Cuzco | One day itinerary in the old capital of the Incas
Whether you choose to hike the Inca Trail for 4 days or to travel by car through Sacred Valley and Ollantaytambo, Cuzco is the starting point for visiting Machu Picchu citadel. In the old capital of the largest empire that has ever existed in Latin America, you will discover archaeological sites that date back before Inca Civilization and catholic churches with amazing architecture. Among ancient buildings, in the historic city center, you will get lost on narrow streets, flanked by traditional shops selling colorful fabrics and restaurants where you could try the amazing Peruvian “superfood”.
Know before you visit…
One day in Cuzco
Our itinerary in Peru included visiting Lima, Cuzco, Aguas Caliente, and the archaeological sites Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu. We chose a local agency to handle our reservations, and a guide accompanied us throughout our trip.
We spent two nights in Cuzco at Tierra Viva Cusco Saphi Hotel, a colonial complex built in the 17th century and later restored according to its original architecture. Located within a 5 minutes walk from Plaza de Armas and Cuzco Cathedral, the hotel offers charming accommodations with colorful Peruvian decor.
What to do in the first hours after landing
Cuzco is located at an altitude of 3400m, where the air is very rarefied. Thus, the altitude sickness known by the locals “soroche” is very common among visitors. Starting with 1500m, our body reacts differently to changes in oxygen level and regardless of physical condition or age, each person adapts to its own rhythm. Symptoms can usually last up to 2-3 days and include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, or insomnia. As a side effect, climbing a few stairs or even walking may feel like a marathon.
Try to plan your visit in the city, so that after landing you will have a few hours for acclimatization. Do not put too much effort on the first day and trust the advice and remedies of the locals. Enjoy the effect of coca leaves, the local plant that allows a better oxygenation of the body. Most stores and supermarkets across the city sell leaves you can chew, coca candies, or coca tea, and many hotels offer them for free.
Tips & Tricks
No matter how the altitude is affecting you, try to avoid eating fatty or fried foods. Drink plenty of water and take advantage of the fact that you are in the “superfood” capital of the world. Try a quinoa soup and no matter how eager you are to taste the traditional Pisco Sour cocktail, you better think twice before consuming alcohol, at least until the next day.
24 hours in Cuzco – What to do first
Cuzco began to develop in the 15th century when it becomes the capital of the Inca Empire. By the 1500s, under the rule of Pachacutec, the empire was the largest in the world at that time. It stretched from northern Ecuador all the way south to central Chile and was organized around a centralized language, economy, and religion. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived at its borders in 1530, the Inca civilization flourished. They had highly developed agricultural techniques and a remarkable system of roads that facilitated the Spanish conquest of the Empire.
In 1532 Cuzco falls to the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. During the following years, many of the existing monuments in the former Inca capital were destroyed and replaced. Cuzco was transformed into a unique combination of architectural styles, influences, and cultures. The existing structures were used as foundations for new buildings and catholic churches constructed in Baroque architecture.
Despite the powerful earthquakes that stroke the city, even today a simple walk on its narrow streets can be a history lesson. Most of the buildings and squares maintain their original architecture and the impressive archeological sites around the city are the true symbols of the Inca architecture and engineering.
Our favorite Guided Tours
Cuzco Cathedral is considered a symbol of the city, with important architectural elements, statues, and hundreds of paintings from the colonial time. Its construction began in 1559, on the foundation of the Inca temple Kiswarkancha. However, the building was completed after nearly 100 years due to the frequent earthquakes and tremors that stroke the city. Underneath the cathedral, you can descend into a crypt that contains the ashes of several deceased archbishops.
The archaeological site Sacsayhuaman is located 10 minutes by car, in the northern part of the city. From up here, you can admire the stunning panorama of Cuzco with the llamas that freely walk around the Inca ruins.
Although evidence has been found that the area had been inhabited since 1100, the citadel was built by the Incas in the 13th century. The huge blocks of stone cut and perfectly combined were extracted from the surrounding quarries and transported for almost 20km to the complex. It is considered that over 20.000 people worked at the assembly, but it remains a mystery how the rocks that reached up to 5m height and a weight of 125to were brought from that distance by a civilization that archeologists have no evidence that they ever had discovered the wheel.
The Incas were very religious people, and the water had a major role in many significant ceremonies. Tambomachay (known as El Bano del Inca), was used for ceremonial purposes or as a relaxation area for the ruler of the empire. The complex consists of an area of 3 terraces made of trapezoidal stones perfectly combined. It is built around a natural spring, which creates small waterfalls and channels where the water flows under different patterns.
Located at the top of a hill (15 minutes by car from Cuzco) Quenqo is a unique Inca site, carved inside a monolith. The underground tunnels and chambers connect a few altars, including an amphitheater where blood rituals were held for the Sun, Moon, and the Stars. The temple was considered to be an extremely holy place, where human sacrifices were offered to the gods.
Sun temple (Qorikancha) and Santo Domingo Convent
Qorikancha was one of the most important sanctuaries of the Inca Empire. The outer walls of the temple were plated with gold, and those insides were decorated with precious stones and metals.
When conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived, he captured the Inca Emperor Atahualpa. To pay the ransom for his release, much of the gold from the temple was stripped, but despite the payment, Atahualpa was killed anyway. After taking Cuzco, the Spanish melt down all its gold plating and sculptures to send back to Spain. Like most of the Inca buildings, the complex was destroyed and a catholic church was built over the existing foundation.
Authentic wool manufacturing
From Cuzco to Aguas Caliente, all the way through Sacred Valley you will find traditional textiles that promise to be made of llama or alpaca wool. However, many times locals are just trying to sell their goods, and real wool clothing may be harder than you expect to find.
Tips & Tricks
Because we visited Cuzco with an organized group, at the end of the tour we stopped at Vicunita Factory, a local alpaca, baby alpaca, llama, and vicunia wool manufacturing factory. Here we were taught by a specialist how to distinguish an original fabric from a synthetic one, and even see on our own the differences between them. Although the selection of knitwear provided by the factory or other similar stores is not very cheap, it is impossible to leave Peru without a genuine accessory, whether it is a coat, sweater or scarf.