RealWorld Guide to Cusco: Living History
Cusco is the ancient Inca Capital, and is absolutely jammed full with history and culture. It feels like every other doorway leads to a colonial mansion and every other wall is original Inca stonework. Most importantly of all, though, Cusco is a living city; although there are fabulous museums to visit and historical sites to explore, the city hasn't been 'mothballed' - the buildings and streets the Incas used are still in use today.
Cusco doesn’t share the grid-layout common to the centre of most Peruvian cities. This is mainly a historical legacy of its heyday as the capital of the Inca Empire – in fact the whole city was originally laid out in the shape of a jaguar – an animal which signified power and strength to the Incas. The Plaza is still the heart of the city as it was under the Incas and has the impressive Cathedral on one side and the smaller Iglesia La Compañia on another. The other two sides have pretty colonial arcades mainly housing shops and restaurants.
Away from the square, you can enjoy the bohemian San Blas quarter, the cobbled pedestrianised streets, or head a little further out of town to explore the fantastic Inca sites just outside the city itself, such as the fortress of Sacsayhuaman which is just a short walk up into the hills.
Where to Stay in Cusco
As Cusco is the busiest tourist destination in Peru, there are hotels absolutely everywhere, and most of our recommendations are within a couple of blocks from the main square. The new Palacio Nazarenas by Orient Express is really the cream of the crop of the bigger hotels (although perhaps a little 'corporate' for our tastes), but there are numerous smaller, boutique options that have just as much to offer such as the Cartagena Luxury and the Andean Wings Boutique.
If you'd like more of a rural setting, then you can always stay in the Sacred Valley and just drive into Cusco to see the sights.
The airport is just on the southern edge of Cusco so is about a 20-minute drive from the centre, or a 45-minute drive from the Sacred Valley.
What to See and Do in Cusco
Cusco is considered the cultural centre of Peru and although Lima has the most prestigious museums it cannot rival a tour of the ancient Inca capital – the whole city is sprinkled with Inca and colonial architecture, museums and other sights of interest.
Bear in mind that if Cusco is your first stop at altitude, then you should be aware that you may not be up to doing much for your first day or so. Many people experience shortness of breath, slight headaches, and feelings of dizziness. These are perfectly normal symptoms and should not cause undue alarm. Just ask us for tips on dealing with altitude sickness, and you should be absolutely fine to start exploring all the wonderful things to see in this amazing city.
You may well be visiting many of the sites on one of our organised city tours anyway – if not, then remember that if you are not doing a city tour with us then you will need a Cusco Tourist Ticket (130 soles) to visit almost all the sites – you can buy one at the first site you visit.
Cusco has some of the finest colonial architecture – and particularly churches – in South America. On the Plaza, the cathedral is well worth a visit although it can be slightly gloomy to British eyes, and the Church of La Compañia, also on the square, is very impressive as well. Both churches have incredibly ornate Baroque altars and feature important pieces from the Cusco and Quito schools of art.
Also definitely worth a trip is the former Inca Temple of the Sun, also known as the Korikancha (4 on your map), 3 blocks down Avenida el Sol from the Plaza. This was the centre point of the Inca Empire in a South American “all roads lead to Cusco” kind of way, and was symbolically torn down by the conquistadores and re-built as the church of Santo Domingo. It’s interesting to note that, as with much of Cuzco, the Spanish construction has had to be rebuilt several times after earthquakes, while the original Inca walls and foundations are still standing just as they were.
A short walk from the main Plaza (up Avenida Triunfo and keep on going up the hill!) is the Plaza de San Blas. On the way you’ll pass some fine examples of Inca stonework and the Plaza itself has a fine church and is a very pleasant little square with several nice restaurants nearby and a nice fountain laid out in the shape of an Inca cross – it’s a great place to sit and have an ice cream in the sunshine! San Blas is a kind of ‘Montmartre’ of Cusco, packed with galleries and jewellers, and it’s a great place to spend an afternoon wandering and browsing.
A slightly further walk away from the Plaza de Armas is the magnificent Inca site of Sacsayhuaman. Its exact purpose is still disputed but it was probably either a fortress or a temple complex. Either way it’s a great place to get an idea of the Incas’ mastery of stonework and offers a stunning view over the city. To get there will take anything up to an hour as the climb is quite steep – up Calle Suecia, then right along Huaynapata, left along Pumacurco and follow the signs). If you don’t fancy the trek then it may be a good idea to take a taxi from the Plaza. This should be around 10 soles, but beware that taxi drivers in Cusco will often try to get more from you.
Shopping and Markets
If you fancy some shopping, Cusco is a great place to pick up some bargains, although the street traders are probably the most aggressive in Peru as the city is a major tourist centre. There are lots of shops in and around the main Plazas (de Armas, San Blas, Regocigo and San Francisco) and also some good markets (notably if you head up Mantas from the Plaza and keep on going up Santa Clara). Remember that even (or especially!) in the more expensive shops it is always a good idea to haggle! The markets and the shops around the Plaza are also the best place to head for if you need practical things like camera film or stamps. You can usually also buy stamps from the postcard-sellers in the main square.
Eating Out in Cusco
There are fewer restaurants directly on the Plaza de Armas than in most Peruvian cities and those that are there are not among the absolute best Cusco has to offer, although Limo on the second floor at the Portal de Carnes is good, if expensive. Instead, you should try a few of the streets in and around the Plaza.
Procuradores has a good selection of reasonable cafes and restaurants, especially “Chez Maggi”, which has some of the best stuffed peppers we’ve ever tasted. This street is also a good bet for a reasonably-priced lunchtime “menu” or set meal. Alternatively, Plateros has many slightly more upmarket restaurants such as Ama Lur, at Plateros 327, which does a good line in traditional Andean favourites. Elsewhere, despite the Italian name, Cicciolina on the second floor at 327 Triunfo does some of the best tapas in Peru and also has an excellent wine selection. Chicha, run by one of Lima’s top chefs, Gaston Acurio, is just off the main square, on Plaza Regocijo 261 and is possibly Cusco’s best restaurant, although Le Soleil (at Calle San Agustin 275) comes a close second.
For vegetarians and vegans, El Encuentro at Santa Catalina Ancha 384 is a must-visit spot; it’s the only fully vegetarian restaurant in Cusco, and they serve such veggie specialities as Delicia de Brocoli (Broccoli fried with vegetables and tofu in soy sauce with rice) and Chicharron (fried soy meat with salad and fries). Most other restaurants offer decent vegetarian alternatives but “La Waki de Cristal” (at 132 Choquechaka) is especially good. For snacks, ‘Don Estaban y Don Pancho’ at 763 Avenida El Sol does lovely deli-style sandwiches and a superb line in flans, cakes, strudels… you get the picture! Customers have also recently recommended two organic restaurants: Sara, at Santa Catalina Ancha 370 and Greens Organic, at Santa Catalina Angosta 135. We hear both of them do fantastic traditional Peruvian food at a great price.
Getting To and From Cusco
Apart from Lima, Cusco is the best connected city in Peru when it comes to air travel, and there are regular direct flights from Puno, Puerto Maldonado, Arequipa, and Lima, as well as internationally to La Paz in Bolivia. Coach travel is a safe, comfortable, and inexpensive way to travel as well, especially if you’re coming from Lake Titicaca.
Once in Cusco the best way to get around to most places is on foot – it’s quite a safe city and there’s plenty to see as you wander around, although if you’re not up to walking your hotel will always be happy to call a taxi for you, and of course we can arrange private drivers and guides ahead of time if you wish.
Weather in Cusco
Cusco’s climate is divided into dry (April to October) and rainy (November to March) seasons, and there is a pronounced difference between the two. In the dry season, you will have fine, clear days with strong sunshine but once the sun goes down temperatures really drop – so you can go from shorts and t-shirts on a day tour to needing a warm jacket very quickly. At night in July and August it will frequently get down to freezing. In the rainy season, things are more temperate, so it’s not as hot during the day but also not as cold at night.
Everything else being equal, we'd say that April or May are our favourite months for holidays in Cusco, but really anytime from March through November is fine.