Machu Picchu, Cusco
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Machu Picchu, Cusco

© / Galyna Andrushko

Cusco travel guide

Nothing can prepare visitors for the moment they first enter the heart of the ancient Incan capital, Cusco. The city’s vast main square of grand churches and romantic porticos unfolds like a vision, while the surrounding dark hills bear down in the distance.

More than 20,000 Inca roads used to converge at the Plaza de Armas, once the very core of the mighty Inca Empire that stretched from Ecuador to Argentina.

Despite the splendour of this reimagined colonial masterpiece, gleaming with impressive baroque churches and glamorous houses, the history of the legendary Incan city of Qosqo still lies beneath it.

The colossal Cathedral of Santo Domingo is the jewel of modern Cusco, but it was built upon the site of the great Incan place, Viracocha, using stones from the nearby Sacsayhuaman complex. It even impressed the conqueror of Peru himself, Francisco Pizarro, who called it the greatest city of the Americas.

While temples and royal abodes were destroyed to make way for monuments honouring imperial Spain and Catholicism, the historic centre still remains roughly as it was.

The earthly wonder of Machu Picchu, some 75km (46 miles) away, is what brings many to Cusco, but a city so steeped in history deserves a few days exploration on its own.

The immaculate historical centre gives the feeling of an affluent city but (as some tour guides are quick to point out) the wealth generated by Machu Picchu ticket sales is diverted straight to Lima. The outskirts of Cusco still show the scars of poverty that wrack large parts of the country.

Come evening, Cusco has a pulsating nightlife, with some sophisticated dining options. Those yearning for an authentic Peruvian experience should visit Mercado San Pedro for chicha (the ultra-strong alcoholic drink derived from maize) and roasted cuy (guinea pig).

It’s hard to argue that the real heart of Cusco lies anywhere but the polished Plaza de Armas but no matter how much rebuilding there has been, the Inca spirit lives on. It whispers through the immense stones that support so many buildings and if you’re very quiet, you can almost hear it…

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