Cusco, Peru - Stein Travel

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Welcome to Cusco

The sacred capital of the Inca Empire and known to the early Incas as the 'navel of the world', Cusco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America. Gateway to the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu, the city is filled with the Inca legacy, evident in the straight cobbled streets lined with the remains of exquisite stone walls built by the Incas, examples of ancient stonework incorporated into the structure of colonial churches and buildings, and the Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas that fill the streets with their bright dress and colourful handicrafts.

A vibrant and exciting city, it is one of South America's biggest tourist destinations with a thriving traditional culture, ancient ruins, archaeological treasures, and magnificent colonial architecture. Chief among its attractions are the Inca Trail (culminating at the magnificent hidden city of Machu Picchu), the villages and archaeological ruins in the nearby Sacred Valley, and the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuamán overlooking the imperial city.

Despite its popularity, Cusco remains relatively unspoiled and its beautiful setting in the Andean mountains, at an altitude of 11,000ft (3,400m), is guaranteed to leave visitors breathless. Cobbled streets run steeply up the hills and are lined with quaint whitewashed houses, steps are bordered by craft stalls watched over by traditionally dressed indigenous women, and elevated church bell towers offer fantastic views over the red-tiled roofs.

The heart of the city is the stately Plaza de Armas, dominated by the Cathedral and framed by colonial arcades and wooden balconies that house souvenir shops, restaurants, bars and tour agencies. Flying over the Spanish colonial structures around the plaza is the Peruvian national flag together with the rainbow coloured flag of the Inca Empire, emphasizing the unique blend of the ancient, colonial and modern day Peru that characterises the spectacular city of Cusco.

Visitors can enjoy the attractions of the city and surrounding areas at a reduced rate by taking advantage of the Cusco Tourist Ticket, which costs US$10 and allow entry to 16 sites within a 10-day period. The ticket can be bought at any of the sites, which include Puca Pucara, Sacsayhuaman, Tambo Machay, Qenko, the Cathedral, San Blas, the museum of Santa Catalina, the site museum at Qorikancha, the museum of regional history, the museum of religious art, the museum of the municipal palace, Chincheros, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Tipón and Pikillaqta.


Cuzco has a sub-tropical highland climate characterised by dry, temperate weather. There are two defined seasons; the dry season (April to October) and the rainy season (November to March). The dry season is sunny and mild, with temperatures averaging around 55°F (13°C), while the wet season is slightly colder with average temperatures of around 53°F (12°C). Incidentally, Cuzco has the highest ultraviolet light level on Earth.

Spanish and Quechua are the official languages, but many other dialects are spoken. English is spoken only in major tourist centres and hotels.

The official currency is Nuevo Sol (PEN) divided into 100 céntimos. Visa is the most widely accepted credit card, but all major international credit cards, including Diners Club and MasterCard, are accepted in many, but not all, establishments. Outside Lima facilities may be more limited. Travellers cheques may also be difficult to exchange in small towns and villages, and travellers are advised to have cash on hand. US Dollars are the easiest currency to exchange and plenty of restaurants, hotels and shops in the main cities accept dollars for payment. Casas de cambio(exchange bureaux) often give better rates than hotels and banks and can be found in any town on the tourist circuit. ATMs are available in the main cities.

Local time is GMT -5.

Located high in the mountains of the Southern Sierra regions, Ayacucho has been closed off to the rest of the world for the last two decades. In the 1980s, an extremist group known as Sendero Luminoso(The Shining Path) took over the town as their base and held power for more than two decades. Only recently liberated, Ayaucho is an unknown gem in Peruvian tourism. A quaint colonial town with a number of pretty churches, Ayachuco is a great shopping destination, as many Peruvian souvenirs are made here. The best time to visit Ayacucho is around Easter, when the city's carnival celebrations are in full swing.

Coricancha is a Quechua word meaning 'Golden Courtyard', but the Inca stonework is all that remains of the ancient Temple of the Sun, which was the most important temple in the Inca Empire, dedicated primarily to Inti, the Sun God. The walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold, and the courtyard was filled with golden statues. Spanish reports tell of its opulence that was 'fabulous beyond belief'. The Church of Santo Domingo was built on the site, using the ruined foundations of the temple that was flattened by the gold-hungry Spanish in the 17th century, and is a fine example of where Inca stonework has been incorporated into the structure of a colonial building. Major earthquakes have severely damaged the church, but the Inca stone walls, built out of huge, tightly-interlocking blocks of stone, still stand as a testimony to their superb architectural skills and sophisticated stone masonry. Nearby is an underground archaeological site museum containing a number of interesting pieces, including mummies, textiles and sacred idols.

The ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu is regarded as the most significant archaeological site in South America and one of the finest examples of landscape architecture in the world. Nestled high in the towering Andes Mountains on a saddle between two peaks is this most spectacular and enthralling of Inca citadels, 'The Lost City of the Incas'. Totally concealed from below it escaped destruction by the Spanish, and was only discovered by the western world in 1911 when an American explorer stumbled across the thickly overgrown ruins in their majestic setting high in the clouds. Surrounded by steep agricultural terraces and grazing llamas, the ruins consist of a central plaza, a sacred ceremonial area with intricately carved temples and royal tombs, palaces, stairways and perfectly balanced archways, towers, food storehouses, ornate fountains and water canals. Highlights of the site include one of the most famous Inca constructions, the sacred Temple of the Sun, with its distinctive round tapering tower and the centre stone that is illuminated by the rays of the sun every winter solstice. Huayna Picchu forms a dramatic backdrop to the city and a treacherously steep stone trail leads to a platform offering dizzy views of the city below and a sweeping panorama of the surrounding mountains and forests. Despite the continuous hordes of tourists the ancient Inca citadel preserves its sense of mystery and majesty, especially in the quieter hours after sunrise and before sunset, when the light and wispy strands of mist create an aura of isolated majesty.

The graceful main square, Plaza de Armas, is lined with colonial-style covered walkways and houses that contain souvenir shops, restaurants, bars and travel agencies. The large Cathedral is the most prominent structure overlooking the square and is adjoined to a church on either side, the Iglesia Jesus María and Iglesia El Triunfo. Inside is the elaborately carved wooden altar, covered in gold and silver plate, and the carved wooden choir stalls that are acclaimed to be the finest in the country. Also of interest is the painting The Last Supper, which portrays Jesus and his disciples gathered around the table, on which a central platter of the local Inca delicacy, 'cuy' or roasted guinea pig, is placed. Also on the plaza is La Compañía, one of Cuzco's most ornately decorated churches, often floodlit at night. The streets and alleys around the plaza are filled with colour and bustling handicraft stalls. The historic pedestrian alleyway of Loreto, leading away from the plaza, is lined with Inca stone walls.

Of the four ruins near Cuzco, Sacsayhuamán is the closest and the most remarkable. Its proximity to Cuzco and the dimensions of its stones caused it to be used as a quarry by the Spanish conquistadors, providing building material for their colonial buildings in the city below. The complex suffered such destruction by the Spanish conquistadors that little is known about the actual purpose these magnificent buildings served, but it is usually referred to as a fortress, constructed with high, impenetrable walls, although it is also believed to have been a ceremonial or religious centre. The ruins cover an enormous area, but only about 20 percent of the original complex remains and are a fine example of extraordinary Inca stone masonry. It is estimated the complex took 100 years to build, using thousands of men in its construction, the massive blocks of stone fitting together perfectly without the aid of mortar, one weighing over 300 tonnes and standing 16ft (5m) tall. The magnificent centre was the site of the infamous bloody battle between the Spanish and the Inca people in 1536 that left thousands of the native people dead, providing food for the circling condors, and ever since the Cuzco Coat of Arms has featured eight condors in memory of the event. Today it holds the annual celebrations of Cuzco's most important festival, Inti Raymi, the sun festival, a spectacular and colourful affair that re-enacts the Inca winter solstice festival every June.

Known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, this fertile valley of breathtaking beauty, stretching between the villages of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, is coursed by the winding Urubamba River, watched over by ancient Inca ruins perched high on the hilltops above, and sprinkled with little traditional settlements in between. Centrally situated Urubamba has the most tourist infrastructure and is becoming a popular base from which to explore the valley. The most well known sites are the citadel above Pisac and the fortress of Ollantaytambo, which receive the most visitors. The quaint village of Pisac is known for its interesting Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday morning markets, while overlooking the village are the ruins of the citadel, with its fine stonework and panoramic views over the valley. Agricultural terraces flank the steep sides of the mountain and have been in use for many centuries, and above them the alarmingly narrow trails that lead to the citadel hug the cliffs, with massive stone doorways, and steep stairways cut into the rock or a rock-hewn tunnel forming the only passageway between the sheer drop below and the vertical slopes above. At the far end of the Sacred Valley, the road terminates at the ancient traditional town of Ollantaytambo, where the temple-fortress clings to the nearby cliffs. Developed as an Inca administrative centre, the town's layout is one of the few remaining models of an Inca grid plan and the existing town is built on the remaining Inca foundations. The ruins include the Temple of the Sun, the Royal Chamber and the Princess' Baths. From the town the road leads to the start of the illustrious Inca Trail.

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