I have enjoyed two wonderful trips to Peru. My first was on a walking trip through Country Walkers and we spent time in Cusco, the Urubamba Valley and at Machu Picchu. The second was to see my good friend who was the Mexican Ambassador to Peru. After a great stay in Lima, I explored Cusco and Machu Picchu for a second time.
Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire which grew into a glittering capital as large as any European city. They felt that the city was the source of life. After the Spanish Conquest, it retained a level of importance, until Lima became the capital of the Spanish colony. Today it is a great city to explore, is the jumping-off point for visits to Machu Picchu, and was discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.
Make sure you acclimate to the altitude upon arrival. Cusco is above 10,000 ft. so you need to acclimate on arrival. The locals drink coca tea which is made from coca leaves which seems to help. The hotels have this available in the lobby as you arrive. You can also bring and take Diamox to alleviate the symptoms. Just make sure to rest and take it easy the first day and avoid alcohol if you can.
Explore the Plaza de Armas the large public square in the center. Make sure to visit the large cathedral with its altar of solid silver. There are also a number of churches nearby including Compania de Jesus also on the Plaza de Armas and La Merced.
I also found some great stores around the Plaza. The alpaca sweaters were great! You will have ample opportunities to take many pictures of the locals in their native dress. I did notice that on my last visit that some of the street vendors have become more aggressive so be prepared. Many are also now posing for pictures for a fee.
Walk the narrow streets of this ancient city and see the remains of Inca walls. The main ruin is Coricancha which forms the base of the colonial church of Santo Domingo. Coricancha was the Inca’s richest temple and covered in gold. Walk Southeast from the Plaza de Armas along the narrow alley of Loreto where you will also see Inca walls on both sides.
Shop for handicrafts around the Plaza San Blas and the streets leading to it from the Plaza de Armas. You can find wonderful rugs and pottery.
I also loved exploring the Mercado Central de San Pedro where you can see the many vendors selling the local fruits, juices and produce.
Sacsayhuaman outside of town is not to be missed. It is the best known Inca ruin in the area and was a huge fortress. The stone walls are made of massive stones and show ancient construction skills. There are two other ruins nearby, Tambomachay which is the site of the Inca ceremonial stone baths and Puca Pucara, the red fort, which served as a post house for Inca travelers. You can also see the remains of Quenko, a ceremonial site, which now has remains of the amphitheater, ceremonial altars and carved representations of birds, frogs and other useful gods worshiped by the Incas.
One of my favorite new finds is the Museo de Arte Precolombino de Cusco. I had visited the wonderful Museo Larco in Lima and was thrilled to find that they had a branch in Cusco. This is a not to be missed museum which focuses on pre-Columbian art of ancient Peruvian cultures. There are 450 pieces dating from 1250 B.C. to 1532 A.D. You will see beautiful, gold, jewelry and pottery. The museum’s MAP Cafe is one of the best places to eat in Cusco.
Another find was the Museo de Convento de la Merced. At Plazoleta Espinar,Calle Mantas 121, this museum features works by the Cusco school of painting featuring religious art.