Introduction to Cusco
There is just so much to see and do in and around Cusco that we almost don’t know where to begin! So, absorb some of the energy from the sacred apus because the capital of the ancient Inca Empire is probably the highlight of any trip to Peru.
The puma shaped “Navel of the World,” as its proud inhabitants know it, was the center of the Inca universe. When the Spanish arrived, they literally tried to squash the city, constructing extravagant colonial buildings on top of central Inca sites. This has left an interesting mix of architecture, with bits of Inca wall blending with elaborate churches and red tiled roofs. We think you will agree when we say that Cusco city center is truly beautiful.
Modern day Cusco is still a mix of cultures. It has become a cosmopolitan hub for travelers who coexist with the local population. You can eat food from almost all over the world and speak to people from endless varying nationalities in one of the many bars on offer in Cusco’s vibrant nightlife. Or, you can try any range of holistic therapies and ecological ventures just as easily as you can see people from local Andean communities – such as the colorfully dressed queros – going about their business.
Cusco is the best base for a trip into the surrounding Sacred Valley, to the less visited ruins and the brightly painted churches of the southern valley en route to Puno, crop circles and Inca salt pans…the list of unforgettable experiences goes on. There is truly a wealth of culture on offer here! And then of course there’s Machu Picchu itself…but we’ve given that a whole different section!
What not to miss in Cusco
Cusco City Center
People watch in the Central Square (Plaza de Armas) and take in the churches and colonial balconies with the Andes as a backdrop. Check out the Cathedral and its Cusqueña School artwork. Try and spot the guinea pig in the painting of the Last Supper, or the non-Christian images depicted on the main doors.
Visit the enormous stone ruins at Sacsayhuaman located high above Cusco’s city center. This is a great spot to walk up to (or jump in a cab if the altitude is getting to you!) where you can really soak up the energy of the city below.
Artists and great views: Take a (slow!) walk up to San Blas, the artist’s quarter, where you can visit artists’ workshops. Don´t miss the Jilario Mendivil Museum with its llama necked religious figures.
Coricancha, Qurikancha or Quri Kancha, originally named Inti Kancha or Inti Wasi, was the most important temple in the Inca Empire, dedicated primarily to Inti, the Sun God. It was one of the most revered temples of the Inca Empire’s Capital City of Cusco.
Pre-Columbian Art Museum
The Museo de Arte Precolombino is an art museum in Cusco, dedicated to the display of archaeological artifacts and examples of pre-Columbian artworks drawn from all regions of pre-Columbian Peru. The Pre-Columbian Art Museum’s Cafe also offers a great dining experience.
San Pedro Market
Cusco’s Mercado Central de San Pedro (San Pedro Central Market) is one of the best ways to experience everyday life in the city. This huge food market is a treat for the senses with its array of colors, exotic smells, mouthwatering local dishes and the sound of vendors selling everything from animal heads to fresh juices.
Surrounding Cusco are a number of incredible Inca ruins with some such as, Sacsayhuamán, even within walking distance of the city center. Visit the nearby temple and amphitheater of Q’enko and the small fortress of Puca Pucara or, travel a bit further to the impressive ruins of Tambomachay.
What you need to know
When to go
Cusco can be visited all year round; however the best time is between May and October. Its altitude gives it sun during the day and cold temperatures at night. Rainy season is between November and March. The driest time of the year is between June and August, but this is also peak tourist season as it coincides with summer holidays in the northern hemisphere.
How to get there
Cusco is accessible by airplane from Lima, Puno, Arequipa, Puerto Maldonado, and La Paz (although flights from Bolivia only run twice a week). There are over 15 flights from Lima to Cusco a day. Flights are safe although one should be cautious of the sudden altitude change which can bring about brief periods of altitude sickness.
Travelers can also reach Cusco by train from Puno and the scenic trip is comfortable and highly recommended.
Cusco can also be reached by bus from a number of destinations in and around Peru.
Where to stay
Cusco is Peru’s biggest tourist town, and all levels of accommodation are available. High-end travelers, backpackers, and everyone in between, will find accommodation suited to their standards. The area in and around Cusco has a few of the finest hotels in South America including the luxurious Monasterio as well as Machu Picchu’s incredible Sanctuary Lodge. Other than these exclusive options, more hotels exist in Cusco per square mile than anywhere else in Peru.
Likewise restaurants vary in class and price across the city and whether one wishes to spend over $50.00 on a white tablecloth four course meal, or simply spend a couple of dollars at a local Peruvian restaurant – there is something for everyone, and all the food tends to be good.
Everything one needs in Cusco is generally within walking distance, most hotels are located around the central Plaza de Armas, and this makes getting around easy. Most tours provide return transport from your accommodation to all of the city’s attractions.
Cusco also has a number of taxis that provide cheap transport in and around the city. Like anywhere else however, one should keep an eye on one’s belongings while traveling on the city’s public transport.