While Lima was a very modern city, Cusco is the historical capital of the Incan Empire. Containing many ruins of ancient Incan architecture and the subsequent Spanish colonial architecture, it is the gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.
Within the city you’ll notice much of the Spanish colonial architecture is built literally atop foundations laid by the Incas. The original architecture was torn down by the conquerors in favor of modern colonial style that would demonstrate the shift in power, but the foundations were so strong and well made that they still stand and require very little maintenance. You can note the original architecture because the stones fit so closely without any mortar, which is part of what makes the Inca history so renowned.
We spent two days in Cusco. The first day we took one of the free city walking tours that leaves from the Plaza de Armas in the center of downtown. We were walked through the city while the guide proliferated on both the history of Cusco but also the modern neighborhoods, including where to find the best art (San Blas neighborhood), the best deals on food (down the alley to the left of the Cusco Cathedral, just keep going until you almost reach the fort), the best deals on souvenirs, and at the end we got to make ceviche and enjoy pisco sours from a great bar overlooking the city and on the way to the Cristo Blanco statue.
The tour did not formally walk us up to the Cristo Blanco (White Christ) overlooking the city, but the guide was able to point us in the correct direction and from the Cristo Blanco we could look over into the ruins on the neighboring hill for free! Be warned, while the view from the top is nice, it’s not a particularly scenic hike and there are lotssss of stairs! It’s a good warm up for the hiking to come in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, for a quick gauge on your altitude tolerance.
FYI: altitude sickness is a real thing! I recommend seeing a travel doctor before you go to get a prescription either for acetazolamide to prevent altitude sickness, or for steroids in the event you develop symptoms while you’re there. Cusco is literally almost 3 miles above sea level! I also recommend spending at least 2 days in Cusco because you will want to acclimate before you try the more serious hikes in the Sacred Valley or Machu Picchu. Last practical advice, because of the altitude, there is also ridiculous sun exposure even when it’s cloudy, so sunscreen is a MUST! Jonathan got a really bad sunburn on his leg (not as bad as it looks in the photo, but really bad!)
On our 2nd day in Cusco we focused on the religious buildings/museums, including the Qorikancha, the Cusco Cathedral, the Church of the Society of Jesus, Convents of San Francisco and Santa Catalina.
Qorikancha was originally the Sun Temple for the Inca people, ie, the religious, political, and cultural center of the region. When the area was colonized by Spain, the Dominicans took over the Sun Temple, building a monastery on the foundation of the Sun Temple. Today this monastery is a beautiful building with a wide, sun-filled courtyard, wings of art including depictions from the temple of Venus and the stars, the temple of thunder and lightning, and the temple of the rainbow. There are also adjoining solar botanical gardens. It’s a truly wonderful place to spend an afternoon. (We had our own little adaptation of the rainbow too! hahaha)