Frommer’s Travel Guide describes Cusco, Peru as, “A fascinating blend of pre-Columbian and colonial history and contemporary mestizo culture.” This historical and contemporary mix makes the city a unique destination, and a wonderful introduction to the region.
The Incas made Q’osqo (meaning “navel of the world” in Quechua) the political, military, and cultural center of their empire. Roads extended from its center in the four cardinal directions to all parts of the empire. It was so important to the Inca, that Pizarro and his conquistadores realized that to truly control the region, the capital had to be destroyed. And after the battle of 1533, they proceeded to do just that.
However, there must have been a few red faces when it was realized that these “savages” had built a few walls that couldn’t be torn down. And in Pizarro’s version of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” new Spanish structures were built on top of the old walls. These walls, still present today, are some of the most photographed sites in town.
The historic heart of the city is The Plaza de Armas, which is classic Spanish Colonial Architecture. One side of the square is dominated by the red sandstone Cathedral, while the other sides have more modest 2-3 story shops and residences. Bars, restaurants, benches, and people-watching opportunities abound.
In addition to the normal number of museums, there are small, informal tourist markets near the Plaza selling indigenous arts and crafts.
And then there’s the roasted guinea pig. This small rodent plays many roles in Peruvian culture, and the biggest is as a source of protein. There are restaurants that specialize in cuyo (guinea pig), and you can buy it as a meal-on-a-stick on street corners. Most North Americans probably cringe at the thought of eating what may have been a childhood pet … including us. We make no judgements here, but thought it best to photograph the sign instead of the barbecued cuyo.
Another unique aspect of Cusco that will impact visitors, is the altitude. At 11,000 feet above sea level, it’s twice as high as Denver, Colorado, and believe me, you’ll notice the thinner air. Most travelers fly in from Lima, which is at sea level, so it takes time to adjust. Soroche, or altitude sickness, is real and can cause shortness of breath as well as headaches and nausea for even the fittest of people. My advice it to take is easy on the day of arrival, have a nap in the afternoon, indulge gently with food and booze, get a good night’s sleep, and acclimate for a couple of days before moving on.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like others in our Peru Series:
Mysterious Machu Picchu: City of Chosen Women or Royal Palace?
The Train,Terrain, and Rain at Machu Picchu
Ollantaytambo: A Living City of the Inca
Art: The Secret Language of the Andes
Before You Launch From Lima: 5 Faves
Lima’s Major Domo
Lima’s Luscious Balconies: A Tale of Jealousy
1. via Wikimedia Commons
3. By Bgabel via Wikimedia Commons