1,200 years of history, architecture and culture (and amazing shopping). Lizzie Williams explains why Cuzco ticks all the boxes...
Long before the Incas arrived, Cuzco and the surrounding Sacred Valley played host to other highland cultures, most notably the Killki (700-800AD), upon whose temples many Inca sites such as the Qoricancha were subsequently built. Although Inca legend tells of the founding of the city in 1200, Cuzco did not flourish until the ruler Pachacutec (1438-71) focussed his attention on creating an “ideal city” where religious and administrative centres could function as a cohesive whole within a specifically designed metropolis.
The 16th century heralded the arrival of the Spanish, and with that opened a new chapter in the city’s history in which many Inca structures were demolished and replaced with elaborate baroque Catholic churches reminiscent of their homeland. Today a delicious mix of Inca, colonial Spanish and 21st century, Cuzco (also spelt Cusco) is my favourite city in South America. The city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the wonderfully preserved streets are a joy to explore, so it is well worth making the time to soak up the atmosphere here before heading on to Machu Picchu.
For many, the Incas are Peru’s main draw and, although Machu Picchu is undoubtedly a highlight, it’s well worth exploring some of the civilisation’s other sites. Nestled on a hilltop overlooking the city, the ruins of Sacsayhuamán are a testament to the skill of the Inca stonemasons, with limestone blocks weighing up to 200 tonnes seamlessly slotted together without mortar. The Spanish found the stones to be the perfect building materials for their new churches and mansions in the city and now the site’s only remaining stones are those that were too large to move. Much about the site remains a mystery, from the meaning of its name to its function — was it a fortress or did it serve a more ceremonial purpose?
San Pedro Market (2)
Get off the beaten tourist track and see a bit of local life. With everything from textiles to meat and even dried llama foetuses (for offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth) all under one roof, the market is a great place to delve into Cusqueñan life. The vegetable section is the best place to get a flavour for the huge diversity of Peruvian produce; the country boasts close to 4,000 types of potato alone. Do as the locals do and order a freshly squeezed juice — the perfect pick-me-up after a hard day’s exploring.
There’s opportunity aplenty to spend your nuevo soles (the local currency). Alpaca woollens abound and range from cheap, colourful socks and mittens to delectably soft jumpers and scarfs, at a fraction of UK prices. Keep an eye out for rare vicuña wool, the finest on Earth and said to be worth its weight in gold!
If you prefer antiques or more traditional furnishings then the steep streets of San Blas are a treasure trove of boutiques and workshops. Here you’ll often find wood carvers laboriously creating the baroque style gilt frames that have long graced Cusqueñan homes. If you’re looking for jewellery then visit a silversmith for delicate necklaces and earrings — often embellished with local turquoise and serpentine.
Our latest discovery offers a superb location and excellent value for money with just 15 simply decorated, characterful rooms set around a shared courtyard. Built on old Inca ruins, the hotel served as an inn in colonial times and now provides an intimate base for visitors.
La Casona (4)
This colonial manor house hosts just 11 suites around a small, elegant courtyard, each luxuriously appointed with roaring fires for the chilly Andean nights. With few rooms and a big reputation, the hotel fills up many months in advance.
Palacio Nazarenas (5)
Orient Express have spent several years restoring this convent to its former glory. Each of the 55 sumptuous suites can be oxygen enriched for those suffering from the altitude, and the hotel is currently the only one in the city to offer an outdoor pool.
La Cicciolina (6)
A long time Audley favourite, this local delight specialises in homemade pasta in a trendy setting, and also serves excellent tapas at the bar. Advance booking is a must and we’re happy to help reserve a table for you.
Cuisine in Cuzco does not always revolve around alpaca steaks and guinea pig, and those vegetarians among you might enjoy Greens’ laidback atmosphere and light, fresh flavours.
Café Yanapay (8)
Not to everyone’s taste — with colourful walls and children’s toys everywhere — but the food is extremely well priced, delicious and all proceeds go to their charity supporting additional education for impoverished children.
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