Cuzco isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Most people that travel in Peru use the city as a quick stopover point on their way to Machu Picchu. Admittedly, I may have been one of those people. But when I arrived in the former capital of the Inca empire, I discovered that there is much more to Cuzco than I ever imagined.
I landed at Cuzco airport after a smooth flight from Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon. At the exit I was met by a woman named Soledad, who worked for Explorandes, a company that I have met at a number of travel trade shows. They operate tours throughout Peru, and I was going to go on one later that afternoon.
Soledad and I hopped in a taxi for the quick 15-minute drive from the airport to my hotel in Cuzco. There I had time to check in and get some work done before meeting the PR director of Inca Rail, a Machu Picchu train operator, for lunch at Cuzco’s best restaurant, Cicciolina.
Our lunch was delicious. The menu was Italian-heavy, but there were a few local dishes, including guinea pig and alpaca, that I was encouraged to try. I did. I loved them. Is that bad?
After lunch, my guide, Elkin, came to meet me at my hotel. We started our tour of Cuzco just around the corner in the city’s main square, the Plaza de Armas.
A pretty green space was surrounded by colonial-era churches and pretty buildings with wooden balconies. While we were there, Elkin explained to me that a major earthquake in 1650 changed the look of the city forever. But not completely.
Most buildings in Cuzco still retain their Inca foundations, which can be seen in the form of black rocks rising 5 or 6 feet above the ground. While they now support colonial-style buildings, the Inca heritage of the city remains.
From the Plaza de Armas, our Cuzco tour continued with a visit to Kusicancha. The small area contained some of the only remaining Inca ruins in the heart of the city.
After viewing Kusicancha, we walked down a narrow street and found ourselves in front of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Its Baroque tower was the most ornate in Cuzco, but it was the interior of the church that really wowed me. That was not least because it wasn’t a church at all. It was an Inca temple.
Qorikancha was the main Inca temple in Cuzco, and the Spanish missionaries turned it into the cloister of one of their churches in the 16th century. Thankfully, the much of the temple remains intact, and Elkin took me all around to show me the sun temple and talk about Inca architecture, astronomy, and culture.
Outside of the church, we jumped into a taxi and drove up to the top of a hill overlooking the city. There we saw another Inca temple: Sacsayhuaman. This one was far more intact than Qorikancha, and featured enormous stone steps that reminded me of those at the temples of Angkor Wat. It also had characteristic Inca rock walls that used no mortar to hold the heavy bricks together.
After the temple, we headed to the Mercado San Pedro, Cuzco’s main market. But it wasn’t just any market. Sure, it sold the traditional meat, fruit, fish, and vegetables. But it also had a section selling hallucinogenic cactus, dried caiman heads, and dream catchers that reminded me of the fetish market that I went to in Mali.
Nearby was a section full of fresh flowers, and across from it was a shamanistic stall selling grotesque masks and large black llama fetuses for use in traditional ceremonies. Down the steps from there were stalls offering prepared foods and drinks, and around the corner were round sweet breads that made my mouth water.
Leaving the market, we continued our window shopping with a trip to a shop that sold all things alpaca. Colorful sweaters, woven blankets, pillow covers, dolls, and decorative items filled the shop’s floors. So did two hairless dogs. I wondered if they saw the irony.
Back in the Plaza de Armas, our Cuzco tour culminated with a visit to the cathedral. There I saw ornate gold altarpieces, paintings that blended Inca culture and Christian symbolism, and the original metal cross that the conquistadores brought with them from Spain when they first arrived in Peru.
At the end of the three-and-a-half hour tour, Elkin walked me back to my hotel. As we parted ways, I couldn’t thank him enough for showing me the city and helping me discover the sightseeing highlights of Cuzco and teaching me about the famous Inca civilization.
The rest of my day was spent enjoying my hotel in Cuzco, the Inkaterra La Casona. It was the sister hotel of the one I stayed in during my visit to the Peruvian Amazon, and it was every bit as impressive.
The boutique hotel was a member of Relais & Chateaux, and upon entering the Spanish colonial manor house in the pretty Plaza Las Nazarenas, I could tell why. The intimate atmosphere and attention to detail in everything from the furniture to the fittings made the place a true gem.
After a warm welcome with traditional coca tea, I went to my room, which the hotel had offered me for the night. I entered it from the traditional interior courtyard, and apart from some street noise, the room was calm and peaceful.
My spacious suite gathered me in its luxurious arms and whisked me off to a glamorous nap, a refreshing shower, and plenty of time lounging on the comfy sofa. If I had had more time, I would have indulged in a bubble bath in the stand-alone tub, too.
And I hope there is a next time. Having arrived in Cuzco thinking it would be a stopover on my way to Machu Picchu, I left having a deep appreciation for the city’s history and a strong affinity for its culture, sights, and people.