I’ve been to many places around the world, and in all sincerity, Cuzco is one of my favorites. Maybe it’s the Spanish teacher and history lover in me, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. Cuzco is truly unique, and has such a compelling and unparalleled history. It combines the ancient with the new in a way I’ve never seen elsewhere. The indigenous cultures blend together in the city’s art and history, dotted with evidence of the Spanish conquest. The native art, food, and traditions combine with the influence of European architecture to create a truly matchless and exceptional place.
The mystifying and enigmatic stories of the Incas can be found all over the city. Expertly constructed stones beneath unassuming restaurants offer clues to its past. Festivals and celebrations recount the heroism and the tragedy of the Inca people and their saga. The atmosphere, the brisk climate, the colors, and the scent of food in the air all blend together to form a place no other can match. Cuzco is magical, and I hope it continues to intrigue its visitors for years to come.
After a visit here during a month long backpacking trip, here are my recommendations for the top 10 things you must do when you visit Cuzco :
1. Visit the Temple of Q’orikancha
This temple was once the most revered site in the Inca capital. Its walls were literally covered in plates of fine gold, and it had a large courtyard filled with solid gold statues. This was the epicenter of worship for the Inca people. When the conquistadors arrived, they ransacked it and sent all of the gold back to Spain. Then, to add insult to injury, they demolished the temple. Once demolished, the Spaniards used its foundations to build a Cathedral right on top of it. They wanted to suppress and insult the Inca, and I’d say they did.
For visitors today, it is a rare sight to see. The Spaniards incorporated the Inca stonework in to the base of their church in a very unique manner. Very few places in the world have evidence of two such different cultures connected in such a way.
Now, the site of Q’orikancha includes the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo. There isn’t much gold left to be seen, and the scarce few artifacts that have remained in Peru are housed in the nearby archaeological museum. It is a far different site from what it once was, but it is amazing to see the dualities it represents.
2. See the Ruins of Sacsayhuaman
A citadel on the outskirts of the city, this complex is a wonder. A fortress located on a steep hill overlooking the city, it was the location of the historic battle of Cajamarca; An event that changed the face of Peru forever. This is where Pizarro and his men decimated Atahualpa and his soldiers, killing thousands and gaining control of the Inca Empire for Spain.
These walls and stones have seen their share of history, and over time it was slowly disassembled by the courteous Spaniards, who used the stones to build their own homes. Today, it is still used for the yearly festival of Inti Raymi– a celebration of the winter solstice.
3. Take a Tram to the Cristo Blanco Overlook–
Take the local tram tour (Tranvía Cusco) to see the sprawling city. Walking too much can make you feel sick from the altitude, so this is a good option! The tram will take you to the top of a beautiful overlook (Cristo Blanco) with the perfect view of the mountains and city below.
4. Stroll the Plaza de Armas –
The epicenter of the city, this plaza is hard to miss. During the Inca times, it was known as the “Square of the Warrior”, and was home to many important historical events. It saw Francisco Pizarro’s proclamation of defeat over the Inca Empire, and the brutal public death of Inca leader Tupac Amaru. Over the years, the Spaniards made it their own. They constructed a beautiful cathedral, gardens, and stone arcades all around the plaza which still stand today.
5. Step in the Church of Cuzco (La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús)-
This church was built by the Jesuits in 1576, and is the focal point of the Plaza de Armas. It was built on the foundations of Amarucancha, which was the Inca royal residence. Go inside and admire its colonial architecture, or peer down into the underground chapel. A good idea is to pay to go to the top, as it has a great view of the plaza below.
6. Experience Peruvian Food-
The further you venture away from the plaza, the more authentic and inexpensive the food will get. While most Peruvian food is of course delicious, I particularly recommend:
Empanadas: Delicious meat-filled pastries filled with veggies and garnished with limes and onions
Cancha & Choclo: Cancha is basically unpopped popcorn- tasty and salty! Choclo is boiled corn- soft and delicious!
Chaufa de Pollo– Peruvian cuisine with a Chinese influence, this is essentially a local version of fried rice- YUM
7. Check out the Pre-Columbian Art Museum –
This museum has an unparalleled Peruvian art collection, and is located in the Casa Cabrera (a mansion that dates back to 1580). Inside, there are 450 artifacts that include ceramics, jewelry, carvings, and artifacts from Q’Orikancha dating from 1250BC up to 1532AD.
8. Marvel at the Twelve-Sided Stone –
Known as Hatun Rumiyoc, this stone might not seem particularly exciting at first. It is notable however, because of the astounding masonry and architectural prowess it represents. The Inca were able to carve stone in rounded edges, and place them together without mortar. Not only this, but they are so perfectly matched that one cannot even pass a piece of paper through the precise stones. This particular stone has 12 sides to it, and shows the jigsaw-puzzle style in which these pieces were expertly matched. Now there are colonial era buildings standing on its foundations, but it is the epitome of Inca architectural expertise. It is also located at the entrance to the San Blas Barrio, a charming neighborhood filled with arts and crafts, and surprises around every corner.
9. Drive to Nearby Architectural Sites-
If you have time to leave the city center for a bit, the nearby architectural site and temple complex of Ollantaytambo (about a 2 hour drive) is absolutely worth a visit. The site of Písac (1 hour drive) is another worthy place to visit. Not frequently seen by tourists, these places create a sense of discovery for those who venture out. If you prefer to go on an organized tour, check out this list of ideas.
10. Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu– Obviously!