Cusco is a city in southeastern Peru, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range. It is the capital of the Cusco Region as well as the Cusco Province. The site was the historic capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th into the 16th century until the Spanish conquest. In 1983 Cusco was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. There are many impressive things to see and do in and around Cusco and it is such a great place to discover heritages of the old culture of Peru with its old Inca ruins. Here is a list of the most impressive ruins:
- Machu Picchu: The most beautiful and impressive ancient Inca ruins in the world, Machu Pichu was rediscovered in 1911 by Hawaiian historian Hiram after it lay hidden for centuries above the Urubamba Valley. The “Lost City of the Incas” is invisible from below and completely self-contained, surrounded by agricultural terraces and watered by natural springs. Maccu Picchu is 75 km north-west from from Cusco were the capital of the Incas was situated. Since 1974 it has been an archeological national park and in 1983 it became UNESCO world heritage. In addition the ruins were listed in 2007 as part of the new seven wonders of ancient world.
- Ollantaytambo: During the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti who conquered the region, built the town and a ceremonial center. At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru it served as a stronghold for the Inca resistance. Nowadays the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo is an important tourist attraction and one of the most common starting points for hike known as the Inca Trail. It’s known as the living town of the Inca’s in Peru due to the fact that it was literally built on Incan terracing and foundations. The Incan irrigation system still works and water runs through stone canals on the sides of streets. In short, Ollantaytambo is gorgeous. With ruins not only peering down from their perches high on surrounding mountain sides, but also forming the very basis of the town center, Ollantaytambo is indeed as close as you can get to a living Incan town. You find the ruins 170 km north-west from Cusco.
- Choquequirao: Seated on the border of Cuzco and Apurimac, Choquequirao (meaning Cradle of Gold), is located 3085 meter (10,120 feet) above sea level. The Inca ruins contain a staircase configuration, made up of 180 terraces. Built in a completely different style than Machu Picchu, Choquequirao is much larger in area. One can only travel to Choquequirao by foot or horseback, and as such, is visited much less often than Machu Picchu. Without benefit of wheels, the trek to Choquequirao from Cachora can take up to four days!
- The ruins of Sacsayhuamán: The greatest and nearest to Cusco of the Inca ruins, Sacsayhuamán reveals some of the Incas’ most extraordinary architecture and monumental stonework. Usually referred to as a garrison or fortress — because it was constructed with forbidding, castlelike walls. It was more likely a religious temple, although most experts believe it also had military significance. The Inca emperor Pachacútec began the site’s construction in the mid-15th century, although it took nearly 100 years and many thousands of men to complete it. Massive blocks of limestone and other types of stone were brought from as far as 32km (20 miles) away.
Cusco seems to be full of Inca ruins – but there is much more! The old capital of the Inca Empire, offers also great options for trekking and other adventure sports such a rafting, hiking and mountain biking. Here you find 8 fun things to do in Cusco that aren’t Inca Ruins:
1) Take a walk in the typical neighborhood of San Blas.
Cusco’s most atmospheric and picturesque neighborhood, San Blas, a short but increasingly steep walk from the Plaza de Armas, is lined with artists’ studios and artisans’ workshops, and stuffed with tourist haunts many of the best bars and restaurants and a surfeit of hostels. It’s a great area to wander around due to the fact that there are many interesting shops, galleries, restaurants and cafes. The neighborhood also affords some of the most spectacular panoramic vistas in the city. In the small plaza at the top and to the right of Cuesta San Blas is the little white Templo de San Blas, said to be the oldest parish church in Cusco. As the sun is going down the neighborhood of San Blas invites to relax with some snacks and a drink and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
2) Relax the park next to the Coricancha
Coricancha, originally named Inti Kancha or Inti Wasi (Quechua for “sun house”), was the most important temple in the Inca Empire, dedicated primarily to the Sun God. It was one of the most revered temples of the capital city of Cusco. The Coricancha (sometimes spelled Qoricancha) was the centerpiece of a vast astronomical observatory and calendric device for precisely calculating time movement. According to ancient stories the Inca took over an earlier sacred site at the center of the city, upon which they constructed their primary temple and astronomical observatory.
The temple is just 10 minutes walking down Avenida el Sol from the Plaza de Armas. Lots of local people take a break here during sunny days. It is a beautiful spot to catch some sun and chill out, maybe have an ice-cream. So plunge into a cultural time travel, relax and sunbath at one of the most important historical relics of Peru and the Inca Empire.
3) Try some typical Peruvian (street) food
In recent years, Peru’s cuisine has earned acknowledgement as one of the world’s finest. But while quinoa and pisco sour cocktails have migrated to become favorites around the world, the best Peruvian specialties are still found in their home country. Here are some to try en route to Machu Picchu that are all amazingly good, tasteful and cheap.
If Peru had an official national dish, it would probably be this preparation of raw fish marinated in citrus juice. The acid in the fruit “cooks” the fish, giving it a delicate flavor and slightly chewy consistency. The dish is usually spiced with red onion and aji pepper, and served (typically at lunch) with sweet potato or choclo, a white Andean corn with dime-size kernels.
- Cuy: This staple meat raised in many households of the Andes goes by a different name in English: guinea pig. The meat, which is quite bony, is usually baked or barbecued on a spit and served whole—often with the head on. It has a pleasant, gamy taste like that of rabbit or wild fowl.
- Lomo Saltado: A hundred years before anyone had heard of Asian fusion cuisine, boatloads of Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru looking for work. The ingredients and techniques they added to Peru’s food vocabulary are probably best exemplified by this hearty hybrid stir-fry, in which beef, tomatoes, peppers, and onions are blended in a pan with soy sauce and fried potatoes. It’s usually served over white rice.
- Anticuchos: These skewers of grilled, marinated meat are served everywhere in Peru. High-end restaurants offer them as entradas, or appetizers. Street-cart vendors sell them slathered in a garlicky sauce. While almost any meat can be prepared this way, the most traditional—and best—anticuchos are made with beef heart, a practice believed to trace back to the days when Peru’s Spanish conquerors would consume a cow’s choicest cuts and leave the organs for their slaves.
- Lucuma: Lucuma is a tree fruit that looks like a mango, but it has a custardy taste akin to maple syrup. It’s usually used as a flavoring in desserts, and is justifiably popular as a variety of ice cream.
- Pollo a la Brasa: This Peruvian-style roast chicken is so delicious and popular that it’s now available in cities around the globe. The secret is marinating the bird in soy sauce flavored with red peppers, garlic, and cumin, which gives the meat and skin a smoky, salty taste. Outside Peru it’s typically paired with French fries, but the more traditional accompaniment is fried yuca, a waxy tuber that has a pleasant chewiness and holds its own against the spicy dipping sauces with which pollo a la brasa is typically served.
4) Explore and take a chocolate making class in the Choco Museo.
Everybody knows about Belgian, Swiss or French chocolate but have you ever heard about Peruvian, Guatemalan, Dominican or Nicaraguan chocolate? Choco Museo decided to make chocolate in countries where cacao grows. They source the best quality cacao beans and then process them artisanal to obtain delicious chocolate.
So why not making chocolate where cacao grows? Their mission is to promote the positive side of the coca leaf and its traditional uses. They also have an amazing variety of products made from the coca leaf. Also good to check out is the Choco museum, the museum of Scared, Magical and Medicinal Plants and the Centro de Textiles Traditionales.
The chocolate making class is a two hour workshop starting from the cocoa bean, taking you through the whole process to know how to make delicious chocolate. There is also a shop with loads of chocolate products.
5) Walk to Cristo Blanco
On a hill only a 10-minute walk from Saqsaywaman and overlooking the city of Cusco is the statue known as the “White Christ” or “Cristo Blanco.” The towering statue of Christ greatly resembles the “Christ the Redeemer” statue atop the Corcavado in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. However, the impetus for Christo Blanco statue is a far different and interesting story. The Cristo Blanco statue was actually a gift. The statue was erected by a group of Christian Palestinians who were seeking refuge in Cusco in 1945. Cristo Blanco represents a symbol of their gratitude to Cusco for accepting them and the statue was a parting gift when they finally returned to their home country. Cusqueños believe the statue serves as a reminder “that good deeds do not go unnoticed.” To get there, walk to San Blas up the street Atocsaycuchi and just keep going up (be prepared there are a lot of stairs), you will pass a sports court and eventually reach the main road again, turn left and keep walking until you reach the statue.
6) Take a trip to Tipón to eat cuy
Tipón is a very important Archaeological site that has numerous impressive terraces that are still being cultivated today. Even more impressive is the irrigation system that is still serving agricultural areas nearby. It consists of carved stone channels, precisely calculated and sometimes with almost vertical falls that all together constitute a hydraulic engineering masterpiece.
Tipón is famous for its Inca ruins but also for its cuy (guinea pig, a typical Peruvian dish). It is about a 45 minute bus ride from Cusco and equipped with great restaurants to choose delicious cuys from. The “cuy al horno” meaning roast cuy will come with a heaped plate of noodles, potatoes, stuffed pepper and a blood sausage. Don’t forget to ask for it to be chopped up to make it easier to eat. Buen provecho.
7) Visit the be Inti Raiymi, the biggest festival of Peru
June is probably the most colorful month in the city of Cusco, full of events and activities. The most important day, June 24, is approaching quickly: it’s the day of Inti Raymi.
Inti Raymi is a traditional Inca festival literally translated as sun festival. It is celebrated in villages all over the old Inca Empire in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. But of course the biggest festival is held in Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire.
Inti Raymi was a religious ceremony which honored the sun god (Inti) at the time of the winter solstice. The ceremony was also said to tell tales of the mythical origin of the Incas. It lasted for nine days and was filled with colorful dances and processions, as well as animal sacrifices to give thanks to the Gods and to ensure a good harvest.
The first Inti Raymi was held in 1412, it was a tradition created by Sapa Inca Pachacuti to celebrate the Inca New Year. The last Inti Raymi with the Inca Emperor’s presence was carried out in 1535. After this the Spanish banned the ceremony in an attempt to kill off indigenous culture. The ceremony was re-created for the first time in 1944 mostly based on the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega – a famous chronicler, and son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca noblewoman. Since 1944 this theatrical representation of the religious ceremony has been taking place at the Inca Fortress of Sacsayhuamán, above the city of Cusco. That’s is about 3km away from where the original ceremony would have taken place in the city´s main plaza.
Nowadays Inti Raymi attracts thousands of tourists each year, both foreign and national. Ceremonies take place at three main locations in Cusco:
- At the Templo del Qorikancha, – which was the main temple in the time of the Inca – the ceremony will begin at 8.00am, they will re-enact the ceremony in which the Inca will make offerings to the gods. El Sinchi (general of the inca army) las accllas (the hidden women) las t’ika t’aqaqkunas (the women who lay flowers on the floor for the Inca to pass) los pichaqkunas (the men that clean the floor) and the Inca´s wife will all make an appearance. After the ceremony they will be led to the Plaza de Armas.
- The Plaza de Armas, is where the second act takes place. More ceremonies are carried out including when the Inca would have sacrificed a llama. They are then led to Saqsayhuaman for the final part of the ceremony.
We took the left rather than the right, though, as we wanted a short easy stroll. We walked along the dirt road on the other side of the river until the next bridge crossing back over, about 2 hours of leisurely walking. Along the whole road we saw ruins, from terracing to small complexes of buildings. The day was beautiful, and the scenery idyllic with cows grazing about us and crops bursting out everywhere, even amongst the ruins.
- At Saqsaywaman, at approximately 1.30pm, the third act of inti Raymi will start. There is a grand ceremony, the most important and impressive of the day. Including the Inka and all his helpers plus the Inca army. All in the spectacular setting of the fort of Saqsayhuaman.
8) Zip lining in Peru in the Sacred Valley
Ever thought about zip lining in Peru? If you ever feel the urge of feeling free and you have the itch to do something adventurous during your travels in Peru, you should. The Sacred Valley Zip line will give you the shot of adrenaline you (might) need and you want to feel. So just go for it and try it yourself! The tour is safe and fun and is designed for all ages.
The spot is about one hour drive away from Cusco in the Sacred Valleys. Before you receive and revise your equipment, you get an introduction and safety talk on how everything works. In total, there are five different zip lining lines, including one for practicing. The Zip Line is a system of six or seven connecting cables for a total of 2500 meters. In addition not only zip line itself makes it an unforgettable experience, the surroundings of the Sacred Valley contribute to an amazing daytrip. Mountains covered with snow in the background, natural green mountains and fields in front as well as shrubbery and trees made make this trip in Peru even more special.