Lay of the Land
“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”~Jawaharlal Nehru
Once the capital of the Incas, Cusco, with its red terra-cotta rooftops and Spanish colonial architecture, is like an Andean version of Florence. “We can assure Your Majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would be remarkable even in Spain,” wrote Francisco Pizzaro when he arrived, in 1533. Today, under the arches of its elegant plazas and before its grand churches, villagers in colorful local dress mingle with global travelers, and llamas and goats wend their way down its cobbled streets alongside tour buses. At 11,156 feet (3,399 meters) above sea level, Cusco sits in thin air that provides crystal-clear morning light but often causes altitude sickness in visitors arriving directly from Lima.
With close to 350,000 inhabitants, Cusco’s population has reportedly tripled in the past two decades, and in the city new neighborhoods sprawl at its edges. The historic center, though, has benefited from the increase in visitors that followed since the end of the Shining Path’s widespread terrorism. No longer a one-nice-hotel town, Cusco now boasts many attractive boutique hotels, chic restaurants serving nouveau Andean cuisine (yes, it’s gourmet enough to be called that) and stylish shops that make it even better for shopping than Lima. Exploring the city’s art and architecture (UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site in 1983) and the adjacent Inca site of Sacsayhuamán (remembering the phrase “sexy woman” may help you pronounce it) requires at least two days, and you’ll thereby be introduced to two of the most fascinating periods in Peru’s history: the reigns of the Inca and of the conquistadores. But you must also visit the Sacred Valley, which surrounds Cusco, to understand the land that inspired awe in both these eras and still does today.
Most international visitors fly from Lima, which sprawls along the Pacific coast at sea level, to Cusco, at an elevation of 11,000 feet (3,399 meters) or a bit more than two miles, a one-hour flight. Making such a rapid ascent can cause serious altitude sickness, whose effects should not be underestimated. In some cases altitude sickness can bring on pulmonary or cerebral edema. There seems to be no correlation between age or level of physical fitness and who suffers; athletes may succumb and asthmatics not. The most common symptoms are headache, nausea, lack of appetite, dizziness and heart palpitations. In fact, the wisest strategy is to descend to the Sacred Valley immediately after flying into Cusco and to stay at one of the hotels there, such as Rio Sagrado. Explore the area, make a visit to Machu Picchu, and save Cusco and its treasures for the end of your journey, when you will have adjusted to the altitude.
When to Go
Cusco’s temperature range is fairly consistent year-round. The average daily high is in the upper 60s and lows hover around 40 degrees. The exception is June, July and August (the driest months) when temperatures will dip down to the low 30s at night. The two distinct seasons in the Sacred Valley region are the dry season, which begins in April, and the rainy season, which begins in November. Rainfall in the winter ranges from three to over six inches inches, with December and January being the wettest months, whereas the summer months bring abundant sunshine but usually less than an inch of rain all season. High season (biggest crowds at Machu Picchu) in the Sacred Valley is June through September, so visitors who want great weather but wish to avoid the crowds should consider going in May or October. Rainy season, however, usually just means an afternoon shower three or four days of the week. Good sun block is advisable at any time of the year, though, since it was discovered not long ago that Cusco receives the highest levels of UV light on the planet, not ideal for the skin, but rather appropriate for a place whose Incan ancestors worshiped the sun and moreover, believed they descended from the sun itself.