Cusco city, known as the “historical capital of Peru” is located in the South East of Peru at close to an elevation of 11,000 ft in the Urumbamba Valley of the Andes mountains. At this elevation, Cusco has 30% less oxygen in the air than where I currently live in Connecticut, USA at ~500 ft elevation. Being a short walk away from many major Inca ruins, and the place where all Inca trail hikers and Machu Picchu visitors start their trip to Peru, Cusco is a very popular tourist destination.
The popularity is for good reason. Cusco’s main square, the Plaza de Armas, also known as the “Square of the Warrior” is beautiful. In this square, two buildings stand out amongst the others: the Church of La Compania (as depicted above) which rests on the original foundations of the palace of the Inca ruler known as Huayna Capac and the Cathedral of Santo Domingo (as depicted below) which rests on the original foundations of the palace of the Inca ruler Viracocha.
In front of both of these churches is a gorgeous statue of the Sapa Inca (as depicted below). Sapa Inca translates to the Great One and is the term for the Inca ruler of the time, so both Huayna Capac and Viracocha were considered Sapa Incas at their time of rule. The statue depicts what the Sapa Inca would have looked like:
Historical information aside, if you are planning a trip to Cusco there are a few things you should be aware of:
Everything is for sale: For example, as a tourist walking around in scuffed-up hiking boots, I looked like the perfect customer for the shoe-shiners. I don’t think there was ever a moment where I wasn’t trailed by at least one person attempting to shine my shoes every time I took a seat.
But that’s not all. Women roam the streets dressed in traditional-looking Peruvian clothing and dragging llamas by a leash asking for 1 sole (their currency) for a photograph. Other women beg you to buy their hand-knitted finger puppets. Many young men walk around with artist portfolios attempting to sell you their drawings (many of which are actually quite nice) but this can get painstakingly annoying when they attempt to befriend you by engaging you in conversation about your country of origin first, then won’t stop talking about how they haven’t eaten in a few days because nobody has bought their work recently (what I imagine is a ploy to get the tourist to make a purchase, especially since every one of them says this, every time). Furthermore, feel free to read the menus that are on display in front of all of the restaurants, but beware of the other hosts and hostesses who will run up to you with the menu of the restaurant of which they work in an attempt to sell their menu over the one that you are looking at.
Cusco is Safe: Of course there are probably petty thefts all the time, just like any tourist destination and any city (I personally know someone who had their camera stolen from the back of their chair while they ate diner) but in and around the Plaza de Armas there is always a police officer (or two!) standing at every corner of every intersection. As long as you don’t travel too far into the residential heart of the city where it tends to feel a little more rough, safety shouldn’t be much of a concern.
Drink Bottled Water: The tap water in Peru, and many other countries in South America, is not considered safe for a foreigner to drink. Not to worry though, bottled pure water is available in nearly every store and from every street vendor for very cheap (1 liter bottle for S/1.20 or about $.40. Drinking plenty of this not only keeps you safe and hydrated, plenty of water helps to cure the altitude sickness that you’ll likely encounter your first (and maybe second) day in Cusco.
Chew Coca Leaves: Or drink Coca-brewed tea! Coca leaves are abundantly available in Peru, and chewing on these leaves or drinking coca-brewed tea is another local remedy for altitude sickness. It tastes horrible, but gives you a burst of energy and even helps to suppress hunger for a short time, so if you are hiking the Inca trail, having a bag of these in your pocket is highly recommended. If you are wondering what coca leaves are, well, they’re one of the main ingredients in cocaine, (the natural non-addictive ingredient of course) and while ingesting/possessing these leaves is perfectly legal (and traditional) in Peru, it is illegal to attempt to bring any amount of them into the United States.
Overall, the people of Cusco love their city and are extremely proud of it. As depicted above, the words Viva El Peru Glorioso and Cusco meaning “Long Live Glorious Peru,” as well as the national coat of arms as shown on the Peruvian flag, have been carved into shrubbery on the mountainside so that they can be read and seen from all of the city below. They’re proud, and for good reason. Cusco city is a remarkable place that I’ll never forget.