Five Days in Cusco

  • Photo of Five Days in Cusco
  • Photo of Five Days in Cusco
  • Photo of Five Days in Cusco
  • Photo of Five Days in Cusco
  • Photo of Five Days in Cusco
  • Photo of Five Days in Cusco
  • Photo of Five Days in Cusco
  • Photo of Five Days in Cusco
Photo of Five Days in Cusco
Photo by flickr user hmerinomx

For the ancient Incas Cusco was the centre of the world – which is why they called it the 'belly button' – for the Spanish conquistadors it was the 'City of Gold', but for most modern visitors it represents the'Gateway to Machu Picchu'. Cusco deserves all three titles and quite a few others. It also deserves more than the cursory two acclimatisation days many visitors afford it on their way to Machu Picchu.Five days allows for a much better taster of the place.

The Spanish carted away much of Cusco's obvious wealth, like the golden cladding on the temples and palaces, and tore down some great Incan architecture to use as building materials for their own, but some of the Incan structures they only coated in colonial design, and as time and earthquakes have taken their toll, more and more of the originals peep though.

The straight, exquisitely cobbled streets and huge walls and terraces are proof of the brilliance of the Incan design and engineering technique, which slotted perfectly cut stones of different sizes and shapes together – in some instances so neatly that not even a piece of paper can be slipped between them. And it's Quechua speaking local people selling their brightly coloured crafts that fill these streets and squares, the descendants of the great Incan engineers: so there's more life left in the Incan civilisation yet, and there's more Incan history to appreciate than what's on display in the local museums and at the famous ruin sites.

The latest group to take over the city are the visitors. In the Plaza de Armas, Cusco's beautiful main square, each ancient building is surrounded by its own entourage of hotels, bars and internet cafes, but that's just another reason to stay longer than those just passing though on their way to Machu PicchuCusco is a place it takes a couple of days to get under the skin of, especially allowing for the pace needed for your first few acclimatisation days. But it will leave you breathless in more ways than one.

Day One

On your first day in town it's a good idea to take it easy, doing some light wandering around to help you acclimatise. Chewing coco leaves is also supposed to help with the symptoms of altitude sickness.

Coricancha MuseumFor most visitors to Cusco the first port of call outside of their hotel is the Plaza de Armas. It's graceful, in a Spanish colonial way, despite the cobbled ground care of the Incas, and has some of Cusco's nicest Spanish influenced buildings around it, including no less than four churches: La Compañía de Jesús, famed for its golden altar piece, Iglesia Jesus María, Iglesia El Triunfo and the Church of Santo Domingo: built on the site of the Incan Coricancha, which was the main Inca temple and observatory. The first Spanish to enter the city told stories of the temple being covered in huge sheets of gold, and of ceremonies taking place here round the clock – they raided the gold quickly and re-clad the temple in their own style so it's an interesting visual meeting of cultures.

There's a museum underneath the church detailing the history of the Coricancha, and displaying some choice artefacts, including the mummies of three members of Incan elite society.

La Compañía de JesúsAs well as the churches this is the centre of town, the erstwhile centre of the empire, and the shopping centre. And a good place to sit in a cafe soaking up the scene - though you will share your view or the square with many other visitors.

Round the corner and up the hill is San Blas, where all the artist's studios and workshops are, as well as many of the best bars and restaurants. The little white Iglesia de San Blas is at the very top of the hill, and is said to be the oldest church in Cusco – its best known treasure is its cedar pulpit carved out of a single piece of wood.

Day Two

For an introduction to Incan architectural prowess, visitors need go no further than Hatunrumiyoc Street in the old part of town, running parallel to an Inca built wall with the famous '12-angled-stone' in it.

Hatumrumiyoc & the Palace of Inca Roca This wall is a fantastic example of the Incan building style, which used stone of all shapes and sizes carved to slot in to each other perfectly. This street also has an interesting art museum in the old Archbishop's palace. Inside are some incredibly historically correct paintings which offer a real insight into the convergence of the Spanish on Cusco. Many people visit the oldest sites first, but by peeling back the layers chronologically, and stepping back in time like an archaeologist, visitors don't overlook the Spanish contribution to Cusco's looks.

SacsayhuamánThe first main Inca site to visit is Sacsayhuamán. It's the nearest major Incan ruin site to the city - it's within the city limits of modern Cusco - so it's another non strenuous sightseeing option for early in your trip.

Sacsayhuamán's most striking feature are its walls – some of them up to 400m long and six metres tall - which some archaeologists think were used as fortification and some think are supposed to be looked at from above - where they trace the outline of a puma's head, with the Plaza de Armas as the belly and the river as the tail. Whatever the reason for their placement, their very construction is impressive - some of the largest blocks probably weigh more than 100 tonnes each and you can't even fit a piece of paper between the stone blocks they're so perfectly fitted together.

Within the Sacsayhuamán Archaeological Park are two more Inca sites: Puca Pucara - a fairly basic looking fort or storage facility sitting on top of a hill and offering spectacular views of the Sacred Valley - and Q'enko, just north of Cusco on the top of Socorro Hill. Much of interest at Q'enko is on and around the 'Great Rock' at the centre of the site, which has carvings all over it, and stairs hewn into it going up to the top of the rock, and down into caverns and galleries underneath.

Q'enko There are all sorts of ancient tales buzzing round Cusco and one of them says that the Incas built tunnels under their whole empire just like they built roads on top of it, and these tunnels are supposed to run out of Q'enko.

Day Three

Water and washing seemed to be an important part of Incan life and many of the archaeological sites in Peru's Sacred Valley have baths and aqueducts as prominent features.

TambomachayBut bathing seems to have been such a large part of life in the ancient settlement of Tambomachay, 8kms outside of Cusco, that it's now thought it may have been a spa.

Here waterfalls and thermal springs have been redirected to run between the terraces into two aqueducts cut into the rocks, then along canals and into decoratively carved baths. The really impressive thing is that Tambomachay's baths are still full of clean water all year round – and no one if quite sure where the water is coming from. This definitely deserves half a day's consideration, and it's a nice idea to walk to Tambomachay though the valley.

Day Four

Museo Inka (Incan Museum)As well as the larger Incan treasures littered around Cusco, especially around the old town, visitors may want to admire some smaller, more glittery Incan treasures in the Museo Inka, also known as the Archaeological Museum of Cusco, and the Pre-Columbian Art Museum.

The Incas were supposed to love the bling, and there's some silver and gold pieces in these collections to shame the most dazzling of rappers.

Day Five

Your five day minimum stay in Cusco has to include a Tuesday, Thursday or a Sunday, and those are the days to take the bus out to Pisac.

Buses leave about every 15mins and take an hour to deliver you to the pretty main square lined with shops selling local handicrafts.

Sunday is the biggest market day, but there are also markets on days starting with T.

Pisac As well as shopping, Pisac also has its own ruin: a citadel with a great defensive view over the Inca Trail, snaking along the valley floor below it. The citadel's terraces and aqueducts have survived, cut out of solid rock, and though the temple hasn't fared so well, there are burial chambers in the caves above it that weren't discovered and plundered by the Spanish if the non-shoppers in your party need something to keep them occupied.

The easiest way to gain entry to most of the sites mentioned is with a Cusco Tourist Ticket, which offers combined entry to 16 main places of interest, including the Museo Inka, Pre-Columbian Art Museum, Tambomachay, the Coricancha Museum, the Museum of Religious Art, Sacsayhuamán and Q'enko.

The longer you can spare in the Sacred Valley the better, if you have ten days you can see a lot more.

Get help planning your Machu Picchu adventure from World Reviewer's Peru Travel Specialists.

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Sacred Valley, Peru, Peru, Cusco, Peru, South America
Gap Year, Culture
Best months
April, May, June, July, August, September
1 Week
Physical level
Traveller type
Backpacker, Young couple, Mature couple, Group

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