High in the Peruvian Andes lies Cusco, the ancestral capital of the Inca empire and gateway to the world-famous ruins at Machu Picchu.
Many excited tourists rush through this mountain crossroads, but that’s a mistake. The city’s fascinating combination of Spanish Colonial architecture, Inca stonework, indigenous Quechua culture, and beautiful natural setting make it worth a couple days of alley-way wandering and siesta-filled afternoons.
As the capital of the far-flung Inca empire, Q’osqoI was known as the “navel of the world.” And if we can be forgiven a mixed metaphor, as the administrative and religious center it was also the beating heart of the realm.
At its peak the population swelled to 150,000, and roads extended from its center to all parts of the empire. It was so important to the Inca that Spanish invader Pizarro and his conquistadores realized that to truly control the region, the capital had to be destroyed. And after the battle of 1532, they proceeded to do just that.
But there must have been a few red Spanish faces when it was realized that these “savages” had built sturdy walls that couldn’t be torn down. And in Pizarro’s version of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” new structures were built on top of the old walls. These hybrid walls, still present today, are some of the most photographed sites in town.
The heart of the city, then and now, is The Plaza de Armas, which showcases classic Spanish Colonial Architecture at its best. The ornate, Renaissance-style Catedral dominates the square and the bench-lined plaza, which could have been lifted right out of Madrid, makes a pleasant spot to while away an afternoon.
Cusco is also the regional center for the indigenous Quechua Culture, so wandering the streets is a golden opportunity to see rural Andean women in traditional clothing selling handicrafts. And if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble on a pet llama … literally.
A fixture that may surprise visitors are signs advertising the regional delicacy cuy – a.k.a. roasted guinea pig! More protein than pet, this fast-breeding rodent has been a part of the Peruvian diet for centuries. There are restaurants that specialize in cuy, and you can buy it as a meal-on-a-stick from street vendors. Visitors may giggle and cringe at the thought of eating what may have been a childhood pet, but laugh all you want. A well-respected ecological watchdog weighed in on the issue:
“Rodents and other small livestock represent a low-impact meat alternative to carbon-costly beef.” —The Nature Conservancy
If all this isn’t enough to convince you to make a stop in Cusco, there’s one more: Altitude Sickness. Cusco’s elevation is 11,000 feet, and no matter what your physical condition you’ll be impacted by the thinner air. And there’s a good chance you’ll experience the lingering effects of Altitude Sickness – or Soroche, as it’s called in Spanish.
Most travelers fly into Cusco from Lima, which is at sea level, so it takes time to adjust before you ascend to Machu Picchu. The shortness of breath, headaches, and nausea can sideline even the fittest of people. In our experience, the best solution was to take it easy on the day of arrival, have a nap in the afternoon, indulge gently with food, avoid alcohol, get a good night’s sleep, and acclimate for a couple of days before moving on.
Visiting Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley requires passing through Cusco, and this scenic gem completes the historic and cultural picture of the Inca. You’ve come a long way, so why not make a stop?
James & Terri
Last updated January 26, 2020
Photo Credits: 2,3,4,7,9,12 kconnors 6. Collegiate
I loved Cusco. We were lucky enough to be there at festival time, and the colours and costumes were fabulous. But it’s a nice place just to wander around, as you say. Lovely post.
Tracey, Cusco is a colorful city under normal circumstances, so it must have been wonderful for a festival. One thing about Central and South Americans is they truly enjoy their festivals. What was the celebration? ~James
James, it was Semana Santa and it was glorious!
Looks like a wonderful place to adapt to the thin air. Catching ones breath in the square after exploring would be perfect, but I’m not so sure about guinea pig on a stick. Did you try it?
Laura, luckily neither Terri nor I had any big problems with the altitude other than shortness of breath, but it was noticeable with even the smallest of efforts. Cusco was a good adjustment before arrival at Machu Picchu. And no, we didn’t try the cuy. I’m sure it would have been fine, but they’re cooked whole and I couldn’t get over the look on their faces. ~James
I loved Cusco! Peru was a beautiful country overall, but we really enjoyed our time in Cusco and felt like we would be happy to live there.
Juliann, your comment about being happy to live there is an interesting one. Places like Cusco have enough tourists to bring in additional business and money to raise the quality of living for everyone (jobs, restaurants, museums, etc), and at the same time not be overrun. It had a nice, relaxed vibe that’s for sure … or maybe the altitude sickness just slowed me down. 🙂 ~James
Loved Cusco. It has fabulous markets too, with things other than the cuy, haha. Ben tried it but I did not. I loved the variety of potatoes and all the accompanying different sauces. We definitely got hit by altitude sickness and were surprised by how easily that happened. Locals gave us a particular leaf to chew on which seemed to help a bit. That was not fun, but other than that Cusco was great!
Peta, Terri and I had a bit of an adjustment to the altitude, but we just took it slow and gradually adjusted. One of the things that seemed to help us both was a long nap on the afternoon of arrival. Of course, I’ve never been one to shy away from a good nap. 🙂 Luckily, we didn’t experience the headaches and malaise that some people get. From what I read, there’s really no predicting how severe it will be and who does and doesn’t get strongly impacted. It’s definitely the kind of adjustment that easier to make in Cusco than Machu Picchu. ~James
I loved Cusco and stayed there for a few days before going to The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Your advice on how to acclimatize to the high altitude is spot on.
Natalie, we loved the slow pace of Cusco and the old colonial buildings were lovely. Also, it’s not one of those places that has so much to do that there’s pressure to check things off a list. We just roamed around, which is one of our favorites ways to see a new city. ~James
I liked Cusco, and to this day, landing at Cusco airport remains the dodgiest landing I’ve ever had: we got 2 wheels down, ran out of runway and had to take off again super quick!
Fi, I can imagine how scary that must have been. I’m not a nervous flyer, but I’m always a bit on edge when I fly in less-developed countries. And when possible, I try to fly with larger company airlines. The advice we read for Lima-Cusco flights was to fly as early in the day as possible to avoid storms later in the day. We flew on the first flight, and luckily, didn’t have any issues. ~James
Yeah, our flight from Lima was delayed so we arrived in Cusco late afternoon.
Insects and rodents are said to be some of the most eco-friendly proteins we can eat, but guinea pigs are so cute I couldn’t do it. Altitude sickness is no joke – both my wife and I got it in Peru.
Jeff, from everything that we read, there’s absolutely no predicting how severe the reaction to altitude sickness will be. Luckily for us, neither of us were strongly affected, but a few easy days in Cusco were part of the plan just in case.
As to protein, not sure about bugs, but you’ll be interested in what the Nature Conservancy had to say: Guinea pigs “are twice as efficient as cows at turning food, like hay and compost scraps, into meat: To render a pound of meat, a cow, he explains, may require 8 pounds of feed. A guinea pig only needs 4.” That seemed incredible to me and is one of those facts that, given the damage that beef production does to the environment, I’m surprised I haven’t seen it before. But still, a guinea pig burger … umm. I’ll have to think about that one. 🙂 ~James