CUSCO: The Inca Capital
Cusco is a city in southeastern Peru, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range. Is located in the Southern highlands of Peru, at 3,400 meters (11,150 ft.) above sea level.. In 2007, the city had a population of 358,935 which was triple the figure of 20 years ago. Located on the eastern end of the Knot of Cuzco, its elevation is around 3,400 m (11,200 ft).
Cusco was the site of the historic capital of the Inca Empire and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1983 by UNESCO. It is a major tourist destination and receives almost 2 million visitors a year. It is designated as the Historical Capital of Peru by the Constitution of Peru.
Climate: It is sunny and warm during the day but cold at night, with a main temperature of 15°C (59°F); nevertheless, the temperature drops at night in winter (June to September), sometimes, below 0°C (32°F). The rainy season is from November to March, however, it usually rains couple of hours during the day.
Surroundings: Cusco city is surrounded by mountains and valleys. One of the best places to go outside of the city is the Urubamba Valley, known as the "Incas Sacred Valley", there are snow-capped mountains, eucalyptus tree forests and corn fields beside the river. A succession of picturesque towns with colonial churches, agriculture terraces and many archaeological sites show up along the road. The main spots are Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Maras and Chincheros.
History: Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire which extended through the west coast and highlands of the South American continent. Cusco and its surroundings were the first settlement of the Incas on the early 13th century. From that moment, the Inca people developed a kingdom and later an Empire by conquests and wars, but also by agreements with other kingdoms in the Southern highlands (Lake Titicaca region), west coast, and Northern coast and highlands. Finally, in the early 16th century, it was a big Empire, but the arrival of the Spaniards and the later conquest of the Incas by the Spanish Crown, stopped their expansion.
In 1533, the Spaniards arrived to Cusco and founded their own city destroying big part of the Inca city. They destroyed the palaces and temples of the Incas to build on top their churches and mansions. In the colonial times, Cusco was a very prosperous city due to the agriculture, the mining and commerce. The artisans of Cusco became famous due to their paintings and wood-carvings. Nowadays, their art can be seen in museums and churches in Cusco, as the Cathedral, San Blas Church and the Archbishop's Palace.
There are many archaeological sites that can be visited in the city and its surroundings, as the Urubamba valley (a.k.a. "Incas Sacred Valley"). The main one in the city is the "Koricancha" (Golden temple), it was the most important temple at the Incas times. Unfortunately, it was partially destroyed by the Spaniards to build a church and a monastery on top, but many chambers, rooms and walls remain. Other sites close to the city are Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo and Tambomachay. The most interesting is the first one, it looks like a fortress with three large walls of huge stones of 9 meters (30 ft.) height and 350 tons weight. It was built on the top of a hill that over-looks the city, with a zigzag shape to worship the lightning god.
Other places are Pisac and Ollantaytambo in the Urubamba Valley or the "Incas Sacred Valley". The first one is a temple built on top of a mountain. You can get there hiking (one hour uphill) or by car. There are the remains of a temple with impressive stone walls. In Ollantaytambo there is another huge temple built on the slope of a mountain.
Festivities: In Cusco there are many feasts due to the catholic devotion of its people and its history. One of the most important is the “Inti Raymi” on June 24th. This festivity is an Inca ritual to worship the sun, the main god of the Incas. Another important celebration is the “Qollur riti” on late may, where the pilgrims climb a snow-capped mountain with huge blocks of ice on their backs as penitence. The feast of Virgen del Carmen (July 15th - 17th) is another catholic festivity celebrated in Paucartambo town with a procession accompanied by many musical ensembles and masked dancers.
Adventure: The most famous trek in Peru and South America is the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which has three alternatives. The longest one takes 7 days and 6 nights, it's very hard and high. The most popular is the one of 4 days and 3 nights, in this one you pass through many Inca ruins and see different kinds of sceneries (Andean and tropical landscapes). Finally, the shortest one is only 2 days and 1 night, it's a good option for the people who are short of time or don't want to hike for days nor camp. All three end at Machu Picchu.
You can do whitewater rafting in Cusco too. You have two options, there is the Urubamba river for one day tours. This river is easy to access from Cusco and it has rapids class II and III (a safe but fun ride). If you are looking for something wilder, you can do an excursion to the Apurimac canyon.
It takes 4 days, the river is further from Cusco and there are rapids class III, IV and even V, this is advice only for people with experience.