Cusco & The Sacred Valley

The city has stood for nine centuries, a wellspring of culture and tradition soaring above the fertile Andean Valley. The area’s rich history springs forth from the Inca tale that describes how Manco Capac and his sister-consort Mama Ocllo were sent by the Sun and Moon to enlighten the people of Peru. Setting off from Lake Titicaca with the directive to settle only where their golden staff could be plunged fully into the soil, they traveled far across the altiplano until reaching the fertile soils surrounding present-day Cusco. They envisioned Qosqo (Cusco) in the shape of a puma, the animal representation of the Earth in the indigenous cosmos, which you can still see today on city maps. But not all was Inca in southern Peru. Not far from Cusco sits Pikillacta, a pre-Inca city constructed by the Wari culture that thrived between AD 600 and 1000. It’s an indication that this territory, like most of Peru, was the site of sophisticated civilizations long before the Inca appeared.

By the time Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1532, the Inca Empire had spread from modern-day Ecuador in the north down through Peru and Bolivia to Chile. Sadly, the city’s grandeur could do little to save an Empire weakened by internal strife and civil war. Stocked with guns and horses, which the Inca had never seen, and carrying new diseases, against which they had no immunity, the Spanish arrived with the upper hand, despite smaller numbers. In 1532, the Spanish seized Atahualpa, the recently instated Inca ruler, while he was in Cajamarca to subdue rebellious forces. The Inca’s crumbling house of cards came tumbling down, though pockets of resistance remained for years in places like Ollantaytambo.

After sacking the Inca Empire, Spanish colonists instated new political and religious systems, superimposing their beliefs onto the old society and its structures. They looted gold, silver, and stone and built their own churches, monasteries, convents, and palaces directly onto the foundations of the Inca sites. This is one of the most striking aspects of the city today. The Santo Domingo church was built on top of the Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun. And it’s downright ironic to think of the cloistered convent of Santa Catalina occupying the same site as the equally cloistered Acllawasi, the home of the Inca chosen women, who were selected to serve the sun in the Qorikancha temple. The cultural combination appears in countless other ways: witness the pumas carved into the cathedral doors. The city also gave its name to the Cusqueña school of art, in which New World artists combined Andean motifs with European-style painting, usually on religious themes. You’ll chance on paintings that could be by Van Dyck but for the Inca robes on New Testament figures, and Last Supper diners digging into an Andean feast of guinea pig and fermented corn.

Throughout the Cusco region, you’ll witness this odd juxtaposition of imperial and colonial, indigenous and Spanish. Traditionally clad Quechua-speaking women sell their wares in front of a part-Inca, part-colonial structure as a business executive of European heritage walks by carrying on a cell-phone conversation. The two cultures coexist but have not entirely embraced each other even five centuries after the conquest.

The Río Urubamba flows, at its closest, about 18 miles north of Cusco and passes through a valley about 980 feet lower in elevation than Cusco. The northwestern part of this river basin, romantically labeled the Sacred Valley of the Inca, contains some of the region’s most appealing towns and fascinating pre-Columbian ruins. A growing number of visitors are heading here directly upon arrival in Cusco to acclimatize. The valley’s altitude is slightly lower and its temperatures slightly higher, and make for a physically easier introduction to this part of Peru.



For thousands of years the heart of Cusco, formerly called Haukaypata and now known as the Plaza de Armas, has served as the pulse of the city. Yet where you once would have found Inca ceremonies and parades in front of the many palaces that stood here, today you’ll find a more modern procession of postcard sellers, shoe-shiners, and photographers angling for your attention. It’s no surprise that they congregate here—with the stupendous Catedral dominating the northeastern side of the Plaza, the ornate Templo de La Compañía sitting to the southeast, and gorgeous Spanish-colonial arcades forming the other two sides, the Plaza is one of the most spectacular areas of Cusco.


Dominating the Plaza de Armas, the monumental cathedral is one of Cusco’s grandest buildings. Built in 1550 on the site of the palace of the Inca Wiracocha and using stones looted from the nearby Inca fortress of Sacsayhuamán, the cathedral is a perfect example of the imposition of the Catholic faith on the indigenous population. The grander the building, went the theory, the more impressive (and seductive) the faith. With soaring ceilings, baroque carvings, enormous oil paintings, and glittering gold-and-silver altars, the cathedral certainly seemed to achieve its aim.

Today Cusco’s Catedral is one of the town’s star attractions, noted mainly for its amazing collection of colonial art that mixes Christian and non-Christian imagery. Entering the Catedral from the Sagrada Familia chapel, head to your right to the first nave where you’ll find the famous oil painting (reputed to be the oldest in Cusco) depicting the earthquake that rocked the town in 1650. Among the depictions of burning houses and people fleeing, you’ll see a procession in the Plaza. Legend has it that during the earthquake, the citizens took out from the Catedral a statue of Jesus on the cross and paraded it around the Plaza—halting the quake in its tracks. This statue, now known as the Señor de los Temblores, or Lord of the Earthquakes, is Cusco’s patron, and you’ll find him depicted in many Cusqueñan paintings.

To see the famous statue, head across the Catedral to the other side, where in the nave and to the right of the passage connecting the Catedral to the adjoining Iglesia del Triumfo, you’ll find el Señor himself. The dark color of his skin is often claimed to be a representation of the indigenous people of Cusco; actually, it’s the effect of years of candle smoke on the native materials used in its fabrication.


The entire facility serves as a comprehensive introduction to pre-Columbian Andean culture. Jam-packed with textiles, ceramics, and dioramas, there’s a lot to see here, and displays bear labels in Spanish and English. One room is dedicated to the story of Mamakuka (“Mother Coca”), and documents indigenous people’s use of the coca leaf for religious and medicinal purposes.


To behold colonial Cusco in all its beauty, take the 15-minute walk up to Colcampata. Following Procuradores from the Plaza de Armas to Waynapata and then Resbalosa, you’ll come to a steep cobblestone staircase with a wonderful view of La Compañía. Continuing to climb, you’ll find the church of San Cristóbal, which is of little intrinsic interest but affords another magnificent panorama of the city. The church stands atop Colcampata, believed to have been the palace of the first Inca ruler, Manco Cápac. The Inca wall to the right of the church has 11 niches in which soldiers may once have stood guard. Farther up the road, the lane on the left leads to a post-conquest Inca gateway beside a magnificent Spanish mansion.


For a different perspective on pre-Colombian ceramics head to this spectacular museum, known as MAP, where art and pre-Colombian culture merge seamlessly. Twelve rooms in the 1580 Casa Cabrera, which was used as the convent of Santa Clara until the 17th century, showcase an astounding collection of pre-Columbian art from the 13th to 16th centuries, mostly in the form of carvings, ceramics, and jewelry. The art and artifacts were made by the Huari and Nasca, as well as the Inca, cultures. The stylish displays have excellent labels in Spanish and English that place the artifacts in their artistic and historical context. On the walls is commentary from European artists on South American art. Swiss artist Paul Klee wrote: “I wish I was newly born, and totally ignorant of Europe, innocent of facts and fashions, to be almost primitive.” Most Cusco museums close at dark but MAP remains open every evening. For a break after a walk around, find your way to the on-site cafe, one of Cusco’s best restaurants (reservations are required for dinner).


Artifacts that Hiram Bingham unearthed during his 1911 “discovery” of Machu Picchu and brought back to Yale University resided with the university for a century. After a hotly contested custody battle, an agreement was reached between Peru and Yale and the artifacts began to be returned to Peru in 2011. Some of them can now be seen on display at this small but fascinating museum housed in a colonial mansion built atop the palace of Tupac Yupanqui. While the artifacts are interesting, the real reason to go is for the video, which presents research findings on these pieces. If you have the time, visit the museum before your trip to Machu Picchu for a deeper understanding of what is currently known, and still unknown, about this wonder of the world.


An extensive collection of Cusqueñan religious art is the draw at this still-working Dominican convent, which incorporates a 1610 church with high and low choirs and baroque friezes. Although there’s not much to show of it these days, the convent represents another example of the pasting of Catholic religion over indigenous faiths—it was built on the site of the Acllawasi, the house of some 3,000 Inca chosen women dedicated to teaching, weaving Inca ceremonial robes, and worship of Inti, the Inca sun god. The entire complex was given a face-lift in 2010.


The building may be on the dark and musty side, but this San Blas museum has a remarkable collection of religious art. Originally the site of the Inca Roca’s Hatun Rumiyoq palace, then the juxtaposed Moorish-style palace of the Marqués de Buenavista, the building reverted to the archdiocese of Cusco and served as the archbishop’s residence. In this primary repository of religious art in the city, many of the paintings in the collection are anonymous, but you’ll notice some by the renowned indigenous artist Marcos Zapata. A highlight is a series of 17thcentury paintings that depict the city’s Corpus Christi procession. Free audio guides are available.


Inca Roca lived in the 13th or 14th century. Halfway along his palace’s sidewall, nestled amid other stones, is a famous 12-angled stone, an example of masterly Inca masonry. There’s nothing sacred about the 12 angles: Inca masons were famous for incorporating stones with many more sides than 12 into their buildings. If you can’t spot the famous stone from the crowds taking photos, ask one of the shopkeepers or the elaborately dressed Inca figure hanging out along the street to point it out. Around the corner is a series of stones on the wall that form the shapes of a puma and a serpent. Kids often hang out there and trace the forms for a small tip.


If the Spanish came to the new world looking for El Dorado, the lost city of gold, they must have thought they’d found it when they laid eyes on Qorikancha. Built during the reign of the Inca Pachacutec to honor the Sun, Tawantinsuyos’ most important divinity, Qorikancha translates as “Court of Gold.” Conquistadors’ jaws must have dropped when they saw the gold-plated walls of the temple glinting in the sunlight. Then their fingers must have started working because all that remains today is the masterful stonework.


The church may be overshadowed by the more famous Catedral and Iglesia de la Compañía, but La Merced contains one of the city’s most priceless treasures— the Custodia, a solid gold container for communion wafers more than a meter high and encrusted with thousands of precious stones. Rebuilt in the 17th century, this monastery, with two stories of portals and a colonial fountain, gardens, and benches, has a spectacular series of murals that depict the life of the founder of the Mercedarian order, St. Peter of Nolasco. A small museum is found to the side of the church.


Austere from the outside, this incredible 1588 church takes the prize for most eccentric interior decoration. Thousands of mirrors cover the interior, competing with the gold-laminated altar for glittery prominence. Legend has it that the mirrors were placed inside in order to tempt locals into church. Built in old Inca style, using stone looted from Inca ruins, this is a great example of the lengths that the Spanish went to in order to attract indigenous converts to the Catholic faith.


You’ll find a bit of everything in this spot, which may leave you feeling like you’ve seen it all before. Colonial building? Check. Cusqueña-school paintings? Check. Ancient pottery? Check. Inca mummy? Check. This is the colonial childhood home of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the famous chronicler of the Spanish conquest and illegitimate son of one of Pizarro’s captains and an Inca princess. Inside the mansion, with its cobblestone courtyard, is the Museo de Historia Regional, with Cusqueña-school paintings and pre-Inca mummies—one from Nazca has a 1½-meter (5-foot) braid—and ceramics, metal objects, and other artifacts.


This museum provides a delicious introduction to the history and process of chocolate-making, from cacao bean to bar. Workshops allow you to make your own sweets; they are offered three times a day for a minimum of three people at an additional cost of S/70, and advance reservations are required.


Take a refreshing turn back toward the present in this city of history. As is typically the case in Cusco, the museum is housed in a colonial mansion. However, the art exhibits, which rotate constantly, display some of the best work that contemporary Peruvian artists have to offer.


Many people are familiar with the coca plant only as the source of cocaine until they land in Cusco, where it is offered at every stop for helping with the effects of altitude. If this dichotomy has made you curious, stop by the museum of sacred plants to learn about the science and history of coca as well as its traditional uses, both medicinal and religious. Also covered are tobacco, ayahuasca, san pedro, and a host of other plants used for millennia by the Andean and Amazonian people. It’s a great opportunity to get a more thorough understanding of plants that were, and still are, a vital part of the indigenous cultures of Peru.


Close to the Plaza de Armas, the Plaza de San Francisco is a local hangout. There’s not a lot to see in the plaza itself, but if you’ve wandered this way, the Templo de San Francisco church is interesting for its macabre sepulchers with arrangements of bones and skulls, some pinned to the wall to spell out morbid sayings. A small museum of religious art with paintings by Cusqueña-school artists Marcos Zapata and Diego Quispe Tito is in the church sacristy.


For spectacular views over Cusco’s terra-cotta rooftops, head to San Blas. This is where the Incas brought the choicest artists and artisans, culled from recent conquests, to bolster their own knowledge base. The district has maintained its Bohemian roots for centuries and remains one of the city’s most picturesque districts with whitewashed adobe homes and bright-blue doors. The Cuesta de San Blas (San Blas Hill), one of the main entrances into the area, is sprinkled with galleries that sell paintings in the Cusqueña-school style of the 16th through 18th centuries. Many of the stone streets are built as stairs or slopes (not for cars) and have religious motifs carved into them.


As San Blas’s most famous son, the former home of 20th-century Peruvian religious artist Hilario Mendívil (1929–77) makes a good stop if you have an interest in Cusqeñan art and iconography. Legend has it that Mendívil saw llamas parading in the Corpus Christi procession as a child and later infused this image into his religious art, depicting all his figures with long, llama-like necks.


The little square in San Blas has a simple adobe church with one of the jewels of colonial art in the Americas—the pulpit of San Blas, an intricately carved 17thcentury cedar pulpit, arguably Latin America’s most ornate. Tradition holds that the work was hewn from a single tree trunk, but experts now believe it was assembled from 1,200 individually carved pieces. Figures of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Henry VIII—all opponents of Catholicism—as well as those representing the seven deadly sins are condemned for eternity to hold up the pulpit’s base. The work is dominated by the triumphant figure of Christ. At his feet rests a human skull, not carved, but the real thing. It’s thought to belong to Juan Tomás Tuyrutupac, the creator of the pulpit.


Sacsayhuamán sits a stone’s throw from Cusco and is easily visited in a half-day organized tour (the typical tour also includes Puka Pukara, Qenko, and Tambomachay. A so-called “mystical tour” typically takes in the Templo de la Luna and other surrounding sites. If your lungs and legs are up to it, the self-guided 40-minute ascent to Sacsayhuamán offers an eye-catching introduction to colonial Cusco. The walk starts from the Plaza de Armas and winds uphill along the pedestrian-only Resbalosa Street. Make your way past San Cristóbal Church, hang a left at the outstretched arms of the white statue of Christ, and you’re almost there.


It may be a fairly serene location these days, but Qenko, which means “zigzag,” was once the site of one of the Incas’ most intriguing and potentially macabre rituals. Named after the zigzagging channels carved into the surface, Qenko is a large rock thought to have been the site of an annual pre planting ritual in which priests standing on the top poured chicha, or llama blood, into a ceremonial pipe, allowing it to make its way down the channel. If the blood flowed left, it boded poor fertility for the coming season. If the liquid continued the full length of the pipe, it spelled a bountiful harvest. Other symbolic carvings mix it up on the rock face, too —the eagle-eyed might spot a puma, condor, and a llama.


Little is known of the archaeological ruins of Puka Pukara, a pink-stone site guarding the road to the Sacred Valley. Some archaeologists believe the complex was a fort—its name means “red fort”—but others claim it served as a hunting lodge and storage place used by the Inca nobility. Current theory holds that this center, likely built during the reign of the Inca Pachacutec, served all those functions. Whatever it was, it was put in the right place. Near Tambomachay, this enigmatic spot provides spectacular views over the Sacred Valley. Pull up a rock and ponder the mystery yourself.


Ancient fountains preside over this tranquil and secluded spot, which is commonly known as “El Baño del Inca,” or, Inca’s Bath. The name actually means “cavern lodge” and the site is a three-tiered huaca built of elaborate stonework over a natural spring, which is thought to have been used for ritual showers. Interpretations differ, but the site was likely a place where water, considered a source of life, was worshipped (or perhaps just a nice place to take a bath). The huaca is almost certain to have been the scene of sacred ablutions and purifying ceremonies for Inca rulers and royal women.


The Río Urubamba runs northwest and southeast from Cusco. The northwest sector of the river basin is the romantically named “Sacred Valley of the Inca,” but along the highway that runs southeast of Cusco to Sicuani the region locals call the Valle del Sur is just as interesting. The area abounds with opportunities for off-the-beaten-path exploration. Detour to the tiny town of Oropesa and get to know this self-proclaimed capital of brick-oven bread making; a tradition that’s sustained local families for more than 90 years. Or you can side-trip to more pre-Inca and Inca sites. Apart from Andahuayillas and Raqchi, you’ll have the ruins to yourself. Only admission to Tipón and Pikillacta is included in the Boleto Turístico.


Everyone has heard that the Incas were good engineers, but for a real look at just how good they were at land and water management, head to Tipón. Twenty kilometers (12 miles) or so south of Cusco, Tipón is a series of terraces, hidden from the valley below, crisscrossed by stone aqueducts and carved irrigation channels that edge up a narrow pass in the mountains. A spring-fed the site and continually replenished a 900-cubic-meter reservoir that supplied water to crops growing on the terraces. The ruins of a stone temple of undetermined function guard the system, and higher up the mountain are terraces yet to be completely excavated. The rough dirt track that leads to the complex is not in the best of shape and requires some effort to navigate. If you visit without your own car, either walk up (about two hours each way) or take one of the taxis waiting at the turnoff from the main road.


For a reminder that civilizations existed in this region before the Incas, head to Pikillacta, a vast city of 700 buildings from the pre-Inca Wari culture, which flourished between AD 600 and 1000. Over a mile wide, you’ll see what remains of what was once a vast walled city with enclosing walls reaching up to 23 feet in height and many two-story buildings, which were entered via ladders to doorways on the second floor. Little is known about the Wari culture, whose empire once stretched from near Cajamarca to the border of the Tiahuanaco near Lake Titicaca. It’s clear, however, that they had a genius for farming in a harsh environment and like the Incas built sophisticated urban centers such as Pikillacta (which means the “place of the flea”). At the thatch-roofed excavation sites, uncovered walls show the city’s stones were once covered with plaster and whitewashed. A small museum at the entrance houses a scattering of artifacts collected during site excavation, along with a complete dinosaur skeleton. Across the road lies a beautiful lagoon, Lago de Lucre.


An enormous 39-foot high gate dating from the Wari period stands at Rumicolca, sitting a healthy walk uphill from the highway. The Inca enhanced the original construction of their predecessors, fortifying it with andesite stone and using the gate as a border checkpoint and customs post.


The main attraction of the small town of Andahuaylillas, 5 miles southeast of Pikillacta, is a small 17th-century adobe-towered church built by the Jesuits on the central plaza over the remains of an Inca temple. The contrast between the simple exterior and the rich, expressive, colonial baroque art inside is notable: fine examples of the Cusqueña school of art decorate the upper interior walls.


The ruins of this large temple in the ancient town of Raqchi give little indication of their original purpose, but if size counts, then they are truly impressive. You’ll be forgiven for thinking that the place was once an Inca version of the Colossium, or a football stadium. Legend has it that the Temple of Raqchi was built in homage to the god Viracocha, to ask his intercession in keeping the nearby Quimsa Chata volcano in check. The ploy worked only some of the time. The site, with its huge adobe walls atop a limestone foundation, performed multiple duties as temple, fortress, barracks, and storage facility.


The road from Cusco leads directly to the town of Taray. The Pisac market beckons a few kilometers down the road, but Taray makes a worthwhile pre-Pisac shopping stop. Devastating flooding in March 2010 destroyed nearly 80% of the town’s homes. However, a herculean effort has been made to get the town’s main infrastructure up and running at full steam again.


Loosely translated as “palace of weaving,” Awana Kancha provides an opportunity to see products made from South America’s four camelids (alpaca, llama, vicuña, and guanaco) from start to finish: the animal, the shearing, the textile weaving, and dyeing, and the finished products, which you can purchase in the showroom. It makes a great stop for the whole family, as kids can feed the camelids on-site.


The colorful colonial town of Pisac, replete with Quechua-language masses in a simple stone church, a well-known market, and fortress ruins, comes into view as you wind your way down the highway from Cusco. (You’re dropping about 1,970 feet in elevation when you come out here from the big city.) Pisac, home to about 4,000 people, anchors the eastern end of the Sacred Valley and, like much of the region, has experienced a surge of growth in recent years, with new hotels and restaurants popping up in and around town. An orderly grid of streets forms the center of town, most hemmed in by a hodgepodge of colonial and modern stucco or adobe buildings, and just wide enough for one car at a time. (Walking is easier and far more enjoyable.) The level of congestion (and fun) increases dramatically each Tuesday, Thursday, and especially Sunday, when one of Peru’s most celebrated markets comes into its own, but much more spectacular are the ruins above. Admission to the ruins is included in both the Boleto Turístico and Boleto Parcial.


On your way from Pisac to Yucay/Urubamba, you will pass through this small town. There’s not much reason to stop unless you happen to be staying at the Aranwa, but that alone might be reason enough.


Just a bit outside the much larger Urubamba, Yucay proper is only a few streets wide, with a collection of attractive colonial-era adobe and stucco buildings and a pair of good-choice lodgings on opposite sides of a grassy plaza in the center of town.


Spanish naturalist Antonio de León Pinedo rhapsodized that Urubamba must have been the biblical Garden of Eden, but you’ll be forgiven if your first glance at the place causes you to doubt that lofty claim: the highway leading into and bypassing the city, the Sacred Valley’s administrative, economic, and geographic center, shows you miles of gas stations and convenience stores. But get off the highway and get lost in the countryside, awash in flowers and pisonay trees, and enjoy the spectacular views of the nearby mountains and you might agree with León Pinedo after all. Urubamba holds little of historic interest, but the gorgeous scenery, a growing selection of top-notch hotels, and easy access to Machu Picchu rail service make the town an appealing place in which to base yourself.


Indigenous lore says that Chinchero, one of the valley’s major Inca cities, was the birthplace of the rainbow. Frequent sightings during the rainy season might convince you of the legend’s truth. Chinchero is one of the few sites in the Sacred Valley that’s higher (3,800 meters or 12,500 feet) than Cusco.

Today tourists and locals frequent the colorful Sunday artisan market on the central plaza, an affair that gets rave reviews as being more authentic and less touristed than the larger market in neighboring Pisac. A corresponding Chinchero produce market for locals takes place at the entrance to town. The market is there on other days, but on Sunday there are artisans who travel from the high mountain villages to sell their wares.

Amble about the collection of winding streets and adobe houses, but be sure to eventually make your way toward one of the weaving cooperatives, where a gaggle of local women will entertain you into understanding the art of making those lovely alpaca sweaters you eyed in the market.


Scientists still marvel at the agricultural technology the Inca used at Moray. Taking advantage of four natural depressions in the ground and angles of sunlight, indigenous engineers fashioned concentric circular irrigation terraces, 500 feet from top to bottom, and could create a difference of 60°F from top to bottom. The result was a series of engineered mini-climates perfect for adapting, experimenting, mixing, matching, and cultivating foods, especially varieties of maize, the staple of the Inca empire, normally impossible to grow at this altitude. Though the technology is attributed to the Inca, the lower portions of the complex are thought to date from the pre–Inca Wari culture. Entrance to Moray is included in the Boleto Turístico.

The famed terraced Inca salt pans of Salineras are still in use and also take advantage of a natural phenomenon: the Inca dug shallow pools into a sloped hillside. The pools filled with water, and upon evaporation, salt crystallized and could be harvested. They’re difficult to reach without a tour, and almost impossible during the rainy season. No public transportation serves Moray or Salineras. A taxi can be hired from Maras, the closest village, or from Cusco. Alternatively, it’s a two-hour hike from Maras to either site.


Poll visitors for their favorite Sacred Valley community and the answer will likely be Ollantaytambo—endearingly nicknamed Olly or Ollanta—which lies at the valley’s northwestern entrance. Ollantaytambo’s traditional air has not been stifled by the invasion of tourists. Ask around for the local mercado, situated just off the Plaza de Armas, close to the pickup point for collectivos and taxis. This busy marketplace quietly evades tourism’s grasp and offers a behind-the-scenes peak at life beyond the ruins. The juice stations on the second floor, toward the back, might just be the town’s best-kept secret.