Many people come to Cusco as a way to see Machu Picchu and not much else. It’s where many treks on the famous Incan trail begin, and in hotels and hostels it seems like every third person there is packing up their unwieldy gear to begin a four-day trek. People stay in Cusco just long enough to get their bearings before heading to Machu Picchu, a sight that absolutely should not be missed on any trip to Peru.
Cusco is the old Incan capital nestled high in the Andes, with an altitude over 3000 meters. Many current travelers struggle with the altitude change, making it important that you listen to your body. The Incans built their palaces and centered their economy here, which made it an important center of an empire that expanded from Ecuador to Chile. However, when the Spanish came they tore down much of the ruins and replaced them with cathedrals and other Spanish architecture to show the domination of Spain over the Incans. Because the city has been so well preserved over the years as its mountain location prevents too much urban sprawl, there’s much to see and do in this historic city.
The Spanish presence is most felt at the Plaza de Armas. This square was formerly the sight of the Incan palace, but today hosts no less than two major churches including the Cathedral of Cusco, on the sight of the former Incan palace. These churches are well worth their small entry fee to see the splendor of the old Spanish conquerors. The square itself is also atmospheric with historical buildings and cobblestone streets.
By following the cobblestone streets, I found myself in San Blas, an ancient neighborhood of Cusco. The streets are steep and narrow, and the buildings are painted traditionally blue and white. No exploration of Cusco would be complete without spending time wandering in San Blas.
Also worth a visit is the San Pedro Market. Filled to the brim with locals, there are stands hawking every type of meat, cheese, bread, fruit, and vegetable imaginable. Also of note are the stands in the back where Peruvian women serve up their special dishes. I had the best lomo saltado (Peruvian stir fried beef) at a white countertop back here, surrounded with other Peruvians chowing down on their lunch break.
Even though the Spanish did a pretty good job of razing Cusco to the ground before rebuilding, there are still remnants of the empire that used to rule here. Sacsayhuamán is an old religious temple (or maybe a fortress, archeologists are still unsure) sitting high over the town, about a steep 30-mintue walk up the center. I skipped it, feeling the effects of the altitude sickness. Listen to your body! If you simply can’t wait to get to Machu Picchu to see Incan ruins, Qoricancha, the sun temple, is sitting right in the center of town. Spanish conquers built a church right over the ruins, but much of the temple is still well preserved. However, it pales compared with the magic of Machu Picchu
What really makes Cusco feel magical isn’t the ancient sights or cobblestone streets, but the fact that the past still lives today. Even though many locals are dressed in modern fashions, a large percentage of women prefer to wear indigenous dress, with traditional hats over braided pigtails, flouncy skits, and colorful shawls. In some places, I’ve seen people wearing traditional dress to pose for tourist photo ops. Not so in Cusco. Much like Indian women wearing the sari, the women of Cusco prefer to keep the past alive by dressing much like their ancestors did. What truly makes Cusco special is how the past and present live side by sided, all nestled into a scenic valley of the Andes.