By: Kaitlin Keaveney
There's a reason Cusco (meaning "navel" in Quechua) has maintained its "Navel of the World" moniker for centuries. Nestled high among the Andes Mountains at an impressive 11,150 feet above sea level, the former imperial Inca capital – established in the 11th century and conquered by the Spanish in 1533 – has risen from its war-torn past to become the crown jewel of Peruvian tourism. Standing tall as the gateway to the Sacred Valley, the Inca Trail, and the once "lost" city of Machu Picchu, Cusco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America (45% of its population is indigenous).
With three days you'll have just enough time to adjust to the altitude and sample the markets, museums, and nightlife surrounding Cusco's Plaza de Armas and the historic arts district of San Blas before taking in the nearby ruins of Sacsayhuamán, Quenqo, Puca Pucará, and Tambomachay. With five days you can visit the Sacred Valley ruins and markets of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Urubumba before squeezing in a one- or two-day trip to Machu Picchu. Seven days gives you ample opportunity to truly discover all that Machu Picchu, and its surrounding frontier town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, have to offer, whether arriving there by train or hiking the Inca Trail.
Don't let the thought of soroche (altitude sickness) hold you back from this Andean eden. The worse symptoms – fatigue, headaches, and dizziness – are best cured with water and one or two cups of hot mate de coca (coca tea), which can be found at nearly every restaurant and café in Peru (although it's banned in the U.S.). So pack your hiking boots, backpack, raincoat, camera, and Spanish dictionary, just in case – you're about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
With so many options for exploring Cusco and its surrounding region, choosing where to go first can be overwhelming. While iPerú offices (government-operated clearinghouses for tourist information; www.peru.info) are available – one in the arrivals terminal of Cusco's Velasco Astete Airport (084/237-364) and another at Avenida Sol 103 (084/234-498) – your best bet for booking Cusco City tours, Sacred Valley day trips, Inca Trail treks, or Machu Picchu excursions is with one of the dozens of tour operators situated around Cusco's bustling Plaza de Armas. Note that you'll also need to pay entrance fees for most, if not all, Inca sites you visit.
Our favorite local tour operators include: SAS Travel (Portal de Panes 167; 084/255-205; www.sastravelperu.com), the largest trekking agency in Cusco and the only one with guaranteed daily departures to Machu Picchu; the family-run Peru Treks & Adventure (Calle Garcilaso 265, Office 11, 2nd Floor; 084/505-863; www.perutreks.com), specializing in both Inca trail and alternative hiking excursions to Machu Picchu (Monday, Wednesday, Friday departures) at very reasonable rates, plus wonderful Cusco city and Sacred Valley tours; and Andean Life (Calle Santa Teresa 381 or Calle Plateros 372; 866-356-5524; www.andeanlife.com), with Cusco city tours, excursions to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, jungle trips, and whitewater rafting adventures. Tip: When booking, make sure to ask for an English-speaking guide, and don't be shy about citing your accommodation preferences.
Entrance to most sites in and around Cusco, including those in the Sacred Valley, is granted with the purchase of a boleto turístico (tourist ticket); your best bet is to buy the full ticket (70 soles; valid for 10 days) that grants access to 16 cultural and architectural sites. Access to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu is sold separately: the Inca Trail pass alone costs $73/day; entrance to Machu Picchu is $25/day. Most sites sell tickets at their entrances; they're also sold at the Oficina Ejecutiva del Comite (OFEC; Av. Sol 103; 084/227-037) and the helpful Oficina de Informacion Turistica (Mantas 117-A; 084/263-176).
Known as Huacaypata (Warrior Square) to the Incas, Plaza De Armas is where Pizarro proclaimed the conquest of Cusco in 1534. Enveloped by balconied shops, bars, and restaurants, this energetic main square is positioned around a massive colonial fountain. One of its most frequented attractions is the recently restored, Renaissance-style La Catedral (Plaza de Armas, north side; no phone; Mon-Sat 10-11:30am and 2-5:30pm; Sun 2-5pm; admission with boleto), completed in 1669, which consists of two chapels: the Capilla del Triunfo and the Capilla de la Sagrada Familia (where you can buy the boleto). La Compania de Jesus (Plaza de Armas, east side; no phone; free admission; Mon-Sat 11am-noon and 3-4pm), a Jesuit church cater-cornered to La Catedral, is equally impressive.
Other notable churches include Iglesia de la Merced (Calle Mantas; Mon-Sat 8.30am-noon and 2pm-5pm; 084/231-831; 3 soles), home to a beautiful baroque stonework cloister; and the Renaissance-style Santa Catalina Church & Convent (Santa Catalina Angosta; Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat. 9am-4pm; 084/226-032; admission with boleto), which was built on the foundations of Acllawasi (the Temple of the Sun Virgins), where women of beauty were selected to be the eternal wives of the sun god Inti. If time permits, visit the 17th-century Iglesia y Convento de San Franciso (Plaza San Francisco; Mon-Sat 2-5pm; 084/221-361; 3 soles), known for its ceiling frescoes, skull and bone decorations, and collection of colonial Spanish artworks.
Original Inca stone walls line some of the narrow, pedestrian-only streets that surround the Plaza; the eldest of these surviving structures is located east of the Plaza on Calle Loreto, while the exquisitely crafted 12-angled stone – guarded by a man dressed in traditional Inca garb – is located northeast of the Plaza on Calle Hatunrumiyoc. The best example of the intermingling between Spanish and Inca influences is the colonial church of Santo Domingo (Plazoleta Santo Domingo; Mon-Sat 8.30am-5.30pm; Sun 2-5pm; 084/222-071; 6 soles), whose finely wrought walls were originally part of Qoricancha (the Inca Temple of the Sun) and once lined with solid gold statues.
Continue climbing the steep paths surrounding the Plaza and you'll hit the bohemian neighborhood of San Blas, home of artists, craftsmen, and Cusco's most jaw-dropping panoramic views. Because of its location – literally tucked into a quiet corner of the city – it has also attracted dozens of intimate eateries and cozy hotels (See Where to Eat and Where to Stay) geared to those seeking a reprieve from the Plaza's all-night antics. The neighborhood has its own tiny plaza at the top and to the right of the street Cuesta San Blas, but its main attraction is the Iglesia de San Blas, presumably the oldest parish church in all of Cusco (Mon-Wed and Fri-Sun 10am-11.30am, Mon-Sun 2pm-5.30pm; admission with boleto), notable for its 17th-century cedar pulpit purportedly carved from a single tree trunk.
While adapting to the altitude, spend some time gaping at everything from pre-Columbian artifacts to contemporary art at one of Cusco's many fine museums. Don't miss the Museo de Arte Precolombino (Casa Cabrera, Plaza de las Nazarenas; daily 9am-10pm; 084/233-210; 20 soles), which showcases gold and silver handicrafts, jewelry, ceramics, and other artifacts from both Inca and pre-Inca cultures; and the Monasterio y Museo de Arte de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Angosta; Mon-Fri 9am-5pm; Sat 9am-4pm; 084/226-032; admission with boleto), an old convent that contains a museum of both Inca and Spanish art. You can also walk through Casa Garcilaso (Calle Heladeros; Mon-Sat 8am-5.30pm; 084/223-245; admission with boleto), the colonial home of 16th-century writer/poet Garcilaso de la Vega, son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca princess.
Four Inca ruins lie within the reaches of Cusco, and are easily accessible on foot. The closest site to town, and thus, the most visited of the lot, Sacsayhuamán (daily 7am-6pm; admission with boleto), pronounced a bit like "sexy woman," was, according to legend, created in the shape of a puma – an animal the Inca considered sacred – complete with zigzagging stone rows (for teeth) piled high against a backdrop of rolling green pastures. The site may have either been a religious temple or a military outpost; whatever it was, it hosted one of the most destructive battles in Spanish/Cusqueños history in 1536. Looming over the site from further up the hillsides is the 25 meter-high Spanish stone monument known as the White Christ (try to find it from below while sitting in the Plaza).
Other Incan ruins worth visiting around Cusco include the limestone outcrop of Q’enko (Mon-Sun and holidays; 7am-6pm; admission with boleto), carved out by the Incas and most likely used for ceremonial fertility rites, solstice/equinox celebrations, and sacrificial offerings; the small fortress of Puca Pucara (Mon-Sun and holidays; 7am-6 pm; admission with boleto), perhaps used as a storage facility or a guard post between Cusco and the Sacred Valley; and Tambomachay (Mon-Sun and holidays; 7am-6 pm; admission with boleto), also known as Los Banos del Inca (Inca baths), assumed to be used for water ceremonies and worship.
If you tire of walking, head just beyond Sacsayhuamán to the taxi pick-up/drop-off point, where you'll find a host of agents offering horseback riding tours through Puca Pucará and Tambomachay for negotiable rates. For a more organized tour, with guaranteed English-speaking guides, try Milla Turismo (Portal Comercio 195, Plaza de Armas; 084/231-710), whose ranch is located at Sacsayhuamán; they offer four-hour horseback-riding tours as well as five-hour biking programs that offer a change of pace.
THE SACRED VALLEY & THE INCA TRAIL
The lush agricultural region of the Urubamba Valley, better known as The Sacred Valley of the Incas (El Valle Sagrado de los Incas), lies about an hour from Cusco. This 62-mile stretch of land encompasses magnificent ruins, terraced fields, and the villages of Pisac, Urubamba, Ollantytambo, and Chinchero. Winding above the western half of the valley is the storied, 27-mile-long Inca Trail, a UNESCO World Heritage site that ranks as the most significant – and popular – hiking trek in all of South America. You can discover the best of both in three days by combining a day-trip to the valley with a two-day Inca Trail hike; tour operators around Cusco's Plaza de Armas (see Tour Operators above) will help map out routes.
The Sacred Valley
Most visitors opt for a simple one-day tour of the Sacred Valley (9 hours, $15-20 per person), departing on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays to coincide with some of the villages' market days, where you can buy handicrafts from actual craft makers, not resellers. If you're not into organized tours, however, you can take a local bus from Cusco or even rent a cab for the day for about 190 soles. The bulk of the valley lies to the northwest of Cusco; one exception, Pisac, lies to the northeast.
Closest to Cusco is the tiny town of Chinchero (17 miles NW of Cusco; daily from 7am-5.30pm; admission with boleto), home to some 12 distinct indigenous communities, most of whom still speak the ancient Inca language of Quechua and barter for goods instead of using money. At 12,500 feet, it's much higher than the rest of the Sacred Valley and the Cusco region, and it's believed to be the mythical birthplace of the rainbow. Ruins aside (they actually pale in comparison to most other Sacred Valley sites), most come to Chinchero to browse its Sunday market (see Shopping) or access the Salkantay Valley trek, a five- or seven-day journey popular with hikers looking for a quieter route to Machu Picchu (it eventually joins the traditional Inca Trail at Wayllabamba). Note: You'll need a boleto (see Entrance Fees, above) to enter Chinchero.
Further west, Urubamba (48 miles NW of Cusco), nestled amidst magnificent countryside, complete with the snowcapped Cordillera Urubamba mountain rising in the distance, is one of the busiest villages in the Sacred Valley. Its Plaza de Armas is lined by the twin-towered colonial Iglesia San Pedro church and Pablo Seminario Ceramic Studio (Berriozával 1st block; 9am-7pm; 084/201-002; www.ceramicaseminario.com/menui.htm), the workshop of renowned Peruvian artist Pablo Seminario, whose colorful pre-Columbian-inspired ceramic masterpieces are handcrafted on site. Two spectacular sites lie just beyond the town limits as well: The hillside of Salineras de Maras, consisting of thousands of ancient saltpans; and Moray, what appears to be a massive environmental art installation, possibly used by ancient farmers for experimental agricultural purposes. The easiest way to reach both sites is by taxi from the town center.
Continuing westward still, the quaint Ollantaytambo (60 miles NW of Cusco) – referred to simply as Ollanta (oh-yahn-tah) by locals – is an appealing town of cobblestone paths, adobe brick buildings, and colorfully decorated restaurants. A short walk from the town center finds the remnants of a massive temple-fortress built by the Inca leader Pachacútec: About 200 stone steps are carved into the lush mountainside; temples, baths, and fertility stones abound; and an Inca canal system still transports water from the mountains. If you're not traveling with an organized tour, you'll definitely want to hire the services (for about 20 soles) of one of the tour guides at the base of the ruins; they'll point out details you might otherwise overlook, like the faces of Inca Gods that protrude from the mountainside. You'll also probably encounter a young Peruvian child offering to sing you a song in Quechua (a reward of a couple soles makes for good karma).
East of Cusco, Pisac (20 miles NE of Cusco; daily from 7am-6pm; admission with boleto), a small Andean village dominated by some of the most massive ruins in the entire valley, is actually best known for its Sunday artisan market. Villagers from miles around gather to barter and sell their produce at the market, which is a great place to acquire local ceramics and colorful hand-painted beads. When you tire of shopping, take a cab up the meandering path toward the town's ruins. You'll want at least an hour to hike the stone steps and snap photos of the perfectly curved terraces that are carved into the steep hunter-green mountainsides. Note: You'll need a boleto (see Entrance Fees, above) to visit Pisac.
The Inca Trail
Starting a few miles west of Ollantaytambo, the Inca Trail loops south of the Urubamba River, traversing a range of elevations between about 8,530 and 13,780 feet, and coursing over stone-stair trails surrounded by cloud-covered forests, cascading mountains, dense orchid-rich vegetation, and dozens of Inca ruins, before dropping back down to 7,710 feet at Machu Picchu.
Because it attracts over 70,000 people each year, government regulations now limit access to the Inca Trail to a mere 500 visitors per day, excursions are relegated to specific departure days, and the only way to walk the trail is with an official guide; the trail is also entirely closed to the public each February. Accordingly, booking well in advance with a recognized tour operator (see Tour Operators above) is highly recommended, especially if you're intent to visit in peak season (June–September), in which case you should book at least three to six months prior to departure. With the exception of SAS Travel, which offers guaranteed daily departures, most travel agencies limit departures to three days per week. A two-day trek begins only 8¾ miles away from Machu Picchu; groups spend the night near Huinay Huayna, the last set of ruins before Machu Picchu. The most classic Inca Trail hike, a phenomenal, four-day, 27-mile trek, passes through sub-tropical jungles and three formidable mountain passes before joining the shorter two-day trek that culminates at Machu Picchu. Trail access costs $73; package trips include the trail pass, porter, accommodation, and more.
No matter what activities you plan for your stay in Cusco, no trip would be complete without visiting Machu Picchu, or Old Mountain (74 miles NW of Cusco; Mon-Sun 9am-6pm; $25; bring your passport to the entrance gates for an official stamp), the site of Peru's most remarkable Inca ruins. Curiously untouched by European conquerors, the enormous stone ruins were overtaken by dense jungle vegetation until Hiram Bingham's rediscovery in 1911. Perhaps it is the "lost" city's location – nestled high among the Andes Mountains at 7,710 feet, regularly swathed in pockets of fog, and completely hidden from the Urubamba Valley below – that helped keep its existence a secret for so long. Though archaeological evidence shows that Machu Picchu was probably more of a country retreat for Inca nobility than a conventional city, questions still linger about to where exactly its onetime residents fled; and some tour guides will even joke that perhaps they still exist in yet another undiscovered Andean city.
If you're not doing the Inca Trail, the only way to get to Machu Picchu is by train from Cusco (3.5–4hrs) to the tiny frontier town of Machu Picchu Pueblo (at the Puente Ruinas station), where a 20-minute bus ride (departing every 10 minutes from 5.30am–5pm; 20 soles each way, water included) will take you the remaining five miles to Machu Picchu itself – you can also get there on foot (the way the Inca did) by hiking up a steep set of stairs to reach the plateau (count on an hour to make the ascent). Since the site attracts more and more visitors each year, peak hours can get crowded (but rarely overwhelming so, due to the site's vast size). Mid-day temperatures can also become blisteringly hot, with barely any shade for respite, so be sure to pack your sunscreen and plenty of water. It's best to rise early and visit before 11am – or stay until after 3pm – to avoid the crowds and the heat (most organized treks actually start as early as 5am).
After you've traversed Machu Picchu's many stone temples, fields, terraces, and baths, climbing Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain), the iconic backdrop for many classical Machu Picchu photos, is an absolute must (daily 9am-5pm). Rising to about 8,858 feet, the mountain requires an intense one-hour ascent, zigzagging up finely carved stone stairs. As steep and dangerous as it may appear, there are abundant safety railings and turn-around points for those who get cold feet. But we assure you that the climb is well worth the sweat – the panoramic views are priceless.
If you reach Huayna Picchu's peaks early enough in the day, take a two-hour detour on the descent to the Temple of the Moon, which houses mysterious caverns, niches, and portals that include exquisitely carved thrones and an altar. Despite its name, it's unlikely the site was used as a lunar observatory, but rather as a center for worshipping the Huayna Picchu mountain spirit. You'll need to exit by 4pm (the site officially closes at 5pm); you also won't be allowed entry after 2pm.
In the opposite direction of Huayna Picchu lie Intipunku (Sun Gate) and Huinay Huayna (Forever Young), two paths along the Inca Trail that boast beautiful ruins and forested trails, and make for a great day out for those who skipped the Inca Trail en-route to Machu Picchu. Note that you can return for a second day of hiking at half price; just present your original ticket at the entrance to get the discount.
Many tour operators organize overnight accommodations in Machu Picchu Pueblo, a compact outpost confined to two main streets: Avenida Imperio de Los Incas and Avenida Pachacútec. Though awash in other conveniences – restaurants, bars, hotels, shops, and markets, all catering specifically to the tourist population – ATMs are nonexistent (travelers' checks and money can be changed at various spots like the local pharmacy). There isn't much to do here but get psyched about your trek to Machu Picchu while swapping adventure tales with other travelers; the most popular venue for such exchanges is the Baños Termales (a 10-minute walk up Avenida Pachacútec; 5am-9pm; 12 soles), thermal baths where bathing suits can be purchased (5 soles) or rented (3 soles), and lockers and towels are available for minimal fees. Although some may shy away from the volcanic rock baths at first sight due to their cloudy complexion, it's a great place to unwind and relax sore muscles after a long trek. In case you get thirsty, do as the sign says and whistle; friendly poolside bar service is on call.
Though some luxury and moderate hotels are available, Cusco and Machu Picchu are primarily backpacker's havens, with many low-cost lodging options and cozy hostels for as low as $14/night.
Accommodations abound around the busy Plaza de Armas and in the quieter historic district of San Blas. In the luxury category, we recommend Hotel Monasterio Cusco (Calle Palacios 136, Plazoleta Nazarenas; 084/241-777; www.monasterio.orient-express.com), which hardly strays from its original monastic design and offers 126 exquisitely decorated rooms, no two of which are identical. Indulge in the hotel's signature five-star massage and bath butler services and dine in one of its two upscale restaurants that serve distinctive Peruvian cuisine. Hotel Libertador Palacio del Inka (Plazoleta Santo Domingo; 084/231-961; www.summithotels.com), situated four blocks from the Plaza and facing the Temple of the Sun, surrounds a colonial courtyard of arches and terra-cotta tiles. The hotel features charmingly rustic rooms, a fitness facility, and a full-service spa. Hotel Novotel (San Augustin 239 - Esquina Pasaje Santa Monica; 084/581-030; www.novotel.com), the newest but least impressive of the luxury lodgings, offers Wi-Fi access, concierge and porter services, and a stellar location. Its amenities are modern and dependable, but nights can get noisy, so request an interior courtyard room or upgrade to a two-floor colonial-style room (sleeps four) for only $45 extra per night.
For moderate choices, we love Boutique Hotel Casa San Blas (Tocuyeros 566; 084/251-563 or 084/237-900; www.casasanblas.com), a restored mansion in the San Blas district offering basic rooms with cable TV and private bathrooms, a wooded terrace with stunning views, a piano bar, and the boutique Tika restaurant; the more spacious Suite Apartments include microwave ovens, gas stoves, and cooking utensils. The Terra Andina Hotel (Calle Union 184; 084/249-413 or 084/227-039; www.hotelterraandinacusco.com), a classically restored colonial mansion-turned-B&B, boasts 28 spacious rooms, some with cable and DVD players (in superior rooms); breakfast included. Hotel Marqueses (Av. Garcilaso 256; 084/264-249; www.hotelmarqueses.com) is associated with SAS Travel, one of Cusco’s top-rated travel agencies (see Tour Operators, in Attractions). Originally built at the end of the 16th century, the refurbished colonial house with beautiful hardwood floors and deep red furnishings is now characterized by its warmth and Andean hospitality. Hotel Arqueologo (Calle Pumacurco 408; 084/232-522; www.hotelarqueologo.com) boasts sunny gardens and comfy accommodations; standard rooms are simply decorated, but the Suite Inka accommodations are stunning, with glossy hardwood floors, canopy beds, and bamboo ceilings. Hostal Rumi Punku's (Choquechaca No.339; 084/221-102; www.rumipunku.com) authentic Inca stone doorway welcomes guests to a once-sacred site. Today you'll find a handsome colonial building with peaceful courtyard gardens, balcony terraces, free Internet access, sauna, Jacuzzi, and Norwegian thermal blankets.
Many budget hotels can be found in historic San Blas neighborhood. Casa de la Gringa (084 241168; www.anotherplanetperu.net) is a South African-owned hostel with a hippie-vibe, featuring eclectic rooms, healing gardens, and organized tours. The Dutch owners of the Niños Hotel (Calle Meloc 442; 084/231-424; www.ninoshotel.com) donate all proceeds to a foundation they developed for the children of Cusco. It's one of the finest, cleanest, and least-expensive inns in Cusco (from $18/night), with hardwood floors, a courtyard, and daily breakfast service. Because of its popularity, reservations must be made at least six months in advance. Hostal Corihuasi (Calle Suecia 561; 084/232-233 or 084/260-502; www.corihuasi.com) offers free hotel transportation from the airport, cozy accommodations, and an open fireplace in the lounge. Located in San Blas, just two blocks from the Plaza, balconies and panoramic windows welcome excellent views.
Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotels
Dozens of accommodations are available in Machu Picchu Pueblo, though most are pretty basic. Touted as the best luxury hotel in town, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel (www.inkaterra.com) is a network of whitewashed cottages tucked into the remote mountainside of the lush Andean cloud forest. Perks include a pure mountain spring swimming pool, beautiful gardens illuminated at night, and rates that include full board and three meals. The Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (base of Machu Picchu ruins; 084/246-419; http://machupicchu.orient-express.com) is the only hotel directly adjacent to the ruins, so you'll be paying a hefty fee; prices start at $715/night, but include modern accommodations with small terraces opening to gardens, stellar views of the ruins and surrounding mountains, plus three daily meals; the same company owns Hotel Monasterio Cusco, and you can book both stays in both properties for your trip. Hatuchay Tower (Av. Hermanos Ayar M-24; 084/211-201; www.hatuchaytower.com) is a five-story yellow block building that sits along the Rio Urubamba, just steps away from where the buses depart for Machu Picchu. Rooms are clean, spacious, comfortable, and have great views overlooking the river.
For moderate accommodations, the Machu Picchu Inn (Av. Pachacútec 109; 1-866-247-3221; www.peru-hotels.com/machuinn.htm) boasts basic yet spacious en suite rooms; rates include continental breakfast. There's also a pretty decent onsite bar and restaurant serving international cuisine. A bit cheaper is Gringo Bill's Hostal (Calle Colla Raymi 104; 084/211-046; www.gringobills.com), popular with backpackers and large groups, offering comfy accommodations, many with balcony and window rooms overlooking parts of the Upper Amazon tropical rainforest. The rooms at Hostal Presidente (Av. Imperio de Los Incas, opposite police station; 084/244-598) come with cable and private baths (some with Jacuzzi jets); rooms overlooking the Vilcanota River are a bit pricier. Less upscale mid-range hotels include the centrally located Hostal Machu Picchu (Av. Imperio de Los Incas, opposite police station; 084/244-598); renovated in 1999, its vibrantly colored rooms are spacious and clean. The unique, timber-constructed Rupa Wasi Condor House Ecolodge (Calle Huanacaure 110; 084/211-101; www.perucuzco.com/rupawasi) provides the perfect contrast to the bland concrete hotels that dominate the streets; its 5 rooms, including 3 suites with private terraces, are all made of wood.
And for budget at its best, you can't go wrong with the basic rooms at the family-run Hostal Pachacuteq (top end of Pachacutec, up the hill beyond Hostal La Cabana; 084/211-061), where simple but adequate rooms are complemented by an onsite cafeteria. Hostal Continental (Avenida Imperio de Los Incas 127; 084/211-065) is one of the best inexpensive options in town, with tidy rooms, plenty of hot water, and a library.
With traditional dishes like ceviche, alpaca, cuy (guinea pig), and trucha (trout), Peruvian cuisine is extraordinarily fresh and unique. You'll find quintas (traditional open-air restaurants) with authentic novo-Andean fare, Peruvian takes on pizzerias, Asian and vegetarian eateries, and more.
Plaza de Armas is chock-a-block with affordable dining establishments, many offering midday three-course meals for just 10 soles. Menu-toting hawkers lining the Plaza will try to lure you in for a meal; if disinterested, a simple no gracias is normally sufficient.
One of the most expensive menus in Cusco can be found at Illary (Plaza Nazarenas; 084/243-820; www.monasterio.orient-express.com), Hotel Monasterio's acclaimed restaurant overlooking a handsome colonial courtyard. The dishes, a cross between traditional Andean and French fare, use local ingredients and seafood from the coast. Slightly less pricey is the Inka Grill (Portal de Panes 115; 084/262-992; www.inkagrillcusco.com) with outdoor seating, traditional Andean music, and savory Creole and novo-Andean dishes like sautéed alpaca tenderloin or aji de gallina (shredded chicken with nuts, cheese, and chile pepper). Reservations are recommended at the glass-walled Map Café (Plaza Nazarenas 231; 084/242-476; open till 10pm), which occupies part of the patio of the Museo de Arte Pre-Columbino; the menu is an elegant mix of Peruvian, French, and Italian traditions, with one of Cusco's finest wine lists. Live entertainment is synonymous with El Truco (Plaza Regocijo 261; 084/232-441; www.cuscoperu.com/eltruco), where musicians and dancers perform wildly entertaining shows each night starting at 8pm. This colonial abode turned gambling house now serves a variety of creatively prepared traditional and contemporary plates coupled with a fine selection of wines, native cocktails, and international libations. If the menu at La Retama isn't enough to lure you in – think pink trout, king fish from Lake Titicaca, seco de cordero (lamb stew) and anticucho de lomo (beef brochette) – go for the nightly music and dance shows.
In the moderate category, the Blueberry Lounge (Portal de Carnes 236; 084/249-458; www.cuscorestaurants.com/blueberry) offers creative Asian cuisine (don't miss Sunday's special curry dinner) in a cozy bohemian setting with an outdoor patio and weekend DJ sessions. In the San Blas neighborhood, the stylish, romantic character of Greens (Tandapata 700; 084/243-379; www.cuscorestaurants.com/greens) shines through in its vibrant green walls, modern paintings, candlelit tables, and trendy beats. Trained in London, chef Tanya Miller serves extraordinary dishes like tropical curry chicken with bananas, peaches, and strawberries, as well as funky vegetarian plates, all from an open kitchen, and happy hour (two-for-one) is held every evening from 6.30-7.30pm. A Mi Manera (Triunfo 393, 2nd floor; 084/243-629) offers the most relaxed atmosphere in town, with a creative assortment of Andean dishes and vegetarian options like the popular Andean quinoa gnocchi (considered sacred by the Incas, quinoa is a grain with a mild, slightly nutty flavor). Named after the banana plantation in García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Macondo (Cuesta San Blas 571, San Blas; 084/229-415) is tasteful on many levels: with trendy tropical décor and inventive dishes like juanes (chicken, rice, and salsa wrapped in Bijao leaf). Located just off the plaza, with small wooden tables and dangling cloth lamps, Pucara (Plateros 309; 084/222-027) offers a nice selection of traditional Peruvian dishes like lomo saltado or alpaca; and the soup is divine.
Budget picks include Chez Maggy (Plateros 348; 084/234-861), a brick-oven pizza chain that has spread throughout Cusco. Lined with shared bench tables, the atmosphere is social and friendly. Tucked away in the San Blas district, Granja Heidi (Cuesta San Blas 525, San Blas; 084/238-383) is a German-owned establishment named for the mule that lives on the owners' nearby farm, where much of the restaurant's fresh produce is harvested. Breakfast crepes and quiches are quite popular, as are healthy vegetarian options and hearty meat dishes, including ostrich steak. Cusco's first Mexican restaurant, El Cuate (Procuradores 386; 084/227-003) boasts several bargain menus with six- and five-item meals including soup, tacos, burritos, and cheese enchiladas. Popular with early morning trekkers, La Tertulia (Procuradores 44, 2nd floor; 084/241-422), located above a well-regarded travel agency, features an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet of eggs, fruit salads, yogurt, granola, homemade bread, French toast, 16 types of crepes, tamales, freshly squeezed juices, and coffee.
Machu Picchu Pueblo Restaurants
Several eateries line the two main roads at Avenida Imperio de los Incas and Avenida Pachacútec. Whether pining for oven-baked pizzas, buffets, vegetarian, or French cuisine, Machu Picchu Pueblo delivers. Just as in Cusco, restaurant hawkers flood the streets, menus-in-hand, trying to lure you in with lunch specials and free drink offers. Choose wisely and you can find a locale that has it all: good eats, superb ambiance, and stellar views.
The most expensive menus certainly have the views and the atmosphere. At the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge's Tampu Bar Restaurant (base of the ruins, no phone; www.monasterio.orient-express.com) you'll find a contemporary Andean-style setting backed by a la carte local Peruvian and international cuisine. Also on site is the Tinkuy Buffet Restaurant, where for $20 per person (steep for a buffet) you can indulge in international and Peruvian cuisine. Café Inkaterra (Av. Imperio de los Incas, Km 110 Linea Ferrea Cusco, Quillabamba; 511/610-0410), located at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Hotel, provides a blend of traditional Andean and contemporary cuisine beneath a palm-thatch roof.
Moderate choices include the French bistro Indio Feliz (Lloque Yupanqui 4; 084/211-090), an attractive two-level locale decked out with green plants and boasting a delicious prix fixe menu. Pueblo Viejo (Av. Pachacútec 108; 084/211-193) is perfect for meat lovers, with excellent Argentinean-style parilladas, while Govinda (Av. Pachacútec 20; 084/975-3993) is the local hot spot for vegetarians. For exceptional views of the Vilcanota River, make tracks to Toto's House (Av. Imperio de los Incas s/n; 084/211-020) for its steal-of-a-deal $11 lunch buffet.
Among Machu Picchu Pueblo's best budget options is the local branch of Chez Maggy (Pachacútec 156, Machu Picchu Pueblo; 084/211-006), famous for its brick-oven pizza. At the end of Avenue Pachacútec, en-route to the hot springs, you'll also find Manu (Av. Pachacútec 139; 084/211-101), where a large snakeskin is strung across an entire wall; menu items include wood-fired oven pizzas, crepes, and traditional Peruvian dishes. Before setting out on your Machu Picchu trek, pick up sandwiches, bottled water, and other tasty snacks at El Mirador (located next to the entrance of Machu Picchu; no phone).
While certain spots attract more gringos (as all tourists are often called), the most popular hangouts are generally mixed between tourists and locals. Even if Spanish speaking isn't your strongest asset, sharing a chela (slang for beer) is universally understood. Groups often buy large, liter-size beers rather than individual 12-ouncers. It's common for locals to approach you with a toast for no apparent reason – the fact that you're hanging out on their home turf is reason enough! Local brews include Cusqueña, Cusqueña Negra, Cristal, Barena, Brahma, and Pilsen.
Cusco Bars, Pubs, Cafés, and Clubs
An eclectic mix of bars, trendy cafes, and discotecas – most within walking distance of each other – culminates along the perimeter of the Plaza de Armas to create a laidback area for serious bar-hopping. Ironically enough, most establishments don't require cover charges for tourists (when they do it's no more than 16 soles). Other bonuses: Dress codes are unheard of and club promoters hanging around the Plaza are always distributing passes for free drinks.
Km.0 (Tandapata 100; 084/254-240; www.km0cusco.com) is an intimate, two-story bar with candle-lit tables, good music, great food, and a small stage hosting nightly bands. Kamikase (Plaza Regocijo 274, 2nd floor; 084/233-865; www.cuscoonline.com/kamikase), Cusco's self-proclaimed “original disco pub,” is popular with an older, local crowd, with live music starting nightly at 11pm. Noted for its rough-and-tumble demeanor, Norton Rat's Tavern (Loreto 115, Plaza de Armas; 084/246-204; www.nortonrats.com) is a must-see, with darts, a pool table, balcony views of the Plaza, and the best hamburger in town. Leave it to the Irish and English to open pubs in almost every city in the world; at Paddy Flaherty's (Triunfo 124, Plaza de Armas; 084/247-719) you'll find Guinness on tap and Rugby and other international sporting events on the tube. The more upscale watering hole of Rosie O'Grady's (Santa Catalina Ancha 360, near the Plaza de Armas; 084/247-935) features more of the same. The Cross Keys (Portal Confiturias 233, Plaza de Armas; no phone; www.cross-keys-pub-cusco-peru.com) is the only English-style pub in the city, compliments of owner Barry Walker, one of Peru's leading ornithologists.
Boasting the best crowds and the latest hours, the ever-popular Mama Africa (Portal Harinas 191, 2nd floor; 084/246-544; www.mamaafricaclub.com) is our top dance club pick; set to Latin, reggae, rock, techno, electronic, and even '80s beats, you can alternate between the comfy, candle-lit lounge and the jam-packed dance floor. Similar in setting and clientele – a young mix of locals and tourists – Up Town (Suecia 302, Plaza de Armas; 084/227-241) and Mythology (at Plaza de Armas near Santa Catalina; no phone) both offer salsa lessons before 11.30pm. At Ukukus (Plateros 316, 2nd floor; 084/233-445) – noted for its three-dimensional artwork where human-like figures and masks literally pop out of the ceilings and walls – live Peruvian music kicks off the night at 10.30pm, followed by DJ selections and dancing that peaks around 2am. Order and pay for your drinks at the register, then bring your receipt to the bartender – try the colorful Machu Picchu, a combo of pisco brandy, mint liqueur, grenadine, and orange juice. El Muki (Santa Catalina Angosta 114; 084/253-498; www.cuscoperu.com/elmuki) is a posh, cosmopolitan dance spot designed like a cave and ablaze in crimson red lights. Legend has it that a gnome protects the cave; hence the costumed midget who sits at the bar all night.
Folk Dance & Music Shows
The most prevalent of Peru's indigenous folkloric dances is known as Huayno, wherein high-pitched vocals are accompanied by a joyful symphony of instruments. Couples clad in colorful llama-wool garments swing to the rhythm of this lively music. For live performances, check the schedules at the Teatro Municipal (Calle Mesón de la Estrella 149; 084/221-847) and Centro Q'osqo (Av. El Sol 684; 084/227-901). You can purchase tickets at the Oficina de Informacion Turistica (Mantas 117-A; 084/263-176). Or just stumble upon some colorful entertainment at one of the city's many eateries – like El Truco or La Retama (see Restaurants).
Machu Picchu Pueblo Bars
With such an intense focus on daytime activities, Machu Picchu Pueblo is a bit short on nocturnal offerings – which is actually a blessing since you'll want to save your energy for all those early-morning treks. But if you're looking for a little excitement, head to the Baños Termales (walk up Av. Pachacútec) for a dip and drink at its small outside bar. You can also take a walk back down Av. Pachacútec to the Blues Bar Café (Av. Pachacútec s/n; 084/211-125), a perfect spot for sharing drinks, stories, and music. Or explore the area's restaurants on your own – Manu (Av. Pachacútec 139; 084/211-101) is a great spot for sampling a pisco sour and warming up by the fire.
Cusco is Peru’s epicenter of hand-woven textiles, where ancient weaving techniques are still in use today. The country is renowned for its alpaca apparel – fiber as soft as cashmere yet warmer, lighter and stronger than wool – and you’ll see colorful sweaters, shawls, gloves, hats, scarves, ponchos, and blankets made of the stuff at every turn. Peru is also strong on fine ceramics, handmade jewelry, and exquisite woodwork; the best of which is often found – and haggled over – in local markets.
Markets abound in Cusco, calling all visitors to hone their bargaining skills. Put your talent to the test on streets Plateros, Triunfo, and Plaza Recocijo. Merchant and handicraft shops teem with handmade jewelry and ceramics, woven tapestries, exquisitely carved wooden figures, and precious stones – and since the same merchandise is typically sold throughout the city, you won't have to accept the first offer. Slightly cheaper prices than those on the Plaza can be found at Centro Artesanal Cusco (at the end of Av. Sol), the largest indoor market of handicraft stalls. The historic district of San Blas is great for antique stores and art galleries; and for an off-beat tourist attraction, the famed Mercado Central (near the San Pedro rail) sells produce, food, and household items.
Shoppers seeking alpaca apparel, be forewarned: faux alpaca sellers run rampant. The price is the first giveaway; no real alpaca garment would be sold for less than 200 soles, even if the label says so. For authentic garments go to Alpaca 111 (Calle Plaza Regocijo 202; 084/243-233), the only authorized distributor of high-quality vicuña (similar to llama and alpaca) scarves, shawls, and sweaters. Outlets are located at hotels Libertador (Plazoleta de Santo Domingo 259; 084/223-192) and Monasterio (Palacios 133; 084/221-192), as well as at the airport. For customized stylish alpaca jackets check out Artesanías Quipu Cancha (Plateros 321; 084/223-369). And if you want to catch a glimpse of how hand-woven sweaters, ponchos, scarves, and tapestries are actually made, go to the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the survival of traditional textile weaving (Av. El Sol 603; 084/228-117; www.textilescusco.org).
Some other favorite haunts include the popular Pablo Seminario outlet (Portal de Carnes, Haukaypata; 084/246-093) for pre-Columbian inspired hand-painted ceramics; and Ilaria for fine silver and colonial-era pieces. Illaria branches are located at Hotel Libertador (Plazoleto Santo Domingo 259; 084/221-470), Hotel Monasterio (Palacios 136; 084/246-253), and at Portal Carrizos 258 (084/227-470).
Sacred Valley Markets
The region is a great place to shop, hence the reason most tour operators depart on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays to coincide with market days. Thanks to the high quality of its craft makers (who are authentic, not agents) and better bargaining opportunities, Chinchero is the best spot in the Valley to purchase Andean textiles, hats, gloves and shawls; failing that, Pisac has a great Sunday market as well.
Machu Picchu Pueblo Shops
Buzzing with shops, markets, and stalls selling everything from high-quality silver to alpaca garments, Machu Picchu Pueblo is a great place to pick up souvenirs for friends and family. You'll find everything from "Inka Cola," "Cusqueña," and "I Survived the Inca Trail" T-shirts to handmade jewelry, peace pipes, and wood-carved knives. Prices are a bit steeper than in Cusco and other Sacred Valley sites, but shopping is a great way to pass time while waiting for the train or winding down after a long trek.
When To Go
Cusco's peak season falls during the dry winter months (June through September), along with Christmas and Easter holidays. An influx in visitors from the Northern Hemisphere during these times translates into inflated lodging prices and bigger crowds at the most popular attractions. If you're traveling around June 24 for the Inti Raymi festival, or July 28 for Peru's Independence Day, be advised to book well in advance. Traveling during the wet summer season (November through March) will give you the most bang for your buck since prices are lower and crowds are smaller; the downside is the unpredictable rainy weather. Luckily, locals are always selling colorful ponchos in times of desperate need.
Since there are no direct flights into Cusco or Machu Picchu, most visitors from the U.S. fly to Lima's Internacional Jorge Chávez and connect onward on local airlines. Airlines to Lima include Lan Airlines (www.lan.com), TACA Airlines (www.taca.com), American Airlines (www.aa.com), Delta (www.delta.com), Continental (www.continental.com), Spirit Airlines (www.spiritair.com) and Aeroméxico (www.aeromexico.com). LanPeru provides direct service to Lima from New York (both JFK and LGA), Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles; Continental flies non-stop from Newark and Houston; and SpritAirlines now also flies direct from Fort Lauderdale. To connect onward to Cusco, book through a domestic airline like Lan Peru (www.lan.com), Taca Peru (www.taca.com), Aerocondor Perú (www.aerocondor.com.pe), Aviandina (www.aerolineasperuanas.com/aviandina.htm), and Star Perú (www.starperu.com); flight time is under an hour.
Orbitz (www.orbitz.com), Expedia (www.expedia.com), and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) offer good packages to Cusco and its surrounding region. Package providers specializing in Peru include Tara Tours (www.taratours.com), Marnella Tours (www.marnellatours.com), and Discover Latin America (www.discoverlatinamerica.com).
Getting Into Cusco
Taxis and private hotel cars are the best way to get into Cusco from the aiport; factor on a 20-minute drive. Upon exiting the airport, swarms of taxi drivers will be vying for your business; never accept the first fare they offer. Standard rates range from 3 soles (by day) to 5 soles (at night), so don't be bashful about bargaining over the rate – no local would ever pay 10 soles for a taxi fare. Keep in mind that many hotels and hostels also provide airport pickup service, so inquire about that when you make your reservation.
The center of Cusco is small enough to traverse on foot, but taxis are an inexpensive option, at a mere 2 soles (3 soles after 10pm), and taking one is recommended come nightfall. Hailing a cab on the street is not to be feared, but if you prefer going through a recognized company, call Alo Cusco Taxis (084/222-222; www.alocusco.com) or Okarina (084/247-080). You can also hire them for half- or full-day tours of the Cusco region (about 190 soles for the day). Cabs from the Plaza de Armas to Sacsayhuamán can be bargained for 5 soles. Have the driver wait while you explore and then continue your journey to Puca Pucara and Tombomachay; haggle for 10 soles or so, but never pay the full amount up front; dish out 5 soles up front and guarantee the remainder upon return.
Full-size buses to the Sacred Valley are also quite popular and cheap. Be warned that there are numerous terminals and they can be very tricky to find, since signs signaling the stations are virtually nonexistent; be on the lookout and ask for help. Buses depart when full, which makes for crowded journeys; and since speed limits do not exist, imagine how intense your adventure could be! That said, the buses are generally safe and the drivers are experienced. Public transportation allows you, at the very least, the freedom to see the sites the way you want at an extremely inexpensive rate. So even if you blow all your money on airfare, your options for getting around are endless. Be sure to grab a map, and have no fear about asking for directions; locals will gladly help. You can also get advice and ticket information at the Oficina de Informacion Turistica (Mantas 117-A; 084/263-176) or the tourist office at the Terminal Terrestre de Huanchaq train station (Av. Pachacútec; 084/238-722).
A couple small stations to look out for include Av. Grau 525, with service via Chinchero (2 soles) to Urubamba (3.5 soles); Calle Puputi 208 with service via Pisac (2 soles) to Urubamba (3.5 soles); and from Urubamba's Av. Urubamba Railroad you can continue to Ollantaytambo (1 sole).
Additional modes of public transportation in Cusco include colectivos, vans that cover routes between Cusco and the Sacred Valley (i.e. from Cusco to Pisac) and usually depart when full; combis, the jam-packed vans you'll surely see wheeling passengers around town; and micros, small buses that also travel between Cusco and the Sacred Valley, all for a couple soles at most. Again, pick-up points can be confusing, so ask your hotel operator or the locals.
Train Transportation to Machu Picchu
Peru Rail (www.perurail.com) offers several train services to accommodate all budget types. The Backpacker is for adventurous budget savvy riders (about $73 Round Trip from April 1 to December 31; departures daily in peak season); while the more classy Vistadome is the quickest way to Machu Picchu and much more comfortable, offering panoramic views of the stunning scenery through clear ceiling windows ($105 Round Trip; $113 Round Trip peak season; departures daily). Both run from Cusco's San Pedro Station to Machu Picchu; or from the Sacred Valley (Ollantaytambo) to Machu Picchu. Most tour operators will organize accommodations aboard the Backpacker, so if you have a preference, be sure to specify when booking your trip.
The Hiram Bingham train (departing from Poroy Station, Mon-Sat year round; 20 minute drive from Cusco's center; $547 round trip, subject to change) is the most luxurious option, consisting of two dining cars, a bar, and a kitchen car. Packages include onboard meals with wine, entertainment, guides, bus transfers, entrance to the ruins, and afternoon tea at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge.