In 1200 A.D., Cusco (known as the "navel of the world") served as the epicenter of the Inca Empire and anchored a vast political and military network that extended to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile. After Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro seized the city in 1533, the Spanish established a new fortress, utilizing the Incan foundations. Today, the city showcases a rich infusion of Inca and Spanish heritage.
Cusco's culture is best seen during its lively outdoor festivals, when thousands of revelers gather to celebrate fiestas like the Festival of the Sun and to dance to pre-Columbian music. In terms of religion, approximately 80 percent of Cusco's population is Roman Catholic; however, a variety of other religions are practiced. Catholic saint days, Andean ceremonies, and Incan festivities are observed throughout the year.
The dress code here is generally casual. Pack plenty of waterproof clothing and sturdy hiking shoes, and don't forget warm layers as the high altitude ushers in cooler temperatures at night. Also, Cusco's streets are cobbled, so you'll want to bring comfortable walking shoes for exploring the city by day and participating in the lively night scene after dark. Also, as you're wandering Cusco, remember to keep your wits about you. Petty thieves frequent Main Square, and pick-pocketing happens to unsuspecting tourists.
The official language of Peru is Spanish, but you'll hear a mingling of Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua (the official language of the Inca Empire). Cusco Quechua is its own distinct dialect, which varies greatly from Quechua spoken in other regions in Peru. English-speakers can be hard to find, so come prepared with a basic book of key Spanish phrases and plenty of patience.
Cusco, the majestic capital of the ancient Inca Empire, draws throngs of tourists every year. But the narrow streets—punctuated by opulent temples and grand cathedrals—offer only a faint glimpse into the city's storied past. In its nearly 900-year history, Cusco withstood the rise and fall of Incas. And when the Spanish conquistadors invaded the capital in 1533, Cusco reinvented itself as a flourishing Spanish city built on the Inca's foundations. Remnants of both eras now share the city streets: Centuries-old baroque churches rub shoulders with crumbling blocks of exquisite stone masonry, and colonial mansions display exquisite Pre-Columbian artifacts. It's this rare collision of Andean and Spanish style that has kept the city so captivating for travelers.
Cusco no longer dwells in the shadow of Lima, Peru's capital city. Having experienced a boom in tourism over the last few decades, Cusco now acts as the primary stepping-stone to South America's greatest spectacle: Machu Picchu. For hundreds of years, the fabled "lost city of the Incas" remained undisturbed by humans. Then, in the early 20th century, American explorer Hiram Bingham came across Machu Picchu's fabled ruins, unveiling one of the most impressive architectural feats of the ancient world. Today, thousands make the pilgrimage from Cusco and the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. But before making your expedition to the breathtaking ruins, take some time to admire the splendors found right in Cusco proper. Gaze up at the glimmering Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun), shop for authentic textiles, or simply sample some scrumptious Andean cuisine. It only takes a day to be charmed by this significant Peruvian city and all its wonders.