“As we used to say in the mountains, "Breathe. Breathe again. With every breath, you are alive." After all these years, this is still the best advice I can give you: Savor your existence. Live every moment. Do not waste a breath.”―Nando Parrado, Miracle in the Andes
IT'S ONLY RIGHT that a city so steeped in mythology should be stationed so high in the world. Cusco is a mighty 11,200 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes. One of the beautiful things about arriving here is the gentle pause that your body needs to take to adjust to the altitude. A day spent resting, sipping coca tea and relaxing means that you’ll be totally present and ready to enjoy the richness of this vibrant city. What’s more, you’ll have the joy of your first twilight in Cusco to get you in the mood—take a seat and enjoy the luminous glow of pink and lilac clouds in the sky.
Colour is everything here, from the cascading red-tiled roofs in Cusco to the green and gold of its surrounding mountains and vast blue skies. Whitewashed walls line the narrow cobbled streets in the picturesque Barrio de San Blas artists’ quarter, beckoning adventure. The question is, what kind of adventure are you looking for?
For those seeking history, this ancient city is without rival. Cusco was part of the Incan Empire (dating back to the 13th century) before being invaded by the Spanish in 1533. Accordingly, you’ll see ancient stonework alongside Baroque Renaissance architecture—sometimes both in the same place. Among the city’s most popular sights is the famous Incan Stone of Twelve Angles, which is a part of a wall at the palace of the Archbishop of Cusco.
Everywhere, wild nature looms large. It’s a true thrill to see classical, formal Baroque buildings, such as Cusco Cathedral in the main square, surrounded by great rugged mountains. And Plaza de Armas is just a few blocks away from Belmond Hotel Monasterio, itself a protected historic site, and its storied sister hotel, Belmond Palacio Nazarenas.
Simple pleasures are easily found in this hospitable city. Cusco is teeming with great little cafés, like the hip ice-cream parlour Qucharitas, and the popular Sepia Club Café. The coffee here is supremely good, since Peru is the fifth largest producer of Arabica beans. Cacao is grown here in abundance, too; try your hand at making your own chocolate at Choco Museo
If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path insight into the city, visit Planetarium Cusco, hidden in the hills behind towering fortress Sacsayhuaman. Astronomy was an essential part of Incan agriculture, so Cusco was constructed in such a way that it would point to specific stars. On a clear night here you'll see constellations galore or maybe even a passing space-station. All you have to do is take it all in.
The Belmond Hiram Bingham was named for the American explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911. It is a singularly beautiful way to traverse the Sacred Valley and set foot on the ancient site. You’ll be transported, in every sense. Staying at Belmond Hotel Monasterio or Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, you’ll board the train’s vintage-style carriages in the morning for a hearty brunch en route. After a guided tour around the sacred site, you'll return to the city, doubtless wide-eyed and enchanted.
Cusco, then, in one word? Breathtaking.
Three sides of Cusco
Three sides of Cusco
Barrio de San Blas
Climb the narrow cobbled streets and get a unique insight into Peruvian art in this pretty, creative district.
San Pedro market
It can feel like the whole city has come to buy and sell at Cusco's huge market. Come and join the colourful crowd.
Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus
This splendid Baroque church was built by the Jesuits with the intention of exceeding the magnificence of the cathedral next door.