Cusco is a charming city located in Peru and is well known as the destination for travelers en route to Machu Picchu. It is worth spending some time in this beautiful city if you are able to since there is a lot to see and do. Here is my advice for anyone traveling to Cusco:
Visit Plaza de Armas
This is the main square in Cusco where you will find most of the attractions. Plaza de Armas is beautifully landscaped and surrounded by towering cathedrals, quaint alleys, delicious restaurants, and bustling markets. My cousin and I stayed at the Sonesta Hotel (I highly recommend it) and we were just a short walk to the Plaza which was convenient. This is also home to the famous Cusco Cathedral which I hear is worth taking a tour inside (though we didn’t take one.)
Shop in the Markets
Cusco is well known for their many “mercados” or markets. Much of the economy is driven by tourism, and the Peruvians really know how to make and sell beautiful homemade gifts. Nearly half our time in Cusco was spent rummaging through markets in search of unique gifts to bring home for family and friends. It is customary to haggle with the people selling goods, but you need to brush up on your Spanish to do this since most of the vendors don’t speak English. We had a lot of fun engaging with the locals and felt good giving money to these hard-working people. Some of our favorite goodies included scarves, bags, bracelets, llama figurines, coin purses, and Inca cross statues. Everything they sell is so colorful, unique, and affordable! Tip: We found the farther back in the market you go, the cheaper the price.
Try the Coca Tea
Cusco is located at a very high altitude- over 11,000 feet. That is why many people heading to Machu Picchu stay in Cusco to acclimatise (allow your body to adjust to the thinner air.) It is recommended by many – though not scientifically proven – that coca tea helps you adjust to high altitude. In fact, the Peruvians swear by it! Our hotel had free coca tea in our lobby 24/7, and you can find coca tea and coca tea leaves (to chew) all over Cusco. Coca leaves are illegal in the United States since it is an ingredient used in cocaine, however it is not dangerous in its pure form. It is a slight stimulant with caffeine in it and has a bland, slightly bitter taste, similar to green tea.
My cousin and I never got really sick from the altitude, though we did experience shortness of breath and restless nights. Many people experience symptoms similar to a bad hangover, but after two or three days your body will adjust. I learned that at a high altitude your body needs to produce a surplus of red blood cells which are used to carry oxygen throughout your body. So people with fewer red blood cells take longer to acclimatise than those with higher counts. (I must have a lot of red blood cells since I never got sick.)
Learn About the History & Admire the Architecture
Cusco is very old and filled with a lot of history and beautiful architecture. The Incas believed Cusco was the center of the world, like an umbilical cord, and thought everything in the world came from Cusco and spread out in four directions. This sentiment is represented in the “Inca Cross” which you see all over Peru. Explore the streets and allow yourself to get lost. We loved discovering unique shops and restaurants while we wandered around the city.
Other Tips and Advice:
- Cusco is very walkable, there will be few times you need to take public transportation if you stay in the main areas of the city.
- Pace yourself. There are steep hills and with the high altitude it is easy to get winded very quickly. Stroll slowly and enjoy your time exploring.
- Try the homemade ice cream at Qucharitas. It is sooo good. They make it by pouring cream on to an extremely cold surface and stir it around until it becomes solid. It was like no ice cream I had ever tasted before-delicious!
- There are stray dogs all over Cusco! They are so sweet and are very well fed by the locals. We loved seeing all the dogs and some of them even followed us for awhile. I wish I could have taken the dogs home with me, but they seemed happy and free. It was nice to see dogs playing together and having a great time.
- My cousin and I found the Peruvian people to be completely delightful. They were polite, helpful, and kind. However they can be a bit pushy in tourist-y areas when they are trying to sell you something. We found a ton of people trying to sell “original artwork” which wasn’t original and were pushing massages for tourists coming back from Machu Picchu. If you ignore them, they will stop bothering you.
- Bring cash with you to the markets, most don’t accept credit cards.
- Try to learn some Spanish. Unless you are in a nice hotel or restaurant, most of the locals speak very little English. It was helpful that my cousin and I were relatively comfortable speaking completely in Spanish to get around.
Have you ever visited Cusco? What are your tips for traveling there?
If you are interested in reading more about my trip to Peru, check out these articles: