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We stumbled off a brutal 14 hour bus ride into the Peruvian tourism epicenter of Cusco and were immediately caught up in the whirlwind of cobblestone charm. This sky-high city, sitting at 11,200 feet, leaves visitors breathless from both altitude and awe — it is undoubtedly the most picturesque part of Peru I’ve yet to visit.

Cusco was once the heart of the Inca empire and today is the gateway to Machu Picchu. Zoe’s and my initial short — two days on each end of the Inca Trail — were mostly taken up by pre and post trek administration and acclimatization. There were sleeping bags to be rented, knock-off North Faces to be purchased, snacks to be gathered, and trek meetings to be attended. Between errands, we managed to sneak in some exploring and atmosphere-absorbing.

A Rainbow in Cusco, Peru

Cusco, Peru

There were so many details to appreciate, so many alleyways to wander down, so many archways to peek through, I was almost intimidated. I felt there would be no way to capture this nuanced city with my camera, and looking through my album I still feel in many ways I failed. That didn’t stop me from trying, at least a bit.

Doorways in Cusco, Peru

A Doorway in Cusco, Peru

A Doorway in Cusco, Peru

Like all cities in Peru, life in Cusco radiates from the Plaza del Armas. Here, local teenagers canoodle on benches, friends pose for photos, tourists scrutinize maps, and millions of touts assault passersby with everything from tacky paintings to Machu Picchu tours to cheap massages.

The city is a mix of Inca and Spanish influences. In the 1950’s, a massive earthquake hit the city and many Spanish buildings crumbled, revealing sturdy Inca walls beneath them.

Plaza Del Armas, Cusco, Peru

Plaza Del Armas, Cusco, Peru

Wandering down the alleys pointing out of the Plaza, we found it hard to scrutinize between traditionally dressed locals simply going about their business and traditionally dressed locals hoping to pose for photos in exchange for a few soles. One dead giveaway to the latter — well-dressed baby llamas or sheep tucked under the arm.

We happily handed over the coins.

Women Posing in Cusco, Peru

Women Posing in Cusco, Peru

Women Posing in Cusco, Peru

My favorite area of Cusco required a bit of a lung workout to reach. The chicly bohemian San Blas is reachable only by — what seems at the time to be, anyway — endless rows of slippery cobblestone stairs. The efforts are rewarded by artsy boutiques, captivating little cafes, and postcard-worthy views of the city.

Vintage Car in Cusco, Peru

Street scenes in Cusco, Peru

San Blas, Cusco, Peru

San Blas, Cusco, Peru

Graffiti in San Blas, Cusco, Peru

Our four days in Cusco was too short. Luckily, I already had plans to return after exploring Puno and Arequipa — in fact, I’m back in the Imperial City as I write this. Like my first visit, I’m not too fussed with visiting museums or touring churches. Instead, I’m just going to use whatever free time I have to get lost down more cobblestone streets — and do my best to avoid the overenthusiastic Machu Picchu tour touts.

San Blas, Cusco, Peru

A dog in San Blas, Cusco, Peru

Lunch in San Blas, Cusco, Peru

Practical Info

Where I stayed: Kokopelli, Mama Simone, & Wild Rovers

Where I ate: Sumaq Chaska (for 6 sole set lunches in San Blas with a view), Bodega 138 (for the best pizzas I’ve had in Peru), Pan-tastico (for casual and yummy empanadas with a view), Jack’s (for American comfort food — prepare for a line out the door!)

How I got there:
For the 14 hour bus ride from Nazca to Cusco, we splurged on VIP Cruz Del Sur bus seats which set us back $63US. It was very comfortable but did not have wifi as promised.

Bonus Tip: Don’t plan on doing much your first day in Cusco — the altitude left us with an alcohol-free hangover for our first 24 hours in the city!

  • Kathryn Allen
    November 15 2013

    Love the city, wanna go there!

    Love the word canoodle!

    • Alex
      November 17 2013

      You would like it here. Maybe it’s time for a return trip to Peru 🙂

  • Breanna
    November 16 2013

    This looks like a city I could wander for days and never get bored. My favorite kind of city!

    • Alex
      November 17 2013

      Funny enough I have done pretty much no “tourist stuff” since arriving. Just lots of wandering! It’s great!

  • Dad
    November 16 2013

    Alex, this looks like the kind of place one would go to disappear from the rest of the world and be quite peaceful… and perhaps a bit breathless from altitude and pure charm.

    • Alex
      November 17 2013

      Indeed it is 🙂 You would like it a lot!

  • Melanie Fontaine
    November 18 2013

    Wow, what an incredibly beautiful place! This might very well be the most gorgeous place you have shared with us so far! 🙂 All your posts on Peru make me move this country ahead in my list of countries to visit! 🙂

    • Alex
      November 18 2013

      Cusco is indeed stunning! Very glad I was able to return and spend more time here.

  • Celia
    November 18 2013

    LOVED this! The first photo seems almost unreal – the beauty is stunning and the rainbow!? Wow.

    We’re going to Peru next year, and I really can’t wait. Reading this post just makes me want to go now! Too beautiful to be true.

    Cusco goes on the list for places to visit! Thanks

    • Alex
      November 18 2013

      I know, we really lucked out! And I forgot to mention the best part in the post (I think…) The rainbow is the symbol of the Inca Empire! It was amazing.

  • Sky
    November 18 2013

    Every post you write about Peru just makes me want to go there even more.

    Cusco looks like a city I could wander around for weeks. I love that picture of the baby llama. So cute!

    • Alex
      November 18 2013

      Cusco is definitely worthy of some unschedule “wander” days when you do get here!

  • TammyOnTheMove
    November 18 2013

    I will be volunteering in Cuzco for three months next year and am so glad you posted this. It looks gorgeous. Oh and I have got to get my hands on one of those baby llamas. How cute!

    • Alex
      November 19 2013

      That sound awesome Tammy! If you can take the cold nights, Cusco is a great place to set up base for a few months.

  • Andy
    November 19 2013

    Awesome pictures in this post, Alex!

    • Alex
      November 20 2013

      Thank you Andy! Much appreciated 🙂

  • Gabriel
    November 20 2013

    great pictures! you might have answered this already but what camera do you use??

    • Alex
      November 20 2013

      Hey Gabriel! There are links to and info about all my camera gear under the “gear and products” page tab on the navigation bar again. Hope that helps!

  • Heather
    November 21 2013

    You definitely did Cuzco the right way! We had far too little time when we were there. Luckily, the touts weren’t out because it was the celebration of 100 years since Machu Picchu’s discovery so maybe there wasn’t room in the Plaza for them!

    • Alex
      November 22 2013

      Wow! I seriously can’t imagine Cusco with no touts 🙂 Another frequent commenters, Rikka, told me that when she was in Iquitos she couldn’t escape them and yet when I was there I only saw one or two. Funny how different our experiences can be!

  • Camels & Chocolate
    December 3 2013

    STOP. I want to cuddle that little llama posing as a lamb, too!

    • Alex
      December 6 2013

      They are EVERYWHERE in Cusco. But fair warning — they get a little nippy if you don’t tip properly 🙂

  • Carla
    January 4 2014

    I’m Peruvian American and when my husband and I went to Peru this October, all of my relatives told us that when arriving in Cusco one must go directly to the hotel or hostel, drink a mate de coca and sleep for a few hours. Then wake up, drink another mate de coca and go out to see the city. Our flight arrived at 6am and we did just what we had been told and went out to venture Cusco around 2pm; we were never affected by the altitude!

    • Alex
      January 5 2014

      Those are great tips, Carla! I was happy I didn’t suffer much more than that slight “hangover effect” which went away in twelve hours or so!

  • Richelle
    September 22 2014

    Sounds like you had an amazing trip! I’m going to be in Cusco for a month this November and I was wondering how the weather was for you?

    • Alex
      September 22 2014

      Hey Richelle! It was a healthy mix of downpours and bright sunny days — at one point it even hailed! Hope for the best but definitely pack a rain coat 🙂 You’ll have a great time no matter what!

  • Tikva
    October 1 2014

    Oh wow I was in Cusco 10 years ago but the city looks even better then I remember. Great pictures, makes me want to go back

    • Alex
      October 2 2014

      Thanks Tikva! I wouldn’t mind a return jaunt myself 🙂

  • Lyle Walker
    November 26 2015

    Hi Alex,

    I know this is an older blog but I recently came across it and really enjoyed reading about your trip. I am a fellow blogger and also lucky enough to live here in the Cusco Region. You got some very nice shots and like others I love the Rainbow and agree with you 100%, Bodega 138 does have the best pizza in Cusco. I have one comment on the rainbow flag, it is actually the Cusco flag and it has 7 colors, one for each of the districts in Cusco.

    You did a really good job with your information, usually I find several points that are wrong, For any of your reader that are planning a trip I would like to offer up a link to my blog, I think most will find useful information there for trip planning.

    One final thing, I would like to offer your readers a 10% discount on a stay now through the end of 2016, at our bed and breakfast GringoWasi, to get the discount they just have to enter “blog2016” when booking directly on our website additionally if you return Alex, I would like to invite you to spend some time here with us and get a taste of what real life in the Peruvian Andes is like

    Thank for sharing your trip and I look forward to reading more of your blogs.

    • Alex
      November 28 2015

      Thanks for the kind words and kudos, Lyle! I hope to return to Peru someday, I’ll give you a shout when I do!

  • Leslie Alvarado
    June 26 2016

    Hi there 🙂 This is an amazing post and can’t wait to visit in August.

    Where is the place where you all are sitting on the balcony? The photo next the the blue door? It looks so tranquil and beautiful.


    • Alex
      June 27 2016

      Hey Leslie! That balcony was at Kokopelli hostel in Cusco — they had a very cute little breakfast area. Oh, I miss Peru!

  • Damir Delaney
    July 2 2016

    Ah..Cusco. How can you not fall in love with this city! It’s so colorful, so virbant, so many young people…yet tourists there constantly adding news to the chatter..

    That rainbow pic above plaza del armas is priceless! wish I could have been there 🙂

    • Alex
      July 7 2016

      I agree, Cusco is a magical city. I hope to return someday!

  • Sarah Moya
    August 3 2017

    Hi Alex

    How have you been? We met when you stayed here at Navutu Dreams. It feels like ages ago now. I’ll be in Peru next month. Loved your pictures and reading your blog. Any extra tips would be highly appreciated. 🙂

    Kind regards,


    • Alex
      August 5 2017

      Hi Sarah! Of course I remember you! To be honest, the trip was so long ago I can’t remember much aside from what I wrote here 🙂 I will say be gentle with yourself, altitude can take time to adjust to! Have a fantastic time in Peru!

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