Architecture / History / Peru / Travel

Cusco: Navel of the Inca World

Cusco-catedral-c01

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.

Woman at Market

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.

Old Walls

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.

Cusco-compania-jesus

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.

Cathedral Door

Cathedral Detail

In addition to the normal number of museums, there are small, informal tourist markets near the Plaza selling indigenous arts and crafts.

Market

Correctly predicting what a light touch I am, this cute young girl fleeced me of a few centimos for a photo with her bashful llama.

Girl with Llama Fi

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.

Guineau Pig

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.

Visits to Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley require passing through Cusco. It’s a great springboard for the region, and shouldn’t be missed.

Buen Camino,
James

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

Cusco Alley

Photo Credits:
1. via Wikimedia Commons
3. By Bgabel via Wikimedia Commons

32 thoughts on “Cusco: Navel of the Inca World

    • Thanks Andrew. Cusco is an interesting place, and if you haven’t been, it’s a great starting point for exploration of the Incan antiquities. The altitude takes a bit of adjustment, but the city has lots to see.

    • Thanks for the comment Catherine, and for dropping by the blog. If you go to MP, you will go through Cusco. The good news is that it really is a neat place. After Lima’s sprawl and 9 million people, it’s like a breath of fresh air (well thin, but fresh air) ~ James

    • Thanks for the comment Sunmallia. Cusco is the perfect mix of architecture, history, and art to make a perfect stop. Also, we found a small, casual restaurant that roasted their chicken over wood, and YUM. We still miss that place.

    • You live in Africa, so you’ve grown accustomed to local meat markets, and the sort of things that are for sale there. But, there are lots of gringos in Cusco, who don’t have much travel experience, so you can imagine the stir cuyo causes. Thanks for the comment.

  1. It must be fun, reviewing photos from past adventures, preparing for a post. It certainly is fun for those of us who follow you, if one is to judge by the comments and likes. There may be a limit to the rewards of reviewing, however: one can only thumb through one’s travel memories for so long before the call of the open road becomes a shout…

    • You’re right Tom, it is fun. One thing that I’ve discovered is that blogging about our travels forces me to be more observant, and to learn more about what I’m seeing and experiencing. It’s also a way to relive past trips. Re: itchy feet, you’re right about that as well. We’ve got a few personal things going on now that are on the front burner, but for us, a trip is never too far away. Our passports are always close at hand.

    • Thanks Dustin. Cusco will be a fun stop, but if you have time, try and stop in Ollantaytambo while you’re there. The train to MP goes right through, and it’s an easy overnight. I did a post, check it out

  2. Great post! Thanks for bringing me back too! I was there in 2001 and loved my trip. Yes the altitude once you get off the plane is quite shocking! This oct my dad and I are landing in La Paz supposedly the highest airport in the world! It should be interesting! Can’t wait to get back to the Andes! 🙂

    • Thanks Nicole. I haven’t been to La Paz, but have heard good things about it. I thinks its about 1000ft higher than Cusco, so it will take some adjustment. Luckily, for us, we only had shortness of breath. However, I’ve heard stories of excruciating headaches and nausea. Best of luck and have a great trip. ~James

      • Thanks James. I have been to 18,000 feet in Nepal before but it was over a period of time to get to that altitude and I did fine. What is nerve wracking about Boliva is that you land so high. We are going to take a few days to acclimatize before we head out.

  3. Oh my! We love this post. There was lots of giggling and suggestions that the school cafeteria has served guinea pig. We love the pictures – they have made our studies come to life! You have also made me look really good by association. Love to you!

    • Thanks Neet. Cusco is a wonderful mix of Inca, Spanish Colonial, and modern Andean cultures, and is truly unique. I’ve always been interested in Pre-Columbian cultures, so our trip to Peru has given me a chance to see their culture first hand. Central and South America provides very fertile ground for the study of ancient cultures. Does your class study the Aztec, Maya, or Olmecs? They are equally as intriguing and mysterious.

  4. Luka says to try the guinea pig, but skip the BBQ. He suggests that it tastes like chicken, but what doesn’t? He had this delicacy in Ecuador. Be brave!

  5. Hello James. Particularly enjoying your Peru posts. They take on even more meaning as I went with my daughter in 2010. We stayed in the San Miguel district of Lima with her ex-in-laws and, as she speaks fluent Spanish, was my translator. Thank goodness since I was nearly the only English speaker in the entire town! She long ago became enamored with Latin music and culture and would go on to become a popular and respected salsera in NYC (http://youtu.be/PKvVu-uaQe8 if you would like to hear a bit of her music). Our goal was to go to Machu Piccu but it was closed due to the killer floods at that time. We only made it to Cuzco, loved everything about it, but vowed to return to complete our mission. I look forward to reading all of your Peru posts. Cheers, Nelson

    • Thanks Nelson. Bummer about not making it to MP, but this incredibly mountainous area is not where you’d want to be when it floods. It’s isolated with only one way in and one way out. Hopefully, you can get back. We enjoyed everything about our Peru trip, and at some point we’ll return – maybe to visit the Amazon. I really enjoyed the video and music – a very talented lady. ~James

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