Cusco city and its walking trails

Cusco city and its walking trails

The ancient city of Cusco is scattered with sites of archaeological interest, with Inca and Spanish colonial remains. It is also the gateway to some of the most interesting areas of jungle in Perú.

Please note that the pictures series are all rather long. We have, in two instances, given you links that jump into these part-way through them. In addition, as noted immediately above, there is a separate trekking guide for those who want to walk. This does not have pictures, for portability if you want to print it out.

The figure below shows some of the attractions of central Cusco. Click on it (or here) to go to a large, higher-resolution map of the city. What follows is not a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the city as there are abundant and very specific guidebooks that cover this. The whole point of this guide is to help you get off the beaten track! Nevertheless, we do discuss the main festivals and sites in the city. It is well worth walking away form the main sights - to the Barrio and tower of Santa Ana, for example, as the traditional charms of the area have been preserved in these. Santa Ana offers a fine view over the city, and a delightful - if steep - ascent to the tower, passing the traditional architecture and the everyday life of the town. The route to Saq'sayhuaman also offers fine views, and five minutes of puffing up the streets that lead to this give you views of all of central Cusco.

Click here for a larger map

Please click on the image to see the detailed map


Cusco is the second major tourist attraction in Perú, after Lima, and the town is set up to receive this traffic. The main map shows the "tourist area". You can find most of the facilities that you will need - agencies, banks, communications - on the axis that runs from the Plaza de Armas to the second of two railway stations. The chief areas of interest to foreigners have been shaded on the larger map. A significant number of people speak English, but many of the rural people who visit the town still have a limited grasp even of Spanish. The population of the town are for the most part reasonably well-off and educated, but of the 1.2 million people in the department, around 600,000 are estimated to live in "extreme poverty". Women have 4.8 children on average, around a fifth are illiterate and about a third of children are thought to be malnourished.

The town can be reached by air in an hour from Lima, and there are also connections to Juliaca, Arequipa, Puerto Maldonaldo in the jungle and (precariously) to Ayacucho. There is a rail connection to puna and Arequipa. (This is separate from the rail link to Machu Picchu and Quillabamba and it also uses a different railway station, a frequent cause of confusion.) The minimum distance by road is 1100 km, taking 24 hours of driving time. This fascinating but very remote journey goes through Nazca, Chalhuanca and Abancay. (More here.) The second route, entailing 32 hours of driving time, passes through Arequipa, Puno and Sicuani. (More here.)

Cusco lies in a valley at 3400m, with most of the surrounding towns located higher. It is a cool place, with days averaging 11°C and becoming sharply colder in Winter. The sharp drop to the jungle makes the lower Urubamba much hotter - maximum 30°C, minimum 20°C - whilst the dry Apurímac valley rockets from a maximum of 35°C to near frost. The puna regions follow the typical patterns of the altiplano, whilst the mountains of the various cordilleras may rise above 6000m, into permanent ice cover. The pattern of rains follows that of the rest of the Peruvian Andes, raining from November to March.

The people of region are dependent on agriculture, most of which is still largely subsistence-driven. Over half the population are rural, yet farming generates only around 13% of the wealth in the region. Cusco is a major maize producer for Perú, and the lower altitude areas grow tea and coffee. There has been a long tradition of coca cultivation and the region was badly affected by drug trafficking gangs and their entanglement in the guerrilla wars of the Nineties. Most of this is now safely controlled. Animal products are also important. Mining, with the exception of the Tintaya copper mine, is not of great significance. The is a vast gas reserve in the jungle at Camisea, first discovered in 1982 and only now coming on stream. Industry is poorly developed, and most activities are small scale, cheeses and jam-making, crafts and artesania. Cusco's largest factory makes beer.

This leaves tourism as the region's great source of income: services make up about two thirds of the region's income, and tourism probably accounts for half of that. This, then, is why you will find yourself besieged if you show interest in guides, travel and the like. We suggest elsewhere how you might choose to approach this if you want a fulfilling and different experience. It is important to note that Cuzco has evolved some tourist-focused crime, something which is quite rare elsewhere in rural Perú. This is a particular risk for young trekkers who enter the night-life districts, socialise with other travellers and then tumble out onto the streets in the early hours of the morning, full of confidence and drink. In general, it is wise to avoid displays of relative wealth - cameras, walkmen - to be careful of your belongings in general and to stay in places which are plainly managed with security in mind. However, do please recall that the chief parasite of young foreigners are slightly older foreigners, particularly including the professional travellers who have made South America their home. Worldly charm - and drugs, and pseudo-religion - are a major part of their professional toolkit.

Please do note that the Andean people in general, and those around Cusco in particular, have a fierce loyalty to their history. This expresses itself at major and local fiestas and through semi-political demonstrations of group identity. You are not unwelcome at these, but should be conscious that you are a very much second-class sort of person in the eyes of the participants and that intrusuve behaviour or dress may attract - at the very least - criticism. Keep your profile low and your eyes and ears open: that way you will see more and, perhaps, be invited 'on board'.

One political tool that is of growing importance is the paro, which is much more than a one-day strike. It means that all terrestrial transportation stops - on threat of stoning - and that all offices (but not restaurants or hotels) close. Trim your travel plans to match this, but under no circumstances attempt to drive when a paro is in force. You will be unable to get to or from Machu Picchu during a paro.

Historic Cusco

The first major settlement in Cusco dates to the Eleventh Century AD, although a network of villages had been in existence in the valley for millennia. Early integration may have come from the Huari culture, but the Inca made Cusco their heart and they expunged any hint of Huari influence. The legend is that the Sun begat Manco Capac y Mama Ocllo on Lake Titicaca, and they were the first Incas and also the settlers of Cusco. Local legend, by contrast, insists that there a was a storage cave in a hill called Tambotoco, and the four brothers (Ayar Uchu, Ayar Cachi, Ayar Mango and Ayar Auca) accompanied by their sisters (Mama Ocllo, Mama Huaco, Mama Ipacura and Mama Raua) came upon it after an arduous journey. After many disputes and much legend-making, their settlement gave rise to settled life in the valley. Historical reality was probably both more complex and less interesting.

The Inca were masters of presentation and propaganda, and they made much of Cusco as a sacred place, as the intellectual and administrative heart of an irresistible force and of South America's greatest empire. Cusco was known as the Navel of the World, and access to it was rigorously controlled by way-stations, by a system of permits and by the distinctive dress and hair-styles forced on the subject peoples of the four Suyos, or regions in the empire. People permitted into the sacred valley were equipped with fine clothes, and required to walk with their eyes downcast.

Click here to see a series of images The Spanish (who forced they way into the heart of this empire) were genuinely astonished and awed by the richness of the dress and decorations of Sixteenth Century Cusco. The story of the Spanish conquest is told here. Imperial palaces and temples were knocked down and their sites and stones converted to colonial churches and dwellings. Vestiges of imperial Cusco can be seen in the original stone walls, that are sometimes a part of these constructions. (These are shown on the large map.) The life of the Inca and the history of the conquest is described in much more detail here.

The indigenous people of Cusco suffered heavily during the colonial period, with their number reduced to a fifth of that during the Inca period. There were a number of revolts against Spanish rule: immediately after the conquest, in 1780, in 1813. All were suppressed with great ferocity.

The viceregency moved the capital of Perú from Cusco to Lima, which removed much of its raison d'être. The failure of the Bolivian mines - and the decree from Spain that all their produce would be exported through Buenas Aires - all added to the chronic impoverishment of the South of Perú in general and of Cusco in particular. The result has been to "deep freeze" a colonial capital.

Colonial building.

The Plaza de Armas was built exactly on an pre-Inca - probably Huari - square called Huacaypata, or the place of tears. This is know to have been in place for at least a thousand years before the Spanish construction. All distances on Incan roads were measured from this point, and influential people strove to build their palaces around it. Here, too, Pizarro proclaimed the conquest and, centuries later, here the revolutionary Túpac Amaru was executed with his family.

The Spanish square is smaller than the original space, and is surrounded by an elegant ring of matched stone, comprising the major buildings, the cloistered spaces in which many shops and travel agencies now thrive, the cafes and restaurants. The city planners have been successful in retaining traditional architecture more or less throughout the centre of the city. Municipal buildings use the dark blue azul celeste to paint woodwork, and whole streets have followed this example. See around the San Francisco square, for example.

The Cathedral was built on and from the palace of Wiracocha, also using stone from the fortress of Saqsayhuaman, just outside Cusco. The rather simple facade follows an Rennaisance style, and the interior is dark and thick with candles. There are five doors, two bell towers and ten lateral chapels. The Patron of the city is enthroned in one of these: el Señor de los Temblores, the Lord of the Earthquakes. This is a fine gold figure donated by Carlos V, encrusted with jewels but now much dimmed by accumulated candle smoke and dust. It is processed around the town at Easter, as discussed below under 'festivals'. The Cathedral has an immense collection of paintings in the Cuzqueño manner. We discuss these below. One image shows the Last Supper, with a roast cuy or guinea pig on the table. The Inca had a saying: 'raise cuy, eat well' and Perú still gets through around 25 million of them every year.

The district or Barrio de San Blas is focused around the church of the same name, built on the palace of the Inca Tococachi. This is a simple church with a remarkable amd elaborate pulpit, carved from a single massive bole of wood in the churrigueresco style. The main attraction is, however, the winding streets which are lined with little craftshops, all making ceramics, textiles, carvings and other artesania.

The church and convent of La Merced was founded almost immediately after the conquest. It is a small building, reflecting this, but it possesses a major collection of gold and jewellery. The conquistadors are buried in its vault. It is located in Portal Mantas street.

The church and convent of Santo Domingo has a fine tower and a façade in the baroque style. The vault contains the remains of the baptised Incas Diego Sayri Túpac and Felipe Túpac Amaru, as well as a conquistador. It was also built on a former Inca site. Qorincancha was built by the Inca Pachacútec in honour of the Sun, and gradually developed as the cult's centre. The name means Precinct of Gold, and its splendour may have contributed to the downfall of the Inca. Pizarro's men were exhausted, when messengers who has been sent to Cusco returned with tales of out-doors sites literally plated with gold and golden objects. Flagging energies were restored, and the column fought its way to Cusco. The convent of Santo Domingo was constructed with and over the stones of this site once the gold was gone. The building is located, appropriately enough, on the corner of Sol and Domingo avenues.

The church and convent of Santa Catalina was finished around 1600, and is also founded on Inca stones. The Sun cult was attended by a large number of virgin girls, who were later given as wives to important Inca officials. Acllahuaso is the site where they were raised and educated. It is now the location of the convent of Santa Catalina, on Loreto street.

The church and convent of San Francisco faces onto a square that many prefer to the Plaza de Armas. It is constructed in a style which is typical of many churches in the city, but with a strong Franciscan influence. Its chief treasures are its collection of religious paintings, including a vast (12 x 19 m) canvas which shows the history of the Franciscan movement. As mentioned above, some of the finer examples of domestic architecture are to be found in the surrounding streets.

As a change from churches, consider the Casa del Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, a pretty colonial building that was built by a local mestizo who had done well from the conquest. It houses the collection of the Regional Museum, which is again doninated by Cusco scool paintings. These one either likes or loathes - if you like them, see the San Borja artists for good copies.

Other former Inca sites in Cusco:

Hatunrumiyoc means 'large rock', and was the residence of the Inca. A wall of this remains, and a twelve-sided rock that must have been of ceremonial significance. Today, however, it is all a part of the Archbishop's palace.

Collccampata is now the foundations of the church of San Cristóbal, a fine church with a good view out over the city. It is particularly ancient as it is known to have been built by Manco Capac, the founder of the Inca city. The church, which was built in the Sixteenth Century, uses the Inca walls in their entirety.

Amaru Cancha was the palace of the Inca Huayna Cápac, and is now the foundations of the church of La Compañía de Jesús and the University of San Antonio. These are located on the Plaza de Armas.


Entrega de Varas (1st January) is a traditional pre-Hispanic ceremony celebrated by the local people, at which the varayocs receive their staffs of office. Varayocs are local people - men - of influence, who are selected by the yayas or elderly people of the community to govern it for a year. The staff of office is passed on by an individual's predecessor, and is a wooden staff usually encrusted with gold or silver. As a sensible balance of power, former varayocs loose all power until they become yayas themselves. Bad rulers can thus expect to be badly treated.

El Chiaraje (20th of January, Canas province) is a ritualised conflict or pucllay between the populations of Checcas, Langui and Layo. The men turn out with bows, shields and wooden clubs or spears, with the aim of grabbing territory from the others. The overall aim is to maintain the fertility of Pacha Mama, the Earth goddess. There are also overtones of ancient conflicts between the Aymara and Quechua speakers of the region.

El Señor de los Temblores (Easter: mid-March to early April) has been mentioned above, under Cusco Cathedral. This is the patronal of Cusco, and coincides with Easter week (semana santa.) The Taytacha (little Father) Temblores is processed from the Cathedral on Easter Monday. The procession passes through the streets, closely following the route and ritual used when the mummies of former Incas were also processed through Cusco. A wave of red flowers and petals are deposited in front of the image, previously an offering to the Inca gods but now symbolising Christ's blood.

The Fiesta de Qoylloriti occurs in May, at a date which varies. The reason is that this is a festival which draws large numbers of celebrants from a number of Southern and midland towns. All come together at the sanctuary of the Señor de Qoylloriti, a word that refuses translation but which combines qoyllor - night star - and riti - snow: "the Lord of the sparkling night snows"? This is located in the Cordillera Vilcabamba, between the peaks of Ausangate and Sinakara. Both mountains have been revered as the home of apus, spirits of place and possessors and regulators of the life spirit.

The shrine itself has a carving of a face in the rock, now regarded as that of Christ. The devotees arrive and dance traditional figures such as the chunchos, qollas and cachampas. Some individuals are designated pauluchas. These take on the attributes of alpacas, and act as intermediaries between men and El Señor. These shamans can be distinguished by their black clothes, and they escort and watch over the dancers in their ecstatic state.

The stepping-off point for this pilgrimage is Mayawani, which is reached by bus from Urcos on the puna road. The group sets out at the break of dawn on the Sunday devoted to Santa Trinidad, and ascend in sub-zero temperatures to the shrine at 4700m. Their songs of procession beg for fertility for their livestock and rich harvests. The decent is marked by the stronger figures carrying blocks of glacial ice, which they take back to their fields in order to carry the blessings of fertility.

A picture taken in 1978, of the Negrito dance being performed in front of the Cathedral. Other than the picture quality, it could have been taken yesterday. The citizens of Cusco tend their traditions with great care.

The Fiesta de las Cruces (May 2nd-4th) is an event when the crucifixes in and around a town are brought in, refurbished and re-distributed. Those high on a mountain are held to be apus, and groups set out to visit these distant crucifixes, rather than disturb their dignity. Local ones are, however, gathered, refurbished and brought in to the church for a blessing. They are taken back to their sites on the third day.

Naturally, none of this can be accomplished without dances, special foods and much beer. The cost and organisation of these festivals is upheld by a local "mayordomo" (see here) or, in Quechua, carguyog. This is a person of influence in the village who may volunteer for the prestige consequent on the event, or may suffer social pressure to do so if he (always he) is seen to be getting too wealthy.

Crosses are brought down to the to the house of the mayordomo on "el día de la bajada", May 2nd. He and his male friends, former mayordomos and other local dignitaries keep watch throughout the night. The main fiesta begins at dawn on the following day and continues to dusk, when authority is handed on to the nest year's mayordomo. The crosses, re-dressed with loin-cloth and crown of thorns, spear and ladder, are blessed at the church with a Mass. There is much music played and the party rekindles at the home of the - presumably - rather tired carguyoq. The crosses return to their sites on the next day.

Corpus Christi (June, no fixed date) is a Christian festival which has acquired major syncretic elements to it, particularly around Cusco. The main day of the festival is always a Thursday, and sixty days after Easter Sunday. The event in fact begins the previous day, when villages bring in their Saints and Virgins to the Cathedral for a blessing. Some arrive in procession, others on trucks. Each is richly fitted out and reposes on its highly decorated base. Before entering the Cathedral, the figures are taken to "meet" in the church of Santa Clara.

The full procession sets out from there, with the images followed by devotees, the village mayordomos, groups of musicians dancers and "coheteros", people firing off exploding rockets. The figures enter the Cathedral one by one - Patrón Santiago, mounted on his white horse, or San Jerónimo wearing a bejewelled crimson robe.

The following day is the climax of the festival, when Cusco boils with musicians, rockets bombardments and a host of people down from their hill villages. A Mass marks the beginning of a majestic procession of the Virgins and Saints around the Plaza de Armas. Traditional instruments made from snail shells, called pututos, compete with the Cathedral bells. The images the return to the Cathedral and the safekeeping of their devotees. The night dissolves in alcohol, dancing and - let us be frank - a very great deal of noise. Do not expect to sleep in the centre of Cusco on this night.

The figures stay in the Cathedral for seven days, where thousands come to visit them. This periods is marked by a loose festival in which chicha (maize beer) and special seasonal foods are consumed in huge quantities. One such delicacy is chiri uchu, a spicy fried recipe that uses anything from chicken to sausage with tortilla and cheese. This was once offered to the Incan gods at this time in the year.

Click here to see a series of images Inti Raymi (24th June ) marks the Southern Winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Many South American religions focus on the waning sun and its need for annual rejuvenation and the Inca, too, saw the renewed lengthening of the day as a time for celebration. Inti Raymi was the culture's greatest ceremony, to which people were invited from all over the empire in recognition of rank or service. The vast gilded Huacaypata square was the centre of events, where the Inca caught the first rays of the sun in a gilded cup. Nobles and their retinues dressed in their finest splendour for the event.

Preparations for the event followed strict rules of rank and precedent. All were required to eat only raw maize, water and a herb called chullam for the previous three days, Sexual abstinence was required, and no fire was allowed in the city. The sacred flame was extinguished, awaiting its rekindling by the new year's sun.

At dawn, the Inca waited shoeless and crouching for the dawn. All in the square were similarly prostrate, maintaining a total silence. The rising sun was reflected from a golden concave mirror onto a tuft of red-stained cotton, creating a sudden flash of light and then a burst of flame as the cotton caught fire. This sacred flame was taken to the temple of the sun, the Qorincancha, where it was maintained for a year.

The Inca proceeded to further ceremonies in Huacaypata. Two gold vessels were filled with maize beer, which the Inca held in each hand. The one on the left he drank as an offering to his forefathers, whilst the one on the right was tipped into a large golden container in the centre of the square, itself full of more chica. The attendees then drank from this sacramental container, one of many Inca practices which the Spanish thought to be a parody of Christian practice.

All then moved to the Qorincancha to give homage to the sun. Pure-coloured llamas and alpacas were sacrificed and a many-day festival of alcohol and food began.

The Spanish suppressed Inti Raymi, and it was lost until its revival in 1944. The bulk of it is now performed in the square of the Saqsayhuaman ruins, chiefly because the Plaza de Armas is now much smaller than it was in Inca times. The revival was for purely local considerations, as the tourist industry had yet to be born. Around two hundred people take part, with the choice of who is to represent the Inca being subject of year-long debate. The ceremony follows the original as far as is possible, with an invocation, sacrifice, music and dance. The town is in full fiesta, and every building flies the rainbow Tawantinsuyo, the flag Incas.

The Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen de Paucartambo (15th-16th July) celebrates Mamacha Carmen, the Virgin who is patroness of the mestizo population. It takes place in Paucartambo province, focusing on the capital of it, some 100km from Cusco at around 2900m. Events begin with a richly-costumed music festival in the central square. The second day of the festival is, however, the most important, when a series of sixteen unique and satirical dances are conducted, led by the devil's revellers, of comparsa de diabolos. The sicllas parody official justice and local wealthy people, the huacas huacas make fun of the pretensions of the bull fight, very much and so forth. Fruit and water is thrown around in the crowd. Two days of less focused but similar events may follow on, rather depending on the outlook as predicted by the Virgin - but see below. [Much more here.]

The foods served at the event include special soups made from meats baked whilst buried in the ground over hot rocks - pachamanca or 'earth food' - baked guinea pig and beans, or cachun chuño, a paste made from cheese, milk and potato flour. The region is an important centre for quinoa and much food is also based on this gritty crop.

An important part of the ceremony is the divination of the future. The figure of Mamacha Carmen was recovered from the waters of the Amarumayo, where she had been dropped when her devotees were ambushed with arrows by jungle-dwellers, or chunchos. (Note: this is a disparaging word, and not to be used in front of such people.) Subsequently, the colours of her face are able to flag good or bad fortune: a rosy pink foresees good times, whilst a pallid face foretells difficulties ahead; or that she is angered and needs to be placated.

Christmas (Navidad) is less important in Perú than in the Northern industrial countries. Nevertheless, the festival of Santuranticuy occurs on December 24th. This - perhaps in further parody of the West - is also called el Mercado de Santos, or the Saints' Marketplace. It is the celebration of the local craftsmen of their skills, and is marked as much by commerce as by celebration.

Craftspeople from all over the region converge on the central square of Cusco, where they offer pretty nativity figurines made of clay. These are called niños Manuelitos, which is a Peruvian rendering of the 'child Emmanuel'. Figures include shepherds in Quechua clothing, but also trucks, tractors and other desirable objects. There are also wood carvings, elaborate candles and other decorative objects, all intended to be used the next day for the Christmas celebration. A special ponche (punch) is served in the evening.


Food, arts and crafts

The region has its own particular style of cooking, in which food preservation and underground cooking have had significant influence. Cachun Chuño has already been mentioned, but one should note that as simple a dish as this uses white potato starch, black dried potatoes and often a third, specialised potato to give it body. Different types of cheese and milk are used in distinct versions of it.

Chicharrón a la cusqueña is pork crisp-fried in its own fat in special wide pans, and served for breakfast with potatoes, rue and onions. Chiri Uchu is the traditional soup for Corpus Christi, made from roast guinea pig, boiled chicken, salchicha serrana, a kind of wurst, white cheese and capsicums. It is served with maize torillas and cochayoyo, a dried water plant from the lakes. (Actually, this is an alga that you can see on sale in most markets: it looks like dark green glassy spheres, ranging from marbles to golf balls.)

Queso Kapche is a butter-fried mixture of white cheese, beans, onion, potatoes, milk and garlic, served with rice. It is usually eaten around Christmas.

Quinua Atamalada uses the unusual local crop, quinoa, boiling it with pepper and salt. Peeled tomatoes, dried potatoes and cheese are then added, and the dish is served with boiled eggs and olives.

Carnival is, of course, the bidding farewell to the flesh before Lent. (Carne vale, in Latin.) The dish for Monday in Carnival is timpu or puchero, and it is only prepared on these days. It is a thick soup made from a mixture regional meats and vegetables. The cow's flank, calf's lard, head and feet and preferred ingredients, strongly boiled in salty water and then sieved and reduced before boiling with cabbage, "pea" potatoes and rice. It is served with sweet potatoes (camote) boiled pears, peaches and yucca.

A winter soup called Chuño Cola is made from various meats boiled with salchichas serrañas (see above) rice, beans and chopped potatoes, to which is added chuño - potato starch - to thicken it.

Olluquito con charqui uses a local tuber, the olluco and shredded dried meat to make a dish that requires chilli, garlic, pepper and cumin. The olluco is added with stock to simmer until ready to serve, when parsley is stirred in. It is usually served with rice.

Local people tend to drink chicha de jora or maize beer above other possibilities, although Cusco is also famous for its barley beers. Té piteado is tea with pisco brandy added to it. Punch (ponche) is not as the West knows it, being based on beans, milk or - more promisingly, perhaps - cherries.

The city has an enormous array of restaurants aimed at tourists and, rather distinctly, at the better off of the local inhabitants. The former cluster around the Plaza Mayor. Of the latter, we recommend La Cicciolina, which is stylish and 'of the place'. Find it on the second floor of a courtyard off Calle Triunfo, opposite the fountains.


Visitors will be struck by the volume of "artesania" or handicrafts in production and on sale in Cusco. The district of San Blas is particularly rich in specialist factories and shops. There is also a near-permanent market at Pisac and in other villages in the main valley. (We discuss these below.)

Handicrafts come in many forms. The San Blas area focuses on the production of images of devotion, of celebration and the like. These are made from pottery - the best do not use moulds - from wood and cloth, even from cactus roots. These are traditional crafts that have been built up over centuries and are not primarily aimed at the tourist trade. Probably the oldest firm is that of the Mendívil family, whose devotional images of winged archangels, virgins and saints have a distinctive aesthetic that the family claims is derived from watching and associating with the graceful vicuñas of the high puno. The best of the "niños Manuelitos", discussed above, probably come from the Olave family. Devotional figures from the Mérida family have exaggerated features, which is pleasing to some tastes.

Click here to see a series of images The very best traditional textiles are based on alpaca and wool, using vegetable dyes. These derive from the Calca and Urubamba provinces, but are on sale in Cusco. These are usually made up into everything from hats to ponchos, but it is possible to buy unaltered cloth if you place and order well in advance of collection. Rugs can be made to size and specification, for example. It is worth seeking out the better shops, usually found near the border between the central area and the San Blas district.

Silver-work (platería) has a long tradition in Cusco. Most of the objects on sale are small and elaborate, shaped by hammering and embossing, although many employ the filigree work typical of the coast. The province of Quispicanchis specialises in cast metal work, and the town of San Pablo is a centre for this. The decorative figures show llamas and pre-Hispanic idols, whilst the more practical goods range from spurs to teapots.

One of the most interesting styles in which local people make ceramics comes from the Raqchi of Cuyo Grande and Cuyo Chico, villages in the province of Canchis. These are known as the "salamanders of Raqchi", and are bottle-shaped vases decorated with mythological animals around the neck. They also make dishes with Inca motifs, and necklaces called "chaquiras".


Cusco has lost - or perhaps exported - its characteristic music to the general Andean style. The huayno is the most characteristic of these, a form that brings together poetry, music and dance. The versions used in Cusco have a looser metric and melody than the rest of the country, and commentators - for there are always experts! - say that the huayno cusqueño is more fitted to be listened to than danced.


The most important of the formal dances is the Cápac Chuncho. This represents the interactions of grandees during the colonial era, and strives for languid elegance. The dancers wear great head-dresses made of guacamayo (macaw) plumes and a fine-mesh wire mask on which 'above it all' expressions are painted.

In contrast, the Cápac Qolla is much more brutal, representing the constant raiding by the jungle inhabitants. Dancers wear a rectangular hat profusely decorated with sequins and a white cloth facemask, which may also be black and used with or without the head-dress. The festival at nearby Paucartambo spends nearly a week over the battle between the Cápac Qolla and the Cápac Chuncho. [More here]

The Negrillo or Negrito (litte black boy) was influenced by the import of black (negro) slaves by the Spanish. The dancers wear a black plaster mask and a highly ornamented black sombrero.

The Ukuko is a solo dance by a person representing a creature between animal and human, Earth and the spirit world. Its origins are undoubtedly to be founding shaman dances from the selva. The dancer wears an animal skin and a mask representing a chosen animal.

We have already mentioned the satirical dances such as the saqras. These often involve devils who tempt and waylay dancers representing the ordinary people of the Andes, grandees and church men. Other specific forms include the majeños, aimed at drinks-sellers, the sijllas which makes the maladministration of justice - and specifically Spanish justice - its target.

Beyond the city limits.

This section addresses the area to the North of Cusco. The attractions to the South are described elsewhere, as are the trips that can be made into Madre de Dios. Trekking in the region, both to Machu Picchu and elsewhere, is discussed here. In brief, however, there are four major routes: the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, which absorbs 90% of the traffic, a less frequented and longer walk in from Mollepata, a tough trip to Ausangate in the Cordillera Vilcanota and treks towards Huch'uy Qosqo and Calca. The first takes four days and three nights, the second no less than eight days - but really as long as you wish, as the routes are open-ended and the region vast - and the third is two days and a night, and fairly popular.

A little-known trek addresses Salkantay (6150m), a major part of the Cordillera Vilcabamba, and close to Machu Picchu. A number of peaks that rise over 5000m are seen from this route. The route sets out from Mollepata, and is described here.

Getting around.

We begin with a note on transport. The Cusco region is well-supplied by buses, but you should note from the map that these do not all set out from the same place. There are many inexpensive taxis available, but these cannot be expected to make long or difficult trips for you without prior agreement with the company. It is possible to hire bicycles and mountain bikes but not, at the time of writing, cars. There is, of course, a train service that heads to Quillabamba by way of Aguas Calientes, the stopping point for Machu Picchu. Recall that, first, there are two railways stations, only one of which serves this line and second, that some trains stops frequently and some do not. The only way to Machu Picchu is by foot or by train - or perhaps, one way, by kayak if you are expert.

Two separate bus routes lead into the Sacred Valley. One goes through Chinchero, Urubamba to Ollantaytambo, and the other through Pisac to Calca, then to the Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. Departures are frequent to Urubamba, and the less frequent jump on to Ollantaytambo takes half and hour, or 19 km. Chinchero is 30 km from Cusco, and it is about the same again to Urubamba. The ancient villages of Maras and Moray, site of an Inca centre of agricultural experimentation, are both a few kilometres off this leg of the trip and can be reached by local taxi or collectivo. Pisac is an important location around 32 km from Cusco, and Urubamba is reached in just over 50 km, with Calca located exactly half way.

Near to Cuzco.

The closest major site to Cusco is the Parque Arqueológico de Saq'sayhuaman, a 3000 hectare enclosure which contains both the remains of the Inca fortress and also 32 other sites of interest. It is easy to walk to the site, which is around 3 km from the city. It is necessary to pay to enter the trail, North of the city.

Click here to see a series of images The focus of the site is the fortress, constructed of the characteristic Inca stonework. Three platforms of around 300m in length support walls in which some of the stones measure 9 x 5 metres, and 4m in thickness. The construction is dry-stone, with no filling cement, and there is still debate as to how this was achieved.

The construction appears to have been more ceremonial than military, but nevertheless served as the centre for the futile resistance movement of Inca Manco II to the Spanish occupation. The largest of the towers, called Mayucmarca, was the site of a legendary struggle, when the Incas under their commander Cahuide preferred death before dishonour.

The area around the ruin is pasture and scrub, grazed by sheep and llamas. It is well worth going uphill a few hundred metres from the main square, as the more domestic aspects of royal Cusco present themselves. A tunnel - the Chincana Chica- runs from a group of rocks for around 50 pitch dark metres, beforfe bringing you - and presumably, postulants, blinking into both the sunlight and the Inca's presence. A circular arena around 50m across faces you. This was once flooded (allegedly for luna divination) and the Inca sat across this, opposite to the tunnel exit.

Around a hundred metres further up the hillside is the very large rock which marks the entrance to the Chicana Grande, or great tunnel. We will get to the tunnel in a moment, but let us first focus on the rock. This is a very odd affair. On one side, facing directly into the hillside, is a throne with flanking seats. The rest of the rock is highly eroded by the elements, but covered with steps that lead nowhere, seats that face nothing and strange flat areas comprising a few square metres of acrefully worked rock. These are scrupulously level, and often in front of a seat. One guess is this was transparent government in action: the Inca received tax-related deputations in relative privacy, from his throne, and his administrators occupied the various seats on top of the rock. They would have used the flat areas to display quipus (tanges of knotted string which the Inca used for records.)

The fact that points to the importance of the Chicana Grande is, however, the tunnel to which the name refers. Steps led down to this, and it has been proved to connect itself to the catacombs in the basement of Cusco cathedral, several kilometres away. The Cathedral was, of course, built over the Inca's palace, using the existing foundations. Tragically, a group of students were attempting to follow this route anew when a huge slab fell off the rock and sealed them in. (You can see the rock and its steps, now at an angle.) This happened in the 1990s, and nobody has attempted to open the now-tomb or retrace the tunnel up from the Cathedral. Golden maize cobs found in it by the first explorers are now in Lima museum. Would-be explorers should note that several dozen lives have been lost in the tunnel complex.

A kilometre away is Qenqo, a site that is thought to have been connected with worship of the sun. It consists of a huge stone block - perhaps an altar - carved with what many believe to be a puma, but vandalised by the Spanish. The name means "labyrinth", and the block is carved with passages, seats, steps and runnels. These had a ritual significance which has been lost.

Further along the same road - but some way off it - is what is called the Templo de la Luna. This has a cave with a hole that lets in moonlight at auspicious moments, and is surrounded by Inca workings and bathing sites. It is much used by contemporary shamanc interests. A nameless complex to the left of the turnoff to the Templo has, in fact, a much more interesting complex of tunnels, niches and caves, as well as massive Inca masonery. The ravines that cut through the site were probably thatched, and the niches may well have been either coated with white clay and painted, or with bright metal. Either way, it would have been a frightening place for the uninitiated.

In practice, the entire area from Saq'sayhuaman to these sites and beyond make up a "religious crescent" that is packed with lesser places of archaeological interest. Few have been excavated or have been subject to geophysical mapping; or, in many cases, even to detailed description. As an example, a steep drive or a long walk above Saq'sayhuaman brings the pretty and isolated valley containing the Hueco del Diabolo. This is a rather beautifully-streaked 25m rock face, pierced by a river. You can splash the 40m or so through the tunnel that this has carved, emerging in pasture and farmland. The Inca have adorned this site with masonery, but to what purpose one can only guess. It would make a practical execution site, as the part of the drop decorated with fitted stone ends on a flat rock of undoubted mortality. Or so say the local people...

A ruin that is found 11 km from Cusco is known as Puca Pucara or 'strong red'. It consists of many precincts, off which lead paths lined by houses and other constructions. This is thought to have been a rest-palace for the Inca, away from the ceremonial centre. It is close to Tambomachay, a site which appears to have focused on ritual cleansing, or on the relations between water and farming. The site is know to travel operators as the "Inca baths" (los baños del Inca). It had a tower for signaling to and from Puca Pucara, and a notably steady and perennial supply of water from lakes high in the puno.

The sacred valley.

The sacred valley of the Incas consists of a chain of villages in rich land around the Urubamba river. The area is scattered with pre-Hispanic sites, as a glance at a high-resolution map will indicate. Although the villages have begun to be impacted by tourism, most still largely conserve their traditional ways. The entire area is extremely picturesque. It is also the jumping-off point for a number of treks, including that into the Machu Picchu park. The snow peaks of the Cordillera Veronica are seldom trekked and easily reached. Organised sports include mountain biking, river rafting and kayaking.

Pisac is 32 km from Cusco, and famous for its handicrafts market. This functions on Sunday, Monday and Thursday, and people swarm in from all over the valley to buy and sell. There are good restaurants and other facilities in the little town. The local church has a fascinating Sunday service in which the population join with traditional musical instruments which are made, for example, from the shell of a giant snail, or pututos.

Click here to see a series of images

Pisac also has fine Inca ruins, located a short distance from the town. These include an astronomical observatory and what is, in effect a sundial, called the Intihuatana. The area is terraced and has still-functioning irrigation canals made to the highest standard of masonry.

(Please note that this series has around 70 pictures in it. The text below has links - shown as "[Pictures]" - directly to specific parts of it.)

Chinchera is also about 30 km from Cusco, and consists of a range of rather fine colonial houses built on Inca foundations. [Pictures] The local people continue to wear traditional Inca clothing. There is a Sunday market of some scale. The church of Nuestra Señora de la Natividad has two fine paintings, of the Cusco school. There is a small archaeological site behind the church.

Maras, mentioned above, is a few kilometres off the main road. This is now a quiet (ghostly) village, but was once the chief toll station for caravans bringing goods such as coca leaves up from the jungle. Colonial period houses with carved doors record this period. Close to Maras is an extraordinary site. This produces salt from a seep in the hillside, and consists of around three thousand ponds, cascading down the hillside, all set up in pre-Incan times. These are still productive, and around 230 people work in the cooperative that exploits them. [Pictures]

Moray is only six km by road - less by foot - from Maras.[Pictures] This is supposed to have been the site of an Inca experimental farm, which if true is genuinely remarkable. It is a village similar in tone to Maras. These twins are off the tourist track and one has to pay a small sum to enter them.

Yucay ("bewitched") is nearly 70 km from Cusco, and is the ancient agricultural heart of the valley. It was a centre of innovation around irrigation, and at least one Inca made it his summer palace. The village is a pretty one and less than 20 km from Calca, below.

Calca is 50km from Cusco, marked by the twin snow peaks of Pitusiray and Sawasiray. [Pictures, including pony trekking.] It has the Huchuy Qosqo ("little Cusco") archaeological complex as well as the Inca thermal springs of Machacancha and the cold, gas-saturated spring of Minasmoqo. Some of the ruins were once three story buildings. It is possible to walk or ride to this village in two days and a single night in the field, setting out from Saqsayhuaman. As the pictures show, the high ground above the ruin gives spectacular views but also extremely exposed locations for the ill-equipped.

Click here to see a series of images Urubamba is the provincial capital, and it regards itself as the heart of the Sacred Valley. It is about 75km from Cusco. It is now chiefly an agricultural centre and the jumping-off point for a number of tourist ventures. It lies at the foot of the snow peak Chicón. Combi buses leave regularly for Ollantaytambo. (The images in this sequence are drawn from both Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, but chiefly the latter.)

Ollantaytambo is nearly 100 km from Cusco, and still extremely traditional in its outlook and manner. The local people wear clothes that the Inca would recognise, and the town itself is almost entirely constructed around the original Inca framework, both of masonry and street layout. The town divides itself into the Araqama Ayllu or religion clan, and the Qosqo Ayllu or practical people. This division was once social - much as castes still operate in India - but is now physical, with the later comprising the district in which people live. The town has good restaurants and modest accommodation.

The Patachanca river separates most of the town from the archaeological site, the fortress of Ollantaytambo. Terraces run down the hillside, parted centrally by a stone stairway. This ends with the "temple of the ten cupboards", which are trapezoid niches set in a stone wall. The Temple of the Sun has six huge stone blocks set together under a matching lintel. Inca walls and towers, aqueducts and terraces are all around the visitor. Factually, little is known about this site. The name "fortress" comes from the dimensions of its walls, but what evidence there is points to it as a centre for the worship of the Earth goddess, Pacha Mama. The Quechua name comes from two words. The first refers to an Inca noble who famously lost his position by falling in love with the Inca's daughter; and the second means "city that offers refuge". So perhaps the rebellious and lovelorn - and probably potential usurper - Ollanta used this as his base? Who can say?

The region around the town is still extremely poor, and the people live off the land in houses made from mud and straw. Communities such as Pallata, Pataqancha, Q'elqanqa, Qachin, Yanamayo or Tastayoq have barely changed from colonial times in how they manage their affairs, how they dress or - very likely - how they see the world.

The train to Machu Picchu stops here, and it is possible to combine the two in a single trip, although not in a single day.

Beyond the valley.

Probably the single greatest attraction in Perú is Machu Picchu. Certainly, it is the most visited of the non-urban attractions, and is in danger of being overwhelmed. As already mentioned, we offer two detailed treks into the site that follow the Inca trail from the Sacred Valley, and from Mollepata. We discuss the route beyond Machu Picchu - the Quillabamba and into the jungle rivers - here.

The sanctuary is located in dramatic, near vertical mist forest landscape, only about 110 km from the cool, dry Cusco. This is a UNESCO world heritage site, and an icon on every tourist brochure. The ruins perch on a slab-sided bluff in the ceja de selva, the "very eyebrow of the jungle", surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba river. The park covers over 32,000 hectares and, insofar as anything so up-and-down can be assigned an altitude, it lies at 2300m.

Click here to see a series of images Machu Picchu ("old mountain") is not alone: there is also the lesser known and visited Huayna Picchu ("young mountain".) The main trail into the park goes through a succession of Inca fortresses, inns and bathing places. Plainly, it was a site of great significance, but the raw fact is that we have no idea of what this was. The Spanish, from whose notes we have gleaned most of the knowledge that remains of the Inca, never knew of or reached Machu Picchu, and the Inca left no written record. Indeed, the site was abandoned after the early revolt against the Spanish and only rediscovered in 1911, by the American Hiram Bingham. (Please not that this is another very long picture series. Please click here to jump over the trail in to get to the ruins themselves.)

The site itself is comprised of extensive terraces, an area of barrack-like buildings and various temples. The strangest of these is the Intihuatana, an 8.6 cubic metre rock which has been shaped, with a stub roughly squared as an obelisk. The name has been made up, transferred from the similar if smaller object in Pisac, but means "the hitching post of the Sun." Perhaps this had a calendrical use or served as a whipping post; or perhaps it was used for drying laundry! You can make up your own mind, for we have no evidence and no idea. Tourists are told that devotees of the sun cult had to swear allegiance to the Sun, as symbolised by the post, and that once they had done this, they could then never leave the site. This, too, is made up: we do not even know for sure that Machu Picchu was primarily a religious centre. Nevertheless, the stone is usually ringed with mystic seekers at dawn, hoping to absorb emanations.

What was the purpose of Machu Picchu? Most archaeological sites that evolved over times - as this one has certainly done - contain many explanations, often layered in time as one use is supplanted by another. Consider three points: that this is, in effect, the end point of the Sacred Valley, and thus both a trade route and a source of vulnerability to the alarming chunchos of the forest beyond. Second, this is a 'pinch point' in the river valley, one which could easily be defended by anyone with control of the high ground. Third, this is a strikingly different landscape to anyone accustomed to the cool, dry airs of Cuzco and the puno. The Inca trail is marked by formalised bathing points: with or without religious overtones, would this have not made a remarkable spa or curative centre? On this view, Machu Picchu would have started as a defensive point - a fortress, a means of controlling access and as a tax gathering gateway, something on which the Inca were keen - and gradually migrated to take on a civil meaning. Religious overtones were, of course, an inevitable part of any major civil centre for the Inca.

Visitors should extend their view from the archaeology to the wildlife of the area. The mist forest exists as a band along the Western Andes, but is typically rather inaccessible. This area is a wonderful chance to see plants, insects, birds and perhaps animals that are well-concealed elsewhere. Bromeliads cling to every exposed rock surface, also dotted with orchids and begonias. Hummingbirds buzz about amongst them, and raptors wheel overhead. The valley is particularly rich in butterflies, and you should find a quiet, open place with damp soil and wait for them to come with the sun.

One of the less attractive features of the park is Aguas Calientes, a boom-town jammed into scant land on the riverbanks. However, accommodation in the park is limited to one expensive hotel, for which it is essential to book, a camping ground an hours walk away or, alas, Aguas Calientes. The path that zigzags up from this to the ruins is dramatic, and accessed by frequent buses. These are vastly expensive for Perú (nine dollars, not soles) and oriented entirely to the tourist trade.

The train goes on to Quillabamba, which is deep in wild and dramatic countryside. The river can be used to get into the deep jungle, and to make a circuit that connects with pretty midland routes to Lima. We discuss this here.