Cusco, known as the archeological capital of the Americas, at 3400m was the centre of the Incan Empire. There is evidence of settlers in Cusco from as early as 500 BC thanks to pottery that has been found in the area but there are no remnants of buildings or other archeological sites from that period. There were other civilizations in the area before the Inca, but they were the most successful, bringing together many different tribes along the Andean mountains, stretching from Colombia to Chile and Argentina. Although there were some violent conquests along the way, the Incas were able to unite people and taught them to trade goods and services, rather than fight each other for them.
- Legend has it that the Inca Empire was founded in the 12th Century by a brother and sister who were children of the sun god Inti who came from La Isla Del Sol in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo left their home to fulfill a prophecy that stated they should settle where their golden staff, given to them by their father, could be easily driven into the ground. Manco Capac attempted this where the temple Coricancha now stands and the staff disappeared into the ground. There was a tribe already in the area which they defeated, and they took control of the area. The Inca Empire and the city of Cusco really came into prominence under the rule of Pachacuti in the 15th Century. He redesigned the city so it could become the capital of the empire. Some of the structures built at this time still stand today, although many were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors or in some cases, the Spanish used the structures as foundations for new buildings. An example of this is Coricancha (The Temple of the Sun) which was partly destroyed and the Church of San Domingo now stands in its place.
- The region of Cusco has an estimated population of 1,316,729 and 450,000 in the city of Cusco (2015) and is visited by 1.2 million tourists per year (according to Wikipedia).
- The region of Cusco includes the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
- The city of Cusco is at an altitude of 3400m/ 11154ft. The Sacred Valley is at 2,900m/ 9,514ft and Machu Picchu stands at 2,400m/ 7,874ft.
- The main language is of course Spanish but Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire, is still spoken by many people.
- Most tourists can enter the country on a tourist visa which is valid for up to 183 days.
- There are two seasons in Cusco- the dry season from May to October, and the rainy season from November to April.
- During the dry season, which is winter in Peru, it is usually hot and sunny during the day but it can get extremely cold at night. The temperature is more consistent during the rainy season. The mornings are usually dry and it rains for a few hours in the afternoon.
- The sunrise is between 5.30 and 6am throughout the year, and the sun sets around 6pm. Once the sun goes down, especially in the dry season, the temperature drops very quickly.
- The currency used is the Peruvian Nuevo Sol. The exchange rate (at the time of writing) is $1= s/3.2, €1 = s/ 3.7 and £1= s/4.2. In the less touristy areas, you can get a set Menu lunch for around s/5 but a meal in the centre is around s/20. Most travel agencies and some restaurants and shops accept dollars but they must be in pristine condition. You can use Visa cards, but there is a fee imposed each time you use it. ATMS are widely available.
What to expect on arrival
Most people arrive in Cusco at the Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport. It is a pretty small airport with the 2 or 3 baggage carousels right next to the exit. There are official taxi drivers waiting by the exit who can take you to your hotel. If you have arranged a pick-up, it is likely that the person picking you up will be waiting behind a barrier to the left of the exit. A taxi to Plaza de Armas will cost between s/20 to s/30 (~$6-9). You can try to negotiate the price. There are lots of drivers there who will be willing to take you if the first driver you talk to isn’t. There are cheaper taxis outside the gates of the airport but these are usually not licensed so it is not recommended. When you use a taxi while you are in Cusco, always tell the driver your destination and negotiate a price before entering the car. It is a good idea to ask at your hotel reception (once you get there) for some business cards that you can hand to taxi drivers if you’re not sure of the address or how to describe where the hotel is. When I first came to Cusco I was told to check the back of the car to make sure there was no one waiting in the back to rob you. I have never encountered this or heard of it happening to anyone so it’s not something to worry about but be aware of it just incase. Uber has recently launched in Cusco but you will need a reliable Internet connection to use it.
I remember my first taxi ride from the airport. I thought the people drove very aggressively and there was the constant noise of beeping horns. There is a method to it though. You will notice that drivers will prefer to use their horns to show their position on the road and instead of indicators, which can be annoying as a pedestrian waiting to cross the road.
You will want to take it easy for the first day or two in Cusco due to the altitude. Most hotels have complimentary coca tea which can help to ease the effects of altitude sickness. You can read more about altitude sickness here.
After your flight you’ll probably want to take a shower. Showers in South America are sometimes known as ‘suicide showers’ due to the electric shower heads used to heat the water. You have to flip a switch which will be located close to the shower and then adjust the pressure to find the perfect temperature. The knob on the shower is usually wrapped in insulated tape so be careful to not touch the actual knob and if you’re tall, watch out for the shower head.
There will probably be a sign in your bathroom asking to not flush toilet paper down the toilet, but to put it in the bin. The plumbing system isn’t great and toilet paper can clog the toilet easily. I was unaware of this the first time I used the facilities and it was a surprise. The bins are emptied regularly and considering how bad you would expect a bin filled with *that* to smell, it’s not bad at all. Try to carry paper with you as it is not provided in all bathrooms. Also, the closer you are to the historical centre (Plaza de Armas), you might find that sometimes you don’t have water for a few hours a day. You can ask at the hotel reception if this is likely.
On the subject of water, don’t drink the tap water here! You can boil the water or use purification tablets so it is safe to drink. Bottled water is also very cheap with a 2.5 litre bottle costing s/3 ($0.90). Some people advise against using tap water to brush their teeth but I have used tap water the whole time I’ve been here and have been fine.
So, you’ve had your shower and put your toilet paper in the bin and you’re ready to explore Cusco. In my experience, Cusco is a relatively safe city. You have to exercise the same precautions you would anywhere- keep your money and possessions close to you, preferably in a pocket or a bag with a zip, don’t advertise your belongings and make yourself a target and be vigilant in large crowds or secluded areas. There are lots of parades and processions that happen in the main square, Plaza de Armas, and these are targeted by pickpockets who take advantage of tourists who are busy looking at what’s happening and not paying attention to their things. If you have a backpack, carry it frontways so you can keep an eye on it. If you are unfortunate enough to have something stolen, you need to report it to the tourism police in Plaza Tupac Amaru so you can make an insurance claim.
I have heard of people’s drinks being spiked when they’ve been out at night. This obviously isn’t exclusive to Cusco and can happen anywhere so just make sure you watch your drink and don’t accept anything from someone you don’t trust. You should also be aware that the drinks here are quite strong anyway so make sure you know your limits and watch out for anyone you’re with. Cusco has some great bars and clubs. Most are located around the Plaza de Armas and have local live bands and Happy Hours that last all night. A particularly good bar for live music is Ukukus on Calle Plateros and Mama Africa, on Plaza de Armas, is probably the best club.
A prominent feature on the streets of Cusco is the considerable amount of street dogs wandering around. The dogs are mostly placid and don’t cause any problems, but it can be intimidating to have to walk through a large pack of them and if you’re in a quiet neighbourhood rather than a tourist area, they tend to bark at strangers. Some dogs are strays who have to fend for themselves by scavenging through garbage and relying on scraps of food given to them, but most dogs have owners and are looked after, they are just free to roam during the day. Depending on where you’re staying, the barking at night can get annoying but there’s not really a lot you can do about it.
There are loads of restaurants in Cusco, ranging from classy 5* establishments to little ‘hole in the wall’ places where you can get a 3 course meal for s/5. Ceviche is Peru’s national dish- fish “cooked” in lime juice served with onion, salt and of hot chiles and sides of boiled corn and creamy sweet potato to balance out the texture of the dish. Cuy is a delicacy in the region. It’s guinea pig. It is very obviously guinea pig on the plate, served with claws and teeth still intact. You might not like it if you had one as a pet when you were a child but it’s worth trying, people describe the taste as a mix of chicken and duck. Other typical meals are Lomo Saltado which is a Peruvian-Chinese fusion beef stir fry and Aji de Gallina which I would describe as an extremely mild chicken korma, with potatoes of course, because pretty much every meal includes potatoes in some form. If you’re feeling brave you can try Anticuchos de Corazón street food which are grilled, cubed beef heart served on a skewer. There’s not just Peruvian food in Cusco though. The #1 restaurant on Tripadvisor is a French restaurant and I had my first experience of sushi at a Japanese restaurant here.
Well, that’s about all I can think of for what you should know before you get here. I know you’ll have an amazing trip!