Cusco is the city that takes your breath away–literally. At over 11,000 feet,the elevation takes some getting used to, but most people don’t stick around for more than 24 hours en route to Machu Picchu. This is a shame.
I based myself out of Cusco for three of my five nights and found it to be a highly underrated city. Tucked away in the Andes mountains with charming colonial architecture, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a great place to explore as a solo female traveler.
Getting to Cusco from Lima, Peru
The flight from Lima to Cusco is an hour and a half and only leaves in the morning and daytime since Cusco’s airport closes at 5:30pm. I took the first flight in, at 6am, and I’m glad I did since it allowed me a full day to get acclimated to Cusco. The view from the airplane was impressive–featuring mountains instead of clouds.
You’ll be bombarded with a ton of taxi drivers upon leaving the airport. Thankfully, my B&B provided transportation. Try to stay in the downtown area if possible. I stayed in San Blas and felt close to everything, yet far enough away that I could retreat at the end of the day.
Cusco, Peru Altitude
Immediately upon arriving I was greeted with a cup of hot coca tea. I highly recommend that you seek out the same, since the herbs help curb any headache. Don’t worry, this is not like actually getting high on cocaine and you shouldn’t have any adverse side effects, it just allows your blood to run a little quicker so your body can circulate oxygen better.
After you drink a cup of tea, take a nap. Even if you don’t feel tired, altitude sickness can be volatile and lasting, so take it easy when you arrive and err on the side of caution. There’s also coca leaves available for you to chew on, and in fact you’ll be handed a few for free at the airport, but the leaves have a stronger effect when combined with the hot water–it helps bring out the good stuff.
There’s a debate over whether to visit Cusco before or after your Machu Picchu trek. I found before worked well for me because, once I was acclimated to 12,000 feet, 9,000 at Machu Picchu seemed like a piece of cake.
Things to do in Cusco, Peru
There are many points of interest in downtown Cusco. Start your walk by heading towards the 12-sided stone. It’s located in a bustling street filled with vendors and people so there will be plenty to see along the way. Don’t be surprised if you’re stopped frequently while walking–many of the locals make their living from donations and will be eager to offer you a picture with a llama in exchange for what you want to pay.
The stone itself is fascinating, and you can search the same wall for the shapes of a condor, puma and snake. All three creatures are important in the Incan culture and will happily be pointed out to you by a nearby shop owner if you just ask.
There is AMAZING artwork in Peru. Other popular souvenirs include silver jewelry and alpaca clothing.
As far as food, your options are limitless. There is so much good street food everywhere you have your choice! Those with gentler stomaches will find plenty of restaurants along the main square. Generally, stick to bottled water. If you want to practice Peruvian recipes yourself, consider taking a cooking class.
In and around the main square, Plaza de Armas, you have your choice of attractions, including the Convento de Santo Domingo and the Pre-Columbian Art Museum. You can also spend some time visiting the nearby Sacsayhuaman ruins for a birds eye view of the city.
The real star of any visit to Cusco (pun intended) is the Cusco Planetarium. Here, you can see Jupiter through a telescope and learn the Southern Hemisphere’s constellations, which are completely different from the star constellations in the North. They provide transportation, roundtrip to and from the city, and leave promptly.
Guests are given an astronomy lesson inside the homemade planetarium (this is a family-run operation) and there are blankets available for chilly nights. The knowledge and passion of the staff at the planetarium was evident. This was a family that spent their lives admiring the stars, and is now helping others do the same. It was my most memorable experience in the city!
Cusco at Night
Cusco is a very safe city. There was a festival during my visit, so there were many people out at night and concert stages set up throughout. However, once the festivities dies down I still felt safe walking around. I definitely recommend walking here versus taking Uber or a cab. It’s a small city and the exercise will help you get ready for any trekking that lies ahead.
Don’t overlook Cusco. It has a lot to offer any traveler, whether staying for a while or just passing through.
Till next time, safe travels!