Exploring Cusco, Peru – Capital of the Great Incan Empire

Pretty much everything about Peru rocks at this point in history! If you’re going to Peru, you are going to see a lot of the native culture put on full display like few places you’ll see in North America. The native people of Peru are very much a major component to the cultural fabric that makes up the country and nowhere is that more obvious than in the city of Cusco. Cusco city is located in an area of Peru that is quite large and is also known as Cusco and this can be confusing. Think of the large area of Cusco as a state or province within Peru and the city of Cusco as that area’s capital.

Cusco city was originally built by the Killke people who predated the better known Incan Empire. The Incas are actually called Quechuan (pronounced Ke-chew-an) and the term “Inca” actually refers to the Quechuan king specifically. Over time the word “Inca” has come to be used to describe the Quechuan people as a group and now the words are virtually interchangeable. The city of Cusco was designed in the shape of the sacred puma that lives in this area of Peru. Little is known about how the city was constructed or how the magnificent stones were cut to build the original city. Today, you can still see large sections of the original walls built during the city’s infancy due to the amazing architectural abilities of the Incan people to build stone structures that could last essentially forever, even being designed to withstand earthquakes.

Explore Cusco city and the surrounding ruins:

When to visit Cusco, Peru

Christmas Day in Cusco, Peru

My best experience has been around the end of December or beginning of January but May is also a great time with awesome weather, lower hotel costs and none of the crowds that arrive in June. Peru is actually a pretty good place to visit just about any time of year. The historic center of Cusco is packed on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, but the rest of the time, it is almost empty and very few tourists are crowding the area like they will be during the summer months. This is an amazing Christmas holiday trip and well worth it should you have the time to do it. The nearby Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Lima and the Amazonian Rain Forest are all available within a short drive or flight from Cusco and although December and January are considered the rainy season that doesn’t mean what you may think it does. All the “rainy season” means is that 7 days a week it is going to pour rain for about 60-90 minutes. Once that is done, typically the sun is going to come out, it’s going to reach the mid 60s or 70s and life is amazing once again. “The rainy season” in South America is nothing to be concerned with and this is certainly true in Cusco, Peru.

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Things to know:

January – April: Rainy season, but an awesome time to go. Temperatures in the low 60s and few tourists.

May: Great time to go, low prices, great weather and tourists are not yet there in large numbers

June – September: It’s pretty warm (65-75 degrees F) and dry but full of tourists and travelers. Still pretty cool, go if this is when you can go.

October – December: Rainy season again, but amazing time to go. Temperatures in the 60s and low 70s with very few tourists.

Essential aspects of Cusco, Peru

Pisco – not exactly food, but it goes in the mouth and is swallowed, so same thing.

Food. Try authentic food. My favorite restaurant at this time in history is called Deva and is just a couple blocks off of the Plaza de Armas. Save yourself the disappointment – eat at a good restaurant. Prices in Cusco are reasonable in all areas. Go ahead and find a decent looking restaurant and have an authentic Quechuan meal. Eating in the little hole in the wall pizza joints is just setting yourself up for disappointment. Ask your tour guide if you have one, otherwise as the hotel concierge and they’ll point you in the right direction. If you’re staying in a hostel or otherwise, just walk into a hotel and ask them – you’ll typically get great advice. If pizza with a little bohemian flare is what you want try La Bodega 138 near the Plaza de Armas – it’s great!

Tienda Museo on Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru. There are tens of thousands of items just like this, all hand woven and all unique.

Tiendas Museo on the square in Plaza de Armas. This is the coolest authentic native Peruvian textile store I found in all of Peru and it’s right there in historic Cusco. Check out these photos! The section of the video (above) showing authentic items is in the basement of this store. The owner’s mother has been collecting authentic hand made native Peruvian textiles from all over the country for many years. He can tell you which tribe of people made any item in his store, where it came from and how old it is. Some of the items are well over 100 years old. He was a truly generous man and passionate about his hand made items. This store has authentic hand made items quite literally stacked from floor to ceiling. This is a real treat and is a must see! Allow for a little extra room in your luggage to fit a blanket or two as shipping items home from Peru is extremely costly.

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A legal Peruvian taxi cab. If it doesn’t look like this, don’t get in the car.

Taxis! Walking around the historic area of Cusco is pretty simple, it’s not a huge area. However, should you have to take a taxi in Cusco, or anywhere in Peru for that matter, make sure the license plate has a bright yellow stripe at the top (see image). There are a lot of illegal cabs running the streets and while you are probably okay getting a ride in one, there have been plenty of instances to prove that statement wrong. Don’t end up getting robbed or worse, just look for the yellow strip with the red and white national flag on the tag and you have a legit taxi. You’ll see other colors like orange on license plates as well. These tend to indicate similar classifications like tourist buses, airport shuttles, etc.

Money. There are plenty of ATMs in Cusco especially in the touristy areas like Plaza de Armas. Just be aware of your surroundings and keep your money secured. I use the Victorinox Deluxe Concealed Money Belt and it has always been perfect for securing money quickly during all of my travels. I usually forget I have it on. The likelihood of you getting robbed in Cusco is low at this time and you should feel pretty safe, just use common sense and keep your money secured. Have plenty of Peruvian Nuevo Sol (their monetary unit) available as it is much easier to pay with Soles than it is with dollars. They’ll take dollars, but they have to calculate change and you’ll get that change back in Soles, so just know the monetary exchange. Right now 1 dollar is about 3 Soles so keeping track isn’t that hard if you’re decently good with numbers.

Awesome rock structures are all over Peru.

History. Everything about Cusco has a historic meaning. Take your time and understand that until rather recently, the culture has not put much effort into restoration. Peru is not Paris, France where the historic symbols have been carefully preserved for generations. Peru is an emerging nation where priorities historically have been having enough food and clean water to survive. Now this amazing country is coming into its own and tourism is paying for things like historic preservation to become a reality. This is one of the things I really appreciate about visiting Peru is knowing my money is helping to preserve valuable history and culture. Take the old, run down and dilapidated for what it is – amazing and culturally significant. Enjoy it, feel blessed that we live in a country where our history is rather well preserved and appreciate the fact that the people of Peru are working diligently to ensure the same for their heritage.

In closing

I hope you have enjoyed our little adventure through Cusco, Peru and I encourage you to consider it as a top-of-the-list destination as you explore this amazing planet we call Earth.

Adios!

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