Once the 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.
Take the Train
Belmond is the world’s leading operator of luxury trains. In Peru, the Belmond Hiram Bingham shuttles travelers between Cusco and Machu Picchu. 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 35 cabins, plus two dining cars, an observation car, a library, a piano bar and a spa car.
Dealing with the Altitude
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. But 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 and in the Sacred Valley.
The Golden Temple
In Cusco, the Coricancha (Qorikancha), 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.