Cusco, Peru Travel Guide

An Introduction to the City

It’s true that the majority of people come to the city of Cusco primarily as a jumping off point to visit the nearby travel Mecca of Machu Picchu. However, it’s the vibrancy and character of this historical city that holds people here and maintains a yearning hold on them long after they’ve left. The city’s slick cobble-stoned roads are lined with shops, restaurants and, most of all, history. The perfectly masoned stone walls that base most buildings ooze with history and tell the tale of a day that has long since passed. In fact, this city is so soaked with history that even while inhaling a Big Mac at the local McDonald’s visitors are sitting on top of the ruins of pre-colonial temples. The narrow streets, hanging balconies, and breath-taking Plaza Mayor will leave you without a doubt as to what makes this place so special; you could almost reach out and touch the crisp sensation of nostalgia that hangs in the air here in Cusco. As visitors take a seat in one of the many benches of the Plaza they can hardly help but romanticize as to what this great city must have looked like 100 years ago or 500 years ago. To any regard, the Cusco of today will still hold your imagination and, more than likely, pique your curiosity to explore a little bit further.

Cusco, Peru

Cusco, Peru

A Long History in Brief

According to the legends of Inca descendants, a great flood washed the earth clean of the evil that man had brought upon in it thousands of years ago (sound familiar?), forcing civilization to start anew. The story claims that once the waters subsided Manco Capac (the first Inca) and his sister consort Mamalluca rose from the middle of Lake Titicaca at Isla de Sol, on the Bolivian side of the lake. The couple then walked the highlands of Peru in search for a place where Manco Capac’s staff was able to be plunged into the soil, thus proving its suitability. This successful plunge happened here in Cusco.

The Inca empire slowly grew using Cusco as its capital, and the arrival of Pachacutec as the Sapa Inca (the Inca king) meant vast expansion in the early 1400s. Under Pacacutec’s reign the empire stretched itself as far north as modern Ecuador and Colombia, and as far south as Northern Argentina and Chile. Unfortunately for the Inca, the over expansion of the empire led to a civil war in the early 1500s, just as the Spanish were arriving. The strife between warring half-brothers Huascar and Atahualpa, unfortunately for the Inca, led to their defeat as the arriving Europeans used and manipulated this tear in Inca society to eventually destroy it in 1534. Lately, thanks in large part to tourism, the city has begun to be revitalized.

Cultural Background

Calling the colourfully dressed local people in Cusco “Inca” is a far cry from reality. The truth is that the Inca were actually a very tall people, while the locals are very short. The difference, they say, is that the Inca Royalty and the common people were worlds apart in genetic lineage, and rarely, if ever, mixed. The proper name for the local people is simply Quechua. The language of Quechua can still be heard in many parts of the city and, in reality, throughout the Andean region of Peru. To immerse yourself in the culture perhaps you might want to try a little bit of the language: alliyanchu (how are you?).

Fast Facts

  • Population: Around 350,000 (with tourists included add another 50,000)
  • Cusco’s Plaza Mayor has an altitude of 2790 meters (9150 feet) above sea level
  • Average January Temperature 13.5 degrees Celsius
  • Average July Temperature 10 degrees Celsius
  • Cusco is actually called Qos’qo. It was just that the lisping Spanish conquerors couldn’t pronounce the name. The title of Cusco was the adaptation

Where to Eat Drink and be Merry

Where to eat?

1. Jack’s Cafe is the place to go in town if you’re looking for a quick big breakfast, which you can feed on all day long.
2. The Real McCoy’s offers huge portions of “home food” including the popular Roast Beef Dinner on Sundays
3. Pachapapa’s in San Blas provides all the best in local cuisine along with great service
4. Paddy’s Irish Pub has great food, and shows a variety of foreign sports
5. Fallen Angels is a little bit expensive but definitely a well deserved treat!

Where to Drink?

1. The Lek is a calm environment and a great place to start your night.
2. Mythology features free salsa lessons nearly every night, and always a good time for the more wild travelers
3. Inca Team is the biggest “nightclub” in town and the music is sure to keep rolling until the wee hours
4. Mama Africa is a smaller, but very busy, joint that plays all the latest from all genres of music

Cusco, Peru

View from Real McCoy

Things to do in Cusco

  • Sacred Valley Day Trip: The Sacred Valley is one of the most fertile regions in all of South America. The summer soils of the valley produce 1000s of different types of potatoes, 100s of types of corn, and even a half dozen types of avocado. It’s no wonder, as you’ll learn, that these people became so obsessed with the summer and winter solstices. Our tour will take us to the very important Inca sites of Saqsaywaman, Pisac, and Ollantaytambo
  • City Tour by foot: The main attractions of the city of Cusco are all found within a fairly short walking distance, this makes a city tour by foot an attractive option.  This tour is a great way to hear the stories of this wonderful city, and gain a true appreciation for its cultural and historical value not only to the region but also to the entire continent.
  • Rafting: Depending on the time of year the rivers around Cusco can provide between class 3 and class 5 rapids. A full day rafting tour can be organized that is sure to tickle the adventurous nature of most. Tours include lunch and all the safety gear needed, including wetsuits.
  • Maras & Moray Salt Mines (By Bus or bike): This is one of the really impressive tours in the area of Cusco. The Moray ruins are impressive cylinder shaped terraces. However, the most spectacular part of this tour is the Salt Mines. The brilliantly designed mines scale the side of a steep slope and are still farmed today nearly the same way they were hundreds of years ago.

Where to Stay in Cusco

You wont find yourself short on options for accommodation in Cusco.  It seems that there is a hotel/hostel for every one resident of the city.  I have been to Cusco about a dozen times and the places below are a couple places I recommend.

  • EcoPackers: One of the best choices in Cusco for backpackers.  Not only does it have a great location, but it also follows a very strict regime of responsible tourism and green living.  The price isn’t bad either at $7 for a dorm bed.
  • The Point: The point also has a great location although this isn’t the quietest building.  The point hostels tend to have a reputation to attract a younger, wilder crowd.  Be prepared for a party if you choose to stay here. (dorms $8)
  • Hotel Cahuide: This hotel is by far the favourite among the tour groups in Cusco.  The old building is beautiful and the rooms are on the quirky side.  It is about a 10 minute walk from the square but in a nice quiet location. (single room $30, double $55)
  • Amaru Hostel: In the San Blas region of Cusco the Amaru Hostel is also popular with tour groups.  It has a nice variety of dorms, as well as private rooms although it feels much more like a hotel than a typical backpacker’s hostel.

All you need to know for the Inca Trail

There is nothing quite like the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This trek will inspire and challenge you all at the same time. However, no matter how strenuous it may be, one must remember to keep their own pace and not forget to look up from the view of the top of their own shoes and enjoy the vista.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu - Click to Enlarge

Trail Details

  • Day 1: The first day of the trail starts out quite calmly. In the morning, you will hike on a relatively flat surface, passing by some important ruins accessible only via the trail. After lunch you will continue uphill to your campsite.
  • Day 2: This is known as the most difficult day on the trek. The day starts early and requires serious focus as you will climb from between 2400 and 2700m up to the infamous “Dead Woman’s Pass” at 4200m.
  • Day 3: This is a relatively easy day, however be prepared for a steep downhill drove of stairs to the final campsite of Winaywana where you will be awarded with hot showers and, perhaps, a beer.
  • Day 4: Rise early (430-500am) to get a jump on the others and into the site of Machu Picchu by around 730am. Once you arrive at Machu Picchu and take your fair share of picture you will be given a tour of the Mecca and free leisure time in the great site. If you dare, try to stay up for the famous 24 hour Challenge!

What to Bring

  • Clothing: Hiking shoes, a pair of sandals for night time, lots of socks, two pairs of light pants, 4 or 5 light shirts, a sweater, a jacket, a hat or a beanie for night time.
  • Extras: Mosquito repellent, sunscreen, walking stick, rain poncho, plastic bags, sunglasses, and some snacks


4 Comments

    • Hi Roy… I have always gone with SAS Travel because they are amazing. You need to book well in advance with them, but it’s worth it. I believe their website is http://www.sastravelperu.com if you want to get a hold of them. Having a good guide company is a really important if you want to really get something out of the trek.

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  1. Nice summary of Cusco. I was there last year and did most of what you suggested.

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  2. oh yeah…the inca trail – i guess for october i should look up some agencies now. thx for the recommendation and the description here!

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