City of Cuzco

Cusco CathedralVisited: Jun. 2013

Site Type: Cultural

Inscribed: 1983

Background and Opinion

Cuzco, was one of the two most important cities in the Americas prior to the Spanish conquest, the other being Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital). It was the center of the empire of the Inka, a word meaning ‘king.’

What people think of as the “Inca Empire” (also misspelled) was actually a multicultural state of dozens, if not hundreds of different ethnicities. The ruling people are called ‘Quechua,’ one of the many things I learned while visiting Machu Picchu. They are also more than one ethnic group, but are tied together by the use of the same language (also called ‘Quechua’). Needless to say, the Spanish conquistadors were not too interested in a history lesson when they came in pillaging and thrashing about.

Cusco Center Panoramic

First Impressions

When my friend Sarah first pitched the idea of going to see Machu Picchu, I got to work right away doing research and seeing what else there was to do. Much to my surprise and excitement, there was no choice but to pass through Cuzco! One of my basic “to do” things when researching is to see the UNESCO World Heritage List map, and sure enough, Cuzco was included.

Sacsayhuaman Cuzco

A Bit of a Letdown

Let me start by saying that I did enjoy Cuzco and that I wish I had a lot more time in the region. For an archaeology buff like myself, the whole Cuzco region deserves a good month to explore all of the 16-20 major ruins. However, the inclusion of the CITY as a WHS is very misleading.

For starters, besides the town center and Sacsayhuaman, there is very little INSIDE the city limits. If you look at Trip Advisor’s top 10, Cusco cathedral, plaza de armas, and Cusco center are the exact same thing (all pictured below). Furthermore, the suggestions of Pisac, Choquequirao, Tipon, Inka Trail, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham train (which is almost $1000 round trip btw) are all outside of the city.

A close up of the plaza de Armas (town square) in Cusco
A close up of the plaza de Armas (town square) in Cusco

Misused Time

What I think should deserve WHS status are the other Incan sites in the entire region. From Cuzco to Ollantaytambo, there are ruins upon ruins that aren’t even mentioned as part of this site! Unfortunately, I didn’t do my research thoroughly enough and moved on before really sinking my teeth into places like Pisac or Choquequirao.

The golden statue of Tupac Amaru II, a hero and leader of the Incan resistance.
The golden statue of Tupac Amaru II, a hero and leader of the Incan resistance.

Final thoughts

Cuzco is one of those cities that I feel was added to the UNESCO list without any proper research or consideration for the bigger picture. While the city is historically important, what remains is a single ruin and a city the Spaniards built on top of the capital of a once glorious empire.

Alpacas in Sacsayhuaman - Cusco
Alpacas in Sacsayhuaman

Evaluation:

Completeness and Originality (3 out of 15): “With the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the urban structure of the Inca imperial city of Cuzco was preserved…” I am not civil engineer, but how exactly?

Extensiveness of the Site (5 out of 15): Sacsayhuaman can be seen in about an hour or so, and the town center in another hour. The city overall is pretty nice to look at and just wander around. A local gave us a pretty cool tour at night and explained the history of it all. He even showed us a very tasty and cheap place to get “Pollo a la Brasa,” a local delicacy.

While not very big, there are some interesting twists and turns throughout the city.
While not very big, there are some interesting twists and turns throughout the city.

Cultural Significance (14 out of 25): Very few cities can claim to be the center of the hemisphere. At the time, no other city was more powerful in the Americas (maybe Tenochtitlan). However, putting things into perspective, the Inca had become the dominant power a mere 100 years before the conquest.

Personal Impact (6 out of 15): Unfortunately, I explored Cuzco after Machu Picchu and before Huachachina, two of the most wonderful places I have ever visited. It is tough to deal with that kind of competition.

Couldn't resist trying some Cuy!
Couldn’t resist trying some Cuy!

Logistics (2 out of 10): I can’t help but call out what a rip off Sacsayhuman is in terms of cost. At over $20 for the entrance, it is totally outrageous considering the cost of everything else in the country (including Machu Picchu which was about $40). The ticket to see all 16 ruins in the region costs about $50, which would be totally worth it, but unfortunately, they do not allow you to enter just one site at a discounted price. The $20+ includes 3 other ruins in a bundle whether you want it or not.

Getting to the city is fairly easy though. We flew in from Lima and bused out from the central bus station. However, be advised that the Lima airport will not let you into the airport without proof of your ticket. For those of us who have come to rely on just showing our passports (like Sarah), this is bad news!

Bus tickets are WAY cheaper at the station than from tour companies in the city (should have been a no brainer). It is crazy how much we got ripped off. Cuzco to Lima cost us $50, which was as cheap as $20 on another budget bus if we bought it there.

I am glad I saw it, but definitely felt ripped off.
I am glad I saw it, but definitely felt ripped off.

Uniqueness (2 out of 20): Looks an awful lot like any colonial city, and not necessarily one of the ones that stand out the most. It is pretty nonetheless.

Combined Score: 32/100

Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.

Curious how the scores are derived? Check out the scoring criteria.

View from the Plaza de Armas Cusco
View from the Plaza de Armas Cusco
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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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