Once the imperial capital of the Incas, Cusco is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere, and it possesses a charming combination of Inca and Spanish colonial cultures. The surrounding hills look down on a harmonious array of sienna-colored buildings grouped around a series of plazas, including the Plaza de Armas (or Huacaypata), once the ceremonial center of the Inca empire. Nearby, the Plaza de las Nazarenas is, amazingly, the location of three hotels that we enthusiastically endorse. Cusco’s historic district remains a popular place for processions, especially during Easter Week and Corpus Christi.
Belmond is the world’s leading operator of luxury trains. In Peru, the Belmond Hiram Bingham shuttles travelers between Cusco and Machu Picchu. The evocative train consists of two dining cars, a bar car and a sumptuously appointed blue-and-gold observation carriage seating up to 84 passengers. The Belmond Andean Explorer offers one- and two-night journeys from Cusco, first to Puno on Lake Titicaca and then to the city of Arequipa. The train has 24 cabins, plus two dining cars, an observation car, a library, a cocktail lounge, a piano bar and spa car.
The Joys of Cusco
Many people will urge you to head straight to Machu Picchu (altitude 7,970 feet) from Lima, the primary reason being the former’s altitude, which makes the subsequent transition to Cusco (11,200 feet) somewhat easier. I’m not so sure. Providing that you take the first day or so in Cusco at an easy pace, the Inca sites in and around the city promote a much deeper understanding of the riches that await at Machu Picchu.
The Golden Temple
In Cusco, the Coricancha, or “Golden Temple,” is contained within the massive baroque Convento Santo Domingo. Before the Spanish conquest, it was the Temple of the Sun, the epicenter of the Inca empire, served by around 4,000 priests. At the summer solstice, a solid gold sun disc reflected light onto a throne where only the Inca emperor was entitled to sit.
We had a delightful meal at star chef Gastón Acurio’s stylish Chicha (Plaza Regocijo 261, Tel.  84-24-0520), set in a charming old colonial house. The menu is a blend of the contemporary and the classic, and we began with a trio of empanadas stuffed with beef and potatoes, spicy olluco (a local potato-like tuber), and stuffed rocoto pepper. We followed with pork adobo, thick slices of boneless pork in a delicious broth seasoned with chiles and peppers.
A Citadel on the Outskirts
Sacsayhuaman is a citadel on the northern outskirts of Cusco. The fortress stands at an elevation of 12,142 feet overlooking the city and was believed to be constructed in the 15th century. It was built of enormous irregular blocks of andesite, some of which weigh up to 200 tons. These were fitted together without mortar, and 600 years and numerous earthquakes later it is still impossible to slide a sheet of paper between the stones.
The Heart of Cusco
The heart of Cusco is the grand Plaza de Armas, formerly the Huacaypata, or “place of tears.” Each territory conquered by the Incas had some of its soil taken to the Huacaypata to be symbolically mingled with the earth there. Today the square is dominated by a massive early 17th-century baroque cathedral.