An obligatory stop for those setting out for Machu Picchu and other sites in the Sacred Valley, Cuzco – steeped in ancient culture and surrounded by the beauty and mysticism of the Andes – is something overlook as a unique destination unto itself.
Founded in the 12th-century (it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas), Cuzco sits 11,000 feet above sea level. It was the birthplace and center of the Inca Empire; in the Quechua languages, qosqo means “the Earth’s navel.” Today, the Old City, which spreads in a 10-block radius around the central Plaza de Armas, is a historical repository of the years following Pizarro’s arrival in 1532 – an event that led to the eventual destruction of what was once the Western Hemisphere’s greatest empire.
The plaza’s centrepiece is the ornate Baroque cathedral – one of the most splendid examples of religious Colonial architecture in the Americas. It is surrounded by other churches, mansions, and colonnades, all built upon the stone foundations of Inca palaces and temples. Vestiges of these sloping foundations, their impeccable masonry fitted without mortar, are still visible; some extend as high as two stories.
The Hotel Monasterio, mere steps from the plaza is housed in the 16th-century San Antonio de Abad seminary and built on the remains of the place of the ancient Inca Emperor Amaru Qhala. One of Latin America’s most important seminars from the 1700s to late 1970s, the site retains its Colonial patios, vaulted arches, stone water fountains, and religious artwork. The former monks’ cells have been enlarged into comfortable rooms outfitted with antique furniture and marble baths. In the nearby Plaza Nazerenas stands one of the city’s earliest Spanish houses, Inkaterra La Casona. Now Cuzco’s first luxury boutique hotel, this beautifully restored manor home features 11 suites with stone fireplaces that surround a quite courtyard. A budget alternative is the Ninos Hotel, a 10-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas, where 19 basic but spacious rooms occupy two renovated historical buildings a block apart. Established in 1996, the inn uses a portion of its proceeds to provide schooling and medical care to hundreds of children throughout the city.
Just outside town lie the towering ruins of Sacsayhuaman, a fortress complex of enormous interlocking stones – one alone can weigh up to 360 tons – and the site of one of the Incas’ last attempts to reclaim their empire from the Spanish in 1556. Inti Raymi (the Inca Sun Festival), greatest of all Inca celebrations, is held among these ruins every June 24 around the time of the Winter Solstice, with parades and special ceremonies.
The Urbamaba (aka Sacred) Valley was the heart of the Inca Empire. Stretching from the town of Pisca to Ollantaytambo, it is full of terraced farms and ancient ruins, as well as atmospheric colonial towns and incomparable vistas of the surrounding Andes. Wending through it is the Urubamba River, famous for its white-water rafting, and the Inca Trail, which leads hikers on an awe-inspiring journey to Machu Picchu. Ollaytaytambo, with its well preserved, formidable fortress, is one of the most popular starting points for the Inca Trail hike and is the valley’s other most-visited spot. An authentic Inca town and important stronghold during the empire, “Ollanta” has retained its original street names, layout, irrigation system, and houses – among the oldest occupied buildings in South America. The Sunday market and Quechua mass held in the Colonial church San Pedro Apostal in Pisca draw vendors, worshippers, and tourist from all parts. Just as memorable is a trek up to Pisca’s ruins and the network of linked hilltop Inca strongholds above the town. And be sure to visit the shimmering, terraced salt pans of Maras; the enigmatic Inca crop circles of Moray; and the Sunday market at hilltop Chinchero and its Inca ruin-cum-Catholic church. Among the growing number if inns in the valley, one of the most delightful is the secluded Sol y Luna Lodge, in Urubamba. The collection of 28 circular stone-and-adobe bungalows, surrounded by gardens and mountains scenery, has a first-rate dining room and a small spa.
WHERE: Cuzco i s 715 miles/1,153 km southeast of Lima.
BEST TIME: Apr – Oct for dry season; Inti Raymi; early Sun for Pisca Market.
EXPERIENCE: this through Experiential Travel Journeys. Please Call us or Email us.