If you are considering traveling to Cusco (AKA Cuzco) you are no doubt thinking of using it as the staging area for a trip to Machu Picchu. Yes, this is the place for that, but there are plenty of reasons to visit Cusco on its own or at least hang around for a while before or after your trip to the lost Incan city. Cusco has been an important colonial city and capital for many centuries and an important city for the Incas long before that.
What To Do
First things first, Cusco is in a little valley, but its elevation of around 3,500 m (11,500 feet) makes it even a little higher than Machu Picchu itself. It’s important to plan on spending at least a day or so getting used to the altitude before you get involved in too much adventure. Once settled, start by checking out the breathtaking main city square known as the Plaza de Armas. It’s lined with Cusco’s most famous and important buildings and the area around it is filled with restaurants, bars, and shops.
Cusco is in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the area is as scenic as it is fascinating. Take a bus tour of the Valley and you’ll have a guide explain everything thoroughly and give you chances to hike up to some interesting ruins on cliff sides with no guardrails that you’d never see in the USA or Europe. If you go on Sunday you can take in the famous market in Pisac. Nearly every other business in Cusco is a travel agency of some kind and all of them will sell tickets for these popular bus tours. The prices can have a big range, but the tours tend to be the same so you can shop for a cheap price with some confidence.
Speaking of bus tours, there is a bus that looks like a trolley that runs a big loop around all the famous sights in Cusco itself. Look for it in the Plaza de Armas. It’s quite cheap and comes with a good commentary so you can really appreciate the various other town squares as well as some further-flung ruins and statues. If the weather is nice this is a great introduction to the city when you first arrive.
You can fly to Cusco on the very frequent flights from Lima, but you can also get to Cusco from a few other regional airports in Peru and Argentina. The airport is small, but they do a professional job of moving large groups through quickly. Buses can take you into the center of town, but taxis are fairly cheap so they can be a good option if you are in a group of any size.
Where To Stay
There are tons of hostels in Cusco to house all the Machu Picchu travelers. Many of the cheaper ones are on the outskirts of central Cusco, but it might be worth it to stay closer in since the city has great nightlife and is really magical at night. Of course there are plenty of hotels in Cusco as well in all price ranges. As with anywhere, the better and cheaper ones tend to fill up early so book ahead.