The ancient city of Cusco is situated in the Andes Mountains at 3,400 meters (11,000 feet) above sea level. Cusco is surrounded by beautiful hills and extends into a river basin known as the Sacred Valley of the Inca. The city has around 365,000 inhabitants, a majority of who are Mestizo and indigenous population. Cusco city is located in the southeast part of Peru; it is also the capital of district Cusco. The word Cusco derives from Quechua “Qosqo”, meaning navel the ancient Incan language and hinting to the former significance of the city as the centre point of the Inca Empire – the Incan “navel of the world”. Cusco is one of the oldest cities in the south American continent, where people have continuously lived.
Cusco, nestled high in the mountains, is the perfect starting point for tours and offers endless possibilities to explore the surroundings. Many travellers pay a visit to Cusco not only to marvel at its ancient Inca foundations and charming alleys – but also to start out on trips into the majestic Andes, to see famous Inca ruins, and of course to discover the World Heritage Machu Picchu. Cusco is the gateway to the Sacred Valley, the Incan Trail, and the Madre de Dios rainforest reserves. Despite urban growth, Cusco city has maintained the architectural integrity of multiple pre-colonial structures.
Attractions in Cusco
When exploring the ancient city, it is a good idea to start at the main square, Plaza de Armas. The plaza is bordered by a beautiful cathedral and two churches (Iglesia del Triunfo and Iglesia de Jesús María). From the Plaza de Armas, continue to San Blas, which is situated up the hill from the centre, providing panoramic vista points of the city. In San Blas you will find charming alleys with little shops and cosy restaurants to have breakfast, drink coffee, or eat pizza baked in wood fired ovens. If you are feeling in a good shape today, keep climbing up the stairs to the giant white Christ statue called Christo Blanco overlooking the city. Another must-see attraction within the city is Qorikancha: today a church, the ruin once functioned as the important Sun Temple in Cusco. Just outside the city, there is large walled Incan complex called Sacsayhuamán. If you want to escape the city, there are many daytrips offered to little villages in the Sacred Valley such as Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Chinchero. Outdoor activities like rafting, mountain biking, horseback riding, paragliding, and zipling are a great tip for adventurers, as well as relaxing hot springs in Lares, Santa Teresa, and Aguas Calientes. Of course, Cusco is also the gateway destination for trips to the famous World Heritage Machu Picchu
Museums of Cusco
Cusco offers a variety of different museums that worth a visit. Start at the beautiful Museo de Arte Precolombino, which exhibits pre-Columbian art, like Incan pottery found at archaeological sites. You can find more Andean art at the Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo and the Museo de Arte Religioso, which displays religious art from the Spanish conquistador era.
Another interesting museum to visit is the Pisco Museum. In this museum the distillation process is demonstrated. Choose from more than 100 different Piscos in the tasting after the tour around the museum.
The Chocolate Museum could as well trigger your taste buds. Here, the history of the chocolate is explained and it is even possible to do a workshop to learn how to make your own toffees!
If you have more time on your hands, make a stop at the intriguing museum for the holy, magical and medicinal plants (Museo de Plantas Sagradas, Mágicas y Medicinales). This museum showcases the history of the use of medicinal plants in the Andes and explains how the plants are used for a spiritual and hallucinating experience, such as the Ayahuasca ceremony in the Rainforest.
There are also plenty of museums to learn about the Inca culture, like the Museo Inka.
Shopping in Cusco
The most famous market in Cusco to buy artisanal crafts as well as fresh fruit, produce and juice, is San Pedro market situated a few blocks from the main square (Plaza de Armas) on Cascaparo street. Mercado San Pedro is a popular spot for tourists to negotiate over souvenirs, explore the local foods and buy one of the famous Andean Alpaca sweaters or other hand-woven textiles.
If you are looking for textiles of a higher quality, take a walk around Plaza de Armas and head up Calle Triunfo for several boutiques that offer pricier options.
Don´t miss out to take look around San Blas neighbourhood above Plaza de Armas. The charming district of Cusco is famous for its small crafty shops, organic and hip restaurants as well as the quiet Plaza San Blas. Head up the stairs next to the big fountain at the plaza and you will find narrow, cobble-stoned alleys with Andean handcraft shops, souvenirs, clothes, paintings and little cafes. Oftentimes prices are not fixed and bargaining is a normal habit for locals as well as for tourists.
Nightlife in Cusco
Cusco offers a broad range of nightlife activities. Since Cusco attracts a wide range of tourists from many parts of the world, you will find Irish and English bars such as Paddy´s and the Cross Keys as well as local bars in Cusco. Try the Fallen Angel, located on Plaza Palacio Nazarenas, and The Frogs Bar, located a short distance from the main Plaza de Armas. Lining the main plaza you will find various clubs playing electronic and charts music. One of the most popular clubs is called Mama Africa, where also Salsa lessons are offered for tourists and locals. There is a plethora of small bars situated in the small, pedestrian streets leading away from Plaza de Armas that frequently play live music. Kilometre Zero is a very nice option for live music in the San Blas neighbourhood, just four blocks from the Plaza de Armas. If you are into live music, try also the Ukuku´s, situated one block from the Plaza de Armas in the street Plateros. Here, you will find various types of live music played like reggae, rock, salsa and reggaeton. Most bars are open every day of the week, and feature a happy-hour menu with special offers for drinks.
Restaurants in Cusco
In order to discover all of the delicious restaurants Cusco has to offer, you will need a lot of time. It´s almost impossible to make a bad choice in Cusco, because there is such an excellent range of food options. There is everything from fish restaurants (Cevicheria), to Falafel and wood oven pizzerias, from vegetarian food, to traditional Peruvian dishes like cuy and lomo saltado. Most of the meals in Cusco are prepared with fresh ingredients, and many restaurants offer a fixed lunch menu (almuerzo) for a cheap price ranging from 6 to 20 soles. Menus like this usually include a soup as an entrance, a main course like rice with vegetables and meat, a beverage, and a small dessert (postre), like fruit salad or pudding.
Travel Information for Cusco
ICusco can be reached from many Peruvian cities. Taking a bus from Lima is an affordable but time-consuming option (approx. 22h). An airplane flight between Cusco and the capital city is the faster (approx. 1.30h) but costlier alternative. The Bolivian border and the Lake Titicaca lies roughly nine hours away to the south of Cusco and is most commonly reached by overnight bus. Other destinations like Arequipa (10h) and Nazca (7h) can also easily be reached by bus from the Inca centre.
Within the city of Cusco, taxis and local buses (collectivos) are the most common means of transportation. Luckily, a lot of Cusco´s great attractions are located in the historic city centre and thus, making it easy to explore the city by foot.
Cusco is a dynamic city, that mixes traditional culture and modernity, offering visitors a unique and wonderful travel experience.