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Cusco & Sacred Valley

The city of Cusco (also known as Cuzco) is situated in a large valley with views of over 6500 meters high such as the snowcapped Ausangate Mountain soaring in the distance. In Quechua (the local language originating from the Incas and still spoken today) Cusco means “Navel of the World” and was built as the Inca capital from where the empire started spreading from the South and to the North. The original structure of the city was laid out in the form of a Puma with the fortress of Sacsayhuaman being the head of the puma. Sacsayhuaman was the fort and military camp from where Cusco was protected. It is made up out of massive walls lined in a zig-zag patron and used to have two large watchtowers on top of the structure. It took the Spanish several fierce battles to take Sacsayhuaman and hence conquer Cusco.

The city center of Cusco stretches out underneath Sacsayhuaman and has undergone several changes after the arrival of the Spanish. The Spanish destroyed many of the Inca constructions only to find that many of the Inca buildings were too massive to completely destroy. This is the reason why many of the colonial buildings in Cusco are built on top of Inca Foundations. Nowadays this gives the city a very unique characteristic and architectural style combining the Inca foundations with Spanish Colonial buildings, balconies and squares(plazas). The city center is spread out around the Plaza de Armas (Main Square) and is filled with small cobblestone streets and alleys. On one side of the Plaza you can find the Cathedral that was built on the remnants of the old Inca Palace. Behind the cathedral the city started rising up against the mountain side and here is where you can find one of the most beautiful barrios; San Blas. San Blas is the bohemian and artistic neighbourhood of Cusco and definitely worth walking through. Another main site to visit in Cusco is Qoricancha or the Temple of the Sun. This used to be the most important religious temple for the Inca and home to many important rituals such as the worshiping of the sun. It was this temple that made the Spanish go wild about Cusco as it was supposedly covered in gold and had large quantities of gold art inside. Nowadays the building is partially torn down and a monastery has been built on top of it. This makes the building one of the strangest examples of how the Spanish tried to incorporate the Inca structures into there own building style.

Just outside Cusco there are also several interesting Inca sites to be visited. Qenqo, a strange rock formation with amazing carvings, Puka Pukara, a fortress that was used to protect Cusco and Tambomachay a site dedicated to the rite of water. Apart from all these archeological and architectonic wonders, Cusco is also a nice city for travellers as it has a large selection of hotels for all budgets, great restaurants, booming nightlife and one of the most interesting shopping experiences in Peru (especially artisanal souvenirs). The Sacred Valley of the Incas is located at about one hours drive from Cusco. The drive takes you over beautiful highlands surrounded by snowcapped mountains until you start heading down into the Sacred Valley. As the Sacred Valley is located approximately 800 meters lower in altitude than Cusco, this is also an interesting place to acclimatize to the altitude. The lower altitude also provides you with a milder climate than Cusco.

The Sacred Valley runs from the city of Pisac to the city of Ollantaytambo at about 50Km apart. Both of these cities are seen as entrances to the Sacred Valley and hence are protected with impressive defensive fortresses from both sides. The site of Pisac is quite extensive and besides the religious aspect also boasts large Inca terracing and great views of the Sacred Valley. In Pisac you can see the Urubamba River (some parts are called the Vilcanote River) snaking its way through the Sacred Valley. It is this river that provided the Inca with a large part of irrigation for their crops. The river floods part of the valley yearly, leaving behind very fertile soil. The Valley is relatively wide and flat, providing a lot of agriculturally valuable land. From Pisac the main road in the Sacred Valley takes you through small villages, many constructed during the Inca era, to the North West you can find the small but beautiful village of Olllantaytambo. Besides the amazing site of Ollantaytambo and the original Inca lay out of the village, Ollantaytambo is also known for having the last train station on the route to taking a train to Machu Picchu. This gives people the chance to get to know the Sacred Valley, spend the night here and continue to Machu Picchu the next day.

Cusco weather

The Cusco weather is mainly dominated by the influence of the Andean highlands climate. The Cusco weather is officially known as a subtropical highland climate. Its climate is generally dry and temperate, with two defined seasons. The dry season lasts from April through mid November, with abundant sunshine, and occasional night time freezes. July is the coolest month with an average of 9.6 °C. The wet season lasts from end November to end March, with night frost less common and the Cusco weather in general warmer where November averages 13.4 °C. Although frost and hail are common, snow is virtually unheard of. In the months July and August, strong winds can sometimes set up during the day, making the Cusco weather somewhat chillier at times. In general one can say that for most of the year the Cusco weather is quite agreeable, especially during the day when you have a blue sky with plenty of strong sun and maybe some distant clouds between the mountains.

Cusco restaurants | Cuzco food

Being the centre of the Inca civilization, a civilization built on agricultural accomplishments, Cusco was also the centre of agricultural development. The Andean crops, especially corn and potatoes have always have had a special significance in this region and are the base of many plates. It is estimated that in Peru there exists about 2000 types of potatoes. Common meats for the highlands are pork, alpaca and the Andean delicacy guineapig. In Cusco a new type of fusion kitchen has been created, mixing typical Andean plates with more coastal dishes. Some of the more famous highland plates are chicharrones (fried pork), lomo saltado (beef in a soya sauce), anticuchos (kebabs mostly from beef heart) and the dish one can get on every street corner choclo con queso, corn with cheese.

Cusco is a mayor tourist destination of course and also home to amazingly good restaurants and bars. Some nice restaurants can be found on the Plaza de Armas and other in the alleys in the upper centre and San Blas.

Here are some of our favourite Cusco's restaurants;

  • La Ciccolina; Mediteranean cuisine in fusion with Peruvian delights and products. Located in the heart of Cusco and recommended to make reservations.
  • Limo; Located on the Plaza de Armas has great views from its balcony tables. The food is some of the best you can get in Cusco and is Peruvian fusion kitchen. They have good seafood and sushi.
  • MAP Cafe; The restaurant / coffeeshop from the Museo de Arte Pre- Colombiana. Serves great desserts and pastery.
  • Fallen Angel; A quite decadent decorated bar / restaurant that has a great and innovative kitchen. Also famous for their New Years parties which can be as extravagant as the interior.
  • Inka Grill; Another great place on the Plaza de Armas. This restaurant serves a great variety of Peruvian and international cuisine.
  • Juanitos; If you would be looking for an unpretentious sandwich or burger, this is the place to be. Classic burgers with a Peruvian touch and plenty of sauces. Located in San Blas it is a little walk up hill but definetely worthwhile.
  • La Bodega; This relatively new pizzeria is located at 2 blocks from the main square and one of the better options for a good pizza. They also have a nice selection of pasta’s and of course the necessary wines to accompany a good Italian dinner. 
  • Chicha; Chicha is one of the flag ships of Peru’s most famous chef, Gaston Acurio. Chicha is based on renewing the Andean Cuisine and showcasing the amazing wealth of ingredients and cooking techniques that Peru has to offer. Here you can find several of the typical Peruvian dishes but all with Gaston’s twist making for a great culinary experience. Chicha can be found both in Arequipa as well as in Cusco. 
  • Greens Organic; Located just off Cusco’s main square, this restaurant is well known among vegetarians visiting Cusco. The restaurant only serves dishes prepared with fresh and organic ingredients, several coming from their own farm in the Sacred Valley. The restaurant also offers a nice selection of wines and organic juices. 

Cusco nightlife is also famous in Peru. Being a city with a quite metropolitan feel to it, many travelers come here looking for diversion where Cusco has plenty to offer. Bars with live music, discotheques, Irish pubs, you name it, from Monday to Sunday, you will always find a place to go to all hours in the morning.

What to do in Cusco | Tour Cusco

When in Cusco, one will few times wonder what to do in Cusco. It will more be a case of planning and trying to do as much as possible in the limited time most visitors have, we can vouch for this as everyone of our team has lived here for many years and we still find something new to do around the area. On you’re what to do in Cusco list there are of course some standard visits of places that cannot be missed when in Cusco. The list would at least hold a city tour Cusco including the following sites;

The following are the main sites you will visit on a City Tour Cusco;

The Plaza de Armas: Cusco’s beautiful main square surrounded by colonial buildings and galleries and flanked on one side by the Cusco Cathedral and on the other by the Church of La Compañía.

Plaza de Armas - Cusco

Qoricancha or the Temple of the Sun: this large site used to be the most important temple in the Inca era. A religious centre, the site was completely dedicated to the Sun and the Moon, the main Inca gods. The temple was, according to writings left behind by the Conquistadores, covered with gold leaves and held some of the most impressive artifacts the Conquistadores came across. It was also one of the first buildings to be torn down by the Spaniards, making a statement by putting a large Convent on top of the Inca Site.

Qoricancha

Nowadays, the site is an interesting mixture of these two styles clashing in this convent. Most of the Inca chambers are so huge that the Spanish were not able to deconstruct them and therefore incorporated them into the new structure.

Sacshuayman: Or Sexy Woman as many tourists find it easier to pronounce, is probably the oldest constructed place around Cusco. Traces have been found of the Killke civilization having constructed buildings here and with the arrival of the Inca in the 1300´s the site was elaborated and taken to another level. Huge stones, some of the biggest registered in the Inca Empire can be found here. The site used to be a military camp and training ground under Inca reign and served as the main point of defense for the city. Two large towers used to stand on these hills and some of the fiercest battles with the Spaniards were fought here. After the conquest, the Spaniards used the smaller blocks of granite of this site to construct several colonial buildings such as the Cathedral.

Other smaller but very interesting sites you will visit on a City tour Cusco are located at about 15 minutes drive from Cusco and are Qenqo, a small site supposed to be used as a solar centre for investigation, Puka Pukara, a hunting base used as a travelers hut, and Tambomachay, a site dedicated to water.

Other places you cannot miss when doing a city tour Cusco:

Calle Hatun Rumiyuq or the street of the Twelve Angled Stone: probably one of the most visited streets in Cusco the street has a beautiful example of two Inca building styles. One side with small stones more or less cubicles stacked on each other without mortar and on the other the impressive huge granite stones in strange shapes completely matched together like a large puzzle. It is in this wall that you can find the Twelve Angled Stone, a masterpiece of Inca masonry. On top of this wall is the original Archbishop's Palace, now a museum of art mainly focused on the Cusco School.

Barrio de San Blas: Going uphill (in the first days in Cusco this may be quite the task) from the Twelve Angled Stone, you reach a very steep street taking you to San Blas. This city centre colonial neighborhood is included in the standard city tour Cusco and is best visited on your own account. Here you can find the heart of artisan and craft houses in Cusco. The streets are for large not accessible to traffic and since the neighborhood is built against one of the flanks of the valley, you will have to brave the necessary steps to get to know this area. The views from this part of town are also worthwhile and having a coffee on the upper part of San Blas Square is where you really feel on holiday. On the Plaza San Blas you will also find a small charge. The charge itself is maybe not the most interesting one but inside you can find one of the most beautiful wood carving pieces you can find. A whole preaching chair made out of a single log of wood.

Plaza San Blas

The Sacred Valley of the Inca’s: this valley, located at about an hour drive from Cusco is also one of the mayor things that will definitly makes its way on the -what to do in Cusco list- for many people. The Sacred Valley used to be the main source of food products for the Cusco area. Located at about 800 meters lower than Cusco, the Sacred Valley enjoys a micro climate, much milder than that of Cusco. The relatively broad valley is crossed by the Urubamba (also known as the Vilcanote River) River, making these lands very fertile. Besides the cultivated flats, many of the mountain flanks in this valley were constructed with terracing to create even more agricultural spaces in this valley.

View on the Sacred Valley

On the beginning and end of this valley you can find two large fortresses for the protection of this important valley. The ruins of Pisac, as many Inca citadels, is built on top of a strategically located mountain and surrounded by Andean terracing, is obviously a place of importance for the protection of this area. On the other end of the valley, in Ollantaytambo you can find the impressive steep ruins of Ollantaytambo. These ruins are not only protecting the Sacred Valley but also the access to Machu Picchu. It is here that the Spanish suffered one of the biggest defeats by the Inca in a ferocious battle where the Inca, supported by the Indian from lower lands, outsmarted the Spanish in one famous occasion. The town of Ollantaytambo is also one of the few examples of the urban layout of Inca towns. Constructed in several large blocks with the houses and entrances towards the inner patio, this is a typical Inca construction type. Especially the houses and streets on the right site of the ruins are very interesting to walk through. Here in Ollantaytambo (maybe to mark the importance of this city in Inca time) you can find the last train station to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.

Pisac Ruins

Besides all these sites Cusco is also a centre for luxury travel. Being provided with some of the best hotels in Peru, Cusco and the Sacred Valley will not disappoint the traveler looking for some more luxury and relaxing Spa’s and restaurants.

For the more adventure buffs, the what to do in Cusco and surrounding list will of course have one or more of the many outdoor activities this region has to offer.

Hike to some of the lesser known Inca sites in the region Choquequirao or Espiritu Pampa. Choquequirao, meaning the Cradle of Gold is a lesser known large site connected with Machu Picchu through the typical Inca paths. The site can be reached through a 4 day trek starting and ending in Cusco. For combining this site with Machu Picchu allow at least a week.

Choquequirao

Espiritu Pampa is the last resort of the Incas and the place from where they organized their rebellion against the Spanish conquistadores. The site was discovered by Hiram Bingham but discarded as not being important. In later excursions the site was valued for its importance. This site can only be reached by a 6 or 7 day hike.