Best Things To Do in Cusco
With dazzling temples, ancient cities and access to famed Inca ruins, Cusco's imperial city enchants its visitors. First and foremost, you'll want to plan your route to Machu Picchu. For a scenic (and strenuous) hike, make arrangements to trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Less daring travelers should nab a seat on one of PeruRail's daily trains to the lost city. If you have time before or after your expedition, head straight to the Plaza de Armas, where the glorious cathedral and nearby Qoricancha await exploration. Then, elevate your experience to a whole new level by visiting the Sacsayhuamán ruins, which boast gorgeous views of Cusco city.
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The history of the Plaza de Armas stretches back all the way to the Inca Empire when it was called Huacaypata or Aucaypata. The massive square (originally twice its current size) was built as a venue for festivals and ceremonies in ancient times.
According to legend, this plaza once marked the exact center of the Inca Empire, earning Cusco the nickname "the navel of the world." After Spanish conquistadors conquered the city in the early 1500s, they erected two churches on the either sides of the square – Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús and La Catedral – where the former Incan palace once stood.
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It's hard to believe this iconic "lost city of the Incas" was untouched during the Spanish conquest. The Incas cleverly obscured these 12 acres of temples, aqueducts and gardens from the Spaniards, keeping their sacred city untouched for hundreds of years.
It's difficult to know where to start. First things first: Pick up a booklet and a map as signage at the site is minimal. Then, start your journey at the House of the Terrace Caretaker and Funeral Rock, a 20-minute walk from Machu Picchu's entrance.
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Amid the many splendors found in the Plaza de Armas, the sky-high La Catedral is one of Cusco's finest architectural displays. Constructed in the 1550s with stones stolen from Sacsayhuamán, the baroque cathedral features opulent ceilings and gold and silver altars. It is also home to an impressive collection of colonial art that mixes Catholic traditions with indigenous legends.
La Catedral houses a world-renowned painting believed to depict the earthquake that shook Cusco in 1650. And across the building, you'll find a famous crucifix called Señor de los Temblores (Lord of the Earthquakes) who is said to have stopped the 17th-century earthquake from destroying the city.
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Sacsayhuamán is often overshadowed by Machu Picchu, but this towering ancient Incan fortress – filled with exquisite stone masonry and dramatic vistas – is worth a visit. Much of the massive structure was used as building materials for the Spaniards, but what remains gives a glimpse at how large the fortress once was.
There’s much to see in these ruins, from the giant zigzagging stone walls (legend has it they formed the teeth of the puma-shaped Incan empire that is now Cusco) to the carved stone benches that form the suspected Incan throne.
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For a glimpse of the Inca's former grandeur, look no further than Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun), also known as "Court of Gold." In its heyday, Inca's elite watched as light bounced from 700 gold-plated walls and danced across the temple's altars and statues. And its splendor stretched from its glimmering exterior walls into its regal confines, where approximately 4,000 of the most prestigious priests and their attendants resided.
With gold gleaming from nearly every surface of the compound, it's easy to see why the Spanish were enamored with Qorikancha's riches. After the conquistadors invaded Cusco in 1533 – and looted all its gold – only the Inca's elaborate masonry remained. Utilizing the Inca's masterful work as their foundation, the Spaniards began building their own churches and monuments on top of and around the structure, creating a rich blend of Andean and Spanish architecture.
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Located next to Sacsayhuamán, the Cusco Planetarium offers travelers a unique experience in the hills surrounding the city. While it may not be much to look at (the small planetarium is housed in a plain adobe building) recent visitors give almost unanimous praise for the informative guides and idyllic setting.
The facility not only allows visitors to gaze at the stars in a small observatory, it seeks to be a cultural interpretation center for Incan astronomy and offers a personalized experience that you can rarely find at other planetariums around the world. Since the operation has limited size, you must request a spot in advance for the 2-mile shuttle ride from Plaza de Armas.
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While Qorikancha and Machu Picchu draw more visitors, the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Pre-Columbian Art Museum) possesses a world-class Peruvian collection that cannot be matched. This 12-room exhibition space is located in the Casa Cabrera, a mansion-turned-convent that dates back to 1580. Inside the compact space, you'll find 450 artifacts (including Peruvian ceramics, jewelry and carvings) that date back from 1250 B.C. to A.D. 1532.
While some recent visitors complain about the high entrance fee for a small museum, others say that exhibitions are well-crafted, the artifacts are one-of-a-kind and the in-depth descriptions help to give context to each piece.
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Winding through Peru's verdant landscape toward Machu Picchu, this famous four-day hike is not for the faint of heart. That said, recent travelers say the laborious trek pays off with gorgeous scenery, interesting wildlife and for many, a life-changing experience.
You'll likely start your journey near KM 82 along the Cusco-Aguas Calientes railway and then follow the trail's zigzagging path toward the "lost city." The three-night journey pays off with the views from the Sun Gate at dawn.
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Located in a beautiful 16th-century colonial mansion that was once home to Spanish Admiral Francisco Alderete Maldonado, the Museo Inka (Inca Museum) boasts an eclectic assortment of Incan artifacts.
From textiles to pottery to gold and metal pieces, the museum will intrigue visitors who want an introduction to Incan culture and history. Once you’ve finished admiring the traditional items inside, take a stroll to through the museum’s courtyard, where Andean women can often be found selling goods and weaving authentic textiles.
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