The must-see city of Cusco

Travel Destinations — By on December 11, 2008 at 5:18 pm

Is Cusco, Peru, a must-see destination? Simon Calder thinks so, and he explains why in this story for the U.K. Independent.

When asked the same question: where is the essential stop on a 21st-century Grand Tour? I surprised myself by answering without a second thought, “Cusco”.

Marketing folk expend much time dreaming up slogans for destinations. So far, though, none has matched the claim of the Peruvian city; one that should, I reckon, be on the schedule of every global grand tourist: “navel of the universe”. This was how the most remarkable civilisation in the Americas defined its mother city. The Inca empire straddled the Andes, extending at its height from present-day Chile to Colombia. And Cusco was at its heart.

Within a few decades of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, the Inca emperors had been overthrown with dreadful cruelty. But the capital they created endures as a tribute to a people who compensated for what we would see as technological shortcomings (no wheels, no writing, no horses) with ingenuity, imagination and collective effort.

Talking of effort, Cusco will make you gasp, literally. Most people arrive by air from Peru’s capital, Lima. When catapulted from sea level to 11,000 feet in an hour, humans struggle to cope.

The gods chose a curious position for their navel. Cusco is draped beautifully, though awkwardly, over a hillside, about halfway to heaven. Its shape resembles a puma, a beast held by the Incas to be sacred. The head, in the north, comprises the ancient Inca ceremonial site of Sachsayhuaman; a kind of Machu Picchu for beginners, if you like. This vast complex comes alive each midsummer at the solstice celebration. But at any time of year, the site provides a breathtaking introduction to the scale and intricacy of Inca masonry.

Once you have got your cosmic bearings and done some navel-gazing from the hilltop, stumble down into the heart of the puma. The Spanish-built Plaza de Armas remains one of the most magnificent city squares in the Americas.

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