Travel To Cuzco, Peru


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Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca empire, sits in a valley at 11,000 feet over sea level. Cuzco is one of Peru’s top attractions, and the gateway for Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. From 1400 to the 1530s, Cuzco was the center of the Inca civilization, which stretched at its height from Quito, Ecuador all the way to Santiago, Chile. Today, Cuzco is a charming city of roughly 500,000 inhabitants, filled with exceptional colonial architecture, a host of interesting archaeological treasures, narrow streets (especially in the center of town), great shopping and dining, and a great deal to offer the visitor.

The Incas called Cuzco ‘the navel of the world’ because they believed their city was the center of the globe and life itself.

Highlights: Start your visit of Cuzco in the Plaza de Armas, or central square (lead photo). This was the former central market and ceremonial center of Cuzco, where many rituals and important ceremonies were held prior to the arrival of Pizarro and the conquistadors in the 16th century.

Visit the Cathedral, begun in 1559 and filled with priceless colonial art and sculptures. Flanking the cathedral are two important churches, the Church of Jesus Maria and the Church of El Triunfo. If you visit only 1 site in Cuzco, make it the Qorikancha, the ancient Inca temple of the sun, housed today within the Convento de Santo Domingo, a short walk from the Plaza de Armas.

The Qorikancha was the ‘holy of holies’ for the Incas, and the finest Inca temple in the empire. When the Spanish arrived, they found the walls of the temple covered with over 700 sheets of gold, each weighing about 5 pounds. Within the temples, the Incas had gold and silver representations of corn, animals, llamas, and a replica of the sun. Qorikancha housed over 4,000 priests and attendants, who performed ceremonies daily. Today, the Qorikancha is the base of the Convent of Santo Domingo, which was built on top of ancient Inca foundations. You can still see remnants of the Qorikancha, miraculously preserved over the centuries.

Around Cuzco: Take time to wander around the narrow streets of Cuzco, featuring many buildings with Inca stone foundations and Spanish colonial architecture built on top. The San Blas neighborhood is a fun area to visit, featuring restaurants, galleries, and shops.

I also enjoyed the Mercado de San Pedro, Cuzco’s central market, showcasing produce from all over Peru (don’t miss the juice bar, offering over 40 fresh choices with every fruit imaginable, including many you never saw before).

The best museum by far is the Museo de Arte Precolombino (Plaza Nazarenas), sister of the Larco Museum in Lima.

Outside of Cuzco: The most impressive site by far is Sacsayhuaman.

This massive Inca fortress sits on top of a hill above Cuzco, and was the ancient defense of the city.

Today you can only see 20% of the original construction, all the more remarkable as it was built without beasts of burden. (remember the Spanish brought the horse to the Americas, and the Incas only had llamas, which can carry up to 40-50 pounds max.). Fans of the Inca empire can visit Qenko, Tambomachay, Puca Pucara, 3 other sites nearby.

Where to dine: Based on concierges I met, here are some recommendations: For Italian, Cicciolina; for Peruvian, try Illariy or Pachapapa. I had a great lunch at the MAP Café, the restaurant next to the Museum mentioned above off Plaza Nazarenas.

How to get here: The quickest route to Cuzco is flying from Lima. The flight takes about 1 hour, 20 minutes. There are 40 flights a day. Lan and Avianca offer the best, most reliable service. There is also air service from Cuzco to Bogota Colombia, as well as Arequipa and Puno, Peru.

Where to stay:

  • Belmond Palacio Nazarenas. In my opinion, this is the best hotel in Cuzco. Palacio Nazarenas is built on what was formerly a 17th century convent and adjacent palace. Belmond Palacio Nazarenas offers 55 suites in various configurations, all with butler service, spacious living areas, and oxygen-enriched ventilation. The hotel has a heated pool (a novelty in Cuzco), spa, great restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining, beautiful public spaces, and four walled in garden courtyards. My favorite suites here are the suites facing the pool and Cuzco on the higher floors.
  • Belmond Hotel Monasterio. Located next door to Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, facing a beautiful colonial square. Hotel Monasterio’s main building goes back to 1592 and today offers 126 rooms and suites, many with oxygen-enriched ventilation. The hotel has a chapel, which can be used for private weddings. The public spaces are bigger and more grand than the intimate Palacio Nazarenas, and very popular with locals and visitors. The décor throughout is colonial, with many priceless art and sculpture featured all throughout the property.
  • Palacio del Inka, a Luxury Collection Hotel. This property is located across the street from the Qorikancha temple, 5 minutes’ walk from the Plaza de Armas. The hotel is housed in a historic mansion dating back to the 16th century. Rooms are spacious and decorated with colonial antiques. There is a spa on property.

Practical advice:

  • High season runs from May to September. During this time, book at least 6 months ahead to avoid disappointment.
  • Take time to adjust to the altitude. Ideally, spend a few days in either the Sacred Valley/Machu Picchu or Arequipa before overnighting in Cuzco. Drink double the amount of water you normally drink, avoid alcohol – especially at night, and try to make lunch your main meal of the day. I found that drinking a cup of coca tea in the morning prevented me from getting altitude sickness.
  • Weather: In general, the rainy season runs from December to February, and the drier season runs May to September. At night, the temperature can drop to 30/32F (especially from May to September, the winter months in Cuzco). Wear layers, as the weather is unpredictable.

07/11/2017 Courtesy of IGNACIO MAZA