Once you’ve made the decision to visit Machu Picchu, you find out that you’ll need to make your way to Cusco first to either catch the train or start your trek on the Inca Trail to the famous historical site. If you aren’t too familiar with South American history, chances are you’ve never even heard of this city before (I hadn’t!).
Some Machu Picchu travelers only pass through this city, but trust me, you’d really be doing yourself a disservice. Cusco was the capital of the Incan Empire and just like Machu Picchu, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is rich in history and spending a few days here could substitute as a great crash course about the region’s fascinating past.
In Cusco, you can purchase a Boleto Turistico that will allow entry to 16 cultural sites in the area for S/130 (about $45), valid for 10 days. This includes several museums in the city, a cultural dance show, and entry to the main sites in the Sacred Valley. It’s definitely worth it (and cheaper) if you want to see everything – some of the sites will only allow entry with the Boleto Turistico. There’s also a partial ticket if you don’t want the full package for S/70.
The ruins of Saksaywaman are a must. It was a walled complex just on the outskirts of the city and was the former capitol of the Incan Empire. It was built between 900 – 1200 AD by the Killke Culture and eventually expanded by the Inca. The main plaza could accommodate thousands of people for ceremonial rituals and the site was used as a protective fortress and a sort of headquarters to control the city below.
Saksaywaman is known for its impressive stonework (similarly to other Incan ruins) – the Andesite blocks can be as large as 6 meters tall, weighing between 128 – 200 tonnes and are so precisely interlocked together that a piece of paper won’t fit between them.
In addition to Saksaywaman, a few other sites to visit in the Sacred Valley with your Boleto Turistico are Pisaq, Ollaytaytambo, Chinchero, Moray, and Tambomachay. There are several tour companies in Cusco if you’d like to join a guided tour in English.
I’d recommend joining a Sacred Valley tour as we found the guides to be very knowledgeable and it takes the planning off your plate – most of these sites are spread out throughout the region so it could be a pain to coordinate travel between them.
Within Cusco, be sure to visit Plaza de Armas (the main square), the Cusco Cathedral, and the Barrio de San Blas. Plaza de Armas is the location of many major historical events from the city’s past, including the death of the legendary leader of the indigenous uprising against the Spanish, Túpac Amaru II. You can also find the Cusco Cathedral there; it was the first Catholic Cathedral built in the Americas by the Spanish, dating around 1539 AD.
Don’t forget to stop by the Barrio de San Blas and Qorikancha, one of the most revered temples of the Inca. In the beautiful neighborhood of San Blas, you’ll find artisans, workshops and craft shops – great places to buy authentic Peruvian goods.
When walking around the city, take notice of the buildings with ancient stone foundations and plaster on top. This reflects the historical transition of the city through the centuries with Incan stone foundations and Spanish architectural buildings built upon them. Cusco is also known for their beautiful balconies; another major architectural influence from the Spanish.
On top of all the history you’ll be undoubtedly immersed in while you’re in the city, Cusco is a prime place to learn about Peruvian culture. You’ll find excellent Peruvian cuisine here and get a sense of how the locals live.
As I mentioned earlier, Cusco is well known for their crafts, textiles, leather and wooden goods. You could spend hours just visiting the artisan shops, most of which are filled with handmade items. During the weekend, there’s also a pretty cool nightlife scene for drinks and dancing 🙂
Another important aspect to consider before visiting Cusco is the altitude. The city sits 3,400 meters (11,200 ft) above sea level, so if you’re prone to altitude sickness, consider preparing for it ahead of time. It may not be a bad idea to visit Machu Picchu first since it’s lower in altitude. In terms of safety, the city is pretty safe, but obviously use your best judgement.
I didn’t know much about Cusco prior to planning my Machu Picchu trip, but it turned out being one of the highlights of our trip. There’s so much to do and see here (there’s a LOT I didn’t mention in this article) and you’ll learn so much about Incan and Peruvian history. Don’t miss it if you’re ever in Peru – it’s a must see!