Once the shimmering capital of the entire Inca Empire, Cusco is the gateway to the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the ruins of Machu Picchu. Bearing its original Inca name, meaning “Navel of the Earth,” Cusco pulsates with a unique and magical energy rivaled by few other South American cities, most notably in its historic center.
Begin a visit to the historic center—a UNESCO World Heritage SIte since 1983—at the Plaza de Armas, also known as Plaza Mayor. Festooned with fountains, this magnetic square is lined with gorgeous charming colonial buildings and churches that live alongside—and at times atop—ancient Inca walls and foundations.
There are many options for exploring Cusco’s historic center; private or group tours run day and night. Multi-day tours may incorporate visits to Lake Humantay, Machu Picchu, and other key attractions inside the breathtaking Sacred Valley of the Incas. Cyclists may opt to explore Cusco as part of a multi-day mountain bike trek.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Many attractions in the historic center have small entrance fees, which would be included if you are visiting as part of a larger tour.
- Though the center is safe, it’s always recommended to be careful with your possessions and avoid wearing eye-catching jewelry and accessories.
- Remember sun protection.
- Because of the high altitude, be sure to stay hydrated and take it slow. Chewing on coca leaves or drinking coca tea helps alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness.
How to Get There
The historic center of Cusco is walkable from most hotels. If you’re staying farther away, book a tour that includes round-trip transportation, as public transit is scant.
When to Get There
As the center of life in Cusco, the historic center is popular with all travelers in the region, and it’s great any time of day. At night, the illuminated Plaza de Armas and its grand cathedral create one of the most enchanting sights in Peru.
Attention: Painting Buffs
Pay a visit to Santo Domingo Church, just off the main plaza, a colonial church built atop an Inca temple. Dedicated to the worship of the sun, the sacred structure was at one point flush with statues and altars made of solid gold. Though Spanish conquistadors violently looted the temple, much of the original site, with its masterful masonry, remains, and stands in stark contrast to the baroque church above.