Cusco

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Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, is now considered the historical capital of Peru and the archaeological capital of South America. It is one of Peru’s most visited cities and many travellers use Cusco as a base to begin trips to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Cusco was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Seven years later (and equally important), there was an awesome animated film with a llama emperor whose name was derived from the city…
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Cusco sits at 3,326m elevation and thus altitude sickness may be a problem for visitors coming straight from the coasts. It is usually recommended to take it easy the first couple days in Cusco to acclimatize before starting any treks.

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I was in and out of Cusco several times before and after my Lake Titicaca island excursion and Inca Jungle Trek. The city was teeming with celebratory activities for their most important festival of the year, Inti Riymi. There were colorful street dances and vibrant parades for many days leading up to the Inca winter-solstice festival on June 24 at Sacsayhuamán.

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Luckily, I happened to be in Cusco in June and was able to see some of the various festivities. I spent a whole morning just watching the student dances travel around the plaza. The beautiful costumes and storytelling of dances were mesmerising.

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The first night I was in Cusco, there were fireworks and a parade around the Plaza de Armas. The city is quite beautiful at night. Like most other Peruvian cities, Cusco’s plaza buildings and fountains are lit up in many colors at night.

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Outside of the festival, there is plenty to explore in Cusco. Starting with the stuff you can see for free:

Plaza de Armas
The nerve center of the city, the plaza is surrounded by colonial architecture and towering cathedrals.

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I thought I was back on Christopher St in NYC but no, the rainbow-colored flags all over Cusco represent the four quarters of the Incan empire.

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Mercado San Pedro
This bustling market has pretty much everything from healthy fruit juice to clothing souvenirs, from fresh baked bread to very cheap set meals (proceed with caution as some travellers have gotten sick from eating here).

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Plaza San Blas
This is considered the artistic, bohemian HQ of Cusco.

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Choco Museo
Admission is free and they give you some cocoa tea and chocolate nibbles when you enter. Wish every museum had that kind of welcome! They also offer daily chocolate-making workshops for a fee.

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Now onto the sights that cost money…

Unfortunately, most of Cusco’s attractions require you to purchase the official boleto turistico (tourist ticket) for a hefty S130, which is valid for 10 days. The ticket covers entry to 16 different sights including the ruins of Sacsayhuamán outside of Cusco; Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, and Moray in the Sacred Valley; and several museums in the city. Individual entrance tickets for each of these places will cost you S70 each so if you go to at least two spots, the tourist ticket will be “worth” it.

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Other than Ollantaytambo and Sacsayhuamán, the rest of the ruins didn’t hold much interest for me (plus most required day trips to visit) so I decide to skip them. I visited the Museo de Arte Popular and Museo Historico Regional to get more out of my ticket but personally I think they were miss-able.

Sacsayhuamán
Pronounced “sexy woman”, this fort served as the battlefield for Manco Inca’s almost successful rebellion against the Spaniards in 1536. The site takes about 30-45 minutes to hike to from the main Plaza.

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Only 20% of the original structure remains, but the massive three-tiered zigzag fortifications are still impressive to see. Designed by the 9th Inca (king), Cusco was built into the shape of a puma with Saqsayhuaman as the head and the zigzagged walls forming the teeth.

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