Cuzco City – PERU
The ancient Inca capital’s cobblestone streets house artisan shops, world-class restaurants and raucous discos.
At an elevation of 11,024 ft, Cuzco sublimely combines the Inca legacy with Spanish colonial architecture. History puts Manco Capac founding the city of Cuzco around 1100 A.D. Legend says that in the beginning the land was in darkness and the great Lord Sun took pity on these wretched creatures and sent to earth his own son, Manco Capac, “to spread civilization and enlightenment”. The goddess Moon sent her daughter Mama Ocllo to be his bride. They appeared on earth emerging from the waters of Lake Titicaca. Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo began a long odyssey searching for the place where to found their kingdom. At length they came to a fertile valley where Manco Capac repeating the test assigned by the Sun, plunged his golden staff into the ground, this time it sank deep into the soil and disappeared, where they found their capital and called it Cuzco “navel of earth”.
WHAT TO SEE IN CUZCO
The best place to start exploring Cuzco is perhaps the Plaza de Armas (Main Square), the center of solemn parades and great assemblies since Inca times. The Cathedral, built on the place where once stood the palace of Inca Viracocha, mixes Spanish Renaissance architecture with beautiful Inca stone-work. Its construction began in 1580 and took approximately one century to complete. Among its many treasures are nearly 400 colonial paintings, including those of the “School of Cusco” a very particular style developed by the blending of Inca and Spanish cultures.
The single piece of the main altar is completely covered with silver plates. Of the many side altars, a very popular one among cusquenos is that of the Lord of earthquakes, blackened by the innumerable votive candles lit over the centuries. Two other churches are attached to the Cathedral, Jesus Maria, to the left, and El Triunfo, the oldest in Cuzco dating back to 1536. The complex is open for visiting from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM and from 3.00 PM to 6:00 PM.
Santo Domingo Church and Convent, the most remarkable characteristic of this building is that it was built using some of the Inca walls of the fabulous Koricancha “temple of the supreme Sun God ” that colonial chronicles described as having the inner walls covered with gold plates to reflect the sun’s rays entering through windows specially positioned for that purpose.
San Blas Church, a small adobe building that holds a carving masterpiece, the renowned pulpit of San Blas, work of Indian craftsmen on a massive single piece of wood which is said to be the finest wood-carving piece in the world. Around the church are the houses of the most popular families of handicrafters of Cusco. Visit the Mendivil and the Olave family.
La Compania Church, also on the Plaza de Armas. Originally built in the late 16th century by the Jesuits on the foundation of Inca Wayna Capac’s palace (the last ruler of the unconquered empire). The church was destroyed by the 1650 earthquake. Reconstruction began immediately and finished 18 years later, resulting in the most ornate and splendid church in Cuzco.
Museum of Religious Art, displays a fine collection of colonial artifacts and paintings of the “School of Cusco” . The building was constructed on the site of Inca Roca’s palace. Just outside is the Twelve Angled Stone, an example of Inca architecture advancement that continues to amaze the world, the twelve corner-angles fit perfectly all surrounding blocks. The stones were positioned without the use of mortar and have withstood centuries and earthquakes.
La Merced Church and Convent, dating back to the 17th Century. It has a small museum with the best colonial paintings in Cuzco, a variety of lavish religious objects including the four feet high gold monstrance, covered with precious stones and two large pearls in the shape of a mermaid. Also within the city the colonial churches of San Francisco, Santa Catalina, Santa Clara, San Pedro, Santa Teresa, and San Antonio Abad and the beautiful colonial houses of “La Casa de los Cuatro Bustos”, “The Admiral’s Palace”, “House of Marquis of Valleumbroso”, among others.
Getting there & away
Bus & taxi
The journey times given here are only approximate and apply only if road conditions are good. Long delays are likely during the rainy season, especially from January to April.
All international services depart from Cuzco’s main long-distance bus terminal.
For Bolivia, several companies offer through buses to Copacabana (US$15, 13 hours) and La Paz (US$18 to US$20, 18 hours). Many will swear blind that their service is direct, though the buses usually stop in Puno for several hours in the middle of the night until the border opens. Transportes Zela (24 9977) and Imexso (22 9216) have daily buses departing around 9pm or 10pm. Ormeño (22 7501) has the only direct service to La Paz, leaving at around 10pm (US$33, 14 hours), but it goes via the border post at Desaguadero and does not pass through Copacabana.
For Tacna, by the Chilean border, Cruz del Sur has a bus departing every afternoon around 3pm (US$22.50, 15 hours).
Terminal Terrestre, the town’s main long-distance bus terminal (departure tax US$0.30), is 2km southeast of the Plaza de Armas, several blocks off Av El Sol. This is where you’ll find all of the major luxury bus companies, including Cruz del Sur (22 1909) and Ormeño (22 7501), as well as scores of smaller económico (economic) bus operators, too. Buses to most major cities leave from this terminal, though buses for more unusual destinations (eg the Amazon jungle) still leave from elsewhere, so check carefully in advance.
Regular buses depart frequently for Puno (US$4.50 to US$10.50, six to seven hours) via Juliaca. But why not treat yourself? Inka Express (24 7887; www.inkaexpress.com; Pardo 865) runs luxury tourist-class buses with panoramic windows to Puno, with departures every morning. The splurge-worthy US$25 fare includes beverages and an English-speaking tour guide, who talks about the various sites that are briefly visited en route, including Andahuayillas, Raqchi, Abra la Raya and Pucará.
There are now two options to get to Lima. Most direct buses now ply the quicker route via Abancay and Nazca to Lima (US$18 to US$33, 17 to 23 hours), but this can be a rough ride and is prone to crippling delays during the rainy season. Companies include the most luxurious Cruz del Sur and the cheapest Expreso Molino (23 6144). The alternative is to go via Arequipa, a longer but more comfortable and reliable route for reaching Lima (US$19.50 to US$47.50, 25 to 27 hours). Ormeño’s Royal Class has a daily departure at 9am.
Many buses also run just to Arequipa (US$7.50 to US$21, nine to 11 hours), but these services are mostly overnight. Buses to Abancay (US$4.50, five hours) and Andahuaylas (US$8, 10 hours) usually leave in the early morning and early evening. You can change at Andahuaylas to a bus bound for Ayacucho in Peru’s central highlands via rough roads that get very cold at night. Wear all of your warm clothes and if you have a sleeping bag, bring it onboard the bus.
Buses to Quillabamba (US$4.50, seven to eight hours) via Santa María leave a few times per day from the Santiago bus terminal in western Cuzco (take a taxi from the city center, US$0.60). For this trip, most locals recommend the bus company Turismo Ampay (24 5734), which has three departures daily and conveniently staffs a ticket counter at Cuzco’s main long-distance terminal. Daytime buses to Quillabamba are safer and have spectacular scenery while climbing the 4600m Abra de Malaga and then dropping down into the jungle.
For other Amazon jungle destinations, you have to fly, risk a hazardous journey by truck or find an expedition. There are daily trucks to Puerto Maldonado during the dry season along a wild and difficult road, and the trip from Cuzco takes anything from two days to over a week in the wet season (for more details, see p283). These trucks leave from near Plaza Túpac Amaru, east of Tacna along Garcilaso (US$10, two to seven days). You could also get a bus to Urcos and wait for a truck there. Transportes Huayna Ausangate (965 0922; Av Tomasa Tito Condemayta) has buses that go as far as Ocongate and Tinqui (US$4.20, seven hours) and leave around 10am daily except Sunday.
Getting to Manu is just as problematic. Expreso Virgen del Carmen (22 6895; Diagonal Angamos 1952) has buses to Paucartambo (US$3, five hours) leaving from behind the Coliseo Cerrado daily. Continuing from Paucartambo to Manu, there are only passing trucks or expedition buses, though buses for Pillcopata leave from Av Angamos in Cuzco on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings (US$4.50, 10 hours). For onward travel from Pillcopata to Shintuya, take a truck (US$2.50, eight hours).
Minibuses to Pisac (US$2.60, one hour) and Urubamba (US$3.90, two hours) leave frequently from Av Tullumayo, south of Av Garcilaso, from approximately 5:30am until 8pm. Roughly during those same hours, there are speed-demon colectivo (shared) taxis that leave when full bound for Urubamba (US$3.50, 1½ hours) via Chinchero (US$3, 45 minutes), as well as minibuses to the same destinations; you’ll find them along the 300 block of Grau, near the Puente Grau (Grau Bridge). To get to Ollantaytambo, it’s easiest to change at Urubamba, or you can try and catch an infrequent direct bus from Puente Grau (US$4, 2½ hours). Slower highway buses to Quillabamba stop in Ollantaytambo, too, but you’ll have to pay the full fare (US$5.50, 2½ hours).
Minibuses to Urcos (US$2) leave from Manco Capac, east of Tacna, and from Av de la Cultura opposite the regional hospital. Take these to visit Tipón, Piquillacta, Rumicolca and Andahuaylillas en route to Puno or to wait for passing trucks to Puerto Maldonado.
Trucks, combis (minibuses) and faster colectivo taxis for Limatambo (US$3.50 to US$4, 1½ to two hours), only a few of which continue onward to Abancay, leave from various places on Arcopata, a couple of blocks west of Meloc.
Car & motorcycle
Given all the headaches and potential hazards of driving yourself around, consider hiring a taxi for the day – it’s cheaper than renting a car anyway.
Motorcycle rentals are offered by a few outdoor outfitters and travel agencies in Cuzco. You can go for short runs around town or, when seasonal road conditions allow, into the surrounding areas, but not much further. Even for experienced riders who purchase full-coverage insurance, the risks and dangers are considerable.
Cuzco has two train stations. Estación Huanchac, near the end of Av El Sol, serves Juliaca and Puno on Lake Titicaca. Estación Poroy, serves Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. The two stations are unconnected, so it’s impossible to travel directly from Puno to Machu Picchu. Make reservations and buy tickets as far ahead of time as possible. Click to www.perurail.com for updated schedules, fares and reservations.
Estación Huanchac (Estación Wanchaq; 23 8722; 8:30am-4:30pm Mon-Fri, 8:30am-noon Sat & Sun) has trains for Puno that usually leave at 8am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays and take about 9½ hours (though they are often late). Fares have skyrocketed in recent years – they are now US$119 for first-class ‘Andean Explorer’ seats, which include a glass-walled observation car and a complimentary lunch, or just US$17 for nonreservable seats in the more basic ‘Backpacker’ carriage, where drinks and snacks are sold separately. The journey has great views of the Andes and along the shores of Lake Titicaca, but even in the best class, seats are not very comfortable, and the ride is known for being a bone shaker.
At the time of research, tickets for the Machu Picchu train to Aguas Calientes were only sold from the Huanchac station (bring your passport to buy tickets), but soon they may also be available at the station that the Machu Picchu trains actually leave from, Estación San Pedro (22 1992). The station is a prime target for thieves, and though security around the station has been tightened it’s best to remain vigilant.
From Cuzco, there are at least three tourist trains to Machu Picchu a day, with more during the high season. It is no longer possible for foreigners to use the tren local (the cheaper local train only for peruvian residents). The trenes de turismo (tourist trains) leave Estación Poroy – Cuzco between 6am and 7am, Ollantaytambo (8am to 9am) and Aguas Calientes (9:40am to 11am), aka Machu Picchu Pueblo. Services return between 3:30pm and 5pm, arriving back in Cuzco between 7:20pm and 9:25pm.
At the time of research, one-way/round-trip tickets cost US$46/73 on backpacker trains, or US$66/113 in the first-class Vistadome train, which is the earliest and fastest service and includes snacks and drinks. These prices have skyrocketed in recent years, though, and it’s likely they will rise again every year or so. Despite local pressure to break PeruRail’s monopoly on the line, more competitive prices are not likely in the near future.
Anyone interested in visiting the Sacred Valley should note that they can travel for less on Vistadome trains to Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo, which is also where the cheapest backpacker train service leaves from.
Nearly all departures and arrivals from Cuzco’s Aeropuerto Internacional Alejandro Velasco Astete (code CUZ; 22 2611), a few kilometers south of the city center, are in the morning, because climatic conditions in the afternoon typically make landings and takeoffs more difficult. Several airlines offer regular daily flights to and from Lima. These may get canceled or lumped together with other flights during quiet periods. Your best bet is to reserve the earliest flight available, as later ones are the most likely to be delayed or canceled. A few domestic carriers also have regularly scheduled flights to Puerto Maldonado, Juliaca and Arequipa.
Flights tend to be overbooked, especially in high season, so confirm your flight when you arrive in Cuzco, then reconfirm 72 hours in advance and again 24 hours before departure. If you buy your ticket from a reputable travel agent, the staff will reconfirm for you.
Check in at least two hours before your flight. Beware that check-in procedures are often chaotic, and even people with confirmed seats and boarding passes occasionally have been denied boarding because of overbooking errors. During the rainy season, flights can be postponed for 24 hours due to bad weather. Bring all valuables and essentials with you on the plane, and securely lock any checked baggage.
When flying from Cuzco to Lima, try to check in as early as possible so you can get a seat on the right-hand side of the plane for the best views of Salkantay’s 6271m peak. Some pilots like to fly quite close to the mountain, and the views are sometimes stupendous. (Sit on the left from Lima to Cuzco.) Very occasionally a different route is taken over Machu Picchu.
At the time of research, airlines serving Cuzco included the following:
Peruvian Airlines (www.peruvian.pe) Daily flights to Lima and thrice weekly to Puerto Maldonado.
LAN PERU ( www.lan.com; Av El Sol 627B) Major domestic airline has regular direct flights to Lima, Arequipa, Juliaca and Puerto Maldonado.
Star Perú (23 4060; www.starperu.com; Office 1, Av El Sol 679) Two daily flights to Lima.
TACA (24 9921; www.taca.com; Av El Sol 602B) Daily flights to Lima (except on Wednesdays).
Money & costs
Many banks on Av El Sol and shops around the Plaza de Armas have foreign-card-friendly ATMs, as do the airport and the main bus terminal. Casas de cambio (foreign-exchange bureaus) give varying exchange rates and are scattered around the main plazas and along Av El Sol. Moneychangers can be found outside banks, but their rates aren’t much better than casas de cambio and rip-offs are common.
BCP (Av El Sol 189) Has a Visa ATM, gives cash advances on Visa, and changes US dollars and traveler’s checks.
Interbank (Av El Sol 380) 24-hour global ATM machines accept American Express, Cirrus, MasterCard, Plus, Visa etc.
LAC Dolar (25 7969; Av El Sol 150; 9am-8pm Mon-Sat) Reliable casa de cambio that has fair rates and changes traveler’s checks into nuevos soles for no commission.
Health & safety
Dangers & annoyances
While most travelers will experience few problems in Cuzco, it’s a fact that more tourists are robbed here than in any other Peruvian city. Take special care going to and from the train stations and central market, as these are prime areas for pickpockets and bag slashers.
Ruthless robberies in taxis have been on the rise. When taking cabs, use only official taxis – look for the company’s lit telephone number on top of the taxi. Lock your doors from the inside, and never allow the driver to admit a second passenger.
Avoid walking by yourself late at night or very early in the morning. Revelers returning late from bars or setting off for the Inca Trail before sunrise are particularly vulnerable to ‘choke and grab’ attacks.
Don’t buy drugs. Dealers and police often work together, and Procuradores is one of several areas in which you can make a drug deal and get busted all within a couple of minutes. Women especially should try not to let go of their glass or accept drinks from strangers; spiking drinks with drugs has been frequently reported.
Take care not to overexert yourself during your first few days if you’ve flown in from lower elevations, such as Lima. You may find yourself quickly becoming winded while traipsing up and down Cuzco’s narrow streets. A few luxury hotels offer in-room oxygen supplements, which may ease some of the headaches and insomnia that are common ailments at high elevations.Health & safety
While you’re there
Cuzco’s medical facilities are limited; head back to Lima for serious procedures.
Clínica Panamericana (27 0000, 65 1888; www.cuscohealth.com; Urb Larape Grapple C-17 San Jerónimo; 24hr) Medical care specifically for tourists, including visits with a doctor, nurse and ambulance at your hotel.
Clínica Pardo (24 0387; Av de la Cultura 710; 24hr) Consultation US$10.50.
Clínica Paredes (22 5265; Lechugal 405; 24hr) Consultation US$30.
Hospital Regional (23 9792, emergencies 22 3691; Av de la Cultura s/n; 24hr) Cheaper than private clinics, but not as consistently good. Consultation is US$7.50. Yellow-fever vaccinations available 9am to 1pm Saturday.
InkaFarma (24 2967; Av El Sol 214; 24hr) A well-stocked pharmacy.
Tourist Medical Assistance (TMA; 26 0101; Heladeros 157; 24hr) Offers emergency medical services, health information and legal assistance.