The ancient Inca capital is said to have been founded around 1100 AD. It is today a major commercial centre of 275,000 permanent residents, most of whom are Quechua. The city council has designated the Quechua, Qosqo, as the official spelling.
Here's a video of Cuzco and the surrounding area, shot during our 'Jaguar' trip:
A little bit about Cuzco's history
Cuzco is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in the western hemisphere and is of major historical importance. Cuzco was more than just a capital city to the Incas and the millions of subjects in their realm. It was a Holy City, a place of pilgrimage with as much importance to the Quechuas as Mecca has to the Moslems. Every ranking citizen of the empire tried to visit Cuzco once in his lifetime; to have done so increased his stature wherever he might travel.
According to Inca myth, the Sun sent his son, Manco Capac, and the Moon sent her daughter, Mama Ocllo, to spread culture and enlightenment throughout the dark, barbaric lands. They emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca and began their journey in search of the place where they would form their kingdom. When they reached the present-day Cuzco, Manco plunged his golden staff into the ground in order to test its suitability, and it duly sank deep into the fertile land. This was the sign they were looking for to choose the capital of their empire. They named the spot Cuzco - meaning 'navel of the earth'. Thus was the significance of Cuzco and the Sacred Valley established for many hundreds of years to come.
Cuzco is still laid out much as it was in Inca times. The Incas conceived their capital in the shape of a puma with the river serving as the spine, Sacsayhuaman the head and the main city centre the body. Almost every central street has remains of Inca walls, arches and doorways. Many streets are lined with Inca stonework, now serving as foundations for more modern buildings. Inca stonework is tapered upwards (battered) and every wall has a perfect line of inclination towards the centre, from bottom to top. The stones have each edge and corner rounded.
Cuzco is the archealogical capital of the Americas and has something for everybody. The variety of museums, religious and historical sites will keep you occupied for as long as you are willing (access to the sites listed below are included in your trip fare). If you want entertainment, fine food, great coffee, and awesome shopping, there's no better place than Cuzco.
Things to see in Cuzco
1. Plaza de Armas
In Inca times, the plaza was twice as large as it is today. It was the heart of Inca Cuzco and remains the heart of the modern city. Two flags fly here, the red and white Peruvian flag and the rainbow colored flag of Tahuantinsuyo (representing the four quarters of the Inca empire.) Colonial arcades, cathedrals and Inca walls surround the plaza. Extending from the plaza are many cobbled pathways leading to the fascinating sites around the city.
2. La Catedral
Started in 1559 and taking almost a hundred years to build, the cathedral is Cuzco's main main church and also one of the cities greatest repositories of colonial art. Many of the hundreds of canvases are from the Cuzco school of painting. Cuzcos' cathedral is elaborate, ornate and will take you back in time.
3. La Compania
This church on the Plaza de Armas is often lit up at night and can be seen from Machu Picchu after dark - a splendid sight. Its foundations are built from the palace of Huayna Capac - the last Inca to rule an undivided, unconquered empire. This church was built by the Jesuits, commencing work in 1571. They planned to make it the most impressive church in Cuzco however the bishop of Cuzco complained that its splendour should not rival that of the Cathedral and Pope Paul III was called upon to arbitrate. His decision was in favour of the cathedral, but by the time word reached Cuzco, La Compania was almost complete.
4. Inca Ruins in Cuzco
Most of the Inca ruins in Cuzco have been converted into colonial or modern buildings, but their walls remain visible. The main ruin within Cuzco is Coricancha. This Inca ruin forms the base of the colonial church of Santo Domingo. Today, all that remains of Coricancha (once the Inca empires richest temple) is the stonework - the precious stones and metals were looted by the conquistadors.
In Inca times, Coricancha was literally covered in gold. The temple walls were lined with some 700 solid goldsheets, each weighing about five pounds. There were also lifesize solid gold replicas corn, llamas, as well as a replica of the sun. Various religious rites took place in Coricancha or the temple of the sun which is why it was one of the most important sites in the entire empire.
5. Inca empire
There are many other Inca walls in Cuzco that are not visitor sites in themselves but are equally as impressive. These are all visible around the city centre.
This huge ruin is the most impressive in the immediate Cuzco area. This mountaintop site overlooking the city is shrouded in mystery. Its precise function is still not known however most authorities agree that the site had important religious and military significance. Sacsayhuaman hosted one of the fiercest battles between the Incas and their Spanish Conquistadors. The fortresses' zigzag ramparts form the teeth of the 'puma' and contain rocks weighing as much as 300 tons.
Museo Arqueologico Q'orikancha
This small underground museum is in front of the Church of Santo Domingo and is entered from Avenida del Sol. There are various archaeological displays that interpret both Inca and pre-Inca cultures.
Museo de Historia Regional
This museum is in the colonial Casa Garcilasode la Vega, the house of the Inca historian that is buried in the cathedral. The chronologically arranged collection holds artifacts from the many pre-Inca and Inca cultures that thrived in Peru.
Museo Palacio Municipal
This small museum has a small collection of local modern art on display. Well worth a look.
If one thing is certain, you won't go hungry here. Cuzco has a great variety of restaurants catering to every taste and budget.
- Kusikuy has plenty of Peruvian and international dishes.
- Pucara has good food and menus with photographs, so even the linguistically challenged can order chicken and not get eggdrop soup.
- Govinda Vegetarian Restaurant has fantastic vegetarian food, and is highly recommended.
- Inka Grill is deservedly popular and recommended for its high quality food and service.
- Los Perros is a favourite amongst the Active Adventures South America crew. The food is fantastic and the service is second to none.