Why travel to Cusco
A trip to Machu Picchu ranks high on the bucket list of many avid travelers. But to get to the “Lost City of the Incas” you must first travel to Cusco. Former seat of the mighty Inca Empire, Cusco today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, awash in historical and archaeological wonders. Along the cobblestoned streets of Cusco, colonial-era Spanish churches coexist with vestiges of Inca palaces and temples. Witnessing modern everyday life as it unfolds against this architectural backdrop makes Cusco city one of the most fascinating destinations for Peru travel, well worth a stopover on the way to Machu Picchu.
In the indigenous Quechua language, Cusco, or Q’osqo, means “navel of the world.” The city sits at 11,000 feet above sea level, but the surrounding mountains provided a strategic position and the rich agricultural fertility of the soil also made the region conducive to human settlement.
The Killke civilization was the first to leave its mark, constructing fortresses, temples, and roadways that date from AD 900 to AD 1200. The pastoral tribe that grew to become the Inca arrived sometime in the 13th century, established the Kingdom of Cusco, and adapted existing constructions to their purposes.
Beginning in 1438, the kingdom, under the leadership of the Inca Pachacutec, began a program of conquest and territorial expansion into the surrounding valleys, eventually growing to cover present-day Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and parts of Argentina, Chile, and Colombia. This kingdom was known as Tahuantinsuyo, or The Four Regions, east, west, north, and south, with Cusco serving as the seat of politico-religious governance.
Each Inca emperor was expected to expand the limits of empire he inherited. In Cusco, it also became standard practice for emperors to build a palace and to erect temples and monuments to mark each new territorial victory. In this manner, the city became filled with grand constructions. The emperors also built residences across the Sacred Valley. Ollantaytambo, for example, is believed to have been built as an estate for the powerful Inca Tupac Yupanqui.
The arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century began a new chapter in the city’s life and although the conquest was grossly destructive, Spanish rulers also incorporated many indigenous traditions into their new regime as a way to bolster their legitimacy. In terms of religion, Andean beliefs were incorporated into Catholic teachings and religious art, resulting in the Cusco school of art, recognized as the first organized art movement in the New World. This artistic legacy remains enshrined in the vast collections that adorn the interiors of Cusco’s churches.
Fast forward five centuries, and today, Cusco is a vibrant multicultural hub that brings together travelers from all over the world. The city has a population of 600,000 residents and an economy that revolves mostly on serving travelers who have organized trips to Machu Picchu. The warm hospitality of Cusqueños as well as the city’s historical attractions and wide range of amenities including hotels, cafés, bars, and restaurants, make Cusco a place that captivates and enthralls. In short, a Peru vacation is not complete without a visit to the imperial Inca city and exploration of its many wonders. Enveloped by the verdant Sacred Valley, Cusco is the jewel of the Andes, guaranteed to take your breath away.
What to do in Cusco
Cusco is a playground for history and architecture buffs. One of the absolute pleasures of travel to Cusco is the chance to slowly roam the streets of the Inca city, where every turn offers a fresh glimpse into a past that is as intriguing as it is tortured.
Inca stonemasons built Cusco in the shape of a Puma. Their unrivaled craftsmanship is reflected in the palace and temple walls that survived the onslaught of the Spanish conquest and remain extant throughout the city’s historical center. Enormous stones were worked and polished and fitted together with no mortar or other binding. Stone fits on stone so perfectly that not even a blade of grass can be wedged between them. Inca walls were also anti-seismic, an important quality in earthquake-prone Peru. You can see all of this and more on a Peru vacation in Cusco.
Surely, it was in response to the sheer brilliance of Inca architecture that the Spanish colonizers constructed magnificent cathedrals to match. These churches dwarf the surroundings in both scale and splendor. Although many Inca constructions were destroyed, others were used to build colonial-era houses and Inca stones were also used to erect churches. It is worth mentioning that the former Inca stonemasons provided the manual labor in these building efforts. The visible coexistence of Inca and Spanish architectural styles serves as a symbol and reflection of Peru's complicated past.
For first time visitors to the imperial Inca city, a Cusco city tour provides an excellent introduction to the city’s treasures, which include the 12-Angle Stone, Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun), and the baroque Cusco Cathedral. Cusco also offers easy access to nearby historical and archaeological sites, including the Sacsayhuaman fortress, the Pisac ruins, and of course, the unparalleled mountain-top citadel of Machu Picchu.
Adventure travelers will find much to see and do in Cusco: the surrounding hills offer opportunities for easy day hikes, challenging 1- and 2-day treks (for example, Huchuy Qosqo), horseback riding, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and much more.
When to visit Cusco
Cusco’s high altitude and proximity to the Equator result in two seasons: wet and dry. The rainy season reigns from October to March and the heaviest rains fall in January and February. High season for Cusco travel is during the dry season, from June to August. To beat the rain and the crowds, the best time to visit Cusco is in April, May, or September.
On a typical day in the wet season, rains are rarely all-day events. Instead, you can expect scattered showers throughout the day, but heavier showers in the afternoon and evening. Wander around without the proper gear and you’ll end up drenched, so be sure to pack a rain jacket or plan to buy a rain poncho or umbrella once you’re in town.
At iconic destinations such as Cusco & Machu Picchu, there will always be crowds, but the total number of travelers decreases a bit during the rainy season. As a result, hotels, restaurants, and historical attractions seem less crowded and it’s definitely easier to plan last minute tours to Machu Picchu.
Note that in June and July, Cusco is a very popular destination among domestic Peruvian tourists who flock to the country’s historic capital for various cultural events. Cusco hosts lively celebrations for Peru’s Independence Day on July 28. If you are eager to witness some of Peru’s most fascinating cultural traditions, visit Cusco in late May to see Corpus Christi or in June for the Inti Raymi Festival (Festival of the Sun, celebration of the winter solstice). See the full Cusco Cultural Calendar.
I was most surprised by Cusco. I had seen a couple of shows on the Travel Channel that really only gave it a few minutes and pretty much described it as a place to stop and adjust to the altitude before continuing on to Machu Picchu. But it is so much more than that and so much bigger than I expected. I loved my hotel too. The room was very nice and the location was great.
Kenneth Hammen (CA, USA)
We fell in love with Cathedral of Cusco, and its historical significance to the Spanish conquest. All of the other churches were just as impressive. Sacsayhuaman was an archaeological site above and beyond my expectation.
Jim Jones (Utah, USA)
Cusco was wonderful. We love Cusco. We love the city, the people, the culture, the atmosphere. I would have loved to have spent a few more days there. Our hotel, Suenos Del Inka was great. The hotel took really good care of us. Giving us coca tea twice a day helped us tremendously in settling in. We had a great view of Cusco. It was so beautiful. I would highly recommend this hotel for Cusco.
Teresa Valdivia & Robert Sloan (CA, USA)
The tour guides were good. I didn't know that I would like the city of Cusco so much. I will definitely go back and spend a free day just walking around and enjoying the city. Thanks for all of your help and for your prompt answers to all my questions. Peru was a great experience and I can't wait to go back.
Nick (CA, USA)
See all testimonials »
Top Pick Cusco Hotel
Aranwa Boutique Hotel 5*
San Juan de Dios 255, near Plaza Regocijo, Cusco
Inaugurated in 2010, Aranwa Boutique Hotel is operated by Aranwa Hotels Resorts & Spas, a luxurious Peru hotel chain known for providing careful attention to clients' well-being. This elegant 5-star Cusco hotel, probably the best value luxury accommodation in town, is housed in a converted 16th-century mansion and decorated with colonial-era furniture, impressive paintings from the Cusco School (Escuela Cuzqueña), and gold-leaf plated carvings and sculptures. This boutique hotel is conveniently located on a street between Plaza San Francisco and Plaza Regocijo, a new upscale neighborhood away from the bustle but within walking distance of Cusco's main square, top restaurants, and must-see museums. Each room boasts an oxygen system and a variety of soothing spa treatments, making this an ideal resting place for those who want to acclimatize to Cusco’s high altitude in a most comfortable setting.
Restaurant Room Service Internet Laundry Service Spa
Aranwa Boutique Hotel Photos & Info »
Casa Andina Private Collection Cusco 4*
Plazoleta de Limacpampa Chico 473, Cusco
Casa Andina Private Collection Cusco is the most recent addition to the renowned Casa Andina Hotels. Built in a large 18th century colonial house, the hotel is ideally located in the center of Cusco, just a few blocks from the main square in the direction of Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun). Relax in the beautiful courtyard with its gurgling stone fountain, one of Cusco's most emblematic sights, and get lost in the intriguing maze of corridors that lead you to the various patios. Casa Andina's first upscale hotel in Cusco features 94 heated rooms with private bathrooms, cable television, telephones, hairdryers, and in-room safes. The hotel is equipped with a gourmet restaurant, a bar, 3 courtyards, and offers room service as well as many other excellent amenities. Discover the magic of this beautiful city while staying at Casa Andina Private Collection Cusco, where you will enjoy a warm atmosphere and outstanding service and hospitality.
Restaurant Room Service Laundry ServiceInternet
Casa Andina Private Collection Cusco Photos & Info »
Casa Andina Classic Cusco San Blas 3*
Calle Chihuampata 278, San Blas, Cusco
Five blocks from Cusco’s Main Square and tucked away in the artsy neighborhood of San Blas, the colonial Casa Andina San Blas hotel features a charming courtyard and a view of the Inca city from almost all its rooms as well as its central lobby. The bar and chimney complement the hotel’s Cusqueñan colonial architecture and make Casa Andina San Blas one of the most cozy and inviting hotels in town. Delicious Novoandino cuisine is served in the hotel’s excellent rustic restaurant. All rooms are comfortable, tastefully decorated with warm colors, and equipped with all modern amenities. Here, visitors will find friendly staff providing an excellent and personalized service.
Restaurant Internet Laundry Service
Casa Andina Classic Cusco San Blas Photos & Info »
See all Cusco hotels
Featured Cusco & Machu Picchu Tours
Browse our full range of customizable Cusco & Machu Picchu Tours:
#6 Discover Peru
15 days / 14 nights
Lima, Paracas & Nazca, Arequipa & Colca Canyon, Cusco & MaPi, Puno, Amazon
from $ 3379
6 days / 5 nights
Trek the most sacred Andean mountain
from $ 1899
Inca Trail 4D
4 days / 3 nights
Classic route to Machu Picchu
from $ 679
4 days / 3 nights
Journey through the Lares Valley to Machu Picchu
from $ 679
5 days / 4 nights
From Salkantay to Machu Picchu
from $ 699