Cusco is situated at 11,000 feet above sea level in the southern mountains of Peru. It was the capital of the Inca empire from the 13th century to 1532, when it was overtaken by the Spanish. The city has a rich history, and is a declared UNESCO world heritage site. The architecture around Cusco is beautiful, as it retains many colonial plazas, buildings, and walls from the pre-Columbian era. As a common jumping off point to Machu Picchu, it is the most important tourist city in the country. From Cusco, it is easy to tour sites in the Sacred Valley with various agencies located all over the city.
Because it is so heavily toured by foreigners, we had mixed feelings. While the architecture and streets were phenominal and we found some great local eats, we often felt that the experience was a bit inauthentic. In the main plaza, for example, there was more English spoken than Spanish, and you could not walk more than a few meters without someone trying to sell you pictures, hats, or photos of their lamb. There was an abundance of American food and "tourist menus", and it was at times a bit difficult to find the good local areas. Also, everything within a few blocks of the main plaza was ridiculously overpriced.
I constantly had the feeling of being overcharged because of my skin color for everything from taxis, trains, food, and clothing. It was not uncommon for us to see signs posted with "local price" and "tourist price"... and the tourist price was always at least double. There was, however, a huge market (el mercado) where you could buy fruit, vegetables, cheeses, nuts, flowers, and handmade goods. There were a multitude of food stalls, but we didn't end up trying them because we went after already eating. I can vouch that the cashews from there are fantastic, though!
Usually when we visit a city, we like to do a day trip or two. Obviously, we visited Machu Picchu, which deserved a post of its own. We had planned to also visit the Incan ruins at Moray and Salinas, but didn't get the chance because Daniel ended up in the hospital with food poisoning and dehydration (more on that in another post). As far as other touristy destinations in the area are concerned, you have to buy a "boleto turistico" to get in for 130 soles each (about $50) - it is not possible to pay individually for only the sites you want to see. For most people visiting, it seems reasonably cheap... but it was a bit much for us to swallow after splurging on Machu Picchu, especially since we would not have come close to going to all of the included sites. Instead, we spent our time wandering around the city, enjoying the amazing weather, and generally relaxing. We also picked up some warm base layers and gloves, since it is getting colder the farther south we go. They should come in handy during some upcoming treks that we are planning.
All in all, we enjoyed our time in Cusco, but didn't feel like it was all that it is cracked up to be. We loved the architecture and history, but because it was so overly touristy, the experience was a little bit spoiled and we found it expensive. We visited at the height of peak season, so we may have enjoyed it more during a different time of year.
Nuts and Bolts:
Hostal: Home Sweet Home in San Blas neighborhood. 65 soles/night ($24.80), breakfast included. Nice private room/bathroom, but gets very cold at night. Situated high on a hill and has beautiful views of the city and mountains. The downfall: you have to walk up a TON of stairs to get there!
Transportation: Buy bus and train tickets a few days in advance, especially during high season, because they sell out. If getting a taxi out of the bus station, walk past the ones waiting in the station. There is a fee for taxis to get into the terminal area, and they pass that along to you. It is cheaper to grab a cab just outside the station.
Medical: If you are sick, go to Clinica San Jose. The hospital has a floor dedicated to tourists which is staffed by English speaking doctors. We received as good, if not better, care than in the United States.
Restaurants: If it is a place serving local food, ask for the "menu". They often give tourists a different, more expensive menu, unless you specifically ask for the menu. The menu is typically a three to five course meal for around 10-15 soles ($3.80-$5.75)