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Cusco – The Mystical City of the Incas

Cusco – The Mystical City of the Incas
on August, 11 2015

Cusco, the capital of the Peruvian department that bears the same name is home to more than 300,000 people. Tourism is one of the major sources of income for the city. It is Peru's main attraction and draws about 1.5 million visitors annually. Cusco is also one of South America's most visited cities.

Cusco (also known as Cuzco) is a majestic and ancient city located near the Andes Mountains, southeast of Peru. Cusco houses the only airport and train station in the region, turning the city into an essential highland hub for tourist and travelers wishing to visit the significant destinations of Peru, most notably Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. UNESCO declared Cusco as a World Heritage Site in 1983, becoming one of the world’s major tourist destinations with nearly 2 million visitors annually.

Cusco offers its visitors the region's traditional handicrafts and the occasional festivals give guests a taste of Peru’s rich and vibrant culture. Many of the ancient buildings in Cusco are attractions in their own right. Its intricate Incan stonework melding with classic Spanish architecture provide visitors a glimpse of Cusco’s intriguing past.


Cusco was inhabited by the Killke people sometime around 900-1200 before the Incas arrived in the 13th century. It then became the capital of the Inca Empire. Later in 1533, the city of Cusco was invaded by the Spaniards. Francisco Pizzaro, a Spanish conquistador and conqueror of the Inca Empire, arrived on November 15, 1533. He was astounded by the beauty of the city and the delicacy of its excellent stonework. But what really caught his attention was the great temple dedicated to the Sun, with its gleaming golden plates. The Spanish however, destroyed many of the Inca temples and palaces, leaving only the walls to serve as a base for their new edifices. This created the unique mixture of Spanish and Incan architecture we see today. The Spaniards constructed many churches, cathedrals and a university.

In 1536, Manco Inca Yapanqui, a leader of the Sapa Inca, started the Siege of Cusco and retook the city from the Spaniards. The siege lasted ten months but in the end, it proved unsuccessful.

Cusco then became the center for Spanish colonization in the Andes. Along with the spread of Christianity throughout the region, prosperity also ensued through agriculture, mining and cattle raising, along with its trade with Spain.

On May 21, 1950, Cusco was hit with a major earthquake, resulting in substantial damage to the colonial-era buildings particularly The Dominican Priory and Church of Santo Domingo. Surprisingly, the Incan architecture withstood the earthquake. Some of the granite retaining walls of the Qurikancha (Temple of the Sun) where the Church of Santo Domingo stood were exposed during the massive earthquake. During its restoration, workers exposed more parts of the ancient Inca masonry without compromising the architecture of the colonial heritage.

Today, many of the ancient buildings still exist, some are even over nine centuries old. The intricate art of the Incas in their stonework can still be seen in many of the structures, plazas and streets. Even the locals have deep ties with the past as you would often see them walking down the street in traditional clothing.


Tourists flock Cusco’s streets during the festivities of IntiRaymi, the celebration of the winter solstice and the power of the sun god. Held annually on June 24, this pre-Colombian festival are attended by thousands of Peruvians and travelers from all over the world to witness the pageants and parades. The highlight of the festival happens in the ruins of Sacsayhuamán, where Incan priests conduct sacrifices and prayers for good fortune. IntiRaymi is celebrated today not only in Peru but also in Bolivia, Ecuador and other places where Incan descendants have migrated.

One of the notable places in Cusco is Plaza de Armas, where most tourists would spend their evenings enjoying the local delicacies like roasted guinea pig (cuy) and charbroiled llamas (alpaca) while looking out on to the plaza and the cathedral. Plaza de Armas is also known to house the city’s best discotheques.


The language of the Incas is Quechua and among the Amerindian languages, it is the most widely spoken. Together with Spanish, Quechua is an official language in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. According to Ethnologue, there are still more than 8 million people who speak the language, with about 25 million in Peru alone. It is also said that almost one third of the speakers of Quechua do not speak Spanish. Quechua is a language that is mainly spoken in the Andes Region.

Due to the absence of magazines, newspapers and books, Quechua remains a spoken language, just like Aymara, which hinders the spread and teaching of the language.

Currently, the major obstacle to the diffusion of the usage and teaching of Quechua is the lack of written material in the Quechua language, namely books, newspapers, software, magazines, etc. Thus, Quechua, along with Aymara and the minor indigenous languages, remains essentially a spoken language. The form of Quechua that is spoken in Cusco is the most popular form of the language.

Despite this, Quechua influenced the syntax of the Spanish language and Spanish influenced Quechua's lexicon. There are also words in English of Quechua origin, such as vicuña, quinoa, quinine, quipu (an ancient Peruvian counting machine), puma, pampa, llama, lima (as in beans), lagniappe, jerky, Inca, guanaco, gaucho, guano, condor and coca.

Quechua also influenced Peruvian Spanish, with many words finding their way into the Peruvian Spanish lexicon, such as:

Papa                            potato

Cuy                             guinea pig

Viscacha                    a type of rodent

Yum                            a Peruvian delicacy

Choclo                       corn cob

Tocos                         a dish of fermented potatoes

Pachamanca              earth oven

Chompa                     sweater

Chullu                        knitted cap

Cushma                      shirt

China                          young woman

Calato                         naked

Chacra                        farm

Caucho                       rubber

Quena                         flute

Did you know?

  • The city of Cusco is built upon layers of civilizations from the Killke, to the Inca and to the Spanish colonizers.
  • The city was retaken from the Spanish during the Siege of Cusco, although the Incas were only able to hold the city for only a few days.
  • The indigenous name of the city is Qusqo. The word is derived from "qusquwanka" or "rock of the owl."
  • Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador, launched three expeditions to conquer the Incan Empire in 1524 and then again in 1526, which both miserably failed. The governor of Panama made an effort to recall Pizarro but he refused. He planned a third expedition that finally succeeded in 1533.
  • The stone walls built by the Incas are so precise that it rivals the Egyptian Pyramids. They fit so closely together that you cannot slide a piece of paper in between. What’s more impressive is that they built it without using mortar. These engineering wonders gave the Inca buildings strength to withstand massive earthquakes, which is a constant threat to Peru.
  • Each of Cusco’s emperors built their own palace. The mummy of the previous emperor was kept in his own palace.
  • To reach Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail, the Sacred Valley and the other historical sites, you must go through Cusco first.
  • Cusco is renowned for handicraft production, especially hand-woven textiles. Many Cusqueños still apply the ancient weaving techniques and still manage to produce some of the most exquisite textiles in South America.
  • Locals believe that Cusco is the bellybutton of the world.
  • There are three alternative routes to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco: The longest route takes eight days and seven nights, which is also said to be difficult and quite high. Another route, passing through various Inca ruins and also offers a view of the Andes and other tropical landscapes, takes 4 days and 3 nights. The last and the shortest route lasts 2 days and a night, which leads to a trail beside an amazing waterfall and a few ruins. All three routes brings you to the magnificent Machu Picchu citadel.
  • Inca people were one of the first people to develop a method of dry-freezing.
  • There are secret temples along the way to Machu Picchu. There’s also a hidden museum.
  • Yma Sumac was a famous soprano from Peru in the 1950s. Her name means "how beautiful" in Quechua.
  • The flag of Cusco has all the colors of the rainbow.
  • The holy Incan animals are the Puma, the Condor and the Snake.

If you are after discovering places where the old world meets the new one, try and visit Cusco, a city that is full of mystique and ancient history, vibrant not only with the bold colors of its woven textiles, but due to its people, its festivals and its wondrous architecture.

Day Translations Team

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