Although Cusco is known primarily as a rendezvous point before and after the famed Machu Picchu, the city stands on its own in terms of historical and noteworthy sites. Visitors who dig a little deeper into the heart of this venerable city will find that Cusco has much to reveal.
Meet with a local scholar to learn about Cusco’s rich history.
Before beginning a journey through Cusco, learn about the impressive history of its land and people during a private meeting with a local scholar. Developed nearly 3,000 years ago by the Inca ruler Pachacutec, Cusco was transformed into the center of the Incan empire which at its height extended throughout the majority of the South American Andes. As the center of this massive empire, Cusco was home to the administrative, fiscal, political and religious functions of the Incas. In addition to their nearly perfect execution of these responsibilities, the Incas constructed Cusco in an elaborate design meant to exemplify their strength as an empire. Shaped like a puma with the fortress of Sacsayhuaman as the head, the plaza of Huacaypata as the belly and the rivers, Huatanay and Tullumayo, forming the outline of the body and coming together as one to form the tail, Cusco was the ultimate symbol of Incan unity and power. However, upon the arrival of the Spanish and subsequent conquest in the 16th century, the Cusco of the Incas became fused with Spanish culture and design. While the layout of the city remained intact, Spanish conquerors built their monasteries and manors over the city often right on top of former Incan structures. While strolling through the city, one can find a colonial house with Incan foundation of meticulously cut granite. This fusion is also found in the religious and cultural practices of locals who often maintain both Incan and Spanish customs. By familiarizing oneself with the history, the marvels of exploring this ancient city will be greatly enhanced.
Spend the morning in Cusco’s central market.
By spending time in the centrally located San Pedro market, visitors can get a taste for the daily pace of Cusquenian life. While strolling through the stands, you can encounter a wide variety of items, ingredients and foods that are essential to Peruvian culture. The market is frequented daily by everyone from local families to chefs who are searching for the freshest ingredients to prepare regional dishes. For those who want to make the traditional Peruvian seafood dish, ceviche, start out by looking for fresh cilantro, onion, limes and chili peppers at the various vegetable stands. For the main ingredient, head over to the fish stands and take your pick of fresh sea bass or perhaps snapper depending on your taste. Don’t forget to strike up a conversation with the stall keepers. They often will have the best advice for cooking local specialties! In addition to deliciously fresh ingredients, San Pedro Market is one of the best places to mingle with the locals and buy handmade crafts.
Visit the Plaza de Armas and nearby Cathedral with a private guide.
Formerly the site of the Incan plaza Huacaypata, Plaza de Armas has maintained its importance as a cultural and historical center of Cusco. Featuring characteristics of both Incan and Spanish influence, the Plaza de Armas is an exemplary illustration of this irreversible blend of cultures that began in the 16th century. On any given day, visitors will notice two flags flying high above the plaza- the Peruvian flag and the rainbow colored flag of Tahuantinsuyo which represents all four quarters of the Incan empire. Strolling around the plaza, several notable buildings are visible. On the northeast side, the Cathedral is one of the more eminent features of the plaza. Designed in the European Renaissance style, the imposing building was built on top of a former Incan palace. It is flanked by two smaller churches, Jesús María and El Triunfo. El Triunfo has the distinction of being the first Christian church in the region. On the southeastern side of the plaza, one will find the ornately designed La Compañía de Jesús. Built by Jesuits in the 16th century atop the palace of Huayna Cápac, the last ruler of a united Incan empire, this extravagantly designed church was met with controversy during construction after the archbishop of Cusco complained that its grandiose rivaled the Cathedral. However, by the time Pope Paul III intervened in favor of the Cathedral, the Jesuits had nearly completed construction and the elaborate Baroque facade and interior design remained. Alongside the plaza, visitors will notice various, winding alleyways that lead into the plaza. These alleyways feature prominent and precisely cut stone walls. These stones are the historical remnants of the Incas who used the alleyways as a traditional entrance to the plaza. From the cathedrals to the flags to the Loreto, there is perhaps no better place in Cusco to see the combination of Inca and Spanish qualities.
Private music demonstration in the historic Hotel Monasterio’s chapel.
Previously a monastery, the original construction of the Hotel Monasterio property dates back to Incan times when it was the palace of Inca Amaru Qhala. During the 16th century when the Spanish began taking over the city, they founded the Seminary of San Antonio Abad. After an earthquake nearly destroyed the property in 1650, the monastery was restored to its former grandeur and a chapel was added. Then in 1950, the monastery underwent another transformation and was remodeled into a hotel. Today, the beautifully restored hotel is recognized as a national historic landmark, protected by Peru’s National Institute of Culture. In addition to luxury accommodations that blend seamlessly with this historic property, a private and unique musical demonstration in the hotel’s chapel featuring various Peruvian instruments can be arranged through Blue Parallel. With the guidance of a local musician, learn how music is a central part of Peruvian culture and the regional variations of instruments. Many of the wind, string and percussion instruments that are used have been hand-crafted based on ancient designs. Within the beautiful setting of the chapel, the music connects listeners to an ancient past, another world living in sync with modern times.
Take a day trip to the beautiful surrounding countryside to visit Baroque churches.
With a private guide, take a day to explore the picturesque towns surrounding Cusco and visit their carefully and exquisitely designed churches. Like the churches and monasteries built within Cusco, many of these churches in the countryside where built on top of or near former Incan palaces and buildings. While there are a variety of churches to chose from, one that cannot be missed is San Pedro Apostol. Built by Jesuits in the 16th century, San Pedro Apostol is situated on a former huaca, an Incan ceremonial space. Construction of the facade was finished in 1606; however, the intricate interior design was completed nearly 20 years afterwards by Luis de Riaño. The interior decoration is breathtaking and the attention to detail is impressive. The largest feature is a baroque style mural depicting various biblical themes. Due in large part to this mural, San Pedro Apostol is widely known as the Sistine Chapel of the Andes. As for the architecture, the church has a polychrome ceiling in the Mudéjar style built using a pre-Hispanic construction method called kur-kur which combines cane, straw, and mud instead of wood. Additionally, the church boasts one of the oldest organs built in South America (dating back to 1626) and it’s possible to hear some notes being played from this still functioning instrument. Most notably, the churches that you will encounter outside of the city feature aspects of both indigenous and colonial beliefs. One such example is San Juan Bautista. Widely known for its murals depicting indigenous and colonial beliefs, the highlight of this church is the vivid illustration of heaven and hell. In addition to the beautiful landscape, a day trip to these churches helps synthesize the depth of the combination of Incan and Spanish cultures that overtime have profoundly influenced one another.