Things to See & Do in Cusco
Santo Domingo Church & Koricancha / Qoricancha (Inca Temple of the Sun).
Plazoleta Santo Domingo, Cusco. Admission S/.10 Open 8.30am-5.30pm Mon-Sat, 2-5pm Sun
Santo Domingo was built in the 17th century on the walls of the Koricancha Temple of the Sun. The uninspiring Baroque decoration of Santo Domingo makes a poor contrast to the superbly crafted Inca masonry - in fact much of the cloister has been gutted to reveal four of the original chambers of the great Inca Temple. The finest Inca stonework in existence today is the curved wall beneath the west end of the Church.
In Inca times the walls of the Koricancha were lined with 700 solid-gold sheets weighing two kilos a piece. There were life-size gold and silver replicas of corn, golden llamas, figurines and jars. All that remains today is the stonework; the conquistadors took the rest - unfortunately all the exquisite treasures ended up being melted down; nothing survived. However the fist conquistadors to arrive did not remove the holiest religious symbol of the empire, the golden sun disc, though they reported its existence. This solid gold disc, far larger than a man, mysteriously vanished before the main party of Spaniards arrived. It has never been found to the present day. The disc was positioned to catch the morning sun and throw its rays into the gold-lined temple, filling it with radiant light and bathing the mummies of the dead Inca rulers in sunshine which were seated in niches along the walls.
The entire temple complex was also an intricate celestial observatory. Every summer solstice, the sun's rays shine directly into a niche - the tabernacle - in which only the Inca was permitted to sit. Along with the main temple dedicated to the Sun, there were others for the adoration of lesser deities - the Moon, Venus, Thunder and Lightning, and the Rainbow.
Avenida El Sol is the main commercial street in Cusco. It's name literally translates at The Sun Avenue and runs from the Plaza de Armas at its north-west end for about 8 blocks south-east to the large indoor handicraft market Centro Artesanal Cusco. This street is not so much a tourist attraction in itself but it is a modern street with many useful amenities such as banks, post office, money exchange houses, a few pharmacies, camera shops, hotels, restaurants and, of course, a few handicraft shops thrown in for good measure. Being the main commercial street it is always busy with plenty of traffic constantly tooting their horns. Its easy to cross though and feels safe enough although extra caution should be taken when withdrawing money from the ATMs (as in any country). Banco de Credito also has ATMs inside which are safer to use. You have the option to withdraw cash in either US dollars or Peruvian Soles.
Iglesia de la Merced (La Merced Church)
Calle Mantas 121, one block from the Plaza de Armas. Entrance fee S/.10 Open 8am-noon & 2-5pm Mon-Sat. The cloister is open 8-11am.
La Merced was originally built in 1534 by the religious Order of Mercedarians. On 01 August 1218 the Blessed Virgin appeared to the French Saint Peter Nolasco. She desired the establishment of the Mercedarian religious order (derives from the Spanish word for mercy - merced) Its members would seek to free Christian captives and offer themselves, if necessary, as an exchange. The complete name of this order is The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Ransom of Captives. The Order was founded in 1235 and later approved by Pope Gregory IX under the name of Our Lady of Mercy. A feast day was instituted and observed on September 24th. The church was almost completely destroyed in the 1650 earthquake and rebuilt by indigenous stonemasons in the late 17th century. Inside the church are buried the conquistadors Gonzalo Pizarro, half-brother of Francisco, the two Almagros, father and son. Their tombs were discovered in 1946.
La Merced rivals the cathedral in riches and has particularly beautiful cloisters (innner courtyards). On the far side of the first cloister is a small museum of religious art where you can find an excellent collection of oil paintings among them a painting of the Holy Family attributed to Rubens. There are also several intriguing and somewhat bizarre examples amongst the collection, one of the Virgin Mary inviting Saint Peter Nolasco and baby Jesus to share her milk (painted by the indigenous painter Ignacio Chacon), another painting showing a decapitated San Laureano, spouting blood, holding his own head being helped by two lovely archangels.
Kept securely behind thick steel bars (and only just visible) is the priceless solid gold monstance (a vessel used to hold the communion Host). It is 1.2m high, weighs 22kg and is encrusted with diamonds and other precious stones. Two huge pearls are used to form the body of a mermaid.
Plaza Regocijo is the little square just one block from the Plaza de Armas. Its quieter and much less touristy than the main Plaza de Armas and a nice place to spend a while relaxing and sitting on one of the park benches.
At the southern corner of Plaza Regocijo (corner of Calle Garcilaso & Heladeros) you will find the Museo Historico Regional (Regional History Museum). Entry is free with the Boleto Turistico. This museum was once the home of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, one of Peru's most famous and eloquent writers. The museum houses an eclectic collection of items from Cusco's history chronologically arranged but often poorly labelled. Artefacts include some Nazca mummies, gold ornaments, plenty of ceramics, photos of Cusco just after a major earthquake in 1950, Inca weavings and some paintings from the Cusco School. Although all very interesting I would recommend visiting museums such as the Museo Inka, Museo de Arte Pre-colombino & Museo Machu Picchu first. You may have had enough off museums before you get this far - however entrance is included with the Cusco Tourist Ticket so may be worth a quick visit.
Plaza San Francisco
From Plaza Regocigo walk one block up Calle Garcilaso to Plaza San Francisco, a wide open square with Iglesia San Francisco dominating the far corner. The plaza itself is not particularly attractive and more of a place to pass through on the way to visiting San Pedro Market. There is also plenty of parking for the larger tour buses which aren't allowed into the centre of town or around the Plaza de Armas, so many tours start or finish from Plaza San Francisco. Most of the buses returning from the train stations of Poroy & Ollantaytambo after visiting Machu Picchu drop their passengers off here. The plaza is also frequently used for street entertainment, food festivals and events such as concerts.
Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco (San Francisco Church & Convent)
Museum open 9am-midday & 3-5.45pm Mon-Fri, 9am-midday Sat. admission S/.5
Church 6.30-8am & 5.30-7.30pm Mon-Sat, 6.30-midday & 5-8pm Sun admission free
This church, built in 1572, has three naves and built in the shape of a cross. It is one of only a few churches in Cusco to survive the 1650 earthquake.
The museum houses an enormous painting measuring 12 x 9 meters painted by Juan Espinoza de los Monteros showing the family tree of St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the order. The painting is said to be the largest in South America. Also of interest are two macabre crypts piled high with human bones.
San Pedro Market
San Pedro Market is a must see for visitors to Cusco. It's mainly a local market selling everything from fruit & veg, meat, flowers, herbs and traditional medicines, bread, flowers and clothing as well as stands to buy freshly made fruit juices and local dishes. There is also a handicraft section for tourists selling all the usual stuff such as alpaca sweaters, blankets, textiles, bags at prices much cheaper than nearer the Plaza de Armas. Please remember that this is a real market and not a tourist attraction as such so try to be respectful to the locals and ask before taking photos. There are pickpockets about so be extra careful with your belongings and best to leave your valuables such as passports and credit cards in your hotel safe.
The traditional medicines section is particularly interesting combining stalls selling local herbs, medicinal plants and flowers with shamanic stalls selling the San Pedro cactus and a whole variety of strange items and love potions that borders on witchcraft!
Many people may wish to avoid the meat section as the meat sold here doesn't come nicely packaged like in your supermarket back home. Instead you'll see plenty of animal carcasses hanging up some with their heads still on, cuts of meat being prepared by axe-wielding stall-holders and a variety of different animal body parts including sheep heads, cows jaws, chicken feet, pigs trotters, tongues, hoofs, tripe, and even a bucket of live frogs. Nothing goes to waste here. Maybe not a good idea to go just before lunch.
San Cristobal Church
The San Cristobal district lies on a hillside to the north west of the Plaza de Armas. San Cristobal is full of steep narrow cobbled streets and alleyways with a few hotels but the district lacks the charm of neighbouring San Blas and apart from the great views below of the city of Cusco and the Plaza de Armas there is very little for visitors to do.
It's quite a steep 20 minute walk up from the Plaza de Armas (follow Calle Suecia and then Resbalosa) so, unless you are fit and have acclimatized to the high altitude, it's probably best to take a taxi there (S/.6) and walk back down to the Plaza.
If you decide to continue on to the Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman you will see a large sign pointing the way. It's another 20 minute walk up a well-made path to get to Sacsayhuaman (better to take a taxi or bus to Sacsayhuaman and walk back down hill - save your energy for the discotheques)
Iglesia de San Cristobal (San Cristobal Church)
Admission S/.10 or free with Religious Site Ticket
This church is thought to have been built on the site of the Qollqampata palace which belonged to Manco Capac, the first Inca. The church was built in the early years of the Spanish conquest by Inca Tupaq Yupanqui Paulla to show his devotion to his new Christian faith.
This little church was renovated in 2012. It's pleasant with some nice paintings but nothing special. The highlight is climbing the bell tower which offer great views of the Plaza de Armas.
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