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Illiterate, ill-tempered, cruel and ruthless, Francisco Pizarro was considered one mean SOB even by the other Spanish conquistadores that he led up the misty slopes of the western Andes in 1532. Pizarro and his 180 soldiers were following tales of a city in the mountains, high in the clouds, where there would be gold beyond their wildest dreams. A city that was home to an empire that stretched from Colombia to Chile, from parts of Brazil to the Pacific. They were searching for the fabled city of Cusco.


Pizarro and his men found and captured the city, the great stone capital of the mighty Inca Empire. By then they had already overtaken the city of Cajamarca, where they captured, ransomed and executed Atahuallpa, the last of the Inca emperors, and without a leader, Cusco fell without a great struggle. Although Pizarro did not last very long—he was assassinated by his own men, hacked down in a Lima street in 1541—the city became part of the Kingdom of Spain.


The new lords of the city did what they could to erase all memories of the old Inca Empire. They built cathedrals on top of temples and moved into the homes of the ruling Inca class. But they soon found that they could not destroy the stone walls constructed over the centuries by Inca masons: they were far too strong and well-built. Even gunpowder could not knock them down.


That’s good news for the modern visitor to this fascinating city. You can walk down the streets of Cusco and still see mind-boggling Inca stonework, which shows no sign of aging even after more than 500 years of exposure. Some of the stones weigh several tons, and the most amazing part is that they are fitted together without any sort of mortar or concrete. Many of the old churches, colonial homes and convents show a distinct mixture of Inca and Spanish styles: Cusco is the best place in the world to see this combination.


There’s more to Cusco than old stone walls. The city is a modern mecca of tourism: if you’re going to visit, plan on spending at least a week. The can’t-miss site, of course, is nearby Machu Picchu, the lost mountain city of the Incas and one of the most impressive sites in all of South America. There are two ways to get there: by train or on foot, via the Inca Trail. Hiking the Inca Trail can take anywhere from one to four days, depending on where you get off the train from Cusco to Machu Picchu. The hike is grueling – Cusco lies at an altitude of 11,500 feet—but well worth it if you’re in good shape. The train can get you to the ruins and back the same day and leave a couple of hours in between for a visit.


The region around Cusco is known as the Sacred Valley, and includes several ruin sites including Sachsaywaman, Pisac and Ollantaytambo. The best way to visit these sites is to buy a special pass that will let you into all of them: any travel agency can sell you the pass. Hikes and ruins not your thing? Cusco has top-notch hotels, restaurants, good nightlife and some great shopping—silver jewelry, intricate paintings, hand-woven rugs and of course, the grape liquor, Pisco. The museums are excellent: some of the best ones are converted old convents and monasteries. You can visit the small towns around Cusco, and even take a hot-air balloon ride.


Pizarro and his men turned to dust centuries ago, and some of them are buried in this city in the clouds. Cusco is still a mythical city, drawing visitors from all over the world. They don’t come for gold and silver, however: they come for the wealth that comes from experiencing a magical city deep in the Peruvian Andes.

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