Cusco offers the traveller an incredible array of attractions and activities, and it is very worthy of being the main tourist destination in Peru. The city is located in beautiful mountain scenery, and offers a wonderful combination of colonial Peru and the Inca heritage of the country. The nearby archaeological sites of Sacsayhuaman, Pisac and Ollantaytambo are some of the most interesting in the country, and the fabled lost city of Machu Picchu is every bit as beautiful and mystical as the famed images suggests. The Cusco area is also home to one of the most famous hikes in the world: the Inca Trail. This walk through Inca settlements offers some stunning scenery, rising through the Andes before descending into the cloud forest and arriving, magically, at Machu Picchu.
For visitors wishing to get away from the tourist crowds, there are many nearby areas of outstanding interest, which are far less visited. The major Inca ruins of Choquequirau, in a setting every bit as impressive as Machu Picchu’s, are rarely seen by visitors, and the last Inca city of Vilcabamba, from where Manco Inca launched guerrilla attacks on the Spanish conquistadors, is a fascinating site set in verdant jungle. Both of these sites are reached by hikes through beautiful mountain scenery, and present wonderful alternatives for travellers wishing to escape the crowds on the Inca Trail.
Cusco is one of the best bases in South America for adventure sports, and there are some fine mountain biking routes near the city, and it is possible to go paragliding in the Sacred Valley. The Apurímac River, a couple of hours from the city of Cusco, offers excellent white-water rafting, with rapids of up to class V, and the Urubamba River also offers good, although gentler, rafting. For hikers, in addition to the routes mentioned above, there are some spectacular treks around the 6,400m Ausangate, and other snow-capped peaks.
The Cusco area is home to some sites of outstanding natural beauty. The Pongo de Mainique, a long, but beautiful, bus ride from Cusco, is a narrow gorge, with 300m-high cliffs on either side of the Urubamba River, with waterfalls pouring down into the river. Tres Cruces, only four hours from the city, offers one of the world’s most spectacular sunrises, with optical illusions giving the impression of the sun dancing, splitting in two and changing shape.
Despite the high level of tourism in Cusco, most of the surrounding towns and villages have remained unaffected and still cling to ancient ways of life and traditions. There are many colourful and noisy festivals throughout the year that are very interesting to visit. Ccoylloritti, near the base of the Ausangate Mountain, has a very interesting festival every June to which thousands flock to from all over the Andes. Paucartambo has a very lively celebration in mid-July, involving lots of music, dancing and drinking, and some very colourful masks. Inti Raymi, celebrated in June in the city of Cusco, is a recreation the ancient Inca festival of the winter solstice.
Cusco is also one of the best entry points into the jungle. The Tambopata-Candamo Reserve near Puerto Maldonado, which includes the world’s largest macaw lick, is easily accessible via Cusco, and the Manu National Reserve, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site that offers some of the most pristine rainforest in the Amazon, is only accessible through Cusco.
Most visitors to Cusco spend less than a week in the area because of time limitations. However, many travellers on less tight time budgets find it a captivating place and end up extending their stays in the area substantially. Cusco is a wonderful, fascinating place, and could easily keep one interested for many months.
If visiting the attractions in the city of Cusco and the nearby ruins, the Tourist Ticket is essential. This allows entrance to 16 different sites in and around Cusco for a single payment of $10, and is valid for 10 days, although it is possible to get a one-day extension. This is good value as long as you visit a few of the sites, but if you only want to visit one or two it is rather expensive. The 16 sites are: Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Puca Pucara, Tambo Machay, the Cathedral, the museum of religious art, San Blas, the museum of Santa Catalina, the museum of the municipal palace, the site museum at Qorikancha, the museum of regional history, Chincheros, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Tipón and Pikillaqta. The ticket can be bought at any of the sites.
Alternately, if only visiting the sites in the Sacred Valley, there is another ticket allowing entry to Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Chincheros for $6.
The Quechua language, from which many of the names in the Cusco area are derived, did not have a written form in the Inca period. It was only with the arrival of the Spanish that a written form of the language was developed, and this, not surprisingly, adopted Spanish pronunciations and spellings where possible. For example, the ‘W’ sound has generally been representing by ‘HU’, e.g. SacsayHUaman, and ‘C’ has often been used instead of ‘Q’, e.g. CusCo instead of QosQo. The written form of a phonetic language will often have different ways of being represented, and therefore there are often different ways of writing the same name. For example, there are a number of different ways of writing Sacsayhuaman. The INC currently prefers Saqsaywaman. Peter Frost, in Exploring Cusco, chooses Sacsaywaman. No particular rule is followed in this guide, with ‘W’ and ‘HU’ both being employed, as well as ‘C’ and ‘Q’. Generally, the spelling most commonly employed is followed.