Cusco is a city in southeastern Peru in the Huatanay Valley (Sacred Valley), of the Andes mountain range. It is the capital of the Cusco region and has a population of about 300,000, triple the population it contained just 20 years ago. Alternate spellings include Cusco in Spanish and with pre-1987 Quechua orthography, and Qosqo with post-1987 Quechua orthography.
Cuzco was the capital of Tahuantinsuyu (or Inca Empire). It was shaped like a Panther. The city had two sectors: the hurin and hanan, which were further divided to each encompass two of the four provinces, Chinchasuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Condesuyu (SW), and Collasuyu (SE). A road led from each of these quarters to the corresponding quarter of the empire. Each local leader was required to build a house in the city and live part of the year in Cuzco, but only in the quarter of Cuzco that corresponded to the quarter of the empire he had territory in. After Pachacuti, when an Inca died his title went to one son and his property was given to a corporation controlled by his other relatives, so each title holder had to build a new house and add new lands to the empire, in order to own any home and the land his family needed to maintain it after his death. Andean Indians still abandon their homes and build new ones when they marry, even if no one remains in the house.
According to Inca legend, the city was built by Supa Inca Pachacuti, the man who transformed the Kingdom of Cuzco from a sleepy city-state into the vast empire of Tahuantinsuyu. But archaeological evidence points to a slower, more organic growth of the city beginning before Pachacuti. There was however a city plan, and two rivers were terraformed and channeled to outline the city.
Many of the Inca walls were thought to have been lost until a 1950 earthquake devastated the city. The granite walls of Korikancha (the Sun Temple) were exposed, as well as many walls throughout the city. Many wanted to restore the buildings to their colonial splendor, but a contingent of Cuzco citizens wanted to retain the exposed walls. Eventually they won out and now tourists from around the world enjoy looking at these ruins within the living city.
Many buildings constructed after the conquest are of Spanish influence with a mix of Inca architecture, including the Santa Clara and San Blas. Often, Spanish buildings are juxtaposed atop the massive stone walls built by the Inca. The major earthquake that hit Cuzco in 1950 badly destroyed the Dominican Priory and Church of Santo Domingo, which were built on top of Korikancha, but the city’s Inca architecture firmly withstood the earthquake. This was the second time that the Dominican Priory was destroyed, the first being in 1650 when another major earthquake wracked Cuzco. The Priory was completely destroyed in 1650 as well.
Other nearby Inca sites are Pachacuti’s winter home Machu Picchu which can be reached by a lightly maintained Inca trail, the “fortress” at Ollantaytambo, and the “fortress” of Sacsayhuaman which is approximately two kilometers from Cuzco. Other less visited ruins include Inca Wasi, the highest of all Inca sites at 3,980 m (13,134 feet), Old Vilcabamba the capital of the Inca after the capture of Cuzco, the sculpture garden at Chulquipalta (aka Chuquipalta, Ñusta España, The White Rock, Yurak Rumi), as well as Huillca Raccay, Patallacta, Choquequirao and many others.
The surrounding area, located in the Huatanay Valley, is strong in agriculture, including corn, barley, quinoa, tea and coffee, and gold mining.
How to go
The airport is at the edge of the city (taxi ride). There are daily internal flights to and from Lima, Arequipa and small jungle airstrips in the Amazon basin. The following airlines offer flights to/from Cuzco:
Amaszonas (La Paz, Bolivia)
LAN Perú (Arequipa, Juliaca, Lima, & Puerto Maldonado)
Peruvian Airlines (Lima)
Star Peru (Juliaca, Lima, & Puerto Maldonado)
Avianca Peru (formerly Taca) (Arequipa, Lima, & Puerto Maldonado)
Lan Peru has the most flights between Cuzco and Lima, followed by Star Peru, Peruvian Airlines and Taca. It is best to book the earlier flights to avoid weather delays and overbooking.
The closest major international airport is Lima. The cheapest one-way flights to Lima cost around US$110 (year 2012), while a short notice flight on either LAN or Taca will cost around $300. StarPeru and Peruvian Airlines generally have the cheapest flights. Frequently, bad weather conditions can cause flights to be canceled, often up to two days on end. If you are flying straight into Cuzco, beware of altitude sickness for the first couple of days.
With only 5 gates and a few off the main terminal this airport is fairly small but because it sees thousands of tourists a day, it has a good amount of facilities. There are a few restaurants before and after security and some shops too. Massage facilities and communication services are also available. There are a few ATMs in the check-in Area. If you have time, look across the parking lot for last-minute shopping.
Airport taxes as of June 2011 have been included in all national tickets.
Note that the market rate for a taxi from the Airport to the Plaza de Armas is around 10 soles, not 30 or more as the ‘official’ airport taxis may try to charge you. Only used marked taxi cabs and agree on the price to your destination before getting into the vehicle. Using unmarked taxis is not recommended.
There is no single “official” taxi company. Instead, people rent booths at the airport and put up an “official taxi” sign and you book with them. Then, they talk to one of the taxis out front on and have them take you.
Airport to Plaza de Armas by bus: Get out of the airport at your right, there is a bus stop. Ask the combis that stop there if they go to plaza de armas. It is not a very comfortable trip, very crowded but manageable and it took around 30 min. You can get off at the last stop of Av El Sol, which is very close to the Plaza de Armas. Nobody charged anything extra for the backpacks. It costs 0.70 soles.
Plaza de Armas to Airport: You can get the bus at Av El Sol close to the crossing with Ayacucho. Ask the street sellers about the combis to the airport. It seems like a very frequent as we didn’t wait for long. The journey is not a very comfortable trip, very crowded but manageable and it took around 30 min. It costs 0.70 soles and nothing extra for the backpacks. Tell the driver that you are going to the airport and you can get off right across the street from the main entrance.
The Terminal Terrestre is about 2.4km SW of the Centro Historico, a 20 minute walk down along Av. Sol to Micaeda Bastidas, which is also 3-4km west of the airport terminal. You can also take a taxi for a few soles (paid 8 S./ April 2014).
Buses are plentiful to and from other Peruvian and Bolivian cities like Lima (about 24 hr), Puno (6-8 hr, 25 soles), Arequipa (10 hr, 50 soles), Nazca (14-16 hr), Copacabana (9-12hr, 60 soles) and La Paz (12-15hr, 90 soles) but are quite long and slow, although the views can compensate. The main roads are mostly quite good, but some can be bad, making trips take longer than expected.
Also, make sure your bus has a bathroom or that it stops for bathroom breaks every couple of hours before you buy tickets. There are Puno-Cuzco buses that have/do neither, and that can mean a VERY long 6-8 hours.
Be very careful if arriving early in the morning. You would be approached by touts from hostels that can’t fill their rooms in other ways. They offer you nice looking folders from Hospedaje Harry but when you arrive it’s not as pretty. Problems with water (not enough to even flush the toilet), very cold inside. They refused to give us back the money we stupidly paid at arrival. It pays to book in advance or wait few hours and check a few different places by yourself. This city is full of accommodations at all price ranges.
Expreso Los Chankas, Pje Cáceres 150. One of the only companies to offer direct service from Ayacucho to Cusco. 55 soles for a 22 hr ride on a semi-cama bus. Buses at 6:30AM and 7PM.
Cruz del Sur offers a very comfortable “cruzero suite” service direct to/from Lima, with multiple departures daily. Tickets can be booked online as well as in agencies and hotels. Standard fares are around $60 USD, with promotional fares available if you book in advance. The service is comparable to flying on board a good airline with films, hot food, drinks, good toilets and even a bingo game. Note that Cruz del Sur buses arrive at the company’s own terminal, which is about 700 meters (10 minutes walk) from Terminal Terrestre. Taxis to the Plaza de Armas are around S/ 10 from the Cruz del Sur terminal.
An option to go from Lima, Paracas, Ica, Puno, Nazca or Huacachina is to take one of the Peru Hop buses. This service has brand new cama buses with movies in English and Spanish their passes allow you to hop on or hop off at any of these places. Peru Hop includes hotel/hostel pick-ups and drop-offs which is pretty neat from a safety/no taxi fare viewpoint.
Cuzco is connected to Machu Picchu and Puno by rail. Rail service was recently discontinued to Arequipa. This service is operated by PeruRail.
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