South America’s oldest inhabited city and the capital of the Inca empire, Cusco is a highlight of any Peru itinerary. From photo etiquette to avoiding altitude sickness, here’s what you need to know before venturing to the so-called navel of the world.
At 10,954 feet (3,339 meters), Cusco is already higher than most European ski resorts. While some people are lucky to not suffer from any symptoms, many travelers report feelings of sickness, headaches, dizziness and restless sleep for the first few days. The best way to avoid this is by acclimatizing to the elevation slowly. You can do this by traveling to Cusco by land over a couple of days and stopping off in a few towns at a lower elevation, but higher than sea level. If you have to fly directly into Cusco, be sure to drink lots of coca tea when you land, and take it easy for the first two days. If you know you suffer badly from altitude sickness, it may be worth to see your doctor for prescription pills.
Taking it easy means no trekking the Inca Trail, Salkantay, or Rainbow Mountain the day after you arrive. Many travelers want to fit in as much as possible, so it’s very tempting to have hiking trips booked for the next day. However, if you do react badly to the altitude, you’ll end up missing your tour and potentially losing a lot of money. Give yourself a couple of days of leeway in your itinerary – that way there are no risks. With so much to see and do in Cusco, you’ll be glad to have an extra two days anyway.
We did just tell you to take it easy, but walking is a must in Cusco. While there are plenty of taxis and buses around, the city center is relatively compact and easily explored on foot. Just remember to bring comfortable footwear; those steep cobblestones weren’t made for cute high heels.
If you’re arriving between October and April, be sure to bring a rain jacket, as this is Peru’s rainy season. If you’re here from May to September, you’ll most likely have clear, dry and sometimes hot days, but temperatures can drop well below freezing at night. Either way, when at this altitude, the weather can change rapidly no matter what time of year. As gear shops in Cusco can be extremely pricey, come prepared with your own layers, waterproof items and decent footwear.
You won’t have had to be in Cusco long before spotting traditionally dressed women walking around with their pom-pom decorated llamas and alpacas. These Andean women make a living from posing for tourist photos. If you photograph them, it’s a basic expectation to tip them, and many people can get quite upset if you refuse. Either way, be sure to ask any local’s permission – whether they’re in the business of tourist photos or not – before taking a photo.
Cusco is a great place to buy artisan jewelry, textiles and art, but, to get the right price, you’re going to have to haggle hard. Shopkeepers here have had tons of practice, so they’re pretty good at holding their ground. The trick? Scout around, get a feel for the going rate, and don’t be afraid to walk away if the sale isn’t going your way – you’ll soon know if your bid was way too low if they chase you out of the shop.
With much of the focus on Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, many visitors pass through Cusco far too quickly. If you’ve only given yourself one or two days here, chances are you’ll miss out on all the quirks that make Cusco special. With tons of bars, restaurants, markets and cafés to explore, as well as plenty of museums, colonial buildings, Inca ruins and adventurous day trips in the nearby mountains, you can easily fill a week of fun here.