Thursday, 28 June 2012 1:09 PM
Cusco is one of Peru's must-visit cities, as it's bursting with historical sites dating from the time of the Incas and the period of colonial rule. There's a lot to see in this fascinating destination, but here are a few places not to miss.
There are numerous Inca sites dotted in and around the city, although you'll find many of the temples and palaces that used to stand in the centre of Cusco were demolished and replaced by colonial buildings following the Spanish conquest. Visiting some of these is an excellent way to get you in the mood for your Inca trail hike.
You can still see some of the impressive Koricancha Temple, though, as the foundation walls are clearly visible underneath the Convent of Santo Domingo. The cloister of the church was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1950, but this resulted in a large section of it being removed to expose the remains of four of the temple's original chambers.
To see more complete remains from the Inca civilisation, you need to travel just outside Cusco, where forts and shrines still stand. Around 2 km from the city is Sacsayhuaman, an imposing fortress designed to protect Cusco from invading eastern tribes. Although the fort was used by the Spanish as a source of building materials, some of its giant walls made from huge granite blocks can still be seen running along the edge of three terraces. These are up to 5 m high in places and some sections stretch for around 300 m.
The shrines of Qenqo and Tambomachay are two other sites you should travel to, with the former situated on a hilltop around 4 km from Cusco. The ruins here include a semi-circular amphitheatre, steps, walls and tunnels leading to natural underground chambers. You can also see zigzags and images of animals like llamas carved on the walls, with many archaeologists believing the site was used for religious rituals. In Tambomachay, meanwhile, you can see a series of remarkably well-preserved terraces and walls featuring channels and fountains that flow into baths. Water from a high mountain spring still feeds into the series of aqueducts, giving you a real insight into what it would have been like to see it centuries ago.
Of course, the Spanish conquest of the region in the 16th century dramatically changed the architecture of Cusco and some of the best examples of colonial-era buildings are said to be located in the Peruvian city. One of the most impressive is the cathedral, which took 100 years to build.
The exterior is of Baroque design and is equally amazing in the day or night, when it is illuminated by numerous spotlights. It is not until you step inside, however, that you will truly appreciate its beauty. The walls are decorated by religious artworks, with one of the most famous being Marcos Zapata's interpretation of the Last Supper.
The altar is made of solid silver, while one of its towers houses the Maria Angola Bell, which is the largest in South America. On either side, the cathedral is flanked by buildings equally worthy of your attention – Iglesia del Triunfo and Iglesia de Jesus Maria. The former was the first Christian place of worship to be constructed in Cusco, while the latter was built at around the same time as the cathedral.
A final colonial site worth exploring is the Convento y Templo de La Merced – which is commonly referred to simply as La Merced. Originally constructed in 1536, it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 17th century and rebuilt in 1680. Two of the most famous conquistadors – Diego de Almagro and Gonzalo Pizarro – are buried in its crypt, while the church houses several gold artefacts and valuable pieces of religious art.