Set high in the Andes at 11,200 feet above sea level, Cusco was once the jewel in the crown of the Inca empire. It’s now most archaeologically (say that quickly 5 times!) important place in the Americas, as the gateway to Machu Picchu.
The city is the center of indigenous Quechua speaking descendants of the Incas in the Andes. The many squares and narrow cobblestone streets are filled with beautifully preserved Spanish colonial buildings, built directly on top of the original huge Inca walls that form the foundations of the buildings. But whilst Cusco is famous for it’s past, it’s centre today is firmly in the 21st century, pandering to the many tourists who throng here. It seems virtually every building in the Plaza de Armas is now tourist related, and there’s also a substantial tourist fueled night life.
Cusco Guide – Shopping
The Incas were known for their artisan works, especially textiles. So it will be no surprise that Cusco is at the centre of shopping for Andean handicrafts.
Anything made from alpaca, silver, wood and local artists can be found in Cusco. Though more expensive than you might have hoped for, like any main city it’s worth shopping around.
Good places to shop:
San Blas – the ‘artists’ area in Cusco
Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco, Av. El Sol 603 (fair trade)
Galería Latina, Zetas 309 (artisan antiques)
A note on Alpaca: Unless you are a specialist, it is very hard to know what is reallyalpaca or baby alpaca. Everyone will claim it is alpaca but unless you are a specialist, if you really want that level of quality, it is best you go to the top end stores. Though more expensive they’ll still be cheap compared to home.
Money is both dollars and sole(s). However poor condition notes in both currencies WONT be accepted.
Food and Drink
Peruvians are immensely proud of their food. And so they should be. Here’ a list of things you should try
Pisco Sour – This is an alcoholic drink made with Pisco (Peruvian brandy) and egg whites. It’s very tasty.
Pisco Chiclana – Pisco, lime, syrup and ginger beer.
Chicha morada – Dark purple corn made from corn this is a local non-alcoholic juice. Note: there is an alcoholic version – called Chicha Jora – but it’s made by locals chewing the corn to start the fermentation process
Inka Cola – Sweet yellow drink similar to cream soda
Mate de Coca – Tea made from leaves of the coca plant
Cusquena Beer – Cusco’s own brew
Borgona wine – This is sweet Peruvian wine
Lomo Saltado – Beef, rice, potato fries, onions and peppers
Cuy or Guinea Pig – Yes this is the local dish
Rocoto Relleno – A stuffed spicy pepper
Papas a la Huancaina – Cold potatoes covered in a hot yellow cheese sauce
Palta Rellena – Stuffed avocado
Lucuma – Fruit but try it as an ice-cream
Choclo con queso – Local corn served with cheese
Anticuchos de corazon – Marinated beef heart on a skewer
Picarones – Doughnut like rings made with sweet potato and pumpkin chocolate with nuts
Menus – When you are asked ‘2 menus?’ they are not asking you if you want the menu, they are asking you if you want the special. Which is a great tip to cheap eating, but check what they have first!
The specialty in Cusco and the surrounding area is trout (trucha), as it comes from the rivers and lakes, also if you are feeling brave try guinea pig. For those who want something more like home, pizza’s are often good and we recommend Chez Maggie for their pizza and ambiance.
Ciccolina – for a reasonably expensive meal head here. Famous for it’s squid ink pasta, and if you’re missing steak from home, this is the place to have it. Also delicious breakfasts.
Jakes is also a popular gringo hangout and has all day breakfasts.
But don’t just stick with food you know, do try the smaller restaurants and go with the special of the day – known as ‘the Menu’. It costs much less than any if the places where foreigners frequent and will often only cost you 5-8 soles (under USD3).
In addition we recommend on a Sunday you get a collectivo to Huarocondo, (Cusco to Izcuchaca, Izcuchaca to Huarocondo), and sit in the square and try pig, along with all the other people from Cusco who come to try the famous pig.
(Optional) Ayhuasca and San Pedro drugs
Many people come to Peru to seek spiritual guidance in the form of ceremonies called Ayhausca and San Pedro. You will even see these advertised in the streets of Cusco ‘Ayhausca ceremony tonight at 6’. However these are powerful drugs, and it is suggested that research is done before you down something very powerful. We have had excellent recommendations from people who have been to Sacred Dimension who are serious about the ceremony, have good dwellings. It’s owned by an English lady and a Peruvian Shaman from the jungle. They also ‘cook’ their own ayhausca.
Getting There and Around
Though Cusco airport says international, and apparently is due to become so soon, currently it is a national airport and the best way to get into Cusco is from Lima. Prices start about USD100 one way.
There are no trains in and out of Cusco except to Machu Picchu
There are lots of taxis. You shouldn’t pay more than 4 soles to go around town. Always check the price before you get in.
You can rent cars. If you are used to busy city driving, renting a car is a fantastic way to enjoy Cusco and the surrounding areas. Though people use their horns a lot, there is very little aggression behind the sound (unlike many European cities), and if you feel confident we recommend this as a great way to see the countryside. It also allows you stay outside of Cusco in some of the local villages.
Cusco is full of bars and clubs, all mainly around the square. Whether you want to try salsa with the up market locals in Mama Africa, or head to the modern beat of Mythologia, there’s plenty to keep you going all night long. Remember that altitude does affect drinking, so be a little careful about how much you consume!
There are many festivals in the regions. Here are a few of the main ones.
6th January – Arrival of the 3 wise men La Bajada de los Reyes.
May/June – (two months after easter on the full moon) Festival of Qoyllur Rit’i – a pilgrimage to the foot of a glacier to visit with the apu (mountain spirits).
24th June – Resurrection of the sun Inti Raymi (summer solstice) at Sacsayhuaman where a play is performed.
16 July – Virgen del Carmen (Pisac)
21st December – Winter solstice. Worth visiting Ollantaytambo to see how the sun’s light shines through the mountains.
Weather In Cusco
A note on weather. You’re in the mountains. Wear appropriate footwear and have some changes in clothing for both sun and rain. Mountain weather is notorious for changeability. Off peak is during spring time in the mountains (Dec – March). Though you will have rain quite a bit, you will enjoy green grass and no queues. During peak times the days are hot and the nights cold and the queues long, so book early for the main attractions.
Other things you need to know:
Research indicated that everyone is different. What is clear is that locals chew or drink coca leaves, and no matter how long you are here for we suggest you do this continually (we put leaves in our water bottles). In addition there are tablets that can be bought locally, or indeed brought from home, that deal with altitude sickness. For many it can
be just a headache. Our advice is not to worry too much about altitude sickness but to have a plan about what to do if you get it. The key is that if you feel really bad you need to descend as quickly as possible. Also note that altitude is about staying high, not going up high for a day. Also note that Machu Picchu is LOWER than Cusco.
Walking is second nature to mountain people. So that means when a local tells you something is only about 10 minutes that way (especially if it is up), our experience is that it’s about 45 minute walk. So knowing your fitness levels are important to enjoy the various sites around this region. Having watched locals we see that when they are walking up hills they walk a few paces and then stop. We tried this and noticed how quickly your breath comes back. In addition, as mentioned earlier, we carried coca leaves to chew (very bitter), and put them in our water bottles. This helped immensely.