Often referred to as the “navel of the world” — although a half dozen other ancient locales claim that distinction, too — Cusco, Peru was the center of the Incan universe for centuries. Designed in the shape of a puma, this sacred city of the Andes (elevation: 11,152 feet) is a layered walk through history, as the Spanish conquistadors left an indelible imprint, too. This is also reflected in the exciting dining scene, a mix of indigenous Quechua traditions (“cuy,” or roasted guinea pig) and trends from the emerging hot Peruvian culinary scene.
What We Love
Incan Lore and Legends: The Plaza de Armas, the city's central square, was once the central gathering space for the Incan empire. Today the space is ringed by colonial structures, including two churches (the city’s oldest, El Triunfo, which dates to 1536, and the Church of Jesus Maria, constructed in 1733), an imposing cathedral, and ancient Incan walls. Nearby are the ruins of the once elaborately gilded Incan temple of Qorikancha. All that remain today are stones that form the base of the colonial-era church and convent of Santo Domingo.
Spanish Art: Completed in 1654 using blocks hauled from the nearby Incan fortress of Sacsayhuamán, Cusco Cathedral in Plaza de Armas houses a vast trove of colonial-era paintings, including a number of vibrant works from the “Cusco school.”
Best Known For
The Hiram Bingham: This luxury train, named for the British archaeologist who uncovered Machu Picchu in 1911, departs daily from Cusco on a journey to the famous aforementioned Incan citadel.
Sacsayhuamán: Only the largest rocks — one weighs even more than 300 tons — remain at this impressive Incan fortress located just outside of Cusco. Pronunciation tip: It's similar to “sexy woman.”
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Who It's Best For
Adventurous History Buffs: The uneven, cobblestoned streets and high elevation make Cusco a good match for fans of ancient history who are fit enough to walk around and explore.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
Mind the Altitude: Cusco’s elevation of 11,152 feet can cause dizziness, headache, upset stomach, and other symptoms of altitude sickness. Avoid overexertion and drinking too much alcohol.
Donna Heiderstadt is a New York-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has also written for Coastal Living and Islands.