The Inca called it Qosqo, which means “the belly button” in Quechua, because they considered the city to be the center of their universe. Spanish conquistadors eventually sacked the place, building churches on top of the remains of Incan structures and renaming the city Cuzco (spelled Cusco locally). The city’s historic center was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 and, today, Cuzco is a popular destination for travelers seeking Incan cultural sites and colonial architecture. Cuzco is also your gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Use our city travel guide about what to do in Cuzco, Peru to make the most of your time in this compelling Andean city.
The city of Cuzco is lovely and atmospheric and you can easily fill a day just wandering the streets. Start at the main plaza which the Incas called the plaza of festivals. When the Spanish arrived they renamed it the plaza of tears. Now, like most central squares in Latin American cities, it’s called the Plaza de Armas (Plaza of Weapons).
Every Sunday at 9 am there’s a flag raising ceremony in Cuzco’s main plaza which includes military parades, military bands, and people dressed as Incan nobility before the raising of the Peruvian flag and the colorful, striped Andean flag which looks a lot like the pride flag.
Museums in Cuzco
The Museo de Arte Pre-Columbiano (called MAP for short) is pricey by Cuzco standars (20 soles or about US$6 per person), but it’s worth it. Recently renovated, this museum, in the restored Casa Cabrera home which dates back 500 years and may have been used as a school for Incan children, is home to a wide-range of choice pre-Columbian pieces from the vast Larco Museum collection in Lima. Items are shown by category with stuning gold, silver, wood, and metal objects from different cultures (Mochi, Chimu, Nasca, Paracas, Incan, etc.) displayed together in 10 themed rooms. Some of the items are in such perfect condition that it’s hard to believe they’re original, but they are. Piecs made with shells were particularly stunning. The setting is elegant and serene, the lighting is perfect, and all written materials are in English and Spanish (and some French). There’s also a lovely cafe in the central courtyard with patio and indoor seating. Audio guides in English, Spanish, and French are also available.
The Museo Inka, also known as the Archaeological Museum of Cusco and the Admiral’s House (10 soles or about US$3), is located a block uphill behind the cathedral and is full of artifacts covering pre-Incan and Incan civilization. Ground floor exhibits focus on the Incas, including a large collection of wooden drinking vessels and some mummies. In addition, you’ll find textiles, ceramics, and jewelry. Most exhibit explanations are in English as well as Spanish. Don’t miss the odd cartoons of naked Incas on some of the signs.
The Machu Picchu Museum (20 soles or about US$6) bills itself as the “largest collection of Machu Picchu artifacts in the world.” We don’t know about that, but we can tell you that this restored historic house is now home to hundreds of pieces excavated by Hiram Bingham from the Machu Picchu site and taken back to Yale University before finally being returned to Peru. You’ll find black and white photographs of Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu when he got there in 1911, pottery, and a cool diorama of the Machu Picchu site.
When we were at the Machu Picchu Museum there was also a guy in a corner with a variety of pieces of amphomorphic pottery “whistles” that we’ve seen many, many times. What we never realized, until this guy demonstrated, is that you don’t blow through these whistles. Instead, they are designed to pass air through them as you tip them, creating a wide variety of sounds. Fascinating.
A visit to the Archbishop’s Palace and its Museum of Religious Art (15 soles or about US$4.50) is as much about the architecture of the building and its lovely courtyard as it is about the rather small collection of religious art. One of the walls of the Archbishop’s Palace contains the famous 12 Angled Stone which the Incas expertly cut with 12 corners in order for it to fit perfectly into the wall.
The Regional History Museum (entry only with the Boleto del Circuito Religioso which we discuss below), sometimes called the City Museum, is housed in the colonial home of Garcilaso de la Vega who was an influential recorder of Inca-Spanish history. Exhibits are wide-ranging and include pre-Inca and Inca artifacts–including ceramic pieces, jewelry, and even a mummy–along with colonial art.
Churches in Cuzco
Most of the major churches in Cuzco are also museums. The two main churches, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin and the Jesuit Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, are both located on the main plaza. This is unusual in Latin America where the main plaza in most cities are anchored by one main church or cathedral, not two.
The grand Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin (25 soles or about US$7.50) took more than a century to construct and is now really three churches in one. The structures, on the city’s main plaza, were built by Spanish Catholics on top of an Incan palace and, adding insult to injury, captured Incans were forced to build the church. The cathedral complex now houses hundreds of paintings (including one showing last supper guests enjoying cuy), massive carved wood pieces, silverwork, and more. A highlight is “El Señor de Los Temblores,” in the Capilla del Triunfo, which was the first Christian church in Cuzco and is now attached to the cathedral. This effigy is thought to protect Cuzco from the many earthquakes in the region. And don’t miss the charming carvings in the stone entrance of the Capilla de la Sagrada Familia on the left side of the main cathedral.
Construction of the Baroque Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (10 soles or about US$3), also built on top of an Incan palace, was begun by the Jesuits at the same time the Catholic cathedral was being constructed just a few dozen feet away. It seems that a kind of religious one-up-manship developed and that rivalry inspired both camps to go big. The Compañía church has more than its fair share of sculptures, paintings, and even has alabaster windows.
The Baroque La Merced Church, on Plazoleta Espinar a block from the main plaza (10 soles or about US$3), is imposing and so is its star attraction: a solid gold monstrance (which is a fancy word for a Catholic vessel that holds an important religious relic) which is encrusted with 1,500 diamonds and hundreds of pearls. The remains of Spanish conquistadors Diego de Almagro and Gonzalo Pizarro are also interred here.
The most unusual church in Cusco is the Santo Domingo Dominican church and the Qorikancha Incan site (15 soles or about US$3). While other churches in the city are literally built on top of Incan structures and seem designed to utterly suppress and obliterate Incan culture, here you find a melding of cultures. From the outside, the building is a striking mix of what we think of as a grandiose church and examples of some of the finest Incan stonework including a curved and angled wall so meticulously constructed that it has withstood earthquakes that have wrecked lesser structures.
Inside the Santo Domingo church/Qorikancha site, original Incan structural elements, including more amazing stonework and niches where massive solid gold panels were once hung (before being pilfered by the Spanish), can be seen. For the Incans, this was Intiwasi and it was a temple to their Sun God so it was the richest, most elaborate temple in the Incan empire. Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro gave the Qorikancha temple to his brother Juan who promptly died leaving it to the Dominicans who, thankfully, managed to build their church without totally eradicating the splendid sun temple that the Incans had created. Maybe they were as impressed by it as we were. Sadly, the Qorikancha Museum (which is included in the Boleto del Circuito Religioso which we discuss below) under the vast lawn in front of the Qorikancha wall is dank and lackluster. But don’t miss the striking and unusual paintings in the Santo Domingo church and in the choir including images of Andean children as angels and portraits of dominican saints from around the world.
The San Cristobal church (10 soles or about US$3) requires a short but steep walk up from the city center but it’s worth the effort to see the paintings inside the relatively small church and to climb the short belltower for views over the city.
The main attraction in the Spanish churrigueresque style San Blas Temple (10 soles or about US$3) is the intricate wood carving seen throughout.
We ultimately got churched out, so we never visited the San Francisco church.
Cuzco travel tips
If you plan to visit a few churches and museums in Cuzco it can be cost-effective to buy a Boleto del Circuito Religioso. It costs 50 soles per person (about US$15) and includes the Cathedral, the Compañía church, the San Blas church, the San Cristobal church, and the Religious Art Museum. It’s valid for 10 days and you can buy your Boleto del Circuito Religioso at any of the included sites. You’ll pay 70 soles per person (about US$21) if you visit all of the included sites individually.
At 11,152 feet (3,339 meters), Cuzco is definitely a high-altitude town. This means you may feel tired, short of breath (especially when walking along the hilly streets of the city), nauseous, or unable to sleep well when you first arrive. Spend a few days taking it easy, drink a lot of water, drink the ubiquitous coca tea (it works), and your body should slowly acclimatize. The altitude also means that the sun is very, very strong in Cuzco. Wear high SPF sunscreen even on cloudy or cold days.
The high-altitude airport in Cuzco has an extra-long runway so that planes have the space they need to get lift in the thinner air. The altitude also limits the size of the planes that can service the airport which is in a valley surrounded by Andean peaks. Shockingly, this challenging airport doesn’t have an Instrument Landing System, forcing pilots to rely instead on visual landing. This leads to delays any time there’s limited visibility, which is often. There is persistent talk about building a new and controversial airport near the town of Chinchero in the Sacred Valley and closing the city airport. However, few concrete steps had been taken as of this writing.
Peruvian is the only airline servicing the Cuzco airport that does not charge higher fares to foreigners. It’s got a dubious reputation, but that didn’t stop us from flying Peruvian Airlines. The only hiccup was a slight weather delay on the tarmac in Cuzco during which staff asked for 16 (why 16?) volunteers to get off the plane so we could take off. We eventually made it to Lima in one piece…
Got time and don’t want to fly to Cuzco? We recently took a Cruz del Sur bus from Cuzco to Lima (US$59 per person, 21 hours). We booked suite class seats on the first level of the double-level bus which was more than passably clean. Our seats reclined to nearly flat, there were movies on demand, and the small meals served were actually edible.
The month of June is filled with festivals and celebrations in Cuzco which are marked with huge parades featuring bands and costumed dancers who come from around the country to show off in the city’s main plaza. The granddaddy of all the festivals in Cuzco is Inti Raymi which happens near the end of June.
If you’ve come to Cuzco before heading out on one of the many adventures in the area and you need to pick up a piece of gear, fret not. There are a lot of shops selling and renting outdoor gear in Cuzco. If you need to buy clothing or footwear, check the Tatoo store and a store called Cordillera which both stock lots of international brands (Karen bought new Merrell boots at the Cordillera store at the same price they were selling for in the US). There’s also a small and very lightly stocked Patagonia store in Cuzco on the main plaza. For renting gear, head to a small shop called Camping Equipment Rosly in a pedestrian street off the main plaza where a knowledgeable and English-speaking man named Ever probably has what you need. He also does repairs.
You will notice textiles for sale practically everywhere in Cuzco. You will be tempted. Proceed with caution and remember: if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. You’ll see a lot of products allegedly made from “baby alpaca” (this refers to ultra-fine fibers which are gathered the first time an alpaca is sheared). The running joke in Cuzco is “maybe alpaca” because many vendors on the street and in public markets are selling factory items made from synthetic fibers.
To find legitimate, high quality, handmade textiles head to Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco. Here you can see traditional weavers at work and choose from a wide array of textile items. there’s also a small museum about Peru’s weaving history with displays in English and Spanish. Another source for authentic Peruvian textiles is Threads of Peru, a not-for-profit offshoot of the Apus Peru tour company which is focused on preserving traditional weaving traditions and techniques and supporting the artisans by providing a marketplace for their products. Threads of Peru is an extensive online store (shop from anywhere!), but they also have a small shop as part of the Apus Peru office (Calle K’uichipunku 366).
Complete your Cuzco, Peru trip planning with our city travel guide to restaurants in Cuzco, our city travel guide to hotels in Cuzco, and our city travel guide about an archaeological day trip around Cuzco. And if Machu Picchu is also on your itinerary, don’t miss our 3-part series of posts about travel to Machu Picchu.
Here’s more about travel in Peru