Cuzco, Peru: Capital of the Incan Empire

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In Cusco, 2008

In my previous post on traveling in South America, I spoke about traveling up to the amazing Machu Picchu ruins in 2008. However, to get to Machu Picchu you have to go to the old Incan capital of Cuzco. It’s only from Cuzco that you will be able to make your journey to Machu Picchu and many other amazing historical sites around the town.

Cuzco in itself is a treasure. It’s a real combination of two worlds and cultures that has co-existed and merged to what has defined the city today. Almost everyone in Peru has made a visit to Cuzco to experience the amazing heritage sites that once were home to the ruling kingdom of ancient South America.

How to get there

From Lima, you can either take a flight or you can go by bus. I chose to go by bus overnight, and it was a whole 18 hours’ drive. If you do go by bus, I’d suggest going over night. As you sleep, your body can better acclimatise to the high altitudes to reach the city.

Cuzco is the highest city on Earth and stands about 3,500 above sea level. The views on your way up are pretty amazing too!

The city

I went in July during winter, or the dry season. It’s really hot in the day and freezing at night, with temperature dropping below 0° degrees.

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Cuzco was interesting, since the colonialization of the Spanish, Cuzco looks much different from what it originally did. The original buildings, its foundations and ancient sites can still be seen around and in between the modern architecture and urbanisation of red tiled roofs and white washed walls inspired by the Spanish. The city is an amazing paradox of colonial and pre-Colombian influence. The coolest thing is that all you can see for miles around are snow-capped mountain tops to remind how high above the world you are!

The old ruins in Cuzco stood in decorated splendour and grandiose, but the invasion of the colonials had many of those temples and buildings demolished and the gold decorations stolen.

For example, the Santa Domingo cathedral is actually built on top the very important and sacred Incan Temple of The Sun, also known as Tawantinsuyu (pictured below). the Spanish colonies rudely built their new church on top of the temple and stole the artifacts and gold inside. You can still the see the Incan temple and chambers inside and below the church, with very few original artifacts still left inside. The temple is considered the centre of the 4 provinces of the Incan Empire.


Cuzco has many western restaurants to cater for the multitude of tourists it receives daily. Many people living there mainly work in tourism so they speak English too. You will usually find public signs in 3 languages: Quechua (the original Incan language), Spanish and English. The famous Plaza del Armas is the centre and there are bars and restaurants all around.

Exploring and altitude sickness

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Exploring the surrounding ruins in Cusco…with my trendy trucker cap (2008)

Once I was up there I felt fine and luckily I didn’t experience any altitude sickness. However, exploring the ruins on the outskirts took us higher and higher from the town. Some people got very ill, and had to stay in the buses and cars and could not see the sites. The ancient Incas and locals chew on cocoa leaves which grow plentiful around there. As a back-up, especially if you taking a flight, you can get cocoa leaves or medication while you are in Lima to try and avoid this. Truth be told, there’s technically no quick cure for altitude sickness, it’s just something you need to take time to acclimatise to.

After hours of going further and further up on foot, I also felt a bit nauseous. After the tours, you will descend down back into the city. The first thing I got was dinner, a great way to get the blood flowing back down to the body. That evening before I went to bed, I noticed my eyes were very bloodshot due to blood rush to the head from the altitude.

What was Cuzco?

Cuzco was the first established capital city of the Incan empire of the Andes in South Cusco_MapAmerica. They were the largest tribe to expand their kingdom around the western coasts and highlands of the continent. They had  a strong military force with advanced government, economic and administration systems to govern their subjects and lands. Cuzco was considered the city of the sun, as it was high up and in a perfect position for the royalty to live. The Incas had their own language called Quechua which is still spoken by the Peruvians up in the countryside and in the highlands. Those pretty fabrics and prints can all be attributed to the old weavings and craftsmanship of the Incas.

Cuzco was the economic heart of the empire, if a village was not doing well they could come up to the capital and live there while learning the trades of the day such as farming, weaving etc until they could find new lands and prosper under the rule of the empire.

Inti Raymi

I went specifically during June for the annual Festival of the Sun called Inti Raymi. This festival is to celebrate the legend of the Sun God who had wed his sons to the world/human beings. The festival also commemorates the winter solstice and Incan New Year. It is celebrated all over Western South America along the Andes. There is another similar festival for the summer solstice.

Almost everyone in Cuzco is involved in this celebration and dress up in costume. The festival takes place near a sacred mound, Sacsayhuamán, by the ruins next to the city.

Travel tips

  • There are so many amazing ancient ruins and sites. Exploring Cusco to its fullest will at least take a week.
  • If you go between during Winter (May-October) bring warm clothing. It gets really cold in the afternoon at about 4 pm already. Always pack a warm jacket.
  • You need to book in advance for a ticket into the main ceremony at the festival of Inti Raymi. Prices go up closer to the time and it differs according to proximity. Otherwise you can see the opening ceremony and procession at the main Plaza del Armas for free. Go early, it gets packed.
  • Don’t skip meals up there, it’s another sure way of preventing altitude sickness and ensures blood flow to the rest of your body.
  • Llamas are nothing but cute sheep/goats. Don’t be afraid of them.
  • It is possible to book hikes and ours on arrival in Cusco. There are thousands of agencies.
  • Carry lots of change. Taking cute photos of dressed up locals usually requires a tip…..but that’s up to you.

15 thoughts on “Cuzco, Peru: Capital of the Incan Empire

  1. Thanks for the informative post. Great idea to mention altitude sickness, something I never would have thought about otherwise. Looks like you had a great trip and I appreciate the way you emmersed yourself in the culture.

  2. I’ve been wanting to visit here for quite some time! I’m so glad I read this article first. Thanks for taking the time to break down all the details, so helpful!

  3. Your photos remind me of Quito in Ecuador, which I visited a few years ago. I suffered from altitude sickness – we stayed in the same hotel twice (I was on a tour) – at the beginning of the trip, and then again at the end. All was well until the second visit. I woke up in the morning and my head was spinning/stomach churning … I thought I’d got food poisoning and was panicking as I had a transatlantic flight that day. Turns out we were on a higher floor in the hotel – when we went down to the ground floor the symptoms started to go. It was so strange! I was fine so long as I stayed on the ground floor!

  4. Cuzco looks wonderful, and I wonder whether I’ll ever get the chance to see it in person! The sun festival must have been incredible, I think it’s great that tradition is still so strong there. Good tips about carrying change to give the locals, and bringing warm clothing, I hate being cold!

  5. I’m going to Peru next month & to Cuzco as well! Can’t wait! Hope I won’t get sick… I heard about the cocoa leaves, maybe I’ll try 😉 Also I didn’t know it gets that cold at night and that early in the afternoon..

  6. Cuzco is a place I’ve heard so many good things about. I’ve traveled all over Peru but never to Cuzco or Machu Picchu. There are some good tips here such as carrying small tips for photographing kids and preparing for cold weather late afternoon/ nighttime. You took some wonderful pictures of Cuzco and its sites,

  7. Cuzco looks interesting because of its altitude and spainish influence. Inti Raymi festival celebrations looks colorful and must prefer to visit this place during festival time. You have given detailed guide on Cuzco about what to do which is great. Thanks for sharing!

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