Cusco (Cuzco) Peru’s Gateway to Machu Picchu Via the Andes
Cusco (also Cuzco), capital to the former ‘Incan Empire’ (1200s-1532), is nestled in the heart of the Andean mountains some 10,800ft above sea level in the interior of Peru. It was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1983 and receives almost a million visitors each year. Its location could easily be described as ‘isolated’, as breaching mountain passes to arrive by road can be a time consuming activity. Arrival by bus can take anything up to twenty hours from Peru’s capital ‘Lima’, and if going around mountain switchback after switchback isn’t your idea of fun, then a one hour flight is the alternative. Flights from Lima leave several times daily, and can be purchased for approximately $100. Expect to pay around $30-$40 for the bus journey.
If you do take the bus journey, you will be rewarded. Not only does it afford views of the Ica desert and Andean snow-lined mountain passes, it will assist in the transition to the high mountain plateau, which is home to Cusco. It’s not uncommon to feel some symptoms of altitude sickness (soroche) on arrival, as being in one of the highest cities in the world takes some adjustment. Locals will not be slow to offer you coca leaf tea which is one of the best remedies.
Accommodation can be found at varying prices from local Hostels to premium hotels. Hostels can be as little as 15 Nuevo Soles (approx $5) per night to 5 star hotels in excess of $500 a night. Whether you are backpacking on a budget, or prefer a little decadence for a short break, the choice is vast, and all can be accommodated.
Quechuan’s (local people) are generally poor, well at least in pocket, but are abundantly wealthy in their receptiveness and friendliness. Due to ‘Machu Picchu’s’ close proximity to the city, the tourism industry thrives. Many locals associated with the industry speak some English, but if you want to fit in well, a little knowledge of Spanish goes a long way. You may also hear the local tongue of Quechua which is extensively spoken by the older generations.
Cusco’s main beauty is its location. One doesn’t tire of the mountain backdrop, but if you want to enjoy the vista of the city in full, then a visit to the statue of ‘Cristo Blanco’ is a must. The white epitaph of Jesus stands like a guardian overlooking the city and can be accessed by footpath up the mountain side. Expect to be out of breath as walking at altitude isn’t easy. For the less active, a taxi or collectivo (minibus) will take you there for a small fee.
The central ‘Plaza de Armas’ is beautifully scenic and is the heart of the city. Bounded by cafes, restaurants and grand colonial baroque churches, many tourists sit in the sunshine to appreciate the city’s principle attraction. Expect to be approached by locals selling all sorts of wares, but remember to be polite, they are a poor people and are trying to forge a living. The plaza play hosts to some festival of a kind on Sunday’s, and military processions and live bands are well worth seeing.
Although Spanish conquistadores destroyed much of the Incan buildings and temples in and around Cusco during their invasion of the 16th century, remnants still remain. One of the most notable examples of Incan architecture can be found at ‘Sacsahuaman’. The huge Incan stones of this ruin fit perfectly together that no mortar was required. It’s a testament to the robust nature of Incan construction, which has withstood the test of time.
Quechuan’s love their food and a visit to the local markets should not be missed. The principle market is San Pedro, where you can dine alongside locals for very little. Not just restricted to food, one can purchase a vast array of obscure items, most notably the markets namesake, the San Pedro cactus, which has been used as a traditional Andean medicine for over 3,000 years.
Cusco is a city of distinct charm. Whether you are walking the quaint alley ways, dining in the local markets, or just enjoying the city’s architecture, it’s a wonderful place to visit. Let’s hope with the increases in tourism to serve the likes of ‘Machu Picchu’ and other local attractions, the city’s people remain as friendly and receptive as they are.