The Oldest City in South America: Cusco, Peru
Cusco, Peru has a long and complex history as the oldest city in South America that has been continuously occupied. Founded as the naval of the Earth by the Incas (literal meaning of Qos’qo in the Inca language of Quechua), this great capital of the great Inca Empire shows its diverse history with every step you take or street turn you make. It is recognized as a World Heritage site and was also named the Historical Capital of Peru by the Peruvian Constitution.
The Architecture in Cusco, Peru
Today Cusco exudes the Spanish colonial style but at its foundation, literally in many cases, is the design of the great Incas. Many of the long standing structures from the Cathedral in the Plaza De Armas, to museums, and even common housing still show the foundation of previous Inca structures. The newer structures were built right on top of their Inca predecessors creating a collage of history throughout the city unlike anything I’ve experienced.
The design of the city and surrounding areas was created in the shaped of a Puma with the site of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced as ‘sexy woman’ in gringo) that looks down on the city making the shape of the animal’s head and the city center creating the body.
The cathedrals are some of the oldest and grandest in the area. I was impressed to tour the Cathedral in Plaza De Armas and see the intricate details of design, how everything was coated in gold or silver, and most of all the interpretation of Jesus. In Cusco, Jesus is depicted as black and wearing a skirt. The skirt comes from the local tradition of children wearing skirts while they are young and is an artist interpretation.
What it’s Like to Live in Cusco
I can’t imagine really experiencing the essence of Cusco in only a few days. Since this is the tourism capital of Peru, many tourists enter and exit the city every day, most only staying a few days on their way to visit Machu Picchu or the Sacred Valley. In such a short amount of time, you’ll surely see the main attractions but won’t have a chance to get a feel for the city, its various barrios (districts), cuisine, and intricate culture beyond the tourism flare.
I spent about a month in Cusco studying Spanish splitting my time between the San Pedro and San Blas barrios. San Blas was by far my favorite with its tight roads climbing the hillsides and eventually turning into grand staircases ascending to the best views in all of Cusco. It boasts an artisan culture and has a bit of a bohemian feel to it. This is definitely the areas of Cusco to stay in to get a balanced feel for the city but also stay in close proximity to the Plaza De Armas and all of the city’s attractions.
San Pedro is a more local area of town with one of the city’s best markets. There are many stalls selling alpaca goods from hats, scarves, and gloves to blankets, slippers, and sweaters. The best part of the market is the food. San Pedro Market is far more than a tourist market. It is perused by true locals who come to shop for groceries and to have meals.
My Favorite Part of Cusco, Peru
There are so many things to love about Cusco with its rich history, historic sites, and more it should be hard to narrow my favorite aspect down to one thing. However it’s not. I loved the people. Cusco is a city that has its modern touches but the local people that call the city home are friendly, endearing, and welcoming. Throughout the city you’ll see men and women in traditional Peruvian dress, which at first I thought was for the benefit of the tourists. There are locals who don the traditional attire carrying lambs or towing alpacas in the hopes of selling photos for a couple of soles but there are also the contrast. People who are going about their business in the market or streets as they always have. I love the authenticity.
When to Visit Cusco, Peru
Like with any other destination there will be trade offs you’ll have to make at different times of the year. The weather is nice from about April through October with little rain and lots of sun but you’ll also be met with the largest crowds of tourists at this time of year. From November to March its rainy season and while you’ll have less people to maneuver through at the sites, you’ll get soaked. I spent mid November through late December in Cusco and the further into December it got the more it rained. Its a daily event and can happen multiple times per day.