Exploring the City and Region of Cusco (Cuzco)

Cusco may be better known for being the launching point to Machu Picchu (MP) but the city and its same-name region hold a LOT more in store than just MP and the Inca trail – so make extra time in your schedule to explore!  I flew to Cusco, the older continually inhabited city in the continent, from Lima on a Saturday morning (read more about Lima on my earlier entry http://ilivetotravel.me/lima/).

Arrival in Cusco

Arriving in Cusco, which is around 11,200  ft (3,400 m) high, is an experience because of the very thin air.  Thankfully, it was clean which was a welcome change from Lima.  It was actually hot that morning under a beautiful blue sky.

Upon getting to the hotel, I was offered mate de coca (coca tea) which helps the body adjust to the altitude (though I wonder if it is more about one not feeling anything; I didn’t perceive any different sensation out of drinking the half-cup size portions). I also took my altitude sickness med for nausea, lightheadedness, etc. (I didn’t have the symptoms – it was a preventive measure). All day long I had the slightest of headaches. Other than that and shortness of breath when walking up flights of stairs, I was OK. However , you are recommended not to do anything for a couple of hours after you arrive.  Once I got to my hotel, I felt tired and actually slept about 1.5 hrs (deep sleep as I would have late that night too) until my Cuzco city tour was to pick me up later that afternoon.

Cusco is quite a picturesque and pleasant town.  I liked it a lot.  Its main square (“Plaza de Armas”; there is one in practically every Latin American town) has really beautiful architecture.

Architecture near the main plaza or square in Cusco (Cuzco), Peru

Building by the main square in Cusco

Church on the main square in the town of Cusco (Cuzco), gateway to Machu Picchu in Peru

Church in the main square

Local couple taking a stroll in the main plaza of Cusco (Cuzco), Peru

Local couple taking a stroll in the main plaza

There are sights to see within the town itself and around it.  The city tour showed me the key sites in an afternoon (the Corikancha which was the most important temple in the Inca empire in the city center; Sacsayhuamán, an Inca complex in the outskirts of the city; etc.). After the tour, I had time to stroll about as I pleased but I pleased to eat and go to bed…  BTW, in Cuzco, as in Lima, hotels had 110v outlets; I have had Blackberry access; there have been ATMs everywhere.  Traveling is so much easier these days than 20 years ago…  (Here is a quick link to a clip from the ruins of Sacsayhuamán, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and what makes the construction of it so impressive http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yH6HtFKz63E.)

Corikancha in central Cusco, the most important temple in the Inca empire

Sideview of the Corikancha in central Cusco

Getting to Machu Picchu

The trip to Machu Picchu (which was built around the year 1450) can be done in several ways.  One can certainly do it on one’s own.  There are a few things to coordinate and I didn’t feel like dealing with all that given the altitude “sickness” (slight as it was, you feel drained the first day) and the fact I was going solo and only had one day – I could not afford mistakes…  There are tons of tour companies that will coordinate logistics if you are not inclined to do it on your own.  Due to work constraints keeping my MP visit to one day, I went with an organized tour (the company, “Nuevo Mundo” went above and beyond for me).

Modes of travel include the Vistadome train (roof is partly glass so you can see more and not feel enclosed) which takes 4 hrs.  My train left at 6 AM with my pickup at 520 AM.  There were later trains but I needed to go as early as possible.  Waking up around 445 AM wasn’t an issue as I crashed at 9 PM the night before out of sheer exhaustion…  Another way of getting there is hiring a helicopter and getting there way faster – for a price.  Finally, one can spend a few days hiking the Inca trail that the Incas used to take to get to MP in its heyday.  Secondary trails are being developed and I am sure they would be better than the more popular one…

I had met some interesting folks on the city tour and ran into them again on the trip/tour to/of MP; they were neat people to hang out with and it made the tour a little more enjoyable.

At Machu Picchu…

(I realize tons has been written about MP. so I won’t try to re-write the great American novel…)  Visiting the ruins wore me and others out. There are steps to be walked up and down and, though MP is lower in altitude than Cusco, it is still about 8000 ft (2,430 m) high. I strongly recommend that if you want to see it, see it sooner rather than later!  However, you can see it at any age, you will just have to go slower or perhaps arrive 2 days ahead to better acclimate.  There was a man who, I estímate, was around 80 yrs old (and who didn’t look younger than his age) and he was doing it!

One recommendation I was given but could not do was to stay in the town at the base (Aguas Calientes) so you can go back up to see sunrise (if it isn’t foggy which I heard it was that day) and to hike up to the famous mountain you see on the shots you see of MP (which is NOT Machu Picchu; when you see the famous pictures of MP, you are standing on the mountain called MP; this other iconic mountain is called Huayna Picchu). The picture below does not show that there are fairly decent looking hotels in town!

Town of Aguas Calientes in Peru, gateway to Machu Picchu

Street in Aguas Calientes

Me? I hope to come back and go up that mountain and then see the rest of the Sacred Valley which probably can use a few days to explore.  I have heard a good place to stay is the town of Ollantaytambo; people seem to like it a lot (I just drove through it on the way back to Cusco).

The standard and obligatory picture of MP!

My impression of MP? Tourist trap? Amusement park? Overrated? Most absolutely not.  It is as impressive and magnificent as people say it is and it exceeded even what I envisioned encountering. It is a powerful place due to the history, the architecture/engineering feats, and one of the most beautiful natural settings on earth.

Some structures in Machu Picchu are tilting and in danger of collapse - Peru

They are called ruins for a reason!

Terraces in Machu Picchu, Peru

Terraces in Machu Picchu

At the end, we visited the market and I had a slightly different experience. While you have to haggle, two things they didn’t do:

  • Be pushy or be “cat calling” you to come to their stall; when they did it was very soft and they only did it once
  • They didn’t run after you when you walked away to sell whatever object you had tried to haggle on; they left you alone and/or they had a price point after which, they were just not interested. I kind of liked seeing that as they seemed proud of their goods and didn’t seem to feel they had to make a sale if they didn’t get what they wanted.

Visits to Economic Development Projects

I visited some development projects my organization had worked on. It was neat to see, as I saw in Tanzania, how my organization makes a difference. My first week in Lima I heard everything about our approach in Peru and was impressed at how progressive they were in advocating the governments at various levels to take on their responsibility, and in building the government’s capacity to do so. The scale of poverty in Peru, while it can be extreme, takes place in a country with more human capacity and better infrastructure than sub-Saharan Africa.

Kiwicha field near Mollepata, in the Cusco region of Peru

Kiwicha field near Mollepata

The organization was working to help mountain communities diversify their economic activities so not all are farmers or so those that are farmers don’t all plant the same thing (which depresses crops’ prices).  Also, they receive help to find products that aren’t commodity (say, in the textile industry) so they can reach and be successful in international markets, since China and India can produce things cheaper than countries like Peru. They can differentiate their products from the mass scale production that takes place in Asia by producing better designsor distinctive (not mass-produced) products, by developing organic produce or things that can address more discerning developed world consumers (think premium coffees vs. Maxwell House – no offense to any M H drinkers!). Anyway, the economic activities I saw were:

  • an artichoke farm (new product being grown in the region and sought after by the U.S. and European marketings), growing proven varieties and continuing to experiment with new ones
  • high quality and design textile workshops where the women can work from their homes to produce for the larger entity they belong to and be able to pick up kids from school and take care of them (vs. being at a factory for the entire day) with minimal disruption to their work activity
  • jewelry artisan workshops producing (or trying to) for the international market.
Jewelry artisan in Cusco (Cuzco), Peru

Jeweler-maker apprentice

Textile worker in Cusco (Cuzco), Peru

Textile apprentice













Artichoke farmer in Urcos, in the Cusco (Cuzco) region of Peru

Artichoke farmer in Urcos, in the Cusco region


  1. Dean Meharg says:

    I would like to visit Peru sometime for a vacation. Thank you for your trip notes. Did or do you know the Spanish language to communicate better or learn as you went. When is the best time to go weather wise to see Peru?
    Would you recommend moving to Peru? Are there job opportunities available?

    • Dean, sorry for the delay in replying! I do speak Spanish and that helped a lot. I could not tell you how difficult things would be if you didn’t but English is not widely spoken. However, the people are very kind so I would expect they would be warm and patient. In terms of weather, I could not quite understand the seasons there. What to me is normal summer (hot), winter (cold), etc. didn’t seem to quite apply as the locals explained the weather to me. All I can tell you for sure is that April was a good time to go. In the higher altitudes, of course, it was cold enough at night to wear a jacket. In Lima, it may have been 20-24 C for the high. As far as moving there, it may depend on what you are looking for. Lima is a big city with lots to do, great food, and many of the conveniences I am used to in the States. However, it is very polluted and traffic is about the worst I have seen. Not a city for me to live though it certainly has areas with charm, etc. If you like the smaller town feel, Cusco is a great possibility. A lot cleaner than Lima, the only drawbacks I could see are that it has a heavy tourist angle (though that could also be a positive) and I don’t think I saw a movie theater around. If you decide for smaller town feel, Huaraz, Puno and perhaps other places I didn’t see could probably offer a totally different experience than Lima. Peru’s economy has been steadily growing in the last few years but with the current economic climate, not sure how fast that may change. Please let me know if you have any other questions!


  1. […] – Read about my Puno visit here: http://ilivetotravel.me/2008/12/17/puno/. – Read about my Cusco visit here: http://ilivetotravel.me/2008/09/11/cuzco-region/ […]

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