasures and a beautiful colonial cloister contains paintings based on the life of San Pedro Nolasco, who founded the order of La Merced in Barcelona in 1218. The church on the far side of the cloister holds the tombs of famous conquistadors Diego de Almagro and Gonzalo Pizarro (brother of Francisco).
Iglesia San Francisco
A more sombre edifice than many of Cusco’s other churches, Iglesia San Francisco dates from the 16th and 17th centuries. Unlike most of its church cousins, it withstood the 1650 earthquake and now houses a large collection of colonial religious paintings and a strikingly carved cedar choir.
South America’s largest painting, measuring 9m by 12m, depicting the family tree of St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order, lives in the attached museum. Two crypts, not entirely underground, display a selection of human bones.
The city’s finest Inca museum is located in the ornate 16th-century Spanish Admiral’s House, an impressive colonial building – worth visiting in its own right – which enjoys excellent views across the Plaza de Armas. Sculptures of mythical creatures guard the great staircase and an intriguing corner window column appears from the inside to be a statue of a bearded man but from the outside looks like a naked woman. The museum centres around the rise of the Inca culture up to the Spanish Conquest and the impact it had on Peruvian cultures. Textiles, metal and gold work, jewellery, ceramics and mummies are displayed, alongside the world’s largest collection of queros – 450 carved and painted wooden drinking vessels. Weavers from the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco run demonstrations and sell traditional textiles in the sunny courtyard during the tourist season.
Museo de Arte Precolombino
This cleverly curated pre-Columbian art museum displays a select number of diverse archaeological artifacts previously buried in the cavernous storerooms of Lima’s Museo Larco. Housed within a Spanish colonial mansion featuring an Incan ceremonial courtyard, the relics date from between 1250 BC and AD 1532 and highlight the artistic and cultural achievements of many of Peru’s ancient cultures. Exhibits range from glittering jewels and elaborate gold and silver-work to queros and multi-coloured ceramics.
Museo Machu Picchu
Housed in Casa Concha, another beautifully restored colonial home, this museum showcases 360 pieces taken from Hiram Bingham’s expeditions to Machu Picchu. Exhibits include stone tools and metals, ceramics and bones and an assortment of fine handicrafts from the vast Incan empire. A taster before a trip to Machu Picchu itself!
Museo de Arte Religioso
A former Inca palace, the foundations of this museum were first converted into a grand colonial mansion and later into the archbishop’s palace. The museum is home to an eminent religious-art collection remarkable for the accuracy of its period detail and its understanding of relations between the indigenous peoples and the Spanish conquistadors.
Museo de Arte Popular
This appealing museum is home to the winning entries of Cusco’s annual Popular Art Competition. Local artists show off a range of talents and styles, offering a light-hearted and at times arresting approach to ordinary life, all set against the backdrop of a once-grandiose culture. A range of images captured by local photographer Martín Chambi include dramatic shots of the aftermath of the 1950 earthquake.
This is Cusco’s cultural and artistic district – the hidden treasure of trendy San Blas, which rises on a hill to the northeast of the Plaza de Armas. The square of San Blas houses the Coca Museum and the Hilario Mendivil Museum Workshop. Cobbled streets are lined with attractive colonial architecture and bustle with artisan workshops, galleries, shops, coffee shops and restaurants; this vibrant are really comes into its own in the evenings. The Temple of San Blas is the neighborhood’s primary colonial structure and boasts a gold Baroque altar and pulpit carved from a single tree. Saturday is market day when San Blas Plaza buzzes with multicolored market stalls peddling local fruit and vegetables. Sunsets and panoramic views over Cusco don’t get better than those from the San Blas Viewpoint.
Mercado Central de San Pedro
A visit to the stalls of the San Pedro Market on any day of the week offers an intriguing insight into local life. The Mercado Central is a feast for the senses, brimming with sights, sounds and smells. Stalls groan with pan chuta, a local bread, as well as fruit and vegetables, bags of the local speciality – fried guinea pigs – in addition to handmade textiles and Andean arts and crafts.
So come! Venture into the captivating living museum that is Cusco; immerse yourself in the richest heritage of any South American city and absorb the energy of this exhilarating metropolis.
Contact us today to and we’d be happy to arrange your very own visit to Cusco as part of your stay with us here at Sol y Luna.