Cusco (or Cuzco) was the shining capital of the Inca Empire—Tawantinsuyu or The Four United Regions. Legend tells that the city's site was determined by the first Inca, Manco Capac, when he drove a golden staff into the ground near Huanacauri. However, the region is known to have supported Wari and Killke cultures several centuries before the arrival of the Inca; recent evidence suggests that the fortress of Sacsayhuaman was built by the Killke and later adapted for Inca use.
Under the rule of the Inca Pachacutec, Cusco grew from an outpost to an awe-inspiring capital. Great temples, palaces and waterworks were created, as were gardens filled with life-sized gold and silver llamas. Inca influence still permeates the historic center, where Spanish churches now rest on Inca foundations.
The areas surrounding Cusco are dense with archeological and cultural riches. The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu are the most popular destinations, but the South Valley is equally worthy of exploration. Highlights include the gardens and fountains of Tipon, the Temple of Wiracocha at Raqchi and the Wari city of Pikillacta.
Cusco's altitude is approximately 10,800 feet above sea level. To assuage the effects of the thin air, visitors are advised to rest well, avoid alcohol and eat lightly on their first day in the city.
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