Cusco: Heart of the Incas
10 November 2013
Home to unrivalled archaeological wonders and the gateway to magnificent Machu Picchu, Cusco is a city deeply steeped in intoxicating history, says Tatyana Leonov
As the plane draws closer to Cusco and slowly starts descending through the thick clouds, I get a sudden burst of excitement. I’ve been anticipating this moment for a while now. like most avid travellers, Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list since i knew it existed – and Cusco is the gateway city to this magnificent and mysterious wonder of the world.
I do get to Machu Picchu, and it as mesmerising as all the guidebooks say – a once-was city that’s so deeply steeped in an incredibly rich history it’s beyond amazing. But more on that later. first i make another significant discovery. Cusco is not just the gateway to one of the world’s most majestic sights, the colonial town is a delight in itself. each nook and every corner brings a new discovery, each ancient building offers another glimpse into a world that once was. Who knew history could be so intoxicating!
In Cusco I learn to breathe deeper – not because I’m struggling with the high altitude, but because I yearn for more. Here i lose my care for top-notch food paired with fantastic wine, and instead find myself hungry for history and thirsty for facts.
Cusco, given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1983, is home to several unrivalled archaeological wonders. There’s the walled complex of sacsayhuaman, an Incan masterpiece located on the peak of a hill just three kilometres from Cusco’s main square. Its sheer magnitude – the walls are made of stones, some of which stand as high as nine metres – is its main attraction; no cement was used, yet the large congregation of rocks (the biggest is estimated to weigh more than 125 tonnes) sit in a perfect assembly side by side. not far from sacsayhuaman is the equally impressive Quenco, a ceremonial site dedicated to the worship of animals. it includes a huge, six-metre-high stone that resembles a puma; sophisticated and suave, it is at the same time completely bizarre.
Cusco was once an incan town with stone buildings, big squares and large and elaborate temples and palaces – all decorated with lavish gold. Much of the incan architecture was destroyed by the spanish colonialists after their arrival in the 16th century, leaving Cusco to be rebuilt with wide plazas, elaborate colonial mansions and stone churches. Today, the miscellany of the two styles is what characterises the eclectic town. The colossal, meticulously cut incan-built walls that remain line the narrow, weaving cobblestone streets. Grand churches and manors, built on a foundation of intricately carved stone, are found on almost every street corner. nowhere else does the architecture of the incas and the spanish intertwine in such a spectacular way.
The heart of town, the Plaza de armas, is one of the most beautiful and historic city squares in south america. The stately spanish-built stone precinct is perpetually busy, whatever the season. This is the place to sit and watch love-struck couples sharing ice-creams, cafe owners wandering around trying to sell their latest delicacy, and groups of travellers huddling over maps.
Dominating the picturesque square is the Cusco Cathedral, with its grandiose exterior. it was built in two stages; first, the Church of the Triumph was built on top of what was once the incan ceremonial temple suntar Wasi, then later the cathedral itself was built over the remains of the incan palace of Wiracocha.
You will, no doubt, gawk (and stay gawking for a while) at the majestic building, but do head on in. The late Gothic, baroque and plateresque interior is impressive, as are the colonial goldwork, silver-wrought objects and wood-carved alters scattered throughout the mammoth space.
There are also a number of paintings from the Cusco school (a Catholic artistic tradition based in Cusco during the colonial period of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries) dotted around the cathedral, the most famous being Marcos Zapata’s 1753 rendering of The Last Supper, in which Jesus and his 12 apostles are depicted feasting on guinea pig.
There are plenty of museums, too, each showcasing something more historically brilliant than the next. if you only visit one, the Museum of the Temple of the Qoricancha (also known as the Temple of the sun) features a life-sized replica gold sun disc as well as gold statues, and these items offer a significant insight into Incan life.
Then, of course, there is Machu Picchu; if there ever was a remarkable glimpse into an extraordinary civilisation, then this is it. scholars are still trying to uncover more clues about the elaborate complex of stone plazas, palaces, temples and homes, but what we do know (thanks to the layout and high level of preservation) is that the incan civilisation was extremely advanced for its time.
The four-day trek along the inca Trail is a very popular way to get to Machu Picchu, but if you want to take this well-trodden route you will need to book several months in advance. alternatively, the train trip departing from Poroy station (13 kilometres from Cusco), takes three to four hours. The slow, weaving route offers unsurpassed views of the landscape – and it’s much gentler on the feet.
Most trekkers wake up at some ungodly hour on their last trekking day to make Macchu Pichu by sunrise. They dream of epiphanies impeccably timed with the glistening sun making its first appearance. i get the train and don’t make sunrise, nor do i stay until sunset. and it doesn’t matter one bit. a miasma of thick clouds, or torrential rain, or even a heavy storm could not take away from the magnificence that is Macchu Pichu.
Where To Stay
for ultimate luxury, try the Palacio nazarenas. every suite features top-of- the-line amenities and oxygen can be piped in to gently acclimatise guests to the altitude; palacionazarenas.com.
Hotel Monasterio is a former monastery dating from the 1590s. all 126 rooms are sumptuous; monasteriohotel.com.
Palacio del inka recently joined starwood’s luxury Collection portfolio following a big refurbish; luxurycollection.com/palaciodelinka.
In the mid-range, novotel Cusco is ideal;
What To Wear
Dress for comfort: good walking shoes, cargo pants or jeans, and a warm sweater for when it gets cold.
What To Drink
Pisco sour – a cocktail made using pisco, a local liquor, with lime or lemon juice, sugar syrup, egg whites and angostura bitters. Visit the Museo del Pisco (museodelpisco.org).
Getting To Macchu Pichu
if you want to trek the inca Trail, you’ll need to do so as part of a tour. Peru’s government puts a cap on inca Trail permits each year, and these can only be obtained when trekking as part of a guided group, such as those from intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com).
Thank you. Gracias.
Where’s the loo? Dónde está el baño?
I don’t understand. No entiendo.
Machu Picchu itself. it doesn’t matter how you get there, it’s magnificent.
The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie.