Most people first learn of the existence of Cusco (sometimes spelled Cuzco) when they begin planning a trip to the famous ruins of Machu Picchu. As it turns out, nearly all trips to Machu Picchu begin in Cusco, so it’s easy to assume that the town might only exist as a staging area and would be filled with generic hotels and crappy restaurants.
While those assumptions aren’t 100% untrue (there are some generic hotels and crappy restaurants) it turns out that Cusco ends up being a highlight of any trip to Peru, often even more so than Machu Picchu itself. The colonial city center is stunningly gorgeous and there are plenty of museums, sights, and local tours to keep anyone busy for weeks if they had the time.
The vibe in Cusco
The historic colonial town square is called Plaza de Armas and about half the businesses that face it are either travel agencies or hotels that contain travel agencies, but that doesn’t keep it from being both beautiful and authentic. There are also cathedrals and fountains and historic buildings of all kinds, all actually built on top of the Inca structures that were there before the Spanish invaded.
Cusco has an interesting mix because it seems to have an endless supply of hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and of course souvenir shops, but it somehow retains a “cool” factor that makes it extremely pleasant for travelers. The streets leading up the (very steep) hill from square are all in Colonial style, but the streets going down the hill to the main commercial part of town are more modern. Many of the cheaper hotels and restaurants are in the more modern part of town, but good deals are also possible near the square.
With a world famous attraction like Machu Picchu being there it attracts travelers from all over the globe, so Cusco is an extremely easy place to meet people from all over the world as well as plenty of Peruvians. The restaurant scene is also very international, with an extraordinary number of pizza places, most of which are quite good. You can of course get alpaca steaks or cuy (guinea pig) at some local places, but both are quite expensive so you won’t likely be ordering them accidentally.
It’s also worth noting that Cusco’s altitude is actually a bit higher than that of Machu Picchu itself, so you’ll want to schedule your first day with very light activity just to get used to it a bit. Most people don’t experience problems with altitude in Cusco, but if you book a hotel up the hill you’ll definitely notice that you run out of breath more easily than you do at sea level. Each hotel offers (non-narcotic) coca tea free to guests, and this does seem to help people adjust on their first day or two.
Cost of living in Cusco
Another great part of the Cusco experience is that it’s quite a big cheaper than Lima or any other larger South American city, so it can be a nice place to just chill out if you have time in your schedule. Hotels for under US$20 are easy to find, as are hostel beds for under US$10, but since Machu Picchu also draws many upscale visitors you’ll be able to find 4- and 5-star hotels at typical prices as well.
With literally hundreds of restaurants, bars, and clubs, the competition is quite fierce and that keeps prices down. You can find full meals for around US$2 to US$3 if you are on a tight budget, or spend just a bit more for something quite special. A bottle of local lager can be around US$1 in some places, but it might be closer to US$3 in a nightclub that isn’t running a promotion.