Wondering whether you should visit Cusco? This list of the top reasons to visit Cusco Peru will convince you to plan a trip and help you decide what to see in Cusco and how to spend your time. If you’re on the fence about visiting Cusco, read on to find out why you should stop hesitating and add this vibrant city to your Peru itinerary!
This is a guest post by Owen Ter of My Turn to Travel
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Formerly the capital of the Inca empire, Cusco today is one of the most visited cities in Peru. It’s not hard to see why: it’s the gateway to Machu Picchu, is surrounded by beautiful scenery, and has a ton of things to do.
After spending 5 weeks in Cusco, I’ve come to think of Cusco as a city everyone should visit, and this article explains why. See below for my top 13 reasons to visit Cusco:
01. The Architecture
If you visit Lima before going to Cusco, you’ll see how different the architecture is in both major cities. With the exception of a colonial main square, Lima is a typical modern city of skyscrapers, glass buildings, and shopping malls.
Cusco, on the other hand, has influences from the Inca Empire throughout the city. Building walls are made out of large stones, with individual pieces fitting together so perfectly that even a piece of paper can’t fill the gap between the stones. Building designs in the city are very similar to that found in the ruins around the city, and in Machu Picchu itself.
Many of the museums in Cusco and many Cusco hotels are built on the foundation of these ancient Inca buildings. One major point of architectural interest is the Qorikancha, once the most sacred temple and presently a museum. It has architectural styles from 3 distinct eras: pre-colonial, colonial and modern.
- Tour Option: Cusco Guided City Tour
02. The Cobblestone Streets
The narrow cobblestone streets and corridors seen in Cusco are one of the defining characteristics of Inca city planning. Because of this, there’s no way large vehicles can navigate through easily, making Cusco very pedestrian friendly.
This complements the Inca and colonial architecture, as well as the Inca ruins which define the city. The only thing missing are horse-drawn carriages!
Fun fact: Do you know that Cusco city was planned in the shape of a puma?
03. The Ruins
Speaking of ruins, there are plenty of them, almost everywhere you go in the city. The Qoorikancha Museum is built atop the ruins of the Temple of the Sun, and the giant fortress ruins of Sacsayhuaman overlooks the main city plaza.
Continuing from Sacsayhuaman along the outskirts of town are the ruins of the ‘zigzag’ temple, Q’enko; the ruins of the red fortress Puca Pucara; and what is widely suspected to be a holiday spa resort, Tambomachay.
The crowning glory of Peru – and the main reason most people visit Cusco – is of course the ruins of Machu Picchu.
- Tour Option: 5-Hour Cusco City and Nearby Ruins Guided Tour
04. The History
Legend has it the founder of the Inca Empire, Manco Capac, was tasked by the Sun God to establish a capital city for the Empire. Manco Capac chose Cusco after his golden staff, which he brought with him to earth, sunk into Cusco’s earth without resistance. He took this as a sign that Cusco should be this capital, and built the Temple of the Sun: the center of the Inca Empire.
Before Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire (from the 13th to 16th centuries), evidence proves the region was inhabited as far back as 1000 BC, when the Marcavalle culture reigned. Consisting of mainly farmers and shepherds, the city was precariously organized. Later, the Chapanata culture developed, followed by the Qotakalli, Wari, Killke, and finally the Inca.
Under the realm of the Inca civilization, Cusco transformed from a sleepy city-state to the capital of the mighty Tawantinsuyu Empire, spanning from the south of Colombia to Santiago, Chile, before it was conquered by the Spanish.
Walking in Cusco is like immersing yourself in history – every few minutes you come across a museum or a set of photogenic ruins.
Tips for Avoiding Pickpockets and Theft
Stay safe in Cusco by reading our anti-pickpocket guide to help travelers visiting Peru and South America. The advice is just as applicable for those visiting Cusco as any other city in Peru and beyond. If you’re worried about keeping your belongings safe in Cusco, be sure to read our article, 5 Cheap and Sneaky Ways to Stop Pickpockets.
05. The Clothing Style
Cusco is in the Andean highlands, an area where the Quechua-speaking indigenous population wear colorful traditional clothing.
Women wear a flamboyant hat and a huge scarf that doubles as a bag that’s often carrying a baby human or baby llama in it. The men usually sport a hand-knitted beanie and a sturdy poncho fit for the cold highlands.
Weavers are often spotted carrying handwoven clothing around the city to sell to tourists at an affordable price.
Besides these street vendors, Cusco is a bit of a shopping heaven for tourists. Head to the San Pedro Market to fill your stomach, then check out the numerous stalls selling cheap souvenirs, alpaca-woven clothing, and local snacks.
If you’re looking for something more upscale, the boutique shops around the main Plaza are fa good bet. Beautiful textiles, trinkets, and rare vicuña products are just some of the things you can find.
If you want more shopping, the nearby towns of Pisac and Chinchero in the Sacred Valley are good spots to visit to fill up your luggage even further.
I recommend carving out at least two days in Cusco (and area) just for shopping!
07. The Culture
Cusqueños are the descendants of the Incas, who believed in deities like the Sun God Viracocha and Mother Earth Pachamama. Even today, Cusqueños usually give a toast to honor Pachamama before meetings and festivities. Pachamama also has a special worship day called Martes de Challa.
The people of the Andes also worship natural formations, like mountains and lakes, and animals. In the Cusco region, a sacred mountain is called an Apu; some popular ones are Apu Salkantay and Apu Ausangate. The condor, the puma, and the serpent are considered to be sacred animals, and you’ll see sculptures of these animals in markets and temples.
While the predominant religion in Peru is Roman Catholic, Cusqueños have managed to blend Catholicism and their traditional beliefs, as can be seen in the temples and churches around the city.
08. The Food
Peru is known to have some of the best cuisine in South America, and Cusco is no exception.
Be sure to try the classics like ceviche (a raw fish dish), aji de gallina (spicy creamed chicken), and lomo saltado (a stir-fried sirloin dish), but don’t forget to also try traditional food from Cusco, such as adobo (pork stew made with chicha or corn beer) and the famous guinea pig, known as cuy.
Fun fact: Thanks to Inca experiments with agriculture and climate, Peru has more than 4000 varieties of potatoes!
09. The Landscape
The Cusco region – part of the Andes mountain range – has one of the most surreal landscapes in the world.
Towering snow-capped mountains dominate the landscapes, with unbelievable blue-green glacier lakes at their feet. Gushing rivers flow between deep canyons carved with symmetrical rice terraces. Untouched villages dot the mountains, and wild animals roam freely.
Natural phenomena like the Maras salt mines and man-made experiments like the Moray terraces blend well together in the Sacred Valley; and the colorful Rainbow Mountain attracts hordes of tourists every day despite the difficult hike.
It is no wonder Cusco is a hotspot for day hikes and multi-day treks.
- Tour Option: Full-Day Rainbow Mountain Trek
10. The Trekking
The beautiful landscape around Cusco provides many trekking opportunities. You can sign up with a tour operator in the city or rent equipment from the outdoor shops and do-it-yourself.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of the most famous treks in the world. It’s so popular that authorities have limited the number of trekkers allowed each day on the trail, and at peak season, the trek gets booked up to 6 months in advance.
The most popular alternative trek to Machu Picchu is the Salkantay Trek, once named one of the Top 25 Treks in the World by Nat Geo Travel.
Other multi-day treks worth the challenge are to the remote ruins of Choquequirao and around the Sacred Apu Ausangate.
If you’re short of time, join a day hike to the beautiful glacier lake Laguna Humantay or the seven-colored Rainbow Mountain Vinicunca.
Do note that at over 9000 feet (3400 meters), altitude sickness is a real challenge when attempting these hikes. Take a few days to acclimatize before hiking.
- Tour Option: Humantay Lake 1-Day Trek
11. The Nightlife
Cusco is a city that never sleeps, as bars and clubs cater to the huge number of visitors all year round.
Mama Africa, Inka Team and Mythology and quite popular with visitors, and are located around the main Plaza. These clubs have free entry and conduct free Salsa classes every night!
If you go at around 10 or 11 pm, club promoters standing outside the clubs hand out free drink coupons.
For something more relaxed, the San Blas neighborhood provides a spectacular view of the colonial cityscape at night. The bars and restaurants here are open late.
At 11,151 feet, Cusco also has the honor of being home to the world’s highest Irish-owned pub: Paddy’s Irish Pub. This pub regularly screens sports matches and is the best place to have a beer and cheer with your friends.
Where to Stay When You Visit Cusco
12. The Prices
As a touristy city, you’d expect prices to be ridiculously inflated, but that is not necessary the case.
There are accommodation options for all price ranges, from budget backpacker hostels to 5-stars luxury hotels. I lived in a private room in an apartment for 5 weeks at USD $10/night.
A taxi ride around the city costs 5 Soles (USD $1.50), but since everything is around the city center, there is no real need for a taxi.
Eating at a restaurant catered to tourists is under USD $20. Local restaurants are just a street away, with a full meal consisting of a main, soup and drink setting you back USD $2-$5. The San Pedro market is a popular place for tourists, and food there costs the same.
The popular clubs have free entry and a beer is under USD $3. A street cart ice cream is less than a dollar.
Many day tours are under USD $50. For example, a day hike to the Rainbow Mountain is 80 soles (USD $24), while a day tour to the Sacred Valley is 45 soles (USD $15).
Multi-day treks are the biggest expenses in Cusco, especially for the Inca Trail. You can save up to three times if you book a multi-day trek offline – at the store – after you’ve arrived in Cusco. With the exception of the Inca Trail, most treks leave every day from Cusco.
13. The Llamas
And last (but certainly not least): llamas!
These adorable creatures roam about the region freely, and are led by their owners in the city. Crowds gather around them, eager to see these (almost) mystical creatures.
Just beware of the spitting llamas!