The Peruvian city of Cusco (or Cuzco) is perhaps most famous for being the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Frankly, that’s a shame, as the city wildly exceeds any expectations of simply being a place to cool your heels en route to the famed Inca Trail.
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The reason most travellers end up in the historic, mountainous city is because they need a few days to acclimatize to the incredibly high altitude (about 3,400 metres!) before setting off on their days-long treks. What they may not realize is how much the city has to offer tourists, regardless of their budget.
The hub of the city, the district of San Blas is centered around the stunning Plaza de Armas which houses the towering Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Inglesia de la Compania de Jesus, gardens, restaurants, hotels, shops and travel agencies.
The whole square is absolutely beautiful, with the historic buildings framed by the homes tucked into the hillside, and a (usually!) bright blue sky behind it all.
While it will set you back a bit more than eating outside of the tourist zone, grab a table in one of the restaurants that offers a second-floor view. You will be able to get a fantastic, uninterrupted look at the entire plaza below.
Most of the lodging is also in the San Blas district, and offers everything from cheap hostels to pricey, luxury hotels. The kicker is that since the city is built into a hillside, you’ll have to be prepared to hike a bit! Depending on where you end up, the narrow, cobblestone streets will either be bustling with tourists and shopkeepers trying to pull them into their restaurant/souvenir shop, or dead quiet with the only other sign of life being a traditionally-dressed old woman slowly making her way up the hill.
A word of caution: Cusco can be loud! As with most places in South America, you’ll find drivers honk constantly, regardless of how early in the morning it is. There are also police and security officers who patrol with the help of a never-ending shrill whistle.
Cusco is all about location, location, location. Its proximity to Peru’s Sacred Valley is perhaps why most visitors end up here, and Cusco makes the most of it. You can easily tour the ancient ruins while basing yourself in the city, thanks to the large number of travel agencies that offer cheap day excursions. For example, you can travel on horseback through countryside for as low as $20—a fantastic way to see the ruins!
The town of Pisaq/Pisac is also only about a half hour drive away, so you can head straight there via bus or tour bus to walk through the beautiful Inca ruins that are perched high on a hillside overlooking the bright green valley below. You can also continue farther towards Ollantaytambo (which is where you’ll end up if you’re heading to Machu Picchu) to spend an afternoon strolling through the ancient town, which still has its original aqueducts!
Museo de Pisco
Peruvians love their pisco, and there is no better place to sample it then in Cusco’s pisco museum. I should point out that it’s actually more of a bar than a museum, but after a few cocktails you won’t notice anyway! The small room is surrounded by bottles of liquor, and staff will be happy to educate you about the liquor’s history as you happily sip the stuff. A good way to try it out is to take part in the tasting menu, so you can sample four different kinds for S/.40 per person (or S/.60 for two people). The bar is just a few minutes walk from the Plaza de Armas and can be a fun place to go at night when they bring in live music.
Speaking of live music, if you’re lucky you might get serenaded at dinner by one of the travelling bands that hop from restaurant to restaurant in hopes of making some tips or selling their CD. Check out these guys!
Currency: Peruvian soles (S)
Getting there: There are daily flights between Cusco and a number of destinations, such as Lima, Juliaca and Puerto Maldonado in Peru, or La Paz, Bolivia. Many also arrive by bus from Lima which takes about 22 hours, but is an overnight journey so you’ll save on a hotel room! Book your seat through Cruz del Sur, and it should cost about $60.
Must try: Cusco has a surprising number of pizza joints, which feature wood-fire ovens. In many of the small, family-run restaurants, you can watch someone make your pizza fresh to order just a few feet away, then throw it in the old-school oven to cook to golden perfection. Delicious!
Top tip: One thing I can’t stress enough is the importance of drinking coca tea. Due to Cusco’s altitude, many visitors suffer from altitude sickness which leads to things like crippling headaches. The tea helps alleviate this, and is available for free in most accommodations, both in tea bag form or as loose leaves. Add some sugar to your cup, and it’s actually quite tasty!
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