Surrounded by countless Incan ruins, Cuzco is undoubtedly the most archaeologically significant city in South America, serving as the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Cuzco was the heart of civilisation for many Andean tribes, who constructed roads and structures throughout Peru to serve the ancient capital. Today, Cuzco is a blend of precolonial, colonial, and modern structures. Jarringly, one can find banks and fast-food restaurants along colonnades grafted atop Incan masonry. The many restaurants, boutiques, and bars of Cuzco serve the massive influx of tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of Incan life.
Without a doubt, the main attractions in the area are the Incan ruins which line the Sacred Valley, an hour or two outside the city. The boleto turistico (tourist ticket) gives access to many notable Incan sites, including Chinchero, Pisaq, and Ollantaytambo, as well as numerous museums and galleries within the city that house Incan artwork and artefacts.
Day 1: Exploring Cuzco
We arrived in Cuzco in an overcast afternoon. It had been raining in the region for the past few days, potentially hampering our next days of sightseeing, as well as casting fears about the suitability of hiking the Inca Trail following our brief stay in Cuzco.
Nonetheless, there was little time to worry as we ventured into the city. Cuzco is centred on Plaza de Armas, the city square flanked by the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús and the city’s cathedral, La Catedral del Cuzco. The square is lined by numerous shops and restaurants, and tourists are consistently stopped by persistent restaurant staff, hawkers, and street vendors loudly touting their goods and stores. Dotted around the city are archaeological and cultural museums such as Casa Concha Museum and Museo Inka, which contain numerous Incan artefacts, allowing historians to better understand life in the Incan Empire.
From the main square, we began our exploration of Cuzco by visiting the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús, a Jesuit church housing religious artwork, as well as providing a vista over the central square. This church was built on the grounds of the Palace of the Incan emperor Huayna Cápac, a powerful statement laid down by the colonials. The Jesuit church, with its ornate façade and altar, was built to rival the catholic cathedral, which is situated just opposite. Rocky steps also provide a view of Plaza de Armas on a first-floor balcony. By the time we had finished visiting the Iglesia, however, we found that the cathedral was just about to close. As always – look up opening times prior to visiting!
For dinner, after our visit of the church, we visited Kion to satisfy our craving for Chinese food. It may sound strange to have Chinese food while abroad, but curiously, chifa, as it is known to locals, is one of the most popular cuisines in Peru. Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru during the 19th and 20th centuries for manual labour and settled in coastal regions. The first Peruvian-Chinese restaurants soon opened in Lima, and they then spread to other regions of Peru and South America. Peruvian chifa is quite distinct from traditional Chinese cooking and can span multiple economic strata; it tends to make use of South American ingredients such as ají amarillo chili paste. Today, the melange of ingredients has caused chifa to be morphed into an integral part of Peruvian cuisine. Even classical Peruvian dishes, such as lomo saltado, consisting of beef strips stir-fried with tomatoes and onions, incorporate elements of Chinese cooking.
After dinner, we continued touring Cuzco. From the central Plaza de Armas, we made our way through Hatun Rumiyuq, the main tourist street, towards the neighbourhood of San Blas,passing by impressive stonework that had been preserved since Incan times. The Incans did not use mortar; as such, they had to rely on extremely precise stonecutting to form shapes which would fit together seamlessly. One example of this masterful masonry is the famous twelve-angled stone near Hatun Rumiyuq; this twelve-sided stone was meticulously carved to fit perfectly within the wall.
From San Blas, we made our way uphill through the quiet streets of Cuzco. Our tranquil climb contrasted with the hustle and bustle of thumping bars and clubs near the town centre. Interrupted only by an occasional barking dog, we reached Mirador de Santa Ana and were treated to a view of illuminated Cuzco, surrounded on all sides by the Andes.