During the peak of the Inca Empire, the city of Cusco was home to 300,000 indigenous Americans. High in the Andes mountains and far from the European cities of the time, this incredible New World city flourished as the administrative and military capital of the great Inca Empire. At the time, all Inca roads led to Cusco, where the four great regions of Tahuantinsuyo met, or the navel of the earth as the Inca knew it. Speaking on behalf of Cusco, Francisco Pizarro famously reported to the crown that “this is the greatest and finest city ever seen in this country or the Indies… We can assure you, your majesty, that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would be remarkable even in Spain.”
While this noble indigenous empire was eventually seized and destroyed by Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, Cusco remains the most important city in the Andean realm to this day. After taking control of Cusco, the Spanish erected enormous cathedrals and administrative buildings atop former Inca Temples, creating a one-of-a-kind urban landscape where colonial Spanish architecture blends with Inca masonry in a remarkable fashion.
A Cultural Mecca
Located 11,150 ft. above sea level in an Andean valley near Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, Cusco is undoubtedly the most beautiful city in Peru, if not all of South America. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cusco champions the outstanding stone masonry and town planning capabilities of the Inca, with some of the most beautiful rockwork you will find anywhere in the world. Like Rome or Istanbul, Cusco abounds with historical sites and continues to be a cultural mecca to this day.
Cusco Practical Information:As the gateway to Machu Picchu, Cusco has become Peru’s tourism hub, although it is certainly worthy of independent recognition as one of the best places to visit in Peru (or all of South America for that matter).
Cusco, Peru, ranks beside La Paz, Bolivia, and Kathmandu, Nepal, as one of the world’s highest cities. For this reason, we always advise travelers to descend to the Sacred Valley upon arrival. By structuring your Peru trip this way, you help reduce your risk of altitude sickness and allow your body to gradually acclimatize. If you are concerned about the altitude, there are select luxury lodges in Cusco that offer oxygenated rooms, although their effectiveness in assisting with acclimation is the subject of much scrutiny. For more tips and advice for altitude travel in Peru, see our article regarding Peru Altitude Sickness Prevention.
We recommend a minimum stay of two nights in Cusco, although three nights allows for more exploration opportunities. The best way to setup a classic trip to Cusco, Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley is to descend to the Sacred Valley on the first day upon arrival, spend a night or two in the Urubamba Valley, visit Machu Picchu, and then finish the trip with a few nights in the city. We advise allotting at least one full day for a Cusco city tour and a visit to the nearby ruins. Cusco is also a good jumping off point for travelers seeking to visit Lake Titicaca, and the city’s high elevation can make for strategic acclimation prior to visiting the world’s highest navigable lake.