The Gateway to the Inca Trail and Ruins of Machu Picchu



In Quechua, the language of the Incas, Qosqo means navel or vital center. Since no early maps of the area exist, archeologists aren't sure when or how the city was founded. According to legend, Qosqo was considered the promise land, settled by the first Inca king, Manco Capac, after he left his birthplace, Lake Titicaca.

During Inca times, roads from the four corners of the empire converged on Qosqo. Likewise, the city itself was divided into four quarters, and its streets met in front of the temple. According to Spanish chroniclers, Qosqo was a magnificent well-maintained city of stone plazas, temples and palaces lavishly decorated with gold. The inner city where only royalty lived, was laid out in the shape of a crouching puma with Sacsayhuaman, the temple fortress above the city as its head, the Temple of the Sun (Templo del Sol) and its Coriancha (meaning golden enclosure) as its heart, and a public garden bordered by the Huatanay and Tullumayo rivers marking the puma's tail.

Cusco today

About Cusco: Cusco is a photographer's paradise. Called the city of stairways, this jewel of colonial architecture has many important landmarks and picturesque winding streets. Four of the city's many churches are on the main Plaza de Armas including a cathedral that took almost 100 years to build, two adjoining chapels and the Jesuit Church of La Compania (Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus.)

Other Cusco churches of note are the baroque Church of Santo Domingo, built over the Coriancha, the ornate two-story16th century Lady of Mercy Convent (Iglesia y Convento de la Merced) and the adobe San Blas church erected over an Inca sanctuary. The city has several museums, some of which are former manor houses of important local citizens including the Museo de Historia Regional, once owned by historian Garcilaso de la Vega and the Museo de Arte Religioso, formerly both the home of a marquis and the archbishop's palace. In the city's churches and museums, one can see many fine examples of the Cusco School of Painting, the Indian arts movement that took inspiration from or copied 16th and 17th century European masterpieces.

Inca ruins in and around Cusco

La Coriancha and the Temple of the Sun (Templo del Sol) Like much of the city's Inca architecture, tragically little remains of this prized complex. According to the chroniclers, the Temple of the Sun had walls of gold, contained a huge disc-shaped face of the Incas' most revered God, the Sun (Inti), and chapels dedicated to individual Gods that were reached from an interior courtyard. It is believed that from this temple the Incas gathered most of the gold they mistakenly thought would secure the release of their doomed king, Atahualpa, from the Spanish conquistadores in the northern city of Cajamarca.

Though earthquakes have not toppled the Inca walls of the Coriancha, its colonial successor has been destroyed twice by the city's two major earthquakes, in1650 and 1950. When the 1950 earthquake exposed many of the original Incan support structures, an indigenous group suggested relocating the church so that the Temple of the Sun could be re-constructed, but the idea didn't fly.

Sacsayhuaman (meaning imperial falcon) At the top of a steep climb along an Incan road stands what's left of a great stone temple, observatory and gathering place that overlooked the royal city. Most of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish to build Cusco. It was here that the Incas staged a short-lived revolt against the Spanish soon after the conquest in hopes of re-taking their kingdom in 1536.

Other ruins on the outskirts of the city include Qenko (meaning zigzag) consisting of carved limestone tunnels and a cave used for worship and ceremonies dedicated to Mother Earth; Puca Pucara (meaning red fort wall) that served as a checkpoint along the Inca road with warehouses, rooms and waterways; and Tambo Machay (El Bano del Inca), a temple site and ceremonial stone bath that may have been used for the worship of water. About Cusco Special Events The most important of Cusco's festivals is Inti Raymi, which honors the Sun God. The event takes place June 24, attracting visitors from around the world. The Procession of the Lord of the Earthquakes is held on the Monday of Holy Week. The Corpus Christi feast occurs in early June.

Other things to do

It's easy to keep busy in Cusco. Outdoor recreational opportunities include river rafting, kayaking, mountain bicycling, mountain climbing and bird watching. The restaurant scene ranges from fancy to courtyard and patio settings, from international dining to vegetarian fare and Peruvian cuisine including delicacies of the region such as roast cuy (guinea pig.) The city's nightlife consists of a smattering of bars, some featuring traditional music and folk-dancing. For shopping, an interesting place to visit is the quaint San Blas neighborhood, once inhabited by the Quechua nobility and today a haven for artists. One can watch craftspeople at work and buy their wares. The biggest of the city's crafts markets is here.

Discover Machu Picchu and the Inca trail on many of Southern Explorations' Peru tours.