Where Spanish Colonial meets Inca Ruins, Cusco is the result of two cultures colliding. Try to catch your breath by hiking to Cristo Blanco, discover some Ancient ruins at Sacsayhuman and marvel at the beauty of Plaza de Armas.
Back in April we were able to cross a new country (and new continent) off our list. After plans for a February trip to Copenhagen got thwarted, we set our eyes on something much bigger: South America! Machu Picchu had been on our minds for some time, so we thought – why not? We had one week to visit Peru (during Mark’s April vacation) so we mapped it all out carefully. The first two nights of the trip we spent in Cusco. Not only is this city nestled into a valley surrounded by rolling hills but it is filled with a rich history. As the center of the Incan empire, the architecture in Cusco today is a unique mix of Spanish colonialism meets Inca ruins. We were blown away by how beautiful it was.
We were able to reserve a room on Airbnb at the cutest Bed & Breakfast in the San Blas neighborhood. Our room had a huge window (and balcony) overlooking the entire city. Our host would serve us breakfast each morning with fresh fruit, eggs, toast & tea. I would highly recommend this for anyone looking for a comfortable and affordable place to stay. (Be aware that a view like this requires an uphill walk from the city center, but it’s worth it).
Although our time in Cusco was short, check out some of the things we were able to do and see there!
Monastery of San Francisco
While venturing through the streets of Cusco, we stumbled upon a beautiful church. Although this wasn’t originally on our radar, we decided to pay the 15 soles (~$5) entrance fee and check it out. Not a ton of people were visiting that day so it felt like we had the whole places to ourselves! Inside the Monastery is the most gorgeous and serene colonial courtyard (pictured above). Probably our favorite part of this visit was going under the altar of the church to view the catacombs! (A little eerie but so cool).
Quirkancha & the Covent of Santo Domingo
Quirkancha for the Incans meant golden courtyard and was once the religious center in Cusco. Home to the Temple of the Sun and over 4,000 priests at the peak of the Incan empire, this place of worship was once adorned with gold. Now, probably the most prominent example of two cultures colliding, the Covent of Santo Domingo sits on top of the ruins of Quirkancha. In the 17th century, after the Spanish stole the gold from the temple and melted it all down, they decided to use the stonework from the temple as a base for their church.
Today, they have removed some of the church to reveal the ruins of some of the most famous Incan temples. In the picture below (bottom right) you can clearly see the old dark stones of the Inca wall, marking where the Sun Temple once stood.
Thanks to the map given to us at the entrance, we spent almost 2 hours exploring and learning about all the Incan temples and admiring the Colonial Architecture. For only 15 soles (~$5), this is definitely worth a visit while in Cusco.
Plaza de Armas
Once known as Haukaypata (The Great Inca Square), later named Plaza de Armas by the Spanish – this area is the heart of modern day Cusco. Surrounded by two colonial churches, as well as restaurants & shops, this area is always bustling with locals and tourists alike. The Plaza is used for big celebrations and festivals, such as traditional Incan holidays as well as Corpus Cristi or Semana Santa (Holy Week). We were able to catch a procession for Holy Week while there one night and the whole plaza was filled with thousands of people!
Cristo Blanco Statue
Cristo Blanco is a large statue of Jesus Christ overlooking Cusco. It was gifted to the city of Cusco by the Arabic Palestinians that sought refuge in Cusco after WWII. It stands almost 26 ft. high on one of the hills overlooking the city. Technically a visit to this statue is free, however, since it is near Sacsayhuman, there is a guard blocking the path up the hill to the statue which you can only enter with a ticket. (One way around this would be to take an uber or taxi to the statue since it is accessible by road).
We took a taxi up the hill to explore some of the free parts of the ruins and enjoy the view of Cusco from Cristo Blanco. This is a great area to hike around as well, since there are a lot of historic sites you can visit once on top of the hill.
Although we didn’t pay to go inside Sacsayhuman, we did catch a glimpse of it on our ride up the hill. Our driver even made a stop to let us snap a picture before continuing up the hill towards Cristo Blanco. Looking back on our trip, we wish we had more time to explore Sacsayhuman and the other ruins above the city, but an expensive entrance fee held us back. Be aware that some of the tickets will include multiple sites while others only include Sacsayhuman. The entrance fee to Sacsayhuman is around $25 per person but the combo tickets are even more.
San Blas Neighborhood
The San Blas neighborhood is where our Airbnb was and is one of the quieter areas of Cusco. It’s about a 10 minute (up-hill) walk from the city center – seriously be prepared for a lot of stairs! However, it’s worth the view overlooking the city and a great area to explore some quaint cobblestone streets for some local shops and restaurants.
12 Angled Stone
Leaving Plaza de Armas, you’ll find a street called Hatunrumiyoc that is lined with an Incan Wall. What makes this particular wall so famous, is the 12-angled stone in the middle of it. If you’re worried about finding the stone in the wall, it’s pretty hard to miss. Not only is it one of the larger stones in the wall but it will be surrounded by people trying to take a picture of it. I recommend walking this street early in the morning or late in the evening so you are able to enjoy the wall in peace.
Cusco is a must-see city while in Peru. It’s unique blend of indigenous & Spanish culture makes it worthwhile on its own, but it’s kind and welcoming people will make you want to stay! Like most destinations we visit, 2 days wasn’t enough to explore all Cusco had to offer but we did our best in the short amount of time given. The rest will have to wait until next time we find ourselves there!
Stay tuned for our next post about our journey to Aguas Calientes & our visit to Machu Picchu!
Hasta luego, Amanda
P.S. One very important thing to know about Cusco is a little over 11,000 ft above sea level and could cause some altitude sickness. We are working on a post describing in detail how we prepared and prevented this from happening!