Located 3,400 meters above sea level, Cusco is literally a high point in Peru. But above all, Cusco was a big surprise: what a nice city! I would even venture to say that Cusco is in my top 5 most fun cities in the world. During our 2.5 weeks of travel through Peru, we spent 1.5 weeks in Cusco, of which we did hike the 5-day Salkantay Trek in between. And I could have stayed there even longer. There is so much to do and see and the scenery is spectacular. Also, of course, Cusco is the base for Machu Picchu. In this article I’ll tell you about what we did in Cusco, including practical tips.
The city of the Incas
Cusco is the Inca capital of the world and the archaeological highlight of South America. With about 500,000 inhabitants, Cusco is Peru’s third largest city and precisely because of the history of the Incas, the most touristy. In the 16th century, Cusco was conquered by the Spanish. Before this time, the city was the cultural and religious center of the Inca Empire. The Incas gave the city the shape of a puma and built many temples, such as those for the moon goddess Quilla and the sun god Inti.
It was not until the year 1911 that the Inca city of Machu Picchu was discovered near Cusco. Which led to many foreign visitors. Several major earthquakes destroyed large parts of the city. The most famous powerful earthquakes date back to the year 1950, which killed many residents and required large parts to be rebuilt. Fortunately, the Inca walls and historic center remained intact. In 1983, that historic center was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Cusco or Cuzco?
Maybe you’ve been to Cusco yourself or just always wondered which is right: Cusco or Cuzco. I find it pretty confusing, so time to find out. It appears there is worldwide confusion about which spelling is correct. In Cusco itself, the name is written with an “s”, while English-language sources, such as Lonely Planet, use the variant with a “z”. So both seem good, depending on where you are. I myself like to write Cusco instead of Cuzco, sounds more natural for some reason. Want to know more? Read this article.
Why is Cusco so great?
The atmosphere, the people, the food, the museums, the surroundings, the picturesque streets, the impressive views, the extraordinary history and the vibrant culture: a fantastic combination. There is so much to do that you will never be bored. And undoubtedly you want to come back for more.
Sightseeing in Cusco
Cusco has many museums, plazas, churches and ruins. In the Lonely Planet of Peru you’ll find a nice overview of what to do, including a walking tour of downtown Cusco. Under the “Practical” heading in this article, you will find information about the tourist map for Cusco and which sights it covers.
Here is a brief overview of everything we visited within Cusco.
Plaza de Armas and the cathedral
The historic heart of Cusco: Plaza de Armas. Not only will you find the cathedral and the two churches (Iglesia del Triunfo and Iglesia de Jesús María), but you can also admire many colonial houses here. In many of them you will find stores, hotels or restaurants. A great place to have a drink on one of the many balconies to admire the square from there is the Plaza Café of Hotel Plaza de Armas.
Museo Histórico Regional
This colonial building houses an interesting museum with a fine collection of ceramics, jewelry, gold and a Nazca mummy. Access only with the tourist card (see “Practical”).
Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo
A collection of beautiful paintings, very worthwhile. Access only with the tourist card (see “Practical”).
RECOMMENDED! | Museo de Arte Popular
Wow what a nice museum! In many display cases you will find figurines depicting life, cultures and religion in a rather special way. It sounds a little vague, but it is seriously fantastic to see. You are unfortunately not allowed to take pictures there, so I can’t give you an example. In addition to the figurines, there are also many photographs that give you a glimpse of Cusco between the 1900s and 1950s, including images after the devastating 1950 earthquake. Also, these photos are really not to be missed. Access only with the tourist card (see “Practical”).
Once one of the richest temples of the Inca Empire, it is now an important ruin to visit in Cusco. Qorikancha means “golden courtyard” in Quechua, and once the walls and floors were lined with gold. The temple was built in the 15th century and is well worth a visit.
Museo del Sitio Qorikancha
Practically next to the Inca temple Qorikancha, you will find this small museum underground, with its entrance on Avenida del Sol. You will find an archaeological exhibition on the Inca and pre-Inca empire, including interesting mummies. Access only with the tourist card (see “Practical”).
Mercado San Pedro
Cusco’s central market and a must-see. Feast your eyes on everything they sell here, like pig’s heads. In addition, you can drink delicious freshly made fruit juices. This is also a great place to buy typical cheap fake alpaca sweaters.
Strolling through the streets
The historic center of Cusco is wonderful to walk through. Amaze yourself on the old streets, the beautiful views, the colorful people and the conviviality. Cusco has quite a bit of elevation change so you will walk up and down a lot of steep hills in this city.
Admiring Inca stones
Also in Cusco you can admire the extraordinary structure of walls built by the Incas. Large, heavy stones that all fit together exactly without being square. It is extraordinary to see, especially when you start to wonder how they managed to do this anyway. In calle Loreto you can admire them.
Now people-watching is always fun, but especially so in Cusco. On June 24, the Festival of the Sun (Inti Raymi) is celebrated, preceded by a folk festival with music and dancing. Fun to experience in June each year, where locals in traditional costume perform traditional dance and music all over the streets.
Vegetarian food in Cusco
There are many vegetarian restaurants in Cusco. We ourselves always use the app from Happy Cow to find a good vegetarian restaurant anywhere in the world. In Cusco, we ate in:
Vida Vegan Bistro | Good restaurant, nice atmosphere and delicious food. Pricey, though.
La Casa de Yudy | Not 100% vegetarian but delicious options. Fantastic restaurant and not so expensive.
La Valeriana | A bakery and restaurant that is very worth visiting anyway. Special atmosphere, good service and perfect location in the center. Even if you are not vegetarian you can go here: very worthwhile!
Hotel tip Cusco: Hatun Quilla
Both before and after the Salkantay Trek, we stayed at hotel Hatun Quilla. Such a nice place to stay in Cusco. The hotel is located about 500 meters outside the city center in a hidden courtyard. As a result, you don’t hear any traffic, so it is very quiet. Although just outside the center, you are still in the heart of Cusco. Just a few minutes’ walk and you are at Plaza de Armas.
Besides this perfect location, this hotel in Cusco is especially nice. The room we had was also very special, with a living room including a fine couch and with the stairs leading up to our bed. Throughout the day you can grab tea or coffee or relax in the (breakfast) room with a view.
The owner can arrange everything for you: day trips, cabs, walks and anything else you need. We made grateful use of that ourselves. You can also leave your backpack or suitcase here without any problems if you are going to hike the Salkantay Trek or Inca Trail, for example.
Breakfast is simple, but tasty and sufficient. The room is cozy and also has a bar. And from there you have a beautiful view of Cusco. In the morning it does get freezing cold here and a hat during breakfast was really not a luxury.
Looking for a quiet and affordable hotel in the heart of Cusco? If so, this is highly recommended! Click here for more information or to book.
How to get to Cusco?
Cusco has an international airport to which you can easily fly from both outside and inside Peru. For example, from Lima or Arequipa. We ourselves took the night bus from Arequipa to Cusco with Cruz del Sur. In 3 hours you fly from Colombia to Cusco or vice versa, as we did.
Altitude sickness in Cusco: how to deal with it?
Due to the high altitude of Cusco (average 3400 meters), it is not wise to fly to Cusco directly from your home country. Better acclimate quietly to the altitude first by, for example, starting your trip in Lima and via Arequipa, the Colca Canyon and/or Puno slowly get used to the altitude. However, your body needs more time to fully adjust to the altitude than a few weeks, so you will most likely still be affected by the altitude when you arrive in Cusco. Especially during exercise (Cusco has pretty steep streets up which can be spicy) you are going to notice it. The degree to which you are affected by altitude varies from person to person and is difficult to predict in advance.
I myself live at 2600 meters altitude and Cusco poses few problems for me. However, when I have to walk steeply uphill I do get a slight headache and am quickly exhausted. Drinking enough water and a paracetamol helps well for me. Coca leaves can also help with altitude problems, and simply do not exert too much (heavy) effort. In Cusco, you can also buy altitude sickness pills at the drugstore.
Another option is to stay just outside Cusco in the Sacred Valley, which is a little lower in altitude.
Buy a Cusco tourist card (Boleto Turístico)
For many attractions in Cusco and surroundings, you need a tourist card as entrance. It can be purchased at any of these attractions and costs 130 soles for 10 days. Of the 16 sights on the map, we visited 12 of them ourselves. With the boleto turístico you have access to:
- Puka Pukara
- Monumento a Pachacuteq
- Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo
- Museo de Sitio Qorikancha
- Museo de Arte Popular
- Museo de Arte Contemporáneo
- Museo Histórico Regional
How much time do you need?
In Cusco, you can stay for weeks. Not only in the city, but also outside it, there is an awful lot to see and do. In the 1.5 weeks we had, we by no means saw everything either, so I hope to go back again soon. I would stay at least 1 week in Cusco and if you are going to do the Salkantay Trek or another multi-day trek longer.
The climate in Cusco
Cusco has a wonderful climate where it is quite cold at night, morning and evening, while during the day it can warm up to about 20 degrees in the sun. I myself have never walked in shorts in Cusco, but I should add that I never actually do that when locals don’t either. Long pants and closed shoes, then. Always brought a coat, scarf and hat for when it got cold.
Arrange the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
More or less on every street corner in Cusco is a provider for the Salkantay Trek or any other trail or excursion to Machu Picchu. We chose the Salkantay Trek and this was really great. The beautiful nature and staying overnight in very special hotels (like this one) makes this an absolute must. Read all about the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu and how we arranged it here.
Day trips from Cusco
The surroundings of Cusco are truly spectacular and you can spend days exploring them. We easily arranged all day trips through our hotel and in this way saw a lot of the area in a short time. If you have more time and want to do everything yourself, it’s also quite doable by cab or bus. Here you can read all about the surroundings of Cusco.
Further travel through Peru
How high is a visit to Cusco on your list? Click here for all articles from our trip through Peru.
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