The history of Cusco goes back a couple of thousand years even before the Inca Civilization exhisted. However, it really was developed into a lively capital city with the rise of the Incan Empire. Around the year 1250 AD, Manco Capac founded Cusco as the capital city of the Incan Empire. During this time the Incan Empire was very strong and growing, covering a large area of South America at it's peak. During the Incan Empire's most prosperous years, every aspect of the culture was advanced far beyond it's time; construction methods and architecture of the ancient cities, development of new textiles and agricultural methods, the social organization of the community, advanced science and astronomy, deep religious beliefs, etc... The Spanish invasion of the city happened in the 1530's, which was eventually the fall of power of the Incan Empire. However, Cusco remained a central and important part of the development. The Spanish brought new ideas of religion and construction, which you can see incorporated in the city of Cusco today. Much of the stone work on the buildings in Cusco was done by the Incan culture, but you will notice a destinct line in most buildings where the construction style changes. The bottom half of many buildings were constructed by the Incans, and later the buildings were restored or completed with a very evident Spanish influence. Cusco continues to be very cultural influenced city today. It is evident that craftmanship, art, construction, preservation of the culture, and community development are still important to the people.
There are of course an endless number of other places to visit in and around the city, but I won't go into such detail about this. Some of the most famous places are Koricanchi, Monasterio, Sacsayhuaman, and many other historical cathedrals, plazas, and museums. The historical sights really only begin within the city, as the entire Andes region around Cusco is full of Incan history. You will find worship grounds, ancient cities, temples, agricultural terraces, burial grounds, fortresses, and a number of other sites all located within the vicinity. Machu Picchu is definitely the most well known, accessible, and probably most significant of these sights; however, other cities just as massive have been uncovered in the region as well.
On the second day, Julio and I got up early to head out on an adventure into the Sacred Valley. We had hoped to be able to rent a car, but as none were available, we rented a taxi driver to take us for the day. Surprisingly this is actually quite a bit cheaper than renting your own car anyways. We headed out of the city with a brief stop at Sacsayhuaman (Ancient Incan Ceremonial Grounds - famous for Inti Raymi Festival), then continued through the Urubamba river valley onto the city of Pisaq - one hour away. We enjoyed a nice lunch in Pisaq and walked through the local market before heading up to the ruins. The ancient construction of Pisaq is a site above the city within the mountains. The city is gaining more popularity as a tourist destination as it is a large city with 3 seperate and distinct parts connected by Incan Trails. We walked through the first site which is largely used for agriculture and some housing complexes, then continued along the trail to the main religious center where the temple and worship sites are constructed. The worship grounds are always constructed with the utmost skill and perfection - the massive rocks are cut and carved to interconnect perfectly and form skillfull designs and construction. The citadel is really very similar to Machu Picchu in the way it is constructed and the significance of each building. The trail then continues on to the final stop of the city - the community. The granite stone buildings were constructed to house the majority of the people in the city and provide a central point for community activities and work. After the somewhat strenous hike back - I was ready to head back home. (Either I am really out of shape, or the altitude was getting to me. I am not sure how the Incan people ran up and down these trails, stairs, and cliffs every day!)
On the third day, we finally were able to rent a car! I don't think Julio has ever been so happy as he was driving the car through the Sacred Valley. The reality is Julio has never had a car and therefore loves to drive every chance that he has! I must admit it was pretty fun to just have the freedom to go where we wanted, drive on the open, and stop in little villages along the way. It definitely provides a more intimate experience and time to really enjoy. After a couple of merely scenic stops, we eventually reached our first destination - Maras. Outside of this little, untouched by the modern world, city, are two famous incan sites. Moray is a natural circular indentation in the ground formed by the different sediments in the region. The Incans constructed perfect circular rings into the ground in this region and used it test crops - it was an important agricultural development. The second destination was the nearby Salineras - salt mines. This salt mines were first harvested by the Incans, but continue to grow and are active salt mines today. It is a massive system of pools set up along the mountain side where the salt is collected.
After enjoying the two stops, we continued on our way and happened to come accross a local festival taking place in one of the villages. We of course decided to stop and enjoy the fun! It was a comunity festival with games for the kids, lots of food and drink stands, a stage set up for a beauty contest, music, and native dance performances. It was fun to stop and take part in the festivities - I even got to eat some cotton candy - who would have thought!
Our final destination of the day was Ollantaytambo. This fortress was built by the Incan's in a strategic point along the river valley blocking access to Machu Picchu. The massive construction above the Urubamba River gave them both a lookout point and an advantage over anyone trying to cross. The fortress if most famous for a battle with the Spanish army led by Pizarro. The Incan's defeated the Spanish from this point and in that moment kept the Spanish from continuing to conquer the region.
The trip to Cusco was definitely fun, and different for me this time. I got to get off of the traditional tourist path and explore some of the lesser known regions. It was a full and productive weekend - definitely a nice a get away for Julio and I. I would sure love it if we could do this every weekend!