Cuzco – A Great Base for Exploring the Inca World

The Cathedral of Cuzco at night (built in 1550; interesting 16th century artwork and artifacts in this cathedral)

Cuzco, Peru is known as the jump-off spot for visiting Machu Picchu. However, it is an interesting town in and of itself and there are several impressive Inca ruins very close to the city. In fact, parts of the city are built on Inca foundations, including the huge cathedral. Although there are tourists milling around the town, it still feels like a “real” Peruvian city, with locals going about their daily business, and buying and selling food and other items in some interesting markets.

One of the many markets in Cuzco--this one is selling cuy (guinea pig)!

A local woman and her child in Cuzco

There are many flights daily between Lima and Cuzco—flight lasts about one hour. I watched the landscape change from the barren desert mountains of Lima to the green, cultivated and forested mountains surrounding Cuzco. Even though Cuzco is a fairly large city, I found the air very clear and refreshing compared to Lima.

Cuzco is about a one-hour flight from Lima

Travel information about Cuzco and surrounding area:

  • One USD = 2.8 Peruvian nuevo soles (NS) as of October 2011.
  • A tourist ticket to visit the close-by Inca ruins and a museum in Cuzco, plus a number of sites in the Sacred Valley costs 130 NS (for non-locals). The ticket can be purchased in Cuzco or at your first site. Unfortunately it’s “all or nothing,” you cannot purchase individual site tickets.
  • Plan to stay at least three days in Cuzco: Day 1-visit Inca sites close to Cuzco and in the town–called the “city tour” which doesn’t really cover much of the city itself; Day 2-a train trip to Machu Picchu; Day 3-sites around the Sacred Valley. These three day trips will be covered in separate posts.

    View of Cuzco from the Inca site of Saqsayhuaman

  • There are tour agencies everywhere around the main plaza (Plaza de Armas) in Cuzco. We did a “city” tour for 25 NS per person and a Sacred Valley tour for 35 NS per person (the tour fee covered transportation only, and fees will be similar at all tour agencies). If I had it to do over again, I would recommend just hiring a taxi for the day to go to the local sites near Cuzco, which would allow you to proceed at your own pace. For the Sacred Valley visit, a tour agency is probably best—hiring a taxi for the distances covered would be very expensive, and since directions/signs are not very clear, renting a car on your own might be somewhat challenging; in addition, trying to park a rental car in Cuzco would be a nightmare—the old city streets are very narrow, and I did not see any parking garages.

    Architecture in Cuzco (note the decorative wooden balconies)

    Evening at the Plaza de Armas (main square) in Cuzco

  • Restaurants. There is a huge variety and we found ourselves drawn to two restaurants with very good quality dishes: Tratoria Adriano and Chef Maggie, which are just off the Plaza de Armas. Both restaurants serve Italian fare and other dishes.
  • Hotels. Many options in all price ranges. We found Llipimpac hotel on for $61/night for a triple. It was decent, with hot water (not always a given if you travel on a budget) and breakfast. They even had a large selection of DVDs you can borrow for free if you feel like spending an evening in your room (we found many in English).

    Llipimpac Hotel, Cuzco

  • Be prepared for all kinds of weather at this altitude (10,500 feet). When the sun is out, Cuzco is warm. When the sun goes down, or in cloudy weather, you’ll want a jacket. Rain showers are common, so bring an umbrella or rain jacket. We did not notice any ill effects from the altitude, but if you do, vendors sell coca tea, candy and cookies everywhere.

    Getting a shoe shine