Cusco sits over 11,000 feet above sea level in the heart of the Andes. This Peruvian city is widely considered the archaeological capital of the Americas thanks to its incredible mix of colonial and ancient Incan architecture. Once the center of the Inca Empire, Cusco remains a mecca of sorts for adventure-minded travelers touring South America. Cusco's stunning mountain setting, traditional handicrafts and vibrant festivals make it an absolutely essential destination for tourists visiting Peru, that representing the ancients traditions of Inca Empire.
Despite all that Cusco has to offer, many of the tourists that pass through this city come simply out of necessity. Cusco operates as the highland hub for excursions to other regional attractions, such as the immensely popular Machu Picchu ruins and the Inca Trail. Also of interest is the nearby Sacred Valley of the Incas. Machu Picchu ranks as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, bringing in an enormous volume of tourism. Cusco has the region's only airport and train station, and all trips to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail start here.
Many of the buildings in Cusco have been around for over nine centuries, dating back to the days of the Inca Empire and beyond. Intricate Incan stonework can still be seen in many of the city's streets and squares. The Spanish conquistadors conquered Cusco in 1533, grafting new colonial architecture onto the sturdy foundations of indigenous sites. Cusco's Santo Domingo Church is a prime example of this architectural melding. The church rests on the grounds of the Incan Koricancha, or Temple of the Sun. Much of the cloister has been removed to reveal the original chambers of the temple, allowing tourists to see the diverse contrasts in building styles.
Another of Cusco's primary attractions is the Cathedral located in the Main Square. Construction on the cathedral began in 1550, consuming the former site of the Inca Viracocha's palace.
Visitors can also hike up to the hilltop fortress of Sacsayhuamán, which once functioned as a defensive citadel for the Incan capital. Massive stones dot the crest of the hill, creating a series of ramparts where tourists can wander about and enjoy panoramic views of the entire city below.
Cusco Tourist Ticket
Andean Travel Web recommends that visitors purchase a Cusco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistico del Cusco) at the city's municipal tourism office on Calle Mantas. The ticket grants access to 16 of the top sites around Cusco and the nearby Sacred Valley. Valid for 10 days, the Cusco Tourist Ticket includes passes to prominent attractions such as the Santa Catalina Convent and Art Museum and the Sacsayhuamán fortress. Several notable attractions are not included on the ticket, including the Cathedral and the Koricancha Temple of the Sun. Passes for these sites can be purchased separately on location.
Dining and Nightlife
The highest concentration of dining and nightlife options lies in and around the Main Square. This central square features numerous old buildings and arcades with rooftop terraces and patios where guests can enjoy a meal looking out on the square and cathedral. Local delicacies include cuy (roast guinea pig) and alpaca (charbroiled llama) along with a tasty variety of potatoes and corn.
Myriad travel agencies and souvenir shops also operate around the Main Square, and some of the city's best discotheques draw in a lively crowd of tourists at night.
Cusco's biggest holiday is Inti Raymi, an event that celebrates the winter solstice and the power of the sun god. This pre-Columbian festival brings in thousands of Peruvians and foreigners looking to witness the traditional pageants and parades that fill the streets of the city. Held on June 24th, the highlight of Inti Raymi occurs in the Sacsayhuamán ruins above town where a collection of Incan priests conduct sacrifices and address the public while praying for good fortunes in the coming year. Local prices for everything from lodging to food go up double or triple for this holiday, so be prepared for higher rates and larger crowds.
The peak tourism season in Cusco lasts from June to September. This is technically winter in the Peruvian highlands, which means drier weather. The rainy season goes from November to March, and tourist numbers drop off drastically as the steady downpour limits road and trail accessibility throughout the region. Visitors can expect to feel some effects from altitude sickness upon arrival in Cusco. The high elevation often causes mild nausea and fatigue, though symptoms can be more severe in some cases. Rest and coca-leaf tea are the best remedies for altitude acclimatization.
On the positive side, tourism plays a vital role in Cusco's economy. Tourists contribute to a large percentage of economic activity here, spending money at hotels, restaurants and gift shops. However, with the steadily increasing flow of tourists comes an equally large concentration of cluttered travel agencies and brazen street vendors, somewhat diminishing the charm that this majestic city once possessed. Regardless, tourism is here to stay in Cusco, and the city has managed to retain much of its mysterious allure thus far.