Photo Courtesy of Alex Palomino
Cuzco's historic center can easily be explored in a day before diving into the marvels of Machu Picchu. However, the city deserves a more leisurely visit. Cuzco's culinary scene is an embarrassment of riches, and its museums offer a closer look at the region's fascinating history. In the nearby Sacr…ed Valley of the Incas, Quechua-speaking communities live alongside Incan ruins. Explore it by horseback, zip line, or mountain bike, before relaxing with a pisco sour and the clear night sky in one of the Valley's luxurious resorts.
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Machu Picchu, draped across a mountaintop above dense cloud forest, is deservedly famous. Warm up for its delights by exploring Cuzco's own ruins—Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Qenko, and Sacsayhuamán—in an easy half day, or visit the Sacred Valley ruins of Ollantaytambo, Tipón, or Písac. In Cuzco, don't miss the Museo Casa Concha which hosts hundreds of artifacts removed from Machu Picchu by discoverer Hiram Bingham and only returned to Peru from Yale University in 2011, a century after discovery. Counter a surfeit of Incan history with a stroll around the labyrinthine alleyways of the San Blas district, or the chaotic San Pedro market, then enjoy a pisco sour from a balcony bar as night falls on the Plaza de Armas.
Peru's astonishing biodiversity and waves of immigration come together in a rich and varied cuisine; serious foodies should devote considerable time to Cuzco's array of restaurants serving traditional meals and fusion twists. Peru’s iconic ceviche dish of fresh fish flash-marinated in lime and chili is best enjoyed at lunch, with an ice-cold Cusqueña beer and handfuls of cancha (toasted corn). An Andean staple, cuy (guinea pig), is served whole-roasted, or on pizza for the squeamish. Papas a la Huancaína is a dish that takes some of the region’s hundreds of potato varieties and drenches them in a creamy chili sauce. Lomo saltado is the flagship dish of Chifa, a fusion of Peruvian and Chinese flavors.
The colorful traditional dress of the Quechua-speaking indigenous people of Cuzco, topped with bowler-style hats for the women and woolen chullos for the men, will quickly become a familiar sight for visitors. Quechua itself pre-dated the arrival of the Incas, and today's indigenous culture is an amalgam of pre-Incan, Incan, and colonial influences. Traditional dance enlivens Catholic ritual, while apus (mountain spirits) and other nature deities coexist alongside Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. The coca leaf is a vital part of local culture, chewed as a mild narcotic or to mitigate the symptoms of altitude sickness, and has an important ceremonial role.
There is more to shopping in Cuzco than baby alpaca sweaters, knitted hats, and naughty ceramics. Fashionistas will love the impossibly hip Kuna, showcasing the work of young Peruvian designers. In San Blas, Irish expat Eibhlin Cassidy of Hilo creates one-of-a-kind items with a burlesque twist. Admire stunning designs in Peruvian silver at any number of boutique jewelers, or the canvases of contemporary Peruvian artists at Fractal Dragon. Písac's sprawling market and the less-visited Sunday markets of Chinchero, both in the Sacred Valley, are great destinations for treasure hunters. Those short on time needn't fear: A multitude of tiny markets spill out of the alleys and patios of historic Cuzco.
The rainy season stretches from November to February and can create difficult conditions for trekkers. Daytime temperatures hover around 70°F year-round but nights are chilly, plunging from 45°F through the rainy season to a low of 35°F in July. Cuzco is 11,155 feet above sea level: Try to eat lightly, and avoid alcohol and strenuous exercise for the first few days. Coca tea is an effective local cure for altitude sickness. The language is Spanish; the currency is the sol (plural, soles). Tipping is not standard outside of upscale restaurants (where 10% is customary), but is generally appreciated. Traditionally dressed women and children posing for photos do so for a small tip of a couple of soles. Be aware of pickpockets.