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Last updated: 15 July, 2023
Expert travel writer: Alex Robinson

Cusco was the Inca capital, laid out in the shape of a giant puma, sitting at the heart of an empire that stretched to Ecuador and Bolivia. It was from Cuzco that the Incas administered their vast empire and the city centre’s tight grid, laid out in the 1400s, still bears their mark – as well as that of their conquerors, the Spanish.

Inca foundations are capped with Mediterranean-style structures, and the sun temple has an adjacent baroque church. Inca ruins litter the city – the bell-shaped Qoricancha temple, hulking Sacsayhuaman fort with its massive ramparts and Inca walls everywhere – jigsaw-pieced together from huge boulders, cut into bewildering geometric shapes. There are Spanish treasures too – magnificent churches and convents decorated with art made by indigenous Peruvian artisans.

Today, Cusco is the official ‘historic capital’ of Peru and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet many visitors use Cusco merely as a base for Machu Picchu – don’t miss out on all these sights.

Travel advice

When to go

Temperatures are consistent year-round in Cusco, however May-September sees the least rainfall and is the best season to visit.

Getting there and away

The nearest airport to the city is Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport which receives both international and domestic flights. Lima is a one-hour flight. From the airport, take a taxi (around 20 minutes) or a local minibus (around 40 minutes).

Alternatively, there are overland buses from Lima (20 hours), or arrive in style on the luxurious Andean Explorer, which connects Cusco with Puno and Arequipa.

Getting around

The historic heart of Cusco is compact and easily navigable on foot. Its main points are clearly mapped on the tourist ticket (boleto turistico), which provides admittance to all the major sights and can be bought at the first site you visit.

Health & Safety

Note that Cusco sits at an elevation of 3,400m, so mild altitude sickness can be problem. Allow plenty of time to acclimatise and avoid racing around the sites on your first day. Pickpocketing can be a problem in crowded areas, especially in the blocks around the central market.

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A land of spectacular deserts, high mountains and rainforests that teem with wildlife, Peru is also home to an array of dramatically situated pre-Colombian ruins, including Machu Picchu.