An ancient city in modern times, Cuzco is a huge center for travelers in Peru and South America. With centuries-old buildings and an omnipresent indigenous influence, it is still easy to see Cuzco as the hub of the Incan empire. Vacationers world over flock to this important site, and it should certainly be a must-see on any backpacker’s list. Leave a day or two to get used to the 10,912 foot elevation, and with the help of some coca tea you’ll have plenty of time left to take in the town.
Cuzco is of course most renowned for its archeological sites, making it South America’s archaeological capital in addition to its oldest continually inhabited city. A stopping point for many tourists on their way to Machu Picchu west of the city, Cuzco has enough attractions to keep you busy for a while.
In addition to ancient Incan sites, Cuzco also has an impressive collection of colonial art, best exemplified by examples in La Catedral and Museo de Arqueologia. Plaza de Armas is the center of the city and a good starting point for your exploration of the town. Next to the giant cathedral on the plaza, Calle Triunfo is a narrow street leading uphill towards Plaza San Blas, the center of Cuzco’s artsy bohemian neighborhood, where you can find plenty of art galleries and crafts shops. The alley heading northwest from Plaza de Armas, Procuradores, is nicknamed “gringo alley” for the proliferance of backpacker-friendly bars and cafes. Calle Tucuman, another road off Plaza de Armas, leads to the Plaza del Tricntenario, home to the Museo Inka. Stay away from the neighborhood immediately west of Plaza de Armas, as it’s known to be a bad area.
In addition to exploring the town of Cuzco and the obvious choice of hiking the Inca Trail, there are plenty of other options for adventure travelers looking for an active good time. Outdoor tour agencies all over the city offer all kinds of activities like trekking, mountain-biking, horseback-riding, paragliding, rafting, kayaking, and hot-air ballooning.
There are treks aplenty in the Cuzco area even without the Inca Trail, some to Macchu Picchu, some in the mountains around Cuzco, and some to more remote ruins such as Choquequirau or Vilcobamba. The ideal time of year for trekking is May to September, which though colder is also the dry season. Interest in mountain-biking and horseback-riding is growing in the area around Cuzco, though both activities are plagued by the fact that the equipment for rent, whether horse or bike, are often in poor condition.
Two major festivals in Cuzco are Inti Raymi, Festival of the Sun, on June 24, and the Fiestas Patrias, National Independence Day, on July 28 and 29, which combine to form one giant holiday. Everything is crowded at that time, so make sure you make reservations for accommodation ahead of time. Prices also tend to rise during this period, so be sure to allow for this if you’re on a low budget.
There are plenty of backpacker services in Quito, including cheap hostels, inexpensive restaurants, chill bars, and cool clubs. Nightlife competition is fierce, which is great for you because it means specials that often include free drinks, such as cuba libre (rum and coke) or the traditional pisco sour. Though prices are higher in Cuzco than other places in Peru due to its popularity, competition generally keeps things cheap enough for most budget travelers. Price aside, the uniqueness of the area and the treasures it holds make it a must-see for everyone’s trip through South America.