The Incas designed their capital in the shape of a puma, with the head at the north end, at Sacsayhuamán (whose zigzagged walls are said to have represented the animal’s teeth). This is pretty difficult to appreciate today; even though much of the original layout of the city remains, it has been engulfed by growth. Still, most of Cusco can be seen easily on foot, and walking is certainly the best way to take in this historic mountain city that is equal parts Inca capital, post-Conquest colonial city, and modern tourist magnet. For outlying attractions, such as the handful of Inca ruins that lie just beyond the center of town, taxis or tour buses are the best option.
The old center of the city is organized around the stunning and busy Plaza de Armas, the focal point of life in Cusco. The streets that radiate out from the square—Plateros, Mantas, Loreto, Triunfo, Procuradores, and others—are loaded with travel agencies, shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels. The major avenue leading from the plaza southeast to the modern section of the city is Avenida El Sol, where most banks are located. The district of San Blas is perhaps Cusco’s most picturesque barrio; the labyrinthine neighborhood spills onto cobblestone streets off Cuesta San Blas, which leads to crooked alleys and streets and viewing points high above the city.
Much of what interests most visitors is within easy walking distance of the Plaza de Armas. The major Inca ruins are within walking distance for energetic sorts who enjoy a good uphill hike.
Neighborhoods in Brief
The only neighborhoods most visitors are likely to see are the Centro Histórico (radiating outward from the Plaza de Armas), home to most restaurants, hotels, bars, and tourist services, as well as the main historic sights; artsy Barrio de San Blas, which climbs into the hills just north from the Plaza de Armas, stretching to the Sacsayhuamán ruins overlooking the city and home to many boutique hotels, restaurants, art galleries, and shops; and modern Cusco, the extension of the city along Avenida de la Cultura and Avenida El Sol on the way to the airport, which is the location of a few hotels, banks, and offices.
Hang a Right at Donkey Lips
Cusco is littered with difficult-to-pronounce, wildly spelled street names that date to Inca times. In the bohemian neighborhood of San Blas, though, they’re particularly colorful. Here’s a primer of atmospheric street names and their literal meanings:
Atoqsayk’uchi -- Where the fox got tired
Tandapata -- Place of taking turns
Asnoqchutun -- Donkey lips
Siete Diablitos -- Seven little devils
Siete Angelitos -- Seven little angels
Usphacalle -- Place of sterility/place of ashes
Saqracalle -- Where the demons dwell
Pumaphaqcha -- Puma’s tail
Cajonpata -- Place shaped like a box
Rayanpata -- Place of myrtle flowers
P’asñapakana -- Where the young women are hidden
P’aqlachapata -- Place of bald men
Cusco = Cuzco = Q’osqo
Spanish and English spellings derived from the Quechua language are a little haphazard in Cusco, especially because there has been a linguistic movement to try to recuperate and value indigenous culture. Thus, you might see Inca written as Inka; Cusco as Cuzco, Qosqo, or Q’osqo; Qoricancha as Coricancha or Koricancha; Huanchaq as Huanchac or Wanchac; Sacsayhuamán as Sacsaywaman; and Q’enko as Qenko, Kenko, or Qenqo. You’re likely to stumble across others, with similar alphabetical prestidigitation, all used interchangeably.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.