Cusco is the historical capital of the Inca empire, and for that reason – along with its proximity to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas – it is without doubt the main city on any tourist’s itinerary of Peru.
Also spelled ‘Cuzco’, ‘Qusqu’ and ‘Qosqo’ (in the local Quechua language), Cusco is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has grown into a thriving tourist destination with about a million tourists a year.
Many people believe the city was planned by the Incas to be the shape of a Puma, with the teeth the battlements at the Sacsayhuaman fortress high above the city.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century, they looted all the gold and silver from the impressive temples in Cusco, and used the stones to build Catholic churches on top of the original Inca structures – including the temple of the sun (Qoricancha).
As Cusco lies at an altitude of about 3,300 metres, it can prove tricky to fly straight into Lima and then up to Cusco. Despite this, lots of people do it, and then head out on their 5 day Inca trail trek to Machu Picchu. Not surprisingly there are casualties! If you’re coming to Cusco, I would suggest you give yourself five days to a week in Cusco before starting your trek, or come by bus from Lima stopping somewhere like Arequipa – which is what we did.
So what’s Cusco really like now? Well, it’s undoubtedly Peru’s biggest tourist trap. The moment you step out of your hotel/hostel you become the target of the Commerciantes in the street – the street sellers – trying to sell you everything from postcards, to ‘indigenous trinkets’, shoe shining sessions, meals in restaurants and tours to Machu Picchu. Your most frequently used Spanish here will be “No gracias”.
There is a slightly more alternative side to Cusco (centred more around the artisans’ neighbourhood of San Blas), which feels more like the scene in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with yoga studios, healing sessions (some involving the San Pedro Cactus and Ayahuasca) and everything else that goes with it. But my honest assessment of Cusco (and this is bound to cause some controversy) would be a very beautiful, historic, but expensive Peruvian version of the Khaosan Road in Bangkok – with the same traveller/tourist colonists. It’s a great to place to meet fellow travellers, but how authentically Peruvian is it?
Where Cusco really comes into its own, rather than hanging out with fellow travellers getting drunk in the Irish pubs, is when one leaves Cusco using it as a base and heads into the Sacred Valley to visit the many Inca ruins and historic sites situated there. The Sacred Valley itself is absolutely breathtaking, and I am sure unequalled in the world.
Podcast: South Peru – Colcan Canyon, Lake Titicaca, Cusco & Machu Picchu
Photos of Cusco
Photos of Ollantaytambo in the sacred valley
Photos of Inca ruins around Cusco, Peru
Photos of Machu Picchu
Photos of Pisac in the Sacred Valley