City Guide: Cusco
Far from being a mere base from which to explore the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, Cusco is itself an integral part of any Peruvian itinerary and key to understanding the ancient Inca civilisation, with several important archaeological sites nearby and Inca stonework visible throughout. It's not all about history here though, Cusco has a thriving cultural and culinary scene and a busy calendar of events and festivals.
Symbol of the City: Like many Latin American cities, Cusco radiates from a central square, off of which a myriad of steep streets carry you off in all directions. However, the Plaza de Armas is one of the most recognisable of its kind. It's large grassy centre, gentle archways and the twin towers of the cathedral and the Church of La Compañía are best appreciated both from the square itself and from the viewpoint in front of the San Cristobal church (see below).
Star Attraction: Overlooking the historic city centre are the Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman, a huge fortified complex considered one of the most important archaeological sites in Peru. Today visitors can appreciate the ingenuity of the design, thanks to the imposing zig-zagging walls which remain intact. Put together like a puzzle, the stones of all shapes and sizes form structures so perfect in their design that is mind-boggling to contemplate anyone being capable of such a feat of engineering, especially without the tools and equipment on hand today (its baffling even how some of the stones got there). The Inti Raymi festival is held here on the winter solstice in June, with elaborate parades and traditional ceremonies. In the city itself many historic monuments are actually built on Inca ruins, whilst the Twelve-Angled Stone wall on Hatunrumiyoc is an impressive example of the brilliance found higher up at Sascayhuaman.
Hidden Gem: The view across Cusco from Plaza San Cristobal can hardly be described as a hidden gem, but its certainly worth taking the time time to linger on the streets which lead up to it, not least because of how steep they are. Coupled with the high altitude they are challenge for any sea-level dwelling visitor. In particular the parallel streets of Pumacurco, Arco Iris and Resbalosa are typical of Cusco's narrow cobbled streets, lined with whitewashed facades and populated by the odd wondering Cusqueñan.
Eat & Drink: One of the most traditional foods in Peru is quinoa and it is available in a wide range of forms throughout the city; porridge, cereals, biscuits, chocolate, soup, burger or even beer. Something that is every bit as much a national staple is the Pisco Sour drink, made with grape brandy, lemon bitters and egg white. It is a must-sample when visitng Cusco, though given the altitude here it's best not to indulge too much!
After Dark: Cusco is full of wonderfully laid-back travellers cafes in which you can exchange tales of your experiences hiking the Inca Trail or visiting the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and beyond, long into the night. The San Blas district in particular offers a friendly mix of lively bars and down-to-earth restaurants.
Escape: Most travellers stop in Cusco en-route to a number of the famous landmarks and destinations which surround the city. The nearby Sacred Valley is easily reached by road, from where you can either catch a train or hike the Inca Trail to the Lost Citadel of Machu Picchu. Heading south, trains and coaches carry visitors towards the Bolivian border to visit the magical Lake Titicaca.
When to Go: Although it is visited all year round, Cusco effectively has two seasons; the rainy one and the dry one. The summer months between November and March are generally wetter, whilst the winter, which runs from June to September, is much drier. The the temperatures remain remarkably consistent throughtout the year, often around 20 degrees, but with slightly colder nights in the winter. There are several festivals which take place throughout the year in Cusco and so it is always worth checking ahead to see whether you can coincide your visit with one of these, or avoid them if you prefer.
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