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Cusco History

At more than 3,000 years old, Cusco is one of the oldest cities in South America. As the Inca civilisation developed in the 13th century, it became the centre of an Empire, which in the 15th and 16th centuries would expand to include much of western South America.

Inca builders originally laid out the city in the form of a puma: the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, which pre-dates the Incas, was the head; the plaza of Huacaypata the belly, and the Huatanay and Tullumayo rivers acted as the tail. Its ancient plaza was the core of the Four Regions of the Inca Empire, which stretched from Quito in Ecuador to northern Chile. That was until the Spanish arrived under Francisco Pizarro in 1533.

Today, most tourists use Cusco as a base for seeking out the extraordinary ruins of Machu Picchu. But the Inca structures that once stood in the heart of modern-day Cusco would have been easily as impressive. Pizarro himself wrote to King Charles V to say the city would look “remarkable even in Spain”, before laying waste to it. Many of the grand colonial churches and houses built in their place used the foundations of the Inca buildings, and their remnants in Cusco are impossible to ignore.

After stripping Cusco of its riches, the Spanish focussed on Lima as the capital of Peru in 1535. But in 1780, the forgotten city witnessed one of the most important revolts against colonial rule in the Americas. Tupac Amaru II’s uprising of native and meztiso peasants was defeated by the Spanish in Cusco and he was killed after being forced to watch the execution of his family. This was a vital precursor to 1821’s declaration of independence from Spain.

It wasn’t until 1911, when explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Pichu (guided by local farmer Melchor Arteaga), that Cusco finally returned as one of the greatest cities in South America. The income from tourism has seen it develop rapidly in recent decades, with the city’s baroque architecture and Inca history making it a remarkable destination in its own right.

Did you know?
• The Incas were able to take fresh fish from Chala (near Arequipa) to Machu Picchu within 24 hours, thanks to relay messengers known as chaski. These couriers would sprint along the Inca trails between refreshment stations known as tambos. Upon reaching a station, they would then pass on the fish, and the process was repeated until they reached Machu Picchu.
• Although Hiram Bingham told the wider world about Machu Pichu, it’s thought that it had previously been ‘discovered’ by Thomas Payne, a British missionary.
• Once a year, during the June solstice, the sun is at the right angle to shine a beam of light through a window of the Sun Temple at Machu Picchu. Some believe it used to shine upon a statue of Pachacutec that has long been removed.

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Inkaterra La Casona

Cusco's first luxury boutique hotel is located in what is probably Cusco's first Spanish construction. The colonial courtyard is surrounded by 11 sumptuous suites furnished with antiques and all mod cons imaginable. Brilliantly located for the arty San Blas district and Plaza de Armas, Inkaterra La Casona is a quiet oasis of serenity with an eco conscience.

Palacio del Inka

Just moments from the Plaza de Armas, the Palacio del Inka combines utmost luxury with an Incan and Spanish twist. Expect framed dark ochre (a nod to Andean spirits), gold and burgundy furnishings that reflect the conquistador influence and original artworks. There are 203 wonderfully fitted rooms to choose from and all boast handcrafted furniture, huge beds and historical décor, along with fast internet, LED TVs and big bathtubs. The Inti Raymi Restaurant downstairs plates up remarkable Peruvian fine dining and there is a tranquil spa onsite as well.

Hotel Monasterio

Located two blocks from the Plaza de Armas, this is the best hotel in Cusco. A sensitive conversion of the 16th-century Seminary of San Antonio Abad, this former monastery has retained its original infrastructure and colonial décor but is now a 5-star international hotel boasting a gilded chapel, superb fine dining and oxygen-enriched air in every room. The therapy suite is also ideal for those returning from a long Machu Picchu trek.

Hotel Costa del Sol Picoaga

Formerly the colonial home of the17th-century Spanish noble, the Marqués de Picoaga, this top-end hotel in Cusco close to the heart of the city makes the most of its handsome colonnaded courtyard, beautiful stone columns and elegant archways. Service is excellent and the hotel has its own bar and high-quality restaurant.

Mama Simona

Quite frankly the coolest hostel in town, Mama Simona (named after one of the mountains in the Scared Valley range) is a clean, kitschy hostel that offers private rooms and dormitories. With varnished wooden floors, comfy beds and artworks adorning the cream walls, those that stay here could quite as easily be bedding down in a New York apartment. Free Wi-Fi and a decent breakfast buffet come as standard with the odd live music night providing the ideal opportunity to make friends too.

Hostal Suecia II

This friendly, budget Cusco hotel option is set in a colonial-style building located two blocks from the Plaza de Armas. Its 16 rooms are set around an attractive interior courtyard and are basic but spacious, clean and comfortable. A safe, sociable, economical option, this hostel has a family atmosphere and is particularly popular with backpackers, especially as Wi-Fi is now available. Ask for a room away from the street. No breakfast.