Cusco: Fast and Fascinating Facts For First Timers

The city of Cusco (also spelt Cuzco and Q’osqo) is located in the Peruvian Andes in South-Eastern Peru at an elevation of 3,399m above sea-level. Cusco is the capital of Cusco province. As per a 2014 census, the city’s population was 442,629.

Cusco served as the imperial capital of the Inka from the 15th Century until the Spanish Conquest of the city in 1533. The area that is now the Colonial Centre of Cusco has been continuously inhabited for over 600 years and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. Today, Cusco is one of the most significant tourism hubs in Latin America, attracting over 2 million visitors annually.

Cusco’s Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport services the region of Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. There are domestic flights to/from Lima, Arequipa, Juliaca and Puerto Maldonado. There are international flights to/from La Paz, Bolivia.

There are several coach companies which offer a Full-Day Sightseeing Journey from Cusco to Lake Titicaca.

Cusco Train station only provides rail connections to Puno on the Andean Explorer Train. Trains to Machu Picchu depart from Poroy Station, about a 20min drive to the west of Cusco.  Trains to Machu Picchu also depart from Ollantaytambo Station in the Sacred Valley, a drive of approximately 2hrs from Cusco.

The city and its surrounds offer plentiful attractions for the visitor:

The centrepiece of the city is the Plaza de Armas, the Main Square of Cusco, which features decorative lawns and gardens surrounding a central fountain. The Plaza de Armas is flanked on its northern and eastern sides by the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and the Church of La Compañia de Jesus. These chapels feature interiors lavishly decorated in the style of the Cusco School featuring elaborately carved altars gilded in gold-leaf. The cathedral is home to a famous painting of the Last Supper with cuy (guinea pig) as the eponymous dish.

To the north of the Plaza de Armas is the District of San Blas, often described as “bohemian” due to the concentration of art galleries, alternative clothing shops and bars. There is a weekly craft market here on Saturdays in the square next to the church.

Koricancha (also spelt Coricancha and Qorikancha) was the Inka Temple of the Sun, located on what is now Avenida del Sol several blocks from the Plaza de Armas. Spanish conquistadors described Koricancha as being completely full of gold and later destroyed the temple, supplanting it with the Convent of Santo Domingo de Guzman.

A 10min walk to the south of the Plaza de Armas is the Central Market, more commonly known as San Pedro Market. This large covered market contains a variety of stalls selling handicrafts, fruit, vegetables, meat, medicinal cures, bread, woven goods and a great deal more. At the far eastern end of San Pedro Market is an extensive selection of food stalls where locals enjoy rustic fare.

Overlooking Cusco from Pukamoqo Hill is the Cristo Blanco, an 8m high white statue of Jesus Christ. With arms outstretched, it looks similar to the Christ-the-Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro. Sculpted by local artist Ernesto Olazo Olivera, the statue was given to the city by the Palestinian community in Cusco in 1945. During the day there are wonderful views of Cusco from the statue. In the evening the statue is floodlit and can be seen from Cusco’s Colonial Center.

Nearby Cristo Blanco is the imposing fortress of Sacsayhuaman which comprises gigantic walls of massive interlocking polygonal boulders. To the north there are three parallel zigzagging walls which have been interpreted as representing the teeth of a puma or lightning bolts. The site is believed to have been of mixed religious and military significance to the Inka: as a Sun Temple and later as an arsenal during times of unrest in the urban valley region. The city of Cusco was originally designed in the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuaman as the head, the urban center as the body and the convergence of two rivers as the tail.

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