Cusco is a city unfamiliar to few travellers making their way to Peru. It is the jumping-off point for tours to the surrounding Sacred Valley and world-famous Machu Picchu, making it among the most visited cities in the country. It was my first stop in Peru after the incredible culture shock that was Bolivia and I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed in having arrived in another tourist trap.
Consequently, Cusco was a city that I found difficult to define. Of course, it offers a huge range of traveller comforts: plush spacious hostels, accessible tour companies and a thriving nightlife. Clean streets are swept by uniformed council workers and patrolled by a visible police presence. In the city centre, marked taxis courier white faces through the streets between some of the most expensive hotels in South America. Boutique stores promote the actual alpaca, llama and vicuña wool clothing that is so highly sought after on the international market. 'Authentic' artisanal markets group shopowners in small clusters – each selling the same mass-produced cachana necklaces and wooden fridge magnets and, of course, you can pay by Visa.
However, beneath the facade of Peruvians catering to the biggest influx of tourists in the country, there is still some semblance of daily Peruvian life. The best example I found was in the southern corner of the San Pedro Market. Once I had pushed my way through the artesanals I was welcomed by the comedor with local cuisine and two course meals for just 4 Soles (~$1AUD). This is a must-find; most of the food that I ate here was better quality and quantity than that I ate in local restaurants charging up to six times the price.
With a little extra motivation (sometimes hard to find after a typical Cusquena cerveza fuelled evening), you really can escape the offers to buy massages, paintings or Class A drugs and do some pretty fun touristy stuff, the free walking tour is busy but interesting and if you take their advice you'll realize that there is plenty on the outskirts of the city to see, eat and enjoy. Something that I particularly not regret making time for is the archaeological site Saqsaywaman (kind of pronounced like 'sexy woman') which, according to Peruvian sources, is considered one of the new seven wonders of the world. I guess I'll have to add that to my list for my next visit to South America.
I don't think your visit to Cusco will disappoint. You're certain to enjoy the comforts before and after your visit to Machu Picchu, however you choose to get there. Having said that, I do encourage any visitors to look past the dangling Visa signs, and experience some of the city's overshadowed (but present) culture. But I guess that's true for anywhere, right?
Look out for my next post, from the incredible Inca Trail followed by the Salkantay Trek. I'll give you plenty of reasons to visit Machu Picchu twice!
[Featured, title photo credit: karlnorling, Flickr.]