Welcome to the navel of the world. The undisputed archaeological capital of the Americas, Cuzco is the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited city and the gateway to Machu Picchu. Cosmopolitan Cuzco (also Cusco, or Qosq’o in Quechua) thrives with a measure of contradiction. Ornate cathedrals squat over Inca temples, massage hawkers ply the narrow cobblestone passages, a rural Andean woman feeds bottled water to her pet llama while the finest boutiques sell pricey alpaca knits.
Visitors to the Inca capital get a glimpse of the richest heritage of any South American city. Married to 21st-century hustle, Cuzco can be a bit disconcerting (note the McDonald's set in Inca stones). Soaring rents on the Plaza de Armas and in trendy San Blas are increasingly pushing locals to the margins. Foreign guests undoubtedly have the run of the roost, so showing respect toward today’s incarnation of this powerhouse culture is imperative.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Cuzco.
In Inca times, the plaza, called Huacaypata or Aucaypata, was the heart of the capital. Today it’s the nerve center of the modern city. Two flags usually fly here – the red-and-white Peruvian flag and the rainbow-colored flag of Tahuantinsuyo. Easily mistaken for an international gay-pride banner, it represents the four quarters of the Inca empire.
Built upon the palace of Huayna Cápac, the last inca to rule an undivided, unconquered empire, the church was built by the Jesuits in 1571 and reconstructed after the 1650 earthquake. Two large canvases near the main door show early marriages in Cuzco in wonderful period detail. Local student guides are available to show you around the church, as well as the grand view from the choir on the 2nd floor, reached via rickety steps. Tips are gratefully accepted.
Inside a Spanish colonial mansion with an Inca ceremonial courtyard, this dramatically curated pre-Columbian art museum showcases a stunningly varied, if selectively small, collection of archaeological artifacts previously buried in the vast storerooms of Lima’s Museo Larco. Dating from between 1250 BC and AD 1532, the artifacts show off the artistic and cultural achievements of many of Peru’s ancient cultures, with exhibits labeled in Spanish, English and French.
This newish museum exhibits 360 pieces from Machu Picchu taken by Hiram Bingham's expeditions and recently returned by Yale University, including stone tools and metals, ceramics and bones. The collection shows the astounding array of fine handicrafts and ceramics acquired from throughout the vast Incan empire. There's also good background on the Bingham expeditions with informative documentaries (subtitled). Signs are in English and Spanish.
An excellent way to explore the fascinating Inca cosmovision. They defined constellations of darkness as well as light, used astronomy to predict weather patterns, and designed Cuzco’s main streets to align with constellations at key moments. After an indoor presentation in English and Spanish there's high-powered telescope viewings outside. Reservations are essential; price varies with group size, and includes pickup and drop-off. The planetarium van picks up visitors at 5:40pm from Plaza Regocijo.
Cuzco’s third most important colonial church, La Merced was destroyed in the 1650 earthquake, but was quickly rebuilt. To the left of the church, at the back of a small courtyard, is the entrance to the monastery and museum. Paintings based on the life of San Pedro Nolasco, who founded the order of La Merced in Barcelona in 1218, hang on the walls of the beautiful colonial cloister.
Winning entries in Cuzco’s annual Popular Art Competition are displayed in this engaging museum. This is where the artisans and artists of San Blas showcase their talents in styles ranging from high art to cheeky, offering a fascinating, humorous take on ordinary life amid the pomp and circumstance of a once-grandiose culture.
Originally the palace of Inca Roca, the foundations of this museum were converted into a grand colonial residence and later became the archbishop’s palace. The beautiful mansion is now home to a religious-art collection notable for the accuracy of its period detail, and especially its insight into the interaction of indigenous peoples with the Spanish conquistadors. There are also some impressive ceilings and colonial-style tile work that’s not original, having been replaced during the 1940s.
The church of Santo Domingo is next door to Qorikancha. Less baroque and ornate than many of Cuzco’s churches, it is notable for its charming paintings of archangels depicted as Andean children in jeans and T-shirts. Opening hours are erratic.