Legend tells that in the 12th century, the sun god Inti looked down on the earth and de- cided that the people needed organizing, so he created the first Inca, Manco Cápac, and his sister-wife, Mama Ocllo. They came to life on Isla del Sol (Sun Island), way over in Lake Titicaca, with a long walk ahead of them. Inti gave Manco Cápac a golden rod and told him to settle in the spot where he could plunge it into the ground until it disappeared: this would be the navel of the earth (qosq’o in the Quechua language). And so Cuzco got its name. Locals can point out the place where the rod allegedly went in – it’s on a hill over- looking the bus terminal.
When Manco discovered the place, he quickly subdued the natives and founded the city that was to become the center of one of the Americas’ greatest empires. And people have been here ever since: Cuzco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America, and the continent’s undisputed archaeological capital.
Despite its wealth of ruins, museums and churches, Cuzco is aptly described by the belly- button analogy: a bit dirty and daunting some- times, but engagingly, un-self-consciously bursting with life. It’s a place that inspires strong feelings. There’s a lot of mystical talk in Cuzco, about energy lines and cosmic con- fluences, and even the most hardened skeptics notice a certain something about the place.
Most South American cities have a merry,
hectic street energy; in Cuzco it’s overwhelm- ing. Walk through the Plaza de Armas and you’ll see people hawking massages, finger puppets, paintings, CDs and tattoos – it’s not for the fainthearted. This is one of the most relentlessly tourism-dominated towns on the face of the earth, and unless you make the ef- fort to get a few blocks (that’s all it takes) away from the madness of the Plaza, you may find yourself feeling like a walking ATM.
That’s about the only downside. Despite a tidal wave of tourism and massive immigra- tion from the provinces over the last couple of decades, and the years of terrorism before that, Cuzco is a relatively safe place with decent infra- structure and a lovable population of dauntless entrepreneurs ranging from singing shoeshine boys to flamboyant nightclub magnates.
Hushed museums and churches. Animal organs on skewers and high-art haute cuisine. Sex, drugs and rock and roll spill out from colonial palaces decked out as nightclubs into cobbled streets built for llama traffic. History forces itself on your attention at every corner. Cuzco is a diverse, gritty, greedy, irresistibly vital madhouse. However long you plan to spend here, it won’t be enough.
The Inca empire’s main expansion occurred in the hundred years prior to the arrival of the conquistadors in 1532. When the Spanish reached Cuzco, they began keeping chroni- cles, including Inca history as related by the Incas themselves. The most famous of these accounts was The Royal Commentaries of the Incas, written by Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of an Inca princess and a Spanish military captain.
The ninth inca (king), Pachacutec, gave the empire its first bloody taste of conquest. Until his time, the Incas had dominated only a modest area close to Cuzco, though they fre- quently skirmished with other highland tribes. One such tribe was the Chanka, whose grow- ing thirst for expansion led them to Cuzco’s doorstep in 1438.
Pachacutec’s father, Viracocha Inca, fled in the belief that his small empire was lost. But Pachacutec refused to give up the fight. With the help of some of the older generals, he rallied the Inca army and in a desperate final battle – in which, legend claims, the very boul- ders transformed themselves into warriors to fight alongside the Incas – he famously man- aged to vanquish the Chanka. The victorious younger Pachacutec proclaimed himself inca and, buoyed by his victory, embarked upon the first wave of expansion that would create the Inca empire. During the next 25 years, he bagged much of the central Andes, includ- ing the region between the two great lakes of Titicaca and Junín.
Pachacutec also proved himself a sophis- ticated urban developer, devising Cuzco’s famous puma shape and diverting rivers to cross the city. He also built fine buildings, including the famous Qorikancha temple and a palace on a corner of what is now the Plaza de Armas.
The center of the city is the Plaza de Armas, while traffic-choked Av El Sol nearby is the main business thoroughfare. Walking just a few blocks north or east of the plaza will lead you onto steep, twisting cobblestone streets, little changed for centuries, where multifamily homes built around cobbled courtyards house much of Cuzco’s working population. The flatter areas to the south and west are the commercial center.
The alley heading away from the northwest side of the Plaza de Armas is Procuradores (Tax Collectors), nicknamed ‘Gringo Alley’ for its huddle of backpacker-focused restau- rants, tour agents and other services. Watch out for predatory touts. Beside the hulking cathedral, on the Plaza de Armas, narrow Calle Triunfo leads steeply uphill toward Plaza San Blas, the heart of Cuzco’s eclectic, artistic barrio (neighborhood).
Recently the city has seen a resurgence of indigenous pride, and many streets have been signposted with new Quechua names, although they are still commonly referred to by their Spanish names. The most prominent example is Calle Triunfo, which is signposted as Sunturwasi.
Most travelers take a taxi into the city from the airport, bus terminals, or train station – or avail themselves of the free pickup offered by many guesthouses. For public transportation options around the city, see p256.
Many guesthouses, cafes and pubs have book exchanges. The best source of historical and archaeological information about the city and the surrounding area is the pocket-sized Exploring Cuzco by Peter Frost.
Bookstore Kiosk (Mantas 113; h9am-2pm & 4-9pm Mon-Sat) Novels and magazines in English and German. Located just inside the door of Centro Comercial. Jerusalén (%23-5428; Heladeros 143; h10am-2pm
& 4pm-8pm Mon-Sat) Cuzco’s most extensive public book exchange (two used books, or one plus S8, will get you one book) plus used guidebooks, new titles and music CDs for sale. SBS Bookshop (%24-8106; Av El Sol 781A; h9am- 9pm Mon-Sat) Small, but specializes in foreign-language books, especially in English.
South American Explorers Club (SAE; %24-5484; www.saexplorers.org; Atocsaycuchi 670; h9:30am-5pm Mon-Fri, to 1pm Sat) Cuzco’s biggest book exchange; also
sells foreign-language guidebooks and maps.
South American Explorers Club (%24-5484; www
.s aexplorers.org; Atocsaycuchi 670; h9:30am-5pm Mon- Fri, to 1pm Sat) SAE’s Cuzco clubhouse has good-quality
maps, books and brochures for sale, a huge stock of travel information and recommendations, wi-fi access, a book exchange and rooms for rent. Weekly events and limited volunteer information are available to nonmembers. (See p86 for more on the SAE’s many services.)
Embassies & Consulates
Most foreign embassies and consulates are located in Lima (p517). The following are honorary consul representatives in Cuzco: Belgium (%25-1278)
Policía de Turismo (PolTur, Tourist Police; %23-5123; Plaza Túpac Amaru s/n; h24hr) If you have something stolen, you’ll need to see these guys to get an official police report for insurance claims.
Oficina de migraciónes (immigration office; %22- 2741; www.digemin.com.pe; Av El Sol 612;
h8am-4:30pm Mon-Fri) Will renew your tourist visa for a cost of US$1 per day. Best to do this before your time runs out, but still possible a few days after. You also need to
come here if you lose your Tarjeta Andina (tourist card) – be
prepared for a lot of red tape.
Internet cafes are found on almost every street corner. Many hotels and cafes offer free wireless.
Andean Travel Web (www.andeantravelweb.com) More than 1000 pages of information and recommendations. Diario del Cusco (www.diariodelcusco.com, in Spanish) Online edition of the local newspaper.
Municipalidad del Cusco (www.municusco.gob.pe, in Spanish) The city’s official website.
Lavanderías (laundries) will wash, dry and fold your clothes from around S3 per kg. They’re everywhere, but cluster just off the Plaza de Armas on Suecia, Procuradores and Plateros, and on Carmen Bajo in San Blas. The further you get from the Plaza de Armas, the cheaper they get.
If you’re going trekking for a few days or even just on an overnight excursion, any hostel will store your bags for free. Always get a receipt, and lock your bags. The bags should have identifying tags showing your name and the drop-off and expected pickup dates. For soft- sided bags, we recommend placing them in- side a larger plastic bag and sealing them shut with tape. Then sign your name across the seal, so that you can tell if your bag has been opened while you were away. It’s best to keep all valuables (eg passport, credit cards, money) on your person. Trekkers are required to carry their passport with them on the Inca Trail.
Pharmacies abound along Av El Sol. Cuzco’s medical facilities are limited; head to Lima for serious procedures.
Clinica Pardo (%24-0997; Av de la Cultura 710; h24hr) Well equipped and expensive – perfect if you‘re covered by travel insurance.
Clínica Paredes (%22-5265; Lechugal 405; h24hr) Consultations S60.
Hospital Regional (%23-9792, emergencies 22-3691; Av de la Cultura s/n; h24hr) Public and free, but wait times can be long and good care is not guaranteed.
ATMs abound in and around the Plaza de Armas, and are also available at the airport, Huanchaq train station and the bus terminal. All accept Visa, most accept MasterCard, and many will even allow you to withdraw from a foreign debit account. There are several big bank branches on Av El Sol; go inside for cash advances above daily ATM limits. Casas