First of all, like the guide book says, the altitude of Cusco will affect you for the first 3 or 4 days.
Cusco is at 3,320 M (10,889 ft) [Internet sources vary +/- 40M]. Prior to our arrival I opposed the guide book with confidence that I was in good physical condition.
Whoa! The Hostal we stayed in was on a small hill. Only a few flights of stairs… about 40 meters long. I had to stop two times, walk slowly and still, I was totally out of breath by the time I reached the entrance to the hostal. Trust me, you are high in the Andes mountains and there is some altitude here. (Later in Bolivia we get LOTS higher and altitude sickness is a reality)
Cusco claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the Americas. Ancient cultures have lived here …for a long time. (Couldn’t find the exact dates on the net!) By the 12th century the Incas had moved in. The legend has it that the first Inca, Manco Capac was told by the Sun god to find Qosq O- the bellybutton of the earth, and settle there.
He did and Cusco became the center of the Inca empire. And an empire it was. It stretched all the way from Columbia in the north to the middle of Chile in the south and from the Pacific ocean through nearly all of Bolivia and much of Argentina.
Then the Spanish moved in, in 1533. They eliminated most of the dwellings of the former residence and gave the city a major remodelling. Yet the Incas were such superior stone masons that the Spanish just built their churches and and buildings on top of the Inca foundations. These Inca stone foundations with buildings built on top of them, can be seen in many places around the city. The stones are placed together, so perfectly, you cannot get a piece of paper between the rocks. They are a big tourist attraction.
Lots and lots of tourist make Cusco their base for the main reason to be in Cusco: a trip to Machu Picchu. There are other side trips that originate in Cusco. A trip up the Sacred Valley is amazing. You will stop at four Inca archeological sties.
However, do spend time in Cusco, there is plenty to see and do. The city is beautiful, several Colonial churches and lots of great architecture.
The city of Cusco has a unique and clever sort of monopoly set up. Anyone who wishes to visit any of the archeological sites up the Sacred Valley, or to visit a place just on the hill above Cusco. Or if you wanted to visit any of the major museums around town, you MUST buy the pass. The pass is USD $45 and it will allow you to enter 16 different attractions. You Cannon just pay the entrance fee at the door. You must have the big ticket. No choice; have the ticket or you don’t get in. The one choice you do have is to by the small ticket for USD $23 and that will get you into half of the most popular attractions.
The city has the monopoly on the tickets and thus, you the poor tourist are boxed-in. Buy the ticket and see the sights or don’t see them.
We did pay for the ticket and we did see the sights. It was worth it. Cusco is a really interesting town with much to do and there is even more to do on short excursions outside the town. We were there for almost a week and felt it was too short. However, two of those days were spent on our journey to Machu Piichu.
And for Cusco, we will be back.
1. Jacks Caf : Good food & excellent Lattes.
2. Sweet Day Break hotel. Pretty good hotel but it has a superb view of the city, especially at night. However, the walls are a bit thin and you can easily hear others in the next room. 70Soles/night ($23) for a double.
3. Anyplace in all of Peru get the fresh squeezed (made on the spot) orange juice. 1-2 soles its and excellent value.