If you’re traveling through Perú, chances are the city of Cusco is already on your list. Thousands pass through every year on their pilgrimage to the famous Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, and many of these travelers are pleasantly surprised upon their arrival in Cusco- the historic capital of the Inca Empire. Often overlooked as simply ‘a stop along the way’, a few days in Cusco proves the city anything but. Walk in the footsteps of kings as you wander through the most sacred temples of the Inca Empire; marvel at the perfection found in the immaculate walls fashioned by Inca masons; ponder the countless mysteries, myths, and legends of the city’s lost inhabitants- there is a certain mystique, a palpable grandeur about Cusco that makes it unlike anywhere else in South America. Throw in the magnificent colonial architecture, the limitless possibilities for adventure in and around the Sacred Vally, and the countless hotels, cafes, restaurants, and pubs scattered throughout town, and you’ve got a recipe for AWESOME.
Cusco- DO NOT MISS IT.
Most travelers arrive in Cusco via plane, flying in from Lima or Arequipa. There are flights to/from La Paz, Bolivia, but they can be quite pricey since it is an international flight. Another popular way to get to Cusco is via bus, but depending on where you are coming from, this can involve 20+ hour trips and long delays, especially if you are traveling during the rainy season (November-April). If you have a bit of flexibility in your budget, compare prices between flights and buses, and decide if the time savings is worth going by air.
Things to do in Cusco
- Wander around town- It seems there is something to see on EVERY corner in Cusco- impressive Inca walls, precisely carved stones, soaring colonial churches, indigenous art and craft markets- just wandering around the cobblestoned streets of Cusco is an adventure in itself.
- Visit the Temple of the Sun- Qorikancha (aka The Temple of the Sun) was perhaps the most important temple in all of the Inca Empire. Walls and floors covered in gold, kings and priests conducting the rituals of the empire, scientists tracking the celestial bodies that governed the seasons of the Inca people- the sense of history and legend that hangs in the air is incredible.
- Hang out in the Plaza de Armas- The plaza in Cusco was once the heart of the Inca Empire, and today is surrounded by impressive colonial architecture, the Cusco Cathedral, numerous tourist shops, and little cafes. It is a great place to relax in the sun, simply watching the crowds go by.
- Hit the trail- The ‘Classic’ Inca Trail draws thousands of trekkers annually, and there are countless other trails and treks to be had in and around the Sacred Valley near Cusco. Zip-line through forest canopies, raft down raging rivers, hike through Inca ruins, and take in some of the most spectacular scenery in Perú. There are innumerable operators in Cusco vying for the tourists’ soles- shop around, compare prices, and bargain for the best price.
- Visit Sexy Woman- Saqsaywamán is a massive site located in the hills just above Cusco. The site of a desperate battle between the Spanish conquistadores and Manco Inca, Saqsaywamán drips with legend and lore. Today, only about 20% of the site remains intact, as the Spanish used the blocks of fortress’ walls to build many of their houses and churches in Cusco after the conquest.
- Head to The Valley- The Sacred Valley is one of the major tourist draws in all of Perú. Inca fortresses, historic citadels, and sprawling markets- the Sacred Valley provides several opportunities to learn about the Inca Empire and experience some spectacular scenery along the way.
- Hit the town- Cusco is a tourist town in every sense of the word. There are restaurants of every type and taste, cafes line the streets, and there are more than a few watering holes that cater to the thirsty traveler. After you’ve exhausted yourself wandering around Inca sites all day, catch your second wind and have a taste of the Cusco nightlife.
- Eat on the CHEAP- the Cusco Central Market has various food stalls that provide set meals for only a few soles. Wander through the market and find something that suits your appetite.
- When looking to book activities and treks, make sure to ask questions and compare prices between agencies. Also, if overnight camping is involved, make sure to examine the gear before you sign up for anything.
- If you do go on a trek that involves overnight camping, pack multiple layers, and bring bug spray.
- Most trekking companies require final payment for treks and activities in cash, often in US dollars. They are VERY particular about the condition of the bills used for payment- no tears, wrinkles, writing, etc. Make sure you bring crisp new currency, as you will have a very hard time trading torn bills for new ones anywhere in town- even in the banks.
- There is a system in Cusco that involves the boleto turístico (tourist ticket), required for entrance into many of the Inca sites around the city and in the Sacred Valley. If you plan on visiting multiple sites, it is probably worth buying the ticket, but if you only want to go to one or two, you’ll save some money by just paying entrance for those sites.
- The famous Hatunrumiyoc is a 12-sided stone meticulously carved by the Inca masons to fit in the wall along the street of the same name. To find it, exit the Plaza de Armas at the southeast corner by the Iglesia El Triunfo, head up Triunfo street (which turns into Hatunrumiyoc), and look for the crowds. The stone is in the wall along the right side of the street- there might even be an Inca king waiting for you arrival...
- There are numerous parks and green spaces spread throughout the city- most notably the Inca Courtyard at Qorikancha... These are great places to just sit and watch the world go by- enjoy the sun, the Andean air, and witness the ADVENTURE as it unfolds in Cusco...