Along with the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (now swallowed by modern-day Mexico City), Cusco was the other imperial capital of the Americas at the start of the Spanish conquest.
Cusco was a dazzling sight, with its temples of elegantly fitted stone, colossal plazas, royal palaces, and the hilltop fortress of Sacsayhuamán, which the Incas somehow built from house-sized stones.
This was the capital of the New World’s Roman empire and, as in Rome, paved highways fanned out from here through an empire that had stretched between southern Chile and Colombia.
As Francisco Pizarro marched wide-eyed through this kingdom in 1533, Cusco became the holy grail of his conquest. Two scouts he sent ahead told him the city was as elegant as a European city and literally covered in gold. Before the scouts left Cusco, they used crowbars to pry 700 plates of gold off the walls of Coricancha, the sun temple.
Despite four centuries of Spanish domination, Cusco still seems to be in a tug-of-war between Spanish and Inca cultures. Though the Spaniards destroyed the Inca buildings in an act of domination, they had enough common sense to leave many of the bulging, seamless stone walls as foundations. These walls are evidence of the uneasy cultural tension in places like Coricancha and even hotel lobbies, where seamless Inca walls are nestled incongruously among arcades of Spanish arches.
With its proximity to the standout attractions of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, Cusco is one of the top destinations in Latin America and the mecca of the Gringo Trail, the well-trod backpacker’s route through Latin America. The sheer quantity of restaurants, hotels, and cafés indicates the city’s dependence on tourism, which somehow has not diminished Cusco’s charm. Schoolchildren run through the street yelling in Quechua, and villagers in the surrounding countryside retain their native dress, festivals, and love of chicha, the local brew of fermented corn.
Cusco is at 3,400 meters (11,150 feet), and most people who arrive here feel some form of soroche, or altitude sickness, which can range from a headache and the chills to more serious ailments. The best plan is to visit the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu first and return to Cusco after becoming used to the altitude.
The heart of Cusco is its Plaza de Armas, which stands out for its huge, 16th-century cathedral. Beyond the Plaza de Armas, and opposite the cathedral, are two charming squares, Plaza Regocijo and Plaza San Francisco. Farther along in this direction lies the market of San Pedro.
To the side of the cathedral, a narrow pedestrian street named Procuradores is lined wall-to-wall with restaurants, bars, and cafés. This is Cusco’s Gringo Alley, which is crowded with aggressive salespeople. Behind the cathedral, steep alleys lead to San Blas, a bohemian neighborhood that contains most of our favorite hostels and bars.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition