Cusco, nestled in the clouds at about 12,000 feet, is a fascinating city in which Incan and Spanish history collide. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was the capital of the Inca Empire. We spent about a day and a half in Cusco, stopping there on our way to the Sacred Valley, and then again on the way back from Machu Picchu to Lima. I think everyone that has ever been to Machu Picchu has some sort of opinion on Cusco, and if you read enough travel blogs you come across all kinds of extreme views from "stay for a week" to "don't bother stopping on your way to Machu Picchu." Here are my impressions of Cusco, FWIW, particularly suited for those there for just a few days.
Modern Cusco Exists Because of Travelers
I really didn't realize, before visiting Cusco, the sheer number of visitors the city has each year. Nor did I realize that the city as it is today probably wouldn't exist except for the visitors heading to Machu Picchu. I've been to some popular archaeological sites (like Angkor and the pyramids), but I found the city of Cusco to be just filled to the brim with visitors (of all types) and very "touristy". Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on your wants and expectations. But as a result, the city seemed "built" to please, e.g., a Starbucks on the corner (I was tempted), tons of restaurants intended to appeal to travelers, and everyone speaking English.
To cut to the chase: you don't need to speak a lick of Spanish in Cusco (though I think it's always appreciated), you can find pretty much whatever you want to eat, and it's really easy to navigate all the major areas. Just don't expect an immersion into Peruvian culture if you stick to the paths most traveled–it's a place built for and around visitors and their preferences.
It's Chilly at Night but Let's Not Exaggerate
So much has been written about "how cold" Cusco can be. This is all about perspective–yes, Cusco can be chilly–but "cold" to me (from Wyoming) means COLD. It essentially never snows in Cusco (in fact, one of our guides had never actually seen snow before except on the Andes flying between Lima and Cusco). In August, I had a Patagonia down-fleece hybrid jacket (which I adore, by the way), but save one night walking three blocks home I really didn't need it.
The deal: if you are from an area with actual winter, Cusco isn't cold. It might not be warm, and you might need a light fleece, but you don't need the bunny suit that makes you look like the down-loving Michelin Man. You just don't.
Cusco is a City (Hiking Boots and Trekking Poles Not Needed)
Due to it's proximity to Machu Picchu, and the fact that most travelers use it as a jumping off point, you see all kinds of outfits in Cusco. But if you aren't hiking, at all, during your time in Peru, Cusco is a city and you should wear things that you normally wear in a city. Just because it is at 12,000 feet and in the mountains doesn't make it into some type of Andean snow cave maze. Streets are paved, nice restaurants can be found, and there is no need for mountaineering gear.
What I really want to say: take normal clothes and wear them. Jeans or khakis are fine! Sure, the Patagonia jacket isn't going to look out of place, but hiking boots, bandanas, and trekking pants are really ridiculous. Obviously if you are trekking you get a pass here. If you wouldn't dress this way in say, Denver, I just don't get the attraction of looking like you are on your way to Everest. I know, I know. I'm being snarky.
Cusco is a City (Don't Be An Idiot, and Things Are Generally Fine)
I get pretty annoyed (since I now live in a city) when I listen to people 1) rave about how safe a city is, or 2) rave about how dangerous a city is…both are usually totally unrealistic and unfair generalizations. Cusco, like any city, has it's ruts and back alleys. And, let's face it: would you pull a wad of cash out in New York City to count how much you have? (If your answer is yes…well..I'm judging your judgement). Yes, there are always those lurking just waiting for a purse on a bench or hung over a chair. As there are in most cities. But in general, Cusco–particularly all the tourist areas–truly seem fine for walking around, even after dark.
The verdict: don't wander around drunk at 2am to places you know you shouldn't be, and use good judgement. Cusco is neither the awful place it's made out to be by some travel bloggers or the safest place ever where you can leave your Cartier watch on the dinner table just as a test. If only someone could bottle common sense.
Cusco is Filled with Things to Do
I was actually amazed with how much there is to do in Cusco, and how much I enjoyed being there. It's beautiful, first of all, with the blend of Spanish, Incan, and Andean/Peruvian architecture, culture, and influences. Note to all–the rainbow flag does not mean what it does in the United States (or Europe), so don't get all excited about equal rights: it's actually the flag of Cusco.
There are many museums, cathedrals, squares to sit and people watch, lots of shopping, an art district (San Blas), and archaeological sites including Saksaywaman which has stone blocks that are a whopping 19 feet tall or so. Unbelievable! We found the food to be pretty good, too, and perhaps most importantly, there is always a place to grab a Cusquena (in negra, roja, or regular). In addition, Cusco is a great place to "jump-off" in Peru, whether you want to head to Tambopata (like me…next time), Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, the Andes, or for other treks.
It's a good all around city where you can both explore and relax, and certainly worth a few days on any trip to Peru.