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Visit Cusco

History and Culture Cusco

Rich in history, Cusco is most often associated with the Inca people, but it was in fact occupied by the Killke tribe before the Incas got there around the turn of the 13th Century. The Killke people constructed the Sacsayhuaman walled fortress just outside Cusco and when the Incas arrived they developed it, adding temples and an aqueduct system.


Under the Incas Cusco could be said to have had its glory days. It was the capital of the Inca empire and it was referred to as the "Home of the Gods". It is said the ancient city was laid out in the shape of a puma. It was divided up into quarters, each of which corresponded with a particular quarter of the empire at that time. Each leader of a particular part had to spend part of the year in Cusco in his section, so that throughout the year, one leader was always present in the city. Upon the death of a leader, his son would inherit his title, but his family would inherit the land that he controlled, meaning that he would have to build a new home and continue to add land to the empire.

Much myth and legend surrounds the exact origins of the city of Cusco, making it hard at times to give complete, certain and verified account of it. Supposedly the city was built by Sapa Inca Pachacuti who reconstructed and transformed it into the a city that would be worthy of the glory that would later surround it, but there is also a lot of archaeological evidence pointing towards the development of the city long before Pachacuti's time. It was the great grandchildren of Pachacuti, Huscar and Atahuallpa, that were centuries later to become locked in conflict with each other over bitter internal power struggles, making Spanish occupation when they arrived around this time all the easier.

Francisco Pizarro

Atahuallpa captured Cusco from his brother in 1532 and just nineteen months later it was in the hands of the Spanish. Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1934 and renamed the city "Very nobel and great city of Cusco". Under the reign of the Spaniards, many of the Inca constructions were destroyed, but some did survive, and provided the base for the eclectic mix of Spanish and Inca style architecture that is on display in Cusco today. In 1536 the Incas retook the city in a siege that lasted ten months, but which ultimately failed due to a lack of troops to hold off the Spanish. Throughout the period of colonization, many of the Inca people fell victim to the small pox disease and their numbers declined greatly.

Cusco became the cultural centre of the New World and the focus of the spread of christianity. It was a prosperous city with the mansions of the Spanish conquistadors popping up, the mining and agricultural trades flourishing and commerce with Spain booming. The Spanish followed the lines of the Inca streets and built on to their buildings, which they had built on top of Killke structures. In 1650 an earthquake struck the city and there was widespread structural damage, however, most of the Inca constructions withstood it.

Following the Peruvian War of Independence Peru finally declared independence from Spain in 1821. Cusco remained an important centre of Machu Picchu administration and continued to grow and spread its territory. In 1911 Hiram Bingham, the American academic and explorer, used Cusco as a base for his expedition that discovered the ancient city of Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is an Inca site around 50 miles northwest of Cusco, believed to have been built for the Inca Emperor Pachacuti, and that was once the home of Paddington bear (possibly not true, but we like to think so. Andean bears have been known to be spotted on the southwestern slope of the site). It is well hidden within the Peruvian mountains, stands at 2430 metres above sea level and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, many of whom choose to reach it via the Inca Trail, a roughly 40 kilometre long walk through the Peruvian mountains that partly consists of original Inca pathways. Many of these trips leave from Cusco every day. In 1983 Machu Picchu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2007 it was declared one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World.

Nowadays, Cusco balances its rich cultural heritage perfectly with the bohemian atmosphere brought by the many backpackers that set up a temporary home here in order to trek to Machu Picchu, learn the Spanish language and absorb the Peruvian atmosphere in this lively and charismatic city.