Cusco is one of those cities that will enthrall and enchant. Set high above the Andes at 11,152 feet above sea level, it is surrounded by mountains and incredible history. It was the navel of the powerful Inca Empire – the largest pre-Columbian Empire that ruled for 13th-16th centuries, over not only Peru, but also parts of Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. After the arrival of the Spaniards, the Inca Empire eventually collapsed, and the Spaniards ruled for the next 200+ years.
The result today is a fascinating juxtaposition of what is left preserved of the Inca culture and that of the Spanish colonists. Today, Cusco is a UNESCO World Heritage Center. In Cusco itself, one could run into well-preserved Inca ruins dating back a few centuries.
But perhaps what was most fascinating to me, especially to photograph, were the women of Cusco. They are such a visibly central part of society’s fabric. In fact, one of the most intriguing and beguiling images of this Andean city to me were the women – round and plump, sometimes carrying a toddler swaddled in traditional fabric on their backs, sometimes, merchandise, sometimes, that day’s market haul. They would wear some iteration of traditional clothing – blouse with a jumper or sweater over it, a long skirt that balloons just below the knee, and a bolero hat.
And here is where I make the pitch for why Cusco is a place that you ought to put in your radar, if anything, as a stop for a couple of days en route to Machu Picchu.
If you’re traveling from the United States, it is relatively easy to get to. If you think about it, there’s not very many places you can get to from the Western United States that is in a different continent altogether in under ten hours. From Los Angeles, one could get on a direct flight for eight hours and change to Lima (tied with about the same time it takes to get to Reykjavik from San Francisco). Another short flight from Lima and you’ll be in Cusco before sunrise.
In comparison to other destinations, Cusco is a very inexpensive place to visit. You can get a great Airbnb in a central location in a charming neighborhood between $50-$80. Food and eating out is where we were the most surprised. Case in point: we had delicious pastries and a light lunch with drinks for two people at a European-style café in the middle of the downtown area cost us $10. If you go to a market such as San Pedro Mercado, prepare to be blown away by the cost of fresh juices and Peruvian food the way Peruvians eat it.
3. NO JET LAG
And while we’re on the topic of comparing travel to different continents, you must know that Cusco is only within two hours time difference of San Francisco. So that means ease in travel and no inconvenient jet lag. We actually did Cusco and Salktantay Trek to Machu Picchu in one week and not having to negotiate with jet lag (on the way back especially) means that I was back on Monday morning at work, sharp as a knife.
4. HISTORY & CULTURE
The architecture and deep history is not something you should take for granted. The areas surrounding Plaza del Armas in the historic districts are full of old world charm. Colonial-style architecture and cobbled streets with massive mountain ranges in the background is also a picture that will captivate and steal your breath away. We stayed in the historic district, and also in the San Blas neighborhood – and both are charming and walkable. I highly recommend Estancia San Blas and Maison Fortaleza for quality but affordable accomodations.
Peruvian cuisine is delicious and you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy it. There’s an abundance of food growing in the surrounding areas making it a place to enjoy some of the freshest, hence, delicious produce, including enormous avocados, corn with huge kernels, and coffee. It covers the gamut of simple and basic all the way to modern, gourmet cuisine. Even if you just go to walk around and observe local life, I highly recommend a visit to Mercado San Pedro. On a Sunday afternoon, it is vibrant and teeming with locals and their families, out to eat after Sunday mass. We also happened to be there during a festival of some sort where food stalls lined the street across from the church and we were introduced to some Peruvian delicacies, including “cuy” – a type of guinea pig that has been roasted and is of cultural relevance to the Peruvians.
La Valeriana Bakery for delightful pastries, fresh fruit drinks
Chicha for outstanding Modern Peruvian cuisine and a happy hour to boot
Incanto also for amazing modern Peruvian cuisine
Tres Monos (Three Monkeys) for specialty coffee
Matteo for dinner
6. THE QUECHUA CULTURE
The colorful culture of the Quechua and Inca are so intriguing and mystifying. There are very few cultures in the world that I have seen where modern day people still express their ancient culture visually. While it is true that some women in Cusco wear traditional clothing for the sake of the tourists, there are places outside of Cusco where traditional clothing is still worn. Also, we were told that the Quechua language is a derivative of the Inca language spoken many hundreds of years ago. To me, this is fascinating that a place and a people could change so little despite centuries of colonization.
7. A MOUNTAIN HIGH
This city high up in the clouds and surrounded by spectacular mountains is just spectacular. A bustling town at the altitude of close to 12,000 feet is remarkable and there is perhaps only a small number of cities in the world that could rival it. Negotiating with altitude and thin air is a rate experience in itself.
8. THE AMAZING PEOPLE
The Peruvian people are a people of grit, but they are some of the most charming, kind, and welcoming people we have encountered. Some women do some physical, backbreaking work, but their resilience is stunning. Theirs is a world apart from life in the developed world, but their happiness and joy is enviable.