Historic Cusco is a classic jumping off place for treks or train rides to Machu Picchu. Spending a few days here to help acclimatize to the altitude is essential and recommended by most tours. This also gives you the time to absorb the incredibly diverse history here and learn some contextual background before heading to the famous Lost City of the Incas.
The City of Cusco
High in the Andes, surrounded by green mountainous terrain, and consisting of countless windows to the distant past, is the city of Cusco. Somewhat heavily commercialized and touristy (it is after all the passage through which 99% of tours and travelers go to reach Machu Picchu), Cusco is a spectacularly vibrant and cultural city in its own right. Representing many stages of native Peruvian history, ancient Inca history, and Spanish colonial history side by side.
This is a classic case of modern local life imbued in every miniscule facet with ancient traditions and customs. As a small city that sees near constant tourist traffic, part of this phenomenon is purely economical, and could potentially as the main and all about appeasing travelers. However there is a genuine sense throughout the city. Tourists are not sequestered among the classic sites and museums. The sites are a seamless part of the heartbeat of the city.
One of the positive outcomes to being so heavily trafficked by outside visitors, is that Cusco’s many old and fragile sites are well looked after and maintained. Additionally, there are several accommodation and food options available. You’re constantly surrounded by intricate details.
Some of the highlights you’ll experience in Cusco include:
Plaza de armas - The main square and heartbeat of the city. This large open space with a beautiful fountain at the center is a meeting place for locals and tourists alike. Surrounded by restaurants, shops, and beautiful architecture.
Inca Museum - This oddly modest museum, housed in a 17th century colonial house is a great way to introduce yourself to the story of the Inca’s. Explore their collections which include traditional Inca crafts called “Keros” (carved wooden ceremonial vessels), and textiles. The museum also includes mummies and Inca idols of gold and solid silver, and ancient Inca artifacts.
Cusco Cathedral - Incredible 16th century Spanish cathedral. See works of art from the Escuela Cuzquena, which was famous during the colonial era. Spanish colonists set up the school to teach the Inca - giving them examples of European art, scenes, and technique.
16th Century Jesuit Church - Beautiful and enormous, situated right on the Plaza de armas, this church was built in the late 1500s, on the site of an Inca palace.
The Sacred Valley - The Sacred Valley is an important part of Cusco, and was an important area to the Inca. A fertile valley, at lower elevation to Cusco, it was where crops were planted, and community was fostered. Stop to explore Ollantaytambo, Pisac, and of course Machu Picchu.
Cusco’s Ancient Ruins and Archaeological Wonders
As many tours to Peru will highlight, Cusco is an archaeological gold mine. This original capital of the Inca Empire contained much activity and its many ruins reveal much about how the Inca, Spanish, and other native groups lived during the region’s long history.
One of the most significant is the Saksaywaman ruins, high on a hill overlooking Cusco. Originally constructed by the ancient Killke people in the year 1100, it pre-dates Inca presence in the area by 100 years. It is most commonly referred to as a fortress, though the structures original intention is unknown.
Once Incan rulers settled in Cusco, they expanded upon the fortress - utilizing a great example of their famous rock wall technique. Each stone is placed so flush against the ones around it, that if you were to attempt to slide a piece of paper between them, it wouldn’t fit.
Spanish conquest began in the 16th century, just 100 years after the construction of Machu Picchu. At this time the Inca Empire’s capital was still in Cusco, where it had been for 2 centuries.
Rather than plunder and burn, the Spanish simply built on top of adapted or expanded out the many existing structures for their use.
Another impressive ancient site you should see in Cusco is the ruins of Qorikancha. Qorikancha, meaning “Golden Courtyard” in the Quechua language was a central temple, with the walls completely covered floor to ceiling with gold sheets, and an example of the Inca’s obsession with gods and status.
The ruins of Ollantaytambo, which was a city constructed by the Incas in the 1400s, is located in the Sacred Valley, and another key stop for travelers keen to explore ancient Inca history. This city was in fact never finished. The arrival of the Spanish halted their progress, and unfinished portions are clearly visible when you explore the ruins today.
Most tours of Cusco include deep dives into the many archaeological wonders of the Inca Empire and the details to be seen that highlight the subsequent conquest by Spanish colonists. These tours involve a lot of walking over uneven surfaces, and by nature of the impressive amount to be seen, will involve a lot of standing and listening to the stories of the Inca Empire, native tribes of Peru, and Spanish influence.
Cusco has a long rainy season, so the chances of you standing and walking in the rain are fairly high, as many of the sights you’ll see during your tour are outside and uncovered. Whenever you are visiting ruins, be very cognisant of where you walk and pay attention to signage. Many may have loose ground and unsafe areas that are not suitable for walking, or have areas that are currently under excavation.
If you’re less interested in ancient history, Peru’s major cities and sites may hold limited fascination for you. While most tours to Cusco and beyond will also highlight on local food and customs of Peru, the central focus will definitely be on the ruins.
Touring the Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley is part of the wider Cusco region, and a historically significant area to the Inca Empire. This fertile valley encompasses multiple Inca ruins, including the Machu Picchu citadel, and was an extremely important stronghold to the Inca’s survival - helping them to thrive as long as they did.
The valley, surrounded by mountains, is several degrees warmer than the higher elevation Cusco and Machu Picchu. This allowed crops to be grown and provided a climate where settlement and growth made more sense. Unlike the grandeur of Machu Picchu, which most archaeologists believe was built as an estate for the Inca ruler Pachacuti, the Sacred Valley was the center of everyday life for Inca families.
Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley is a lovely small village, with ruins nearby which are a classic stop for most tours to Machu Picchu from Cusco. The train journey from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu, is about 3 hours.
From Cusco to Machu Picchu: Prepare for the Journey
Cusco is a classic stop for travelers heading to Machu Picchu. In fact almost all tours stop here for a day or two before embarking on the Inca trail or taking the train to Aguas Calientes. This is useful for a couple reasons.
Cusco is at 11k feet above sea level, while Machu Picchu is at a mere 8K. A few days in Cusco is crucial for adjusting to the altitude. The last thing you want is to suffer from altitude sickness during your journey to Machu Picchu! Take it easy, drink lots of water, and let your body get used to the thin Andean air.
Staying in Cusco is also helpful for providing an initial context to your journey and the characters involved. It’s the perfect introduction to Peru, and the many forces that contributed to the culture and diversity here. Including in food, language, architecture, and art - Cusco is the gateway to another time. The present day locals live concurrent with their ancestors, in keeping their traditions and customs alive. Cusco is the gateway from which you prepare to enter a different world.
During your free time in Cusco, be sure to pick up any last minute essentials for your journey. Depending on the time of year, it could be quite chilly, and even more so once you reach the ruins. The sun is often shrouded in mist and fog before 10am at Machu Picchu, and though you’ll be scrambling up and down ancient stairways as you explore, it will still be damp. Luckily Cusco is full of shops where you can purchase the famous alpaca wool hats, gloves, or ponchos. (Though don’t go overboard! Last thing you want is more luggage to deal with on your hike, or to keep track of during your stay in Aguas Calientes).
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco. If you’re taking the train (of which there are three choices, of different budget levels) if leaves right from Poroy Station, about 20 minutes from downtown Cusco. This service is regular between May and December, but may be irregular during off season months when mudslides or heavy rain cause safety concerns.
If you are planning to reach Machu Picchu on one of the three main treks, you’ll take a bus or shuttle from Cusco to your starting point. On your way, you’ll pass through the Sacred Valley, location of Ollantaytambo, where you might stop for a night depending on your tour itinerary.
Weather in Cusco
The weather in Cusco is mild and temperate, with temperatures rarely dips below 30 degrees F, and rarely above 75 degrees F. The area does experience moderate to heavy rainfall through much of the year, between December and April. Heavy cloud cover can be expected in January, February, and March.