Cusco, Peru is one of the most magical places in the world, and not just because of its nearby proximity to the mysterious ruins of Machu Picchu. Travellers of any kind will undoubtedly find themselves sucked into the culture, food, and people of this city.
If you’re thinking about visiting the South American country of Peru and are wondering what to do, here are 11 reasons to visit Cusco.
11 Great Reasons to Visit Cusco, Peru
1. Machu Picchu
There’s no doubt Machu Picchu is the main reason most people visit Cusco, Peru, which is a convenient gateway to the ruins. Nearly every short and long-term traveller in South America adds it to their list.
Machu Picchu is an Incan citadel, perched high above the town of Aguas Calientes. Archeologists aren’t quite sure of the exact history behind the city — much of the information you’ll find is just speculation. Of course, that simply adds to the allure.
There are only two ways to get to Machu Picchu — by train or on foot. If you opt to hike in, plan your trip months ahead of time with a reputable company (they sell out fast). If you’re taking the train, buy your tickets with either with PeruRail or Inca Rail.
Rules for visiting Machu Picchu were recently changed. In the past, you could simply buy a ticket and spend as long as you wanted in the city. Now, you have to buy tickets according to what time you want to visit, either in the morning or afternoon.
You can buy tickets online and pick them up once you’re in Cusco, or you can head to the Machu Picchu tourism centers in both Cusco and Aguas Calientes and buy them in person. Just make sure to plan ahead, as they do sell out.
2. Llamas and Alpacas
While this one’s obviously a tourist draw, it’s hard not to enjoy seeing the traditionally dressed women in town walking their llamas and alpacas, which you’ll find all throughout Peru.
If you’re feeling really touristy, pay a few soles to take a picture with one. Otherwise, just enjoy the new wildlife as you explore the city.
3. The History
Aside from Machu Picchu, Cusco is shrouded in history. A quick walk around town will leave your head spinning from all the ruins and culture you’ll see.
If you’re spending some time in Cusco to acclimatise before heading to Machu Picchu, take a short hike up to Sacsayhuaman, which is an ancient ruin site overlooking Cusco. You can walk there from the city center in under an hour. Just be warned, while the distance to get there is short, the hike is steep. If you’re not used to the altitude yet, a cab might be a better option.
4. The Food
Peru has some of the best food in the world, and while Cusco doesn’t hold Lima’s title of food capital of South America, it does hold its own when it comes to the culinary realm.
Not only will you find traditional Andean and Peruvian food in Cusco, you’ll also find an array of international options. While you might think solely indulging in the local cuisine is the way to go while there, it’d be a mistake to miss out on the city’s other offerings.
If you’re feeling adventurous, try the Cuy (aka guinea pig) and alpaca. You can even get the latter as a pizza topping.
5. Cobblestone Streets
There’s a certain ambiance in Cusco you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Maybe it’s due to the highly spiritual background of the city or the ancient ruins no one really knows the history of. Regardless, you’ll certainly feel it the moment you arrive.
Cusco is like a maze, where countless narrow alleyways lead to even more steep staircases. If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up lost in the midst. Fortunately, that’s not a bad thing. Wandering through Cusco’s charming cobblestone streets is an adventure in and of itself.
In fact, you’ll likely find yourself planning time just to walk around and explore all the passageways around the city. Just take it slowly — Cusco’s elevation is around 11,000 feet.
6. Amazing Views
No matter where you are in Cusco, you’ll have an amazing view. No question. Nearly every store, cafe, and hotel takes advantage of this fact by filling their walls with giant windows.
Stop by any restaurant or coffee shop in the city, and you’ll be treated to a view you won’t want to look away from – think red-tiled roofs dotting never-ending mountains, all contrasted against a deep green landscape.
7. Coffee Shops
Like many destinations these days, Cusco has kept up with the ever-growing cafe culture, and with Peruvian-grown coffee being a huge deal there, it’s worth exploring.
You could stick to the huge Starbucks bordering the Plaza de Armas for your morning coffee, and it’s admittedly a very charming shop. If you’re interested in trying the local coffee, though, there’s no shortage of craft cafes.
The neighbourhood of San Blas, which has an artsy-bohemian flair, is home to a handful of Cusco’s best coffee spots. Try L’Atelier, with its windows overlooking a typical Cusco alleyway. If you’re still craving more afterwards, not to worry — you’ll find a new cafe around pretty much every corner.
8. The Markets
San Pedro Market is one of the biggest you’ll find within the city, and you could easily spend a whole day exploring it. Go there for anything from alpaca sweaters, to fresh fruit smoothies, and everything in between.
On one end, you’ll find food stalls and lots of locals. Go there for a truly traditional meal. On the other, you’ll be surrounded by a maze of trinkets and clothes. Head there if you’re looking to grab some souvenirs.
9. Easy Access
There’s a ton to see and do in all of Peru, and fortunately, Cusco gives you easy access to a diverse range of options for travelling further abroad.
A short flight or (long) train ride can take you to places like Lake Titicaca, where you’ll see a whole other side of the country. And if you’re looking for something a little more dense, you can head to Puerto Maldonado for a rainforest adventure. Of course, a quick plane ride to Lima will leave you in the country’s bustling capital.
From Cusco, you can really see it all.
10. Hiking Trails
Not everyone goes to Cusco just to see Machu Picchu. For outdoor lovers, this place is a haven.
Not only will you find great hikes right within the city (like up to Sacsayhuaman), you’ll also be surrounded by trails nearly everywhere you go outside the city. Huaraz is one place that’s considered the trekking capital of Peru.
If you want something organized for you, any tour operator in Cusco will help. It’s worth noting, pretty much any hike you go on will involve jaw-dropping scenery, ancient ruins, and nature in its rawest form.
11. Friendly Locals
You’ll meet people from vastly different cultures and lifestyles all around South America, and each group tends to have its own ambiance. Cusco, without a doubt, is filled with some of the most warm and welcoming people on the entire continent.
While you’re here, take a side trip to visit the Sacred Valley of Peru which offers magnificent views and an escape to nature.
Yes, on the surface, the city might feel a bit touristy (of course, there’s a reason people flock there). Look past that, however, and you’ll find friendly people who genuinely care about you and your experience when you stay in Cusco. Enjoy.
Kristen Youngs co-operates two online businesses while travelling the world full-time. Her website, One Bag Nomad, teaches other remote workers and travellers how to build their own businesses, completely location free.