The Incan Capital of Cusco

By Raghbir "Raggy" Jin Part two of a six-part series: The Incan Empire in South America


Stepping into the historic downtown district of Cusco feels like stepping out of a time machine. Dogs pass as I walk through one car-less neighbourhood, stretching my arm out every now and again to brush the large stone walls left over from Incan times. Ladies in traditional Quechua clothing walk llamas over the cobblestone sidewalks, past open-air markets that give an equally powerful feeling of nostalgia.


Every year, the former Incan capital in Perú sees more than 1.5 million tourists who come in from all over the world to hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu or explore the ruins lying around the city's outskirts. According to the Tourism Observatory of Perú, 99 per cent of people who come to Cusco go to Machu Picchu. But all of the area's other activities have far lower participation rates.


Which is a shame. Few tourists take the time to see Cusco for the destination it is in itself. The continent's oldest continually-inhabited city, Cusco never lost an ounce of its mystic atmosphere anywhere along the way.


The city was originally built in the shape of a Puma, a sacred animal in Incan mythology, with the sanctuary of Saqsaywaman on the hill serving as the creature's head. The Incas referred to Cusco as the "Navel of the World," as it sat directly at the centre of their long, narrow empire.


It's a city of festivity, fun and nightlife for some; it's a city of history and architecture, of shopping and dining for others. And it's the main hub of the backpacking circuit in South America for good reason.


Fireworks explode overhead at random intervals, regardless of the time or day. Music is constantly audible from a fiesta in a nearby plaza. Every Sunday there seems to be a new reason to have a parade in the Plaza de Armas, the city's main square.


Surrounded by natural beauty, nature preserves and thousands of kilometres of hiking trails, it's the adventure-tourist's promised land. It's a short distance to white-water rafting and foot-safaris in the Amazon rainforest. Horseback tours ride up from town to the ruins of Saqsaywaman. An hour bus ride takes you to Perú's artisan capital of Pisaq for rock climbing or a hike up to the ancient salt-distilling tiers. Countless local travel agencies line the streets to offer their long list of other short-distance excursions.


But you don't have to go far to see the work of the Incas. The Temple of the Sun, Coricancha, is located only a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas. Before the arrival of the Spanish, the temple was the most important in the empire. The walls and floors were plated in gold and the temple was home to several sacred golden idols. The Spanish sacked and destroyed the temple, using the original foundation walls to build the church of Santo Domingo, but due to this contrast of building styles, the attraction and its underground museum endure as a must-see.


Similarly, the artisan neighbourhood of San Blas is a noteworthy example of where Spanish building styles and Incan infrastructure combine. In the Spanish colonial era, it's a place where common Spaniards and indigenous Cusqueñans lived peacefully alongside one another. This mix of building styles -- such as spanish colonial homes built up from native rock foundation walls -- is still clearly visible. Each street has its own unique set of buildings and style, and the peaceful atmosphere has attracted artists, artisans, musicians and travellers of all kinds who still live and work in harmony.


The walk to San Blas from Cusco's main plaza takes you right past the Incan walls containing the famous 12-angle Stone and the hidden puma. The 12-angle stone is a massive rock fit into the middle of the wall, carved with 12 different angles to fit the surrounding stones. It's one of the clearest examples anywhere of the Inca's sheer superiority in craftsmanship.


Around the corner and down the stairs from the 12-angle stone is a small strip of brightly-coloured markets, selling everything from jewelry and alpaca-wool sweaters to artwork and decorative souvenirs; from musical instruments to kitchenware. Markets such as this freckle the city, with different markets often containing sections devoted to specialty goods. Some contain rows of tailors, while others, such as the San Pedro market, are more devoted to fresh produce and meats.


The shopkeepers and vendors, clad in old-fashioned decorative outfits, are usually very attentive, but often speak little English aside from "hand-made," "won't break" and various numbers. A little Spanish goes a long way when bartering.


After a long day of exploring the ruins or shopping the markets, you can settle down to dinner or a pint with live music of any genre in one of Cusco's many quaint, back-road pubs. There's 80s and 90s pop rock at the Bullfrog, tribal beats at Km. 0, reggae at Mama Africa, punk and hard rock at 7 Angelitos; that's only to name a few.


For traditional Peruvian music, all you have to do is sit in any given restaurant on Calle Procurador just off the Plaza de Armas between 6 and 8 p.m. and the musicians come to you.


For those looking to try something different, several local clubs such as Zazú and Mythology offer free salsa and Peruvian dance lessons in the evenings. Clubs -- or "discos" -- fill up quickly any night of the week, and though not exclusive to Cusco, they're an integral part of Latin culture.


A trip to Cusco by plane requires an overnight layover in the Peruvian capital of Lima, as all international flights come in late at night while national flights depart in the morning. It's important to note that if you're going to try to find a hotel for the night during your layover, try to find a hotel or hostel in the foreigner-friendly district of Miraflores. And be aware that a 10 minute trip in a taxi in Perú should never cost $30.