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Other cities in South America may be the capitals of nations, but only Cusco has been the center of an empire. When you walk through its plaza de armas, you’ll sense its grandeur as you survey the four parts of the sacred land the Incas called Tahuantinsuyo—while also marveling at the colonial heritage superimposed by the conquering Spanish in 1533.

Wandering Cusco’s cobbled streets, you’ll experience the monuments left by the Incas as part of the living legacy around you. These include the hatunrumiyoq, or twelve-angled stone, built into the wall of a colonial palace (where, it is said, the masonry is so fine that not even a sheet of paper can fit between the stones), as well as the Qorikancha, the great temple the Incas considered to be the spiritual axis of the world.

Nor are this city’s marvel’s confined to the downtown. On the hill just above the city, you’ll stand in awe at the vast fortress of Sacsayhuaman, where the Incas fought ferociously against the invading Spaniards, before strolling, on your return, through the quaint neighborhood of San Blas, where contemporary painters and sculptors continue an artistic tradition over seven centuries old.

Cusco offers more contemporary pleasures as well. From its luxury hotels to its pulsing nightlife to its gourmet eateries by chefs such as Gaston Acurio, it boasts some of the best entertainment options in Peru. Try a pisco sour in one of the upscale bars, or stroll through the artisanal markets, looking for handicrafts.

Cusco is more than just the gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. It’s an enchanted, legendary city in its own right. Only, if you hear stories about Inca gold hidden in tunnels beneath the Cathedral and the Convent of Santa Catalina, remember, that’s just a rumor…

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