Cusco is the Inca capital of Peru and a place that I believe is criminally underrated. Most people visit Cusco because it is the gateway to Machu Picchu. But while the ruins are an absolute must-see, they should not be your only reason for visiting Cusco. This is a city that was conceived in the shape of a Puma by the Incas (something that can still be seen from above), contains some of the best surviving Inca ruins, seems to host an endless carnival and is home to some of the most generous people that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Furthermore, there is so much more to Perah than trekking in the Andes, chundering everywah and finding yourself.
The flight from Lima to Cusco is an experience in itself and you should try desperately to get a window seat. The flight travels over the Andes, and the view of the communities that live up there as well as of the mountains themselves is unparalleled.
I recommend Loki hostel; even though its position at the top of the hill may not seem ideal, the views are more than worth it. (The acclimatisation process will also prove priceless if you plan on doing one of the treks.) Loki also has a friendly, party atmosphere. Its bar serves a blood bomb challenge, which is a great way to start a night out; the Israelis have the unfortunate advantage of always being much better than the Brits at this! The hostel also offers an endless supply of coca tea, which is essential in fighting altitude sickness. (N.B. If you are using Cusco as a stopover before the trek, then the Mama Simona hostel is a much more suitable alternative.)
If, like me, you are lucky enough to arrive on the feast of Corpus Christi, then the first thing that you should do is head to the Plaza de Armas as there are processions and festivities taking place all day. Even if you do not arrive on Corpus Christi you should definitely head to the Plaza not least because it is home to the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, also known as Cusco Cathedral. The cathedral offers a fascinating insight into the way that Andean traditions tried desperately to survive under the onslaught of Western European ideology. This is seen most notably in the painting of the Last Supper by Quechua artist Marcos Zapata, which offers a very distinctive twist as the meal depicted consists of a cuy (guinea pig). It is simply not to be missed. Also keep an eye out for the frequent depiction of the Virgin Mary wearing a mountain-shaped skirt with a river running around the hem, identifying her with Pachamama, the Inca goddess also known as Mother Earth. Dusk is the best time of day to visit the Plaza as it is a lot less crowded and the cathedral is even more beautiful when it is all lit up.
Head down one of the many side streets off the Plaza and you will find any number of restaurants offering traditional Peruvian cuisine. I particularly recommend Adobo de Chancho a traditional dish from the Arequipa region that consists of pork cooked in turmeric, ground garlic, vinegar and salt. Nothing could be more comforting after a morning of travelling.
After dinner you will find that the temperature has suddenly plummeted, so head to the night market on Calle Plateros to buy an alpaca jumper -the cheapest, warmest and greatest purchase that you will ever make! Walk back along the Siete Cuartones and you will be greeted by the sight of locals dancing. They will be delighted if you go and join them and more than happy to teach you some moves.
After beginning the day with another cup of cocoa tea you should take the time to go out the back of the hostel and admire the view. It really does seem as if the whole of Cusco is laid out beneath your feet.
Head to the Plaza Regocijo where there are a number of guides who provide a free walking tour of the city for a small fee. This is definitely worth doing as you get to see parts of the city that you would never have thought of visiting on your own. Highlights include a visit to a charango workshop, the Andean answer to the guitar; Hatun Rumiyoc Street, which is one of the best remaining examples of an Inca road and home to the famous Twelve-Angled Stone; and a free pisco sour. One of my favourite parts of the tour was one of the more overlooked features of the plaza: the 1992 plaque that commemorates the victims of the invasion and Andean resistance, which helps to provide a sombre reminder of Cusco’s and Peru’s poignant past.
For lunch, head to the San Pedro market and try one of the battered cuy. (If you do not know what to look for, keep an eye out for guinea pigs on sticks.)
In the afternoon head to Sacsayhuaman (pronunciation: “sexy woman”), a magnificent Inca fortress that overlooks Cusco. As Sacsayhuaman can be reached on foot, my main advice would be to wear walking boots and to bring water. The climb is well worth it as the site offers some incredible views of Cusco as well as stunning examples of the Incan ruins. The sheer size of the individual stones makes it difficult to comprehend how on earth humans built this. (If you happen to be in Cusco on 24 June, then this is the ideal time to visit the site as the city will be celebrating the Inti Raymi, or the festival of the Sun, which is a long standing tradition still celebrat- ed today.) The most important thing that you need to know about getting to Sacsayhuaman is that you need the Boleto Turístico General, a ticket that allows you to access sixteen attractions in the Cusco region. You can get a student ticket for 70 soles, which is just over £10 and definitely worth it.
I was incredibly fortunate as when I was in Cusco the Copa América was being played. I was watching the game with a group of Peruvians when Peru scored a goal against Brazil, and I do not think I will ever witness joy like that again. Even if the Copa América is not being played though, you should definitely try and watch a football match with a group of Peruvians. I would challenge you to find a country where football is more adored.
Dinner should consist of alpaca steak; a saltier, more flavourful version of its beef cousin.
In the evening head back to the Plaza and go to Mama Africa, the best night club in Cusco. Learn the chorus- es to Bailando by Enrique Iglesias and El Taxi by Pitbull, and you are guaranteed an almost endless supply of Pisco Sours and salsa partners.
If the coca tea is starting to drive you insane, try and get hold of a cup of yerba mate, a smoky green tea that comes from Argentina. In your final few hours head over to the San Blas and take a wander around the shops and stalls there. Keep an eye out for panpipes, beautiful blankets and ponchos, amongst other things.
While I normally avoid Western food like the plague when I am travelling it seems almost immoral to not visit the Meeting Place Café in the San Blas, not least because they aim to reach out to the community of Cusco by giving all of their profits to a handful of specific, local projects. If philanthropic reasons fail to convince you though, then I hope that their milkshakes and waffles will!
Before leaving, grab a final cup of coca tea and pray that the sniffer dogs at the airport do not stray too close.