Cusco is an impressive former Incan capital perched high in the Andes in south-eastern Peru. It lies about 14 hours drive from the countrys’ coastal capital, Lima, and is home to around 350 thousand people – a number that has tripled in the last 20 years thanks mainly to a tourism boom. The Incas aptly called the city the “navel of the world” and, sitting at a dizzying elevation of 3,400 m (11,200 ft), you can see why.
Here soroche, or mountain sickness, is a reality for most people arriving to Cusco by plane. It is vital to take it easy for the first day or two and not eat or drink too much in order to adjust to the high altitude. The city can also boast the highest ultra violet (UV) levels of any place on earth so sunscreen is advised.
Acclimatisation complete, you will find a fascinating and vibrant city waiting to explore. The Cusco you see today is built of ancient Inca temples and monuments, colonial architecture and modern buildings. When an earthquake struck in 1950 it destroyed over a third of all the city’s structures. After rebuilding, Cusco emerged as a focal point for tourism and it is now Peru’s most important tourist destination. It was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 in recognition of streets like Calle Hatun Rumiyuq, where the Stone of Twelve Angles can be seen, and Barrio de San Blas, a picturesque artisan neighbourhood. The city serves as both a base to explore the nearby Inca destinations, like the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, nestled amongst dramatic Andean panoramas, and as a vibrant, exciting attraction in its own right.
In Cusco, Spanish is the predominant language and a few phrases will get you far. English is frequently spoken too and if you venture into the surrounding areas you may hear the aboriginal language, Quechua, spoken by local people. The Peruvian nuevo sol, commonly called sol, is the national currency. Cusco is home to the Cusqeña brewery, which makes some of Peru’s most popular beer, but the biggest industry here is undoubtedly tourism. Increasing at a rate of 25% a year over the last five years, tourism is growing faster in Peru than in any other South American country. Nowhere is this more evident than in Cusco and the city is full of museums, walking tours, churches, monuments and shops by day and thriving nightlife, restaurants and bars by night.
Nestled in the mountains and valleys surrounding Cusco are dozens of enticing Inca destinations. Within the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River are the ruins of Pisac and Ollantayatambo, hanging high above the river below. The megalithic fortress of Sacsayhuaman looks down on Cusco’s red-tiled roofs and the valley ultimately leads to the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu, most famous of all the Inca sights. Machu Picchu translates simply as ‘old’ or ‘ancient mountain’ and, until US explorer Herman Bingham discovered it on the 24th of July 1911, it remained lost and forgotten by all except the local indigenous population and settlers.
It is not just the wonders of the Inca structures themselves which impress around Cusco. The existence of these temples and citadels owes a lot to the fertile agricultural land surrounding them. The sacred importance of crop fertility, mountains and nature helped the Incas decide to build Machu Picchu here as both a religious temple and agricultural growing centre. The flora and fauna in this area is just as exotic and abundant today. Fruit and vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes and avocadoes are all native to Peru. As is the sunflower, domesticated around 1,000 BC, it was venerated by the Incas as an image of their sun god. In Peru you can also find close to 1625 types of orchids- 425 in the Machu Picchu area alone! Keep an eye out for birds too as you visit Machu Picchu, Peru is home to 1,701 species, the largest variety of birds in any country in the world.