Cuzco, Cusco or Quscu (in Quechua) is one of the most popular cities i Peru. It was the capital of The Inca Empire and some traces if its grandeur are still visible - both in Cuzco and in the surrounding areas. The city can boast a significant indigenous population and is a perfect gateway to one of the most famous sites of the ancient world - Machu Picchu. Surrounded by green mountains, located at over 3,400m (11,155 ft.) above the sea level, Cuzco has a very specific and original climate. Although most of the visitors head straight towards Machu Picchu, at least one full day spent in The Inca Empire capital is really worth it!
How to get to Cuzco - Dangerous airports
The easiest and quickest way is to fly from Lima, Peruvian capital. The fares are around 180 EUR (200 USD) for a return journey. It will take about 1h 20 minutes. Other, and much cheaper options is public transport, however the trip duration from Lima will last up to 24 hours!
Before traveling to Peru I had come across many scary stories about how the airport security staff treats tourists in both Cuzco and Lima. There were a lot of warnings that they might try to search or interrogate you with no reason stealing your valuables at the same time. I didn't see anything of this: Lima has a very modern and nice airport, the airline is superb, the same can be said about Cuzco. I wasn't robbed, tricked or deceived by anyone: neither by airport staff nor taxi drivers. So, if you use your common sense everything will be fine! Don't let anyone to discourage you from traveling!
What to see in Cuzco
Cuzco has seen a lot of violence in its turbulent history. Not much from the original Inca Empire has been left untouched. Now, it reminds more of a Spanish town. Nevertheless, it's still original, beautiful and worth seeing. As in other cities of this sort around the world (for example pink Yerevan, golden-yellow Mdina in Malta, red Marrakesh, beige Split), it was built using local materials. Cuzco has a very specific, dark brownish color of churches and other buildings. You will get enchanted!
It's also worth mentioning that I visited Cuzco during the rainy season - in February. It was raining all the time and it the sky was covered but it was the place where I saw the most beautiful clouds of all!
Plaza de Armas
Cuzco is not too big, it's possible to walk around, visit all the most important monuments and feel the atmosphere of old parts the city in one day. The most beautiful, main square, called Plaza de Armas, located in the heart of Cuzco boasts amazing colonial architecture. Two magnificent churches: church of la Compania de Jesus (Church of the Society of Jesus) and Cuzco Cathedral date back as far back as the sixteenth century.
There are multiple museums in Cuzco and you can visit all of them buying a suitable ticket. To see all the sites (including those outside Cuzco) you will pay 130 soles (35 EUR/44 USD). Student discount is over 40 percent. I you don't feel like visiting all the museums, you can pay only for those you are interested in for quite a small fee (3-5 EUR/4-6 USD).
Qurikancha - The Inca Temple
One of the interesting sites in the old town is Qurikancha - the ancient Inca Temple of The Sun. The reports claim that it was incredibly richly ornamented - including floors inlaid with pure gold. Unfortunately, through Spanish conquistadors, nothing of it (with the exception of some foundations and walls) was preserved and a church was erected on the site.
Right beside Qurikancha, Convent of St. Dominick (Domingo) stands. It has multiple paintings and art galleries and the all-including ticket also allows you to visit this place.
San Pedro Market and Peruvian cuisine
After a stroll between beautiful, narrow, little alleys you might get hungry. Head straight to the local San Pedro market to try some Peruvian snacks, juices and also for hand made souvenirs. The prices are very competitive and the quality is superb.
I would recommend that you visit a local, cheap restaurant rather than some westernized counterpart. You can spot a restaurant of this kind by many local people having a meal inside. If you are brave enough, try the local specialty - roasted guinea pig or a chicken soup with all body parts of a chicken. For me, it was delicious!
When you walk down the streets of Cuzco, you will probably notice (especially after dark) shining statue on one of the nearby hills. Its Cristo Blanco - similar to the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro. A few minutes walk away, there is an Inca site - ruins of Saksaywaman. Both places offer exraordinary views over the city.
Further away, there is also a town called Ollantaytambo with many well preserved ruins inhabited by local indigenous community. I visited it on my way to Machu Picchu and fully described it here.
Of course, needles to say, most probably you will head to visit the impressive Machu Picchu. It's not easy or cheap, you need to book the entry tickets way in advance and there is no public transport that can take you there. I wrote a detailed post about how to get to Machu Picchu, if you need some advise, click here.
Many websites issue warnings about the altitude sickness, due to the fact that Cuzco is one of the highest located cities in the world (almost 1000m higher than Machu Picchu itself!). Symptoms can include problems with breathing, fatigue and nausea. If you experience any of them, take it easy, have some rest and do not drink alcohol. However, I (and my travel companions) didn't feel any different than in any other place on the planet. Locals recommend some coca leaf tea or just the leaves on their own. There are many stalls where, usually elderly women, sell them. You can try to chew them, but for me it wasn't too pleasant. I didn't feel any different after and the leaves were really hard and tasteless, just as if you started to chew some sycamore leaves.
The only thing that affected us badly (probably because of the altitude) was the sun. Although it was the rainy season, and the sun appeared only for a couple of minutes, it still managed to harm the skin quite seriously. To be honest, I got the worst sunburns in my life in Cuzco under a cloudy sky, probably because I didn't use any sunscreen as I thought I didn't need to because of the rainy season. Don't make this mistake!
The question of safety - Is Cuzco safe?
With so many warnings and horror stories regarding Peru you can encounter while browsing the Internet, you might really feel as if you are entering a war zone or something of that kind. However, if you use your common sense, you will be more than fine. Cuzco was nice and cozy, and, even after dark I didn't see any suspicious behavior. If you don't leave the crowded areas after dark, nothing bad will happen. You can, however, be bothered by beggars, especially children, but it's nothing dangerous, or aggressive, comparing to, for example, India.
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